Roger Angell and Enduring Words

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker

I didn’t know Roger Angell, which was verifiably my loss, though an unintentional one. The esteemed baseball writer and editor for The New Yorker died on May 20 at the age of 101. Much deserved praise has been shared in the days since, none more eloquent – none close, really – than the one written my former Newsday and Sports Illustrated colleague, Tom Verducci, himself a magnificent baseball writer and a friend of Angell’s as well as the closest thing to his literary descendent in his ability to create a painting that both explains the present and endures across time, although in different ways. Just give it a read.

My not knowing Angell is a quirk – one of many, trust me – of our shared profession (both “shared” and “profession” defined broadly here). I have been a sports journalist for 44 years, 47 if you include some dreadful bylines earned and paid for (not much, but beer was cheap back then) while I was a college student and summer intern. More on that to come. I have hundreds of acquaintances, colleagues, friends, close friends and very close friends from those decades, not an insignificant number of them who are, sadly, no longer vertical. But in this business of ours, friendships tend to align by sports, a truth that has hardened as writers specialize further. Thus I have many more friends who covered Olympic sports or college football and basketball or horse racing than who cover baseball, which I have written about relatively infrequently, and never as a beat writer.

Yet it is the beauty of words that one needn’t know an author – or a reader – to benefit from shared prose. There’s this: In the winter of 2014, while I was covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, The New Yorker published a stunningly brilliant essay called “This Old Man,” which Angell wrote at the age of 93. So in a restaurant whose construction was finished 15 minutes before we arrived from the U.S., a table full of weary scribes, worn down by a harrowing morning bus ride up a mountainside and a surprisingly less harrowing evening chairlift ride down (and the furious writing in between, although that was the best part), tucked into some vaguely recognizable food and genuflected at Angell’s writing (and yes, partly at the age at which it was typed, but mostly at the writing itself). “This Old Man” is full of wise, unpretentious ruminations on aging from a place that most of us, statistically speaking, will not reach. One example:

“… My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind.”

 “This Old Man” was of course not my first exposure to Angell’s genius. That had come 38 years earlier (and yes, we have reached the nut graf; thank you for indulging me). I had entered Williams College as a freshman in the fall of 1974 and before that year ended, took a job in the college’s news office and a year later was the de facto sports information director under news director Rob Spurrier, who was just eight years older than me. I was also playing (okay, sitting on the bench) for the varsity basketball team and working as the sports editor of the campus newspaper and picking up some aforementioned free-lance checks from the Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript. Spurrier left Williams in the spring of 1976 and left me with a present: Roger Angell’s third book, The Summer Game, a 303-page collection of 21 baseball stories, written for The New Yorker from 1962-’72.

We writers are products of what we have seen, experienced, learned, imagined – and what we have read in others’ hand. Roger Angell’s prose was gifted to me at a time when I was beginning my professional life, although I didn’t realize that life would be so permanent. Because who does at 20?

That summer I took Angell’s book with me to Schenectady, New York, where I had scored a summer internship in the sports department at the Schenectady Gazette, an actual newspaper with a circulation of around 70,000. (Much lower now, but that’s a whole other story, and a familiar one). I lived in a grungy apartment two blocks from the Union College campus, and read The Summer Game before falling asleep at night and upon waking in the morning, tearing through it in a couple weeks and then re-reading it several more times.

With hindsight (the clearest of all the sights), it’s apparent that The Summer Game was the first book I read not just for its content (although that, for sure), but also for its writing, and voice, and structure. The first book I read as a “writer,” even a wildly green and unpolished one.

(I had read plenty of sports books before that. The first was Basketball Is My Life, NBA Hall of Famer Bob Cousy’s autobiography. In eighth grade, I was voraciously reading the Cousy book in a study hall administered by my science teacher. Subsequently, that teacher handed out graded tests in front of the class and upon calling me up to receive my test, on which I had done badly, added, “Keep reading about Bob Cousy, see how far you get with that.” Pretty far! But that teacher couldn’t have known [although it was a little harsh to embarrass me like that in front of the class; I survived]. There were others: Meat On The Hoof, a 1972 expose on the underbelly of Division I college football written by former Longhorn player Gary Shaw; They Call It a Game, also an expose, on the underbelly of the NFL, written in 1971 by Cleveland Browns’ defensive back Bernie Parrish; and of course, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, the first book to truly take a match to the mythology of the modern athlete).

The Summer Game was, in my unknowing state, a different form, on a different level. On page 57 is a short essay from 1964, in which Angell bemoans the destruction of the Polo Grounds, where baseball had been played for decades. Angell’s take was typically, gently contrarian, eschewing the recitation of names and moments for a more organic embrace of the place itself.

“The things I liked best about the Polo Grounds were sights and emotions so inconsequential that they will surely slide out of my recollection. A flight of pigeons flashing out of the barn-shadow of the upper stands, wheeling past the right-field foul pole, and disappearing above the inert, heart-heavy flags on the roof. The steepness of the ramp descending from the Speedway toward the upper-stand gates, which pushed your toes into your shoe tips as you approached the park… At a night game, the moon rising out of the scoreboard like a spongy, day-old orange balloon, and then whitening over the waves of noise, and the slow, shifting clouds of cigarette smoke…”

The effects of Angell’s words would be delayed: It’s difficult to apply complex literary lessons to a 400-word gamer on the Gloversville-Saratoga high school basketball game, thrashed out in 10 minutes. But as time passed, my own sensibilities trended toward an appreciation of places, as much as of moments. In my writing, reporting, and observations, I often found myself as taken by surroundings as by games: the color of a running track, the mountains framing a ski hill, the music playing in a locker room. Hundreds of others. Is this because I read Angell as a rookie? Dunno. These things don’t occur in a straight line, I suspect. We read, we absorb, we steal, unknowingly but reverentially.

And there was detail. On page 188 of The Summer Game, in an October, 1968 piece about the World Series between the Cardinals and Tigers, Angell writes about Bob Gibson’s transcendent, 17-strikeout performance in a Game One victory.

“…Gibson worked so fast that I was constantly falling behind the actual ball-and-strike count. His concentration was total. Not once, it seemed, did he look at his outfielders, tug at his cap, twitch his sleeve; he didn’t even rub up the new ball after a foul. The instant he got his sign, he rocked, flailed, threw, staggered, put up his glove for the catcher’s throw back, and was ready again….”

It would be years before my work even primitively showed any of the lessons learned reading Angell’s. That delay again, waiting for opportunities. But just as I learned to love time and place as much as people and performances, I came to love detail, drilling down further and further into moments, as a means of distinguishing my writing with the most basic of tools: my eyes. (Can this lead to over-writing? Oh my, yes. Every story is an experiment, to this day, and including this one).

There were plenty of other influences. Early on, I discovered a folder full of Jim Murray columns in my boss’s drawer and for a few months tried to write everything in Murray’s one-liner-a-minute style (each sentence both a joke and a lesson, Murray’s genius). This was a disaster, pulled off much better by my former Sports Illustrated colleague, Rick Reilly. And broadly, SI’s best writers influenced everybody: Reilly, Frank Deford, Gary Smith, Bill Nack, Leigh Montville, Curry Kirkpatrick (maybe most of all, for showing how far you could burrow down a rabbit hole of prose and joy, and – no small thing – cultural references, long before that became commonplace).

But there was Angell to get things started here for me, and in that same brief period, two other authors – and books – that burrowed into my consciousness and were called upon much later. In 1978, I spent $4.95 on a paperback copy of John McPhee’s 1969 book, Levels Of The Game, a study of the 1968 U.S. Open tennis final between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. And so much more. McPhee, a sainted author and teacher now 91 years old, uses the match as a device to write a spare 150-page treatise on sports, strategy, personality, race, and the socio-economic realities of America. (This device has been employed frequently since, in narrative journalism as well as books, but surely McPhee was among the first). His writing in Levels is a lesson in using sports to unlock everything else, and in understanding the connection between humans and human performance. It was all on another intellectual plane. I read it one sitting, and then again and again.

“…There is nothing about Ashe’s game that Graebner does not know, and Ashe says that he knows Graebner’s game ‘like a favorite tune.’ Ashe feels that Graebner plays the way he does because he is a middle class white conservative. Graebner feels that Ashe plays the way he does because he is black.”

At Christmas in 1981, I was given a copy of David Halberstam’s The Breaks Of The Game, his seminal study of the 1979-‘80 Portland Trail Blazers, and by extension, the dawn of the Magic/Bird and Jordan NBAs. It could be required reading for any NBA fan, but they’ve all read it by now. The Breaks Of The Game was Halberstam’s eighth book, and his first on sports. It was published 17 years after he won the Pulitzer Prize for newspaper reporting from Vietnam and followed The Best and the Brightest, on the origins of the Vietnam war; and The Powers That Be, a dive into the power centers of American media. It won the Pulitzer Prize. I had read neither of them (shame on me, I have read them since, and most of Halberstam’s work, as any journalist should).

Breaks is a lesson in immersive, relentless reporting, as are all of Halberstam’s books, but this was the first in which he applied that doggedness and curiosity to sports, and to a team that was in many ways unlike any in NBA history, existing on the cusp of a new era. The deep-dive, single-season narrative was not new in 1981: Dick Schapp had done it with the Packers more than a decade earlier. And it would become a staple of the sports book industrial complex that endures today. But the combination of Halberstam’s skill and drive and the relatively unexplored world of the evolving, modern NBA was sensational. Breaks is 362 pages of tiny print, each of those pages crammed with details and proper nouns, so much that it can’t be read quickly, but rather carefully, like a textbook. It is a sports book about business, race, and people – with insouciantly few direct quotes in comparison to straight author’s narrative, a confident journalist at the top of his game, in a new place.

He wrote about power forward Kermit Washington, whose reactionary punch to the face of Rudy Tomjanovich in December of 1977 could have killed Tomjanovich, and had made Washington a pariah to much of the league and public, but who had kept his career alive while trying to escape the stigma of that moment.

“Even now, rehabilitated, accepted by teammates and fans in two cities, he was aware that he had been part of something terrible and frightening, that he was on the edge of having committed, however involuntarily, a dark deed. … He had a dream, more than once: He was at a restaurant and went to the men’s room. There, a man pulled a gun on him and, terrified, he had hit the man. Then Kermit ran from the men’s room to the parking lot, where he was picked up by two cops, one white, one black. They accused him of killing a man. The black cop shackled him and the white cop put a black hood over his head, and they took him to a courtroom. There a judge looked down and announced that he was guilty of murder. Washington understood that nightmare perfectly.”

All of Halberstam’s work drips with the reality that you can never learn too much about a story, about a subject, and that every new detail enhances the work, even if ultimately, painfully, some of them – many of them – might never see daylight. They still teach and influence. Halberstam was killed in a car accident at age 73, while working on a book about the 1958 NFL championship game, the game widely regarded as launching the modern NFL toward its runaway popularity. What a book that would have been.

These three authors came into my world in a brief period as I was haltingly transitioning from college and (a similar) post-college life into something resembling adulthood, and from self-taught journalism and writing – even more haltingly – toward a personal and professional voice. The latter is a trip without a map, made through feel, instinct, experience, and repetition. And failure. Every journalism teacher ever, when asked for advice, has said: Read. Content now takes many forms, and writing can be – has been — devalued. But language retains its power. Great writers are guides.

When news of Roger Angell’s death broke, I was in a hotel room in Baltimore, on the eve of the Preakness horse race, eating takeout food and watching an NBA playoff game. This was a familiar setting. I thought back immediately to a much younger man, many years ago, flopped sideways in a creaky bed, flipping pages, enthralled, learning without realizing it. I felt sad for the world’s loss. And thankful for the enduring words.