On Tuesday morning, the Baseball Writers' Association of America announced that Roger Angell had won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor accorded to a baseball writer. Angell will be among the honorees at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in July, joining Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and whomever the BBWAA elects on its ballot. He won't receive a bronze plaque but his portrait will hang in the so-called "writers' wing" alongside past recipients.
In honoring the 93-year-old longtime writer and editor for The New Yorker, the organization made history, as Angell is the first non-BBWAA member to win. As overdue as the honor is for someone who has been writing about baseball for over 50 years, it's fitting that he was the one to break through. He wasn't a newspaperman who entered the profession in his 20s and climbed through the ranks, he was a magazine writer and editor who began dabbling in the field in his early 40s, inspired by John Updike's classic 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams' final game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," which he called "the most celebrated baseball piece ever."
Angel began writing about baseball in 1962, not coincidentally the first year of the expansion Mets. Attending a game at the Polo Grounds and overhearing a couple of fans arguing about the woeful team's lineup in tones that reflected the sense of entitlement typifying the era's Yankee fans (the team had won 20 of the previous 30 AL pennants), he experienced a shock of recognition:
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 — antimatter 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.
Over the course of the past half-century, Angell's work has continued to supply a different perspective than those of the daily or weekly reporters. Even as he became more of an insider, talking in depth to players, managers, coaches, scouts and executives about their crafts for his features, he retained the curiosity of an outsider -- capable of objectivity when necessary but still in touch with the emotions of a fan. His venue has afforded him the opportunity to work in longform and to approach his topics in the first person. His first collection, The Summer Game, was published in 1972, and routinely appears on lists of the best baseball books of all time, as do some of his other collections, like Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988), Once More Around the Park (1991) and Game Time (2003).
In 2002, Angell broke form and focused an entire book — A Pitcher's Story: Innings with David Cone — around a singular subject, and while it didn't receive the same kind of acclaim, it nonetheless offered a poignant portrait of a once-great pitcher battling to recover his form, as well as a window into the game's then-current labor battles (Cone was the American League player representative at the time of the 1994-95 strike). Since then, in his mid-80s and 90s, Angell's work has appeared with less frequency, but recent months saw him weigh in frequently online on the end of Mariano Rivera's career and Boston's run to another championship. He's still got his fastball.
Angell's award owes a great debt to the efforts of Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, who served as president of the BBWAA in 2012-13. After years of unsuccessfully lobbying the New York chapter of the BBWAA to nominate Angell, Slusser was able to do so via the Bay Area chapter this past year, and once he finally reached the ballot, he was elected by the organization's members with 10 years of consecutive service in a landslide. Wrote Slusser on Tuesday:
In my opinion, Roger Angell is the best baseball writer of the past half century, and I can’t imagine the Hall of Fame having any mention of baseball writers that does not include him, even if he didn’t cover baseball on a daily basis for a newspaper. Angell is an outsized talent; Tyler Kepner of the New York Times called him the “Babe Ruth” of baseball writing today, which sounds about right to me.
People who know how hard I’ve pushed to get Angell the Spink award sometimes ask if he inspired me to become a baseball writer. No – I have been reading his work since I was 9, but I never would have supposed that many mortals could write at that inspired, genius level. All Roger Angell ever has inspired me to do is to read more of his work.
That passage rings true, for Slusser's story parallels my own. At age nine, via my grandfather, I received a box of dog-eared sports paperbacks culled from flea markets and library sales. Among them were The Summer Game and Jim Bouton's Ball Four, two books which I not only still hold dear but which set me on a winding and unconventional road to becoming a baseball writer myself. They helped me discover my own voice as a writer, and while the evolution of that voice has been influenced more by Bill James — whose path to winning his own well-deserved Spink Award is suddenly much clearer — the debt to Angell remains. I don't mind admitting I got a little verklempt when the result was announced in the meeting. (I do not yet have the service time to vote for the award.)
The New Yorker has a worthwhile tribute to Angell celebrating his election, with a handful of links to some of his great works; one piece that is especially relevant given this weeks' Hall of Fame-related happenings is his 2007 farewell to Joe Torre's tenure as manager of the Yankees. The next month will see plenty of criticism directed toward the BBWAA no matter who is elected because of the incredible backlog of qualified candidates. On this front, however, it's worth it's worth applauding the fact that its members made the right call.