One of the more pleasant things to happen in baseball in the last decade was the emergence of Roger Angell as an occasional but concerned chronicler of the game. He came to the duty late, well into middle age, when he began writing his periodic baseball pieces for The New Yorker, of which he is a fiction editor. He would sneak away from the magazine to take in a ball game or two, or maybe the World Series, or a week or so of spring training. Not that he had no interest in baseball before then. His enthusiasm as a fan (a devoted fan, to use the adjective precisely) dates to childhood; he was nine when he saw Lefty Gomez pitch his first game in Yankee Stadium, a fact he recalled for Gomez' benefit last fall before a World Series game when the two of them, unacquainted, happened to be standing together watching batting practice. ("Old ballplayers hear this sort of thing every day, of course," Angell writes, "but Gomez was gracious about it.")
Before the advent of Angell, The New Yorker had run relatively few articles on baseball. Because he came from an old New Yorker family (his stepfather is E. B. White, that magazine's stylistic and philosophic bulwark for half a century, and his mother is Katharine White, long one of its fiction editors), some have assumed that his failure to write about the game earlier was the result of adherence to an anti-baseball tradition established by Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker in 1925 and edited it until his death in 1951. Because The New Yorker was "sophisticated," the idea arose that Ross felt baseball was too unsophisticated a subject to cover. Angell disputes this, saying, "I think the only reason there wasn't much baseball writing was that it simply didn't occur to any of our writers to write about it."
But it did occur, finally, to Angell, and thank heaven for that. His first thoughtful essays on baseball were collected in book form in 1972 as the much-praised The Summer Game. Now a second collection has been brought out called Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion (Simon and Schuster, $8.95). It is at least as good as The Summer Game.
Angell's special gift, aside from his lucid writing, his keen eye for detail and his even keener ear for anecdote, is that he is essentially a fan. He approaches the game the way a fan would who has studied baseball for a long time and knows a lot about it—from a distance. Now he suddenly has a pass that lets him go on the field before a game, lets him be with a team in spring training, allows him to sit in the dugout before a game, or in the clubhouse after it, lets him spend a day or two visiting with a player or an owner or a scout. He doesn't have to function as a sportswriter, going out to the ballpark facing the obligation of typing a game story or digging out information for an assignment, although Angell can and will tell you with exquisite precision of things that have taken place in games he has seen.
May 15, 1977
The result is a casual, refreshing, seemingly innocent view of baseball, a game that Angell assumes not only is loved but should be loved—and without being pedantic or naive he explains why this is a proper attitude. He is not insensitive to the crass, commercial path baseball has taken. ("Before the game," Angell writes in one piece, "I saw the Cards' Reggie Smith and the Phillies' Dave Cash in earnest conversation near the batting cage. As I walked by, Reggie was saying, 'And the rest I got in tax exempts.' ") But he is also acutely aware of the players' special knowledge of the game, of how it is played, of who is playing it and how well they do what they are supposed to do. One day Angell, wandering around the field before a game, heard Rollie Fingers, the renowned relief pitcher, say to Catcher Ray Fosse. "There's that Hernandez. I'll never forget the year he had 500 and something at bats and drove in only 12 runs." Fosse said, "What? That's impossible." Fingers said, "Look it up." So, Angell writes, "I looked it up. The year was 1971. Enzo Hernandez drove in 12 runs in 549 trips to the plate."
Fingers knew that, but practically no one else did. Most baseball writers would not have paid much attention to his remark if they had heard it and almost certainly would not have bothered to look it up. A fan, on the other hand, fascinated by such marginalia, would have. Ergo, Angell.
This doesn't mean he is not a skillful professional reporter. The pieces in Five Seasons include a long, sensitive account of his visit with the retired Pitcher Steve Blass, who at 31, a year after he had won 19 games and lost only eight for the Pirates, a year and a half after he had been Pittsburgh's World Series hero, found himself washed up because of a sudden and irreparable inability to get the ball over the plate. It is a classic baseball study. So is Angell's story of his travels with Ray Scarborough, the old pitcher who now scouts young players for the California Angels. There is also his report on the astonishing 1975 World Series, his evaluation of the three widely varying editions of Macmillan's extraordinary Baseball Encyclopedia, his fine unsentimental description of his young son's first, rain-drenched major league game. And, as they say in TV commercials for record albums, much, much more.