Roger Angell (1920-2022), a long-time writer for The New Yorker, was the finest sports reporter I have ever read. His prose reveals what insight and style can accomplish even when discussing a relatively mundane endeavor. After he passed away last month, I was motivated to reread The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Season Ticket (1988), and Game Time (2003), and discovered the following.
Few sports writers shared his cultured erudition and vocabulary. He compares Charles Finely, the Athletics domineering owner, with Dickens’ Gradgrind (FS 141) and Roman Emperor Caligula (FS 143). Angell entitles chapters “Agincourt and After” (FS, chap. 13) and “The Baltimore Vemeers” (TSG, p. 234). Veterans of the game sharing their memories are described as “surviving Nestors” (FS 155). The expansion of teams and lengthening of seasons inspires allusion to Wordsworth: “Sports are too much with us. Late and soon..” (TSG 291). The anxious prospect of his two favorite teams meeting in the World Series motivates a Delmore Schwartz reference: “In dreams begin responsibilities” (ST 313). Which other baseball scribes would utilize “peroration” (TSG 88), “panjandrum” (TSG 103), “equipage” (TSG 263), and “ungulates” (TSG 283)? Summer Ticket alone includes “concatenation” (15), “semaphoring” (18), “saturnine” (26), “lavalieres” (105), “Thermopylae” (131) and “miasmal” (337).
Angell excels at superior turns of phrase. Tim McCarver, an announcer who frequently foresees what play will develop, is a “congenital first guesser” (GT 258). The annual seasonal return of baseball includes the box score, an “urban flower” of Spring (TSG 3). In describing the formerly weak hitting Mets, Angell refers to “Met sluggers, exhausted by the unexpected demands of base running” (TSG 63). On not realizing in July 1974 the significance of Lou Brock’s pace of stolen bases: “Like statesmen or actors, celebrated stats are not easy to recognize in their youth (FS 168).
Unique aspects of baseball come to the fore. It is the only team sport in which players do not score with the ball (FS 21). In other sports, the offense initiates and the defense reacts but here, pitchers set the tone of the play (FS 12). Other sports games end after an amount of time has elapsed but baseball has no clock and measures its own time (TSG 303). Finally, the gap between teams is so subtle that bad teams routinely beat good ones and it takes more than a century and a half of games to separate the wheat from the chaff (TSG 15).
Angell’s applies acute insight to analyzing the game. The Mets began as loveable losers and then became loveable surprise champions in 1969. “The carefree unreality, the joyful bitterness, the self-identification with a brave but hopeless cause, will become more and more difficult for Mets rooters to sustain as their team draws closer to the rest of the league and faces the responsibility and drudgery of an ordinary second-division team. As one sportswriter has observed, the only thing the Mets have to fear is mediocrity” (TSG 68).
Star players often seem to play with a patience lacked by lesser talents. “Nothing shook those gilded young men or seemed to touch their deep-water composure, even in extremity. It didn’t even occur to them that they could make a mistake out there, mess up in plain sight, and as a result they never looked anxious or hurried. They had more time than the rest of us” (GT 327).
His preference for a pitcher’s duel over the high scoring games of the 2002 World Series hits the mark. “…the humiliation of both sets of starting pitchers (their combined 7.82 earned-run average set another Series record) deprived the games of the anxious silences and sense of foreboding that accompany a classic. This was another action movie, all bangs and blasts, with the Angels’ affinity for the retributive big-inning providing one main plotline, and Barry Bonds, a monstrous Vaderish force looming up again and again in the middle of the Giants’ batting order, the other. Terrific entertainment, and undemanding” (GT 384).
In contrast, the classic 1968 Series brought honor to both teams. “And I remember something else about that Series when it was over- a feeling that almost everyone seemed to share: that Bob Gibson had not lost that last game, and the Cardinals had not lost the Series. Certainly no one wanted to say that the Tigers had not won it; but there seemed to be something more that remained to be said. It was something about the levels and demands of the sport we had seen-as if the baseball itself had somehow surpassed the players and the results. It was the baseball that won” (TSG 302).
On the realization that we do not truly want the ability to ensure our team always wins: “We want our teams to be losers as well as winners; we must have bad luck as well as good, terrible defeats and disappointments as well as victories and thrilling surprises. We must have them, for if it were otherwise, if we could control more of the game or all of the game and make it do our bidding, we would have been granted a wish – no more losing! – that we would badly want to give back within a week. We would have lost baseball, in fact, and then we would have to look around, without much hope, for something else to care about in such a particular and arduous fashion” (ST 309).
Several passages return to the negative influence of money, television, and cheap entertainment on the game. Commenting on an Atlanta Braves promotion in which female fans on the field hurried to stuff dollar bills into their blouses, Angell writes: “The Braves – one may hope not at all coincidentally – suffered a record loss of 446,413 at the gate this year” (FS 286). “Sport is no longer a release from the harsh everyday American business world but its continuation and apotheosis” (FS 251). Critiquing the surfeit of comments from television announcers, Angell notes: “three hyperglottal observers usually succeed only in shattering the process of waiting that is such a crucial part of the game” (FS 398).
Let us conclude with Angell’s evaluation of the addition of a Designated Hitter, a passage that combines his traditionalist stance with his gift for writing. “Vanished too is the strategic fulcrum of baseball – the painful decision about pinch-hitting for your pitcher when you are behind in late innings – and gone with it the fan’s pleasure in vociferously sharing in and second-guessing this managerial bind. Now the game is farther away from us all, less human and less fun, and suddenly made easy” (FS 86).