Roger Angell, Still Throwing Strikes

Roger Angell

Here is an excerpt of an interview of Roger Angell by Dave Weich for the Powell’s Books website. To read the complete interview and interviews of other prominent authors, please click here.

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In the spring of 1962, William Shawn sent Roger Angell to Florida to write about spring training. Forty-one years (and three New Yorker editors) later, Angell still covers baseball for the magazine. “No other sport has been so well served by any other writer,” Jonathan Yardley once noted in the Washington Post Book World.

Now, Game Time gathers the best of Angell’s writing, from that inaugural effort to last autumn’s review of Anaheim’s improbable championship run. In a special introduction written for the new collection, Pulitzer Prize winner (and former Inside Sports columnist) Richard Ford observes:

“Roger Angell has been writing about baseball for more than forty years—mostly for The New Yorker magazine—and for my money he’s the best there is at it. There’s no writer I know whose writing on sport, and particularly baseball, is as anticipated, as often reread and passed from hand to hand by knowledgeable baseball enthusiasts as Angell’s is, or whose work is more routinely and delightedly read by those who really aren’t enthusiasts. Among the thirty selections in this volume are several individual essays and profiles (the Bob Gibson profile, ‘Distance,’ for instance) which can be counted in that extremely small group of sports articles that people talk over and quote for decades, and which have managed to make a lasting contribution to the larger body of American writing.”

Now a senior editor at The New Yorker, over the years the Harvard graduate has fostered into print the work of John Updike, Garrison Keillor, and William Trevor, among many others. Yet Angell, who turns 83 this year, remains as productive as ever. In 2001, he published his first full-length book, A Pitcher’s Story: Innings with David Cone, and recently he contributed introductions to several classic works by his stepfather, E. B. White.

“I’m writing a piece right now,” he says, “a memoir about automobile trips, driving around when I was in my teens, and before that, in the 1930s.” Welcome news for us all.

The opening piece, the first spring training piece, “The Old Folks Behind Home” [click here to read it], I hadn’t read for years. That was the first baseball piece I wrote. Believe me, I had no idea what would follow. I never saw this as a career. I really didn’t. And I think it’s a good thing, too, because if you say, “Oh, this is my career,” that’s when you stiffen up and begin to aim the ball.

In that first piece, you write about watching Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn pitch:

“Suddenly I saw that from my seat behind first base the two pitchers—the two best left-handers in baseball, the two best left- or right-handers in baseball—were in a direct line with each other, Ford exactly superimposed on Spahn? throwing baseballs in the same fragment of space. Ford, with his short, businesslike windup, was shoulders and quickness, while, behind him, Spahn would slowly kick his right leg up high and to the left, peering over his shoulder as he leaned back, and then deliver the ball with an easy, explosive sweep. It excited me to a ridiculous extent.”

Did you have any idea what you’d be writing about when you started that spring? How you’d be approaching the subject?

I had no idea. I knew I wasn’t a baseball writer. I was scared to death. I really was afraid to talk to players, and I didn’t want to go into the press box because I thought I was faking it.

I was in my thirties. I wasn’t a kid. I think that instinctively I thought I’d have to trust myself and to report about what I was seeing, what I was thinking as a fan, and not to try to fake it by being knowing about these players and their deliveries and all that stuff which I later learned about. This has run all through my work. I’ve never been told that I have to be objective. I can take sides and I can say how I feel.

Even then, I did sense that nobody was writing about the fans. Since I’m a fan (I’m a different kind of a fan now), I could say we and talk about people watching a Giants game or a Mets game or a Red Sox game. I could say we as a bunch of New England fans, whatever. That allows me to be a lot more open to feelings and maybe judgments, as well.

There’s a piece in Game Time where Tom Seaver talks about the mechanics of pitching, standing in front of his locker breaking down the elements of his wind-up for you and a few other writers; then later in that same chapter Don Sutton, a pitcher with an entirely different motion, follows with his take. When I read that, I remembered a piece published in Season Ticket where you queried catchers in much the same way, specifically about the mechanics of their jobs.

That led to a very long piece. I liked that a lot.

The great thing about catchers is that they do a lot of different things, and they’re basically overlooked. As I think I wrote in that piece, it’s maybe because they’re facing the other way; we don’t think about them. But there’s a lot to catching, and catchers tend to be smart.

Once I could persuade these guys that all I wanted to hear from them was what they did—Tell me what you do—once you can persuade someone that this is all you’re after, you can’t shut them up because we’re all fascinated by what we do. If we’re lucky, anyway. Some of these guys were great talkers. Ted Simmons, who was with Milwaukee then, was one of the great baseball talkers. I saw him in spring training again this year, and I thanked him for his paragraphs.

A catcher who makes several appearances in Game Time is Tim McCarver. He has interesting things to say about what goes on on the field, but also about the sport’s place in our culture.

Tim is unusual because he is such an enthusiast for the game. A lot of people I know can’t stand him. “I just can’t stand him,” they’ll say. “He’s always blathering on about baseball.” This is not an effort for Tim. He’s extremely excited about it and he knows it through and through.

He’s in that piece on catching, briefly. He loves situations and he doesn’t hesitate to hold back on what he sees out there. This has not always made him popular.

Actually, he’s now done an amazing thing: he’s announced the World Series the last couple years, and he’s twice called the final play—he’s said what to look out for because of the way the batter was being pitched—though it wasn’t the very final play last year because it was in the sixth game. There was another after that, Spiezio’s home run.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve met a lot of baseball people, and I’ve learned to value people who talk—people who talk well and in long sentences and even long paragraphs. One of them is the Giants’ pitching coach and later manager, Roger Craig. A previous book of mine had just come out when I saw him at spring training that year. He was sitting in the outfield, so I went out and shook hands with him. Another writer was already sitting out there. He pointed at me and he said to Craig, “Roger has a new book out. Have you read it?” Craig said, “Read it? Hell, I wrote half of it!”

You tell a story in the book similar to one Doris Kearns Goodwin tells in Wait Till Next Year, maybe one that’s common for lots of people who grew up in those years: listening to a ballgame in the afternoon on the radio, keeping score on a pad of paper, then replaying the action from your notes for your father when he returned from work.

That was the first time I did a box score on my own outside a ballpark. It was in 1933. I think the Giants were playing the Senators. There was no television back then, but they did radio now and then. My father was a lawyer, so I got one of his yellow legal pads and quickly ruled out the line-ups and took it all down. It was fascinating. I was twelve years old, or just turned thirteen.

These days, do you listen to games on the radio? Do you prefer to watch on TV or to be at the ballpark?

I listen to the radio if I’m driving or sometimes if I’m in the country. I watch quite a lot of televised baseball, but the trouble with televised baseball for all of us is that we’ve become so impatient by television in general that if nothing is happening we flick over to see what’s on HBO or what’s happening in that other game. If I’m watching the Yankees, I’ll see what the Mets are doing. It doesn’t really satisfy you in the end.

Baseball is meant to be watched all the way through. Sure, it’s boring. There are boring innings and sometimes there turn out to be bad games, but you’re not going to have a feeling for the good games unless you’re willing to watch.

I think I wrote once that baseball in many ways is very much like reading. I said there are more bad books than bad ballgames, or maybe it was the other way around. I can’t remember. But each have formal chapters. There are wonderful beginnings that don’t stand up and boring beginnings that are great in the end. You just don’t know. They’re both, baseball and reading, for people who aren’t afraid of being bored.

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To read the complete interview of Roger Angell, please click here.




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