From the Diamond, a Unifying Voice
With baseball season—and another collapse from my beloved New York Mets—imminent, I wanted to highlight a baseball book. So, I began a critically acclaimed biography of a baseball player, which about halfway through started to have the feel of a homework assignment in a foreign language. This was no good. With a deadline looming, I racked my brain and searched my bookshelves for an alternative, hoping that inspiration would strike. Lucky for me, I spotted my unread, mint hardcover edition of The Summer Game, by the masterful Roger Angell.
If you haven't heard of Angell—long-described as the poet laureate of baseball—let me provide an introduction. He's a fiction editor at The New Yorker, where's he's been writing baseball pieces for the magazine since 1962. For almost fifty years, Angell has turned baseball into great literature, combining nimble wordplay and observational clarity into essential reading. The Summer Game (1972), a collection of twenty-one New Yorker pieces, is considered a classic in sportswriting.
After reading it in three or four satisfying gulps, I can offer confirmation. The book is timeless, The Catcher in the Rye of baseball nonfiction.
What makes baseball a dragged-out bore for some actually makes it a perfect sport for writers. Its leisurely pace is ideal for observing and overhearing, and the players aren't hidden behind helmets or lost in the blur of constant motion. Inside a giant stadium, baseball players are essentially islands in uniforms. However, daily reporting tends to obliterate a casual pace. Readers want certain information. Editors want stories that are timely and relevant. There are many good writers who work wonders within those confines, but the weekly status of Angell's employer allows him to work wonders in The Summer Game. Namely, he provides the sights and sounds and feelings that the game evokes. Consider this passage—a mixture of great reporting and easygoing, graceful wordplay—about the mood in Minneapolis and St. Paul before the Twins' first World Series game in 1965.
By midmorning the next day—a cool, burnished fall day—Minnesota had given up almost all pretense of civic equilibrium. In the State Supreme Court, in St. Paul, an attorney cut short his argument with "There are more important matters before us today!" He received grateful applause from both sides, court adjourned, and various jurists departed for their grandmother's funerals. On Summit Avenue, also in St. Paul, a meeting of a ladies' study group was ruined when five members put down their copies of Trolius and Cressida and tiptoed out, off to meet their husbands at the ballpark…
The passage concludes with Angell getting this gem of a quote from the cabdriver taking him to the game: "You know, five years ago we had nothing here but the Lakers, and they were bush. Now we got the Vikings, we got the Twins, we got the pennant, and Hubert [Humphrey] is Vice-President."
Angell doesn't confine himself to the sports reporting template, so he certainly doesn't just cover games from the press box. He captures the lazy atmosphere in the bleachers during a spring training game, attends a series of dreadful Mets games with their rabid fans, and writes about the 1963 World Series from various New York bars. He comes across as a fan and as a human being. Read enough sportswriting—especially in newspapers—and it's hard to determine if some writers remember what it's like to get swept away in a season, let alone even liking sports. That's not Angell. He admits to being nervous watching a game; he nearly bursts into poem over the wonders of Willie Mays. He's learned what's wonderful about watching sports: letting your emotions, whatever they may be, get the better of you. The serious, impartial tones can be saved for the obituaries and political stories. Witness this passage on how Angell was won over by the awful 1962 Mets (final record: 40—120) and their fans, even though the Yankees were in the midst of their usual, mandatory dominance.
Suddenly the Mets fans made sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river. This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try—antimatters to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me.
Read Angell and you're not necessarily rooting for baseball but for how great writing can transcend any subject. (I have no interest in flowers, but Susan Orlean floored me with The Orchid Thief.) If you love baseball, read Angell in preparation of the upcoming season and all that it offers—the heated discussions with in-laws and co-workers about MVP candidates and pitching staffs, the games of backyard catch, the grand experience of wearing a baseball cap without a care in the world on a Sunday afternoon. It's time to get lost again, and there's nothing wrong with that. Just ask Angell, who's closing in on ninety and still writing (and blogging) for The New Yorker.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.