Sunday, February 3, 2013

Roger Angell and the death of still another neighborhood

The Summer Game, 1972
As it's February, gray and bleak, the hint of green a rumor, I instinctively reach for Roger Angell. His essays and columns on baseball have appeared in The New Yorker since the early 1960s, and have been collected in many books: The Summer Game (1972); Five Seasons (1977); Late Innings (1982); Season Ticket (1988); Once More Around the Park (1991); A Pitcher’s Story (2001); Game Time (2003). As I've hinted at before, I'm an immoderate fan: no one dramatizes and essays the game quite like Angell, who brings a sentimentalist's affection, a novelist's eye, and an editor's judiciousness to knowledgeable descriptions of ballgames, parks, and players, and by extension, cultural eras and decades. Though 92, he still posts the occasional piece at the New Yorker website. This year, in anticipation of spring training and the first games in April, I've decided to read all of Angell's books in order, a narrative, evocative journey through baseball from 1960s to the 2000s.

Last night, I again read again Angell on the demolition of the fabled Polo Grounds. The "Talk Of The Town" piece ran in the April 25, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, unsigned (as was then the custom for "Notes And Comments" features). Titled "Farewell" for inclusion in The Summer Game, the tribute to the decaying box along the Harlem River, home to the New York Giants before they flew west in 1957, crumbling home to the woeful Mets before they moved into Shea Stadium in 1964, is one of Angell's most moving renditions of loss and befuddlement. Though brief, it's one of the great essays of our time on cultural grief in the face of modernity. Writing in the Majestic Plural, Angell mourns less the specific game memories that we'll cherish— "Carl Hubbell's five strikeouts, Bobby Thomson’s homer, Willie Mays’ catch, Casey Stengel’s sad torment"—than the atmosphere of the park in all of its quirkiness and, in the face of the Jet Age, its antiquity. "Farewell" is so powerful in its tear-choked blend of grief, restraint, sighing acceptance. Here's an excerpt:
Curiously, these historic recollections played little part in our own feeling of sadness and loss, for they had to do with events, and events on a sporting field are so brief that they belong almost instantly to the past. Today’s fielding gem, last week’s shutout, last season’s winning streak have their true existence in record books and in memory, and even the youngest and brightest rookie of the new season is hurrying at almost inconceivable speed toward his plaque at Cooperstown and his faded, dated photograph behind a hundred bars. Mel Ott’s cow-tailed swing, Sal Maglie’s scowl, Leo Durocher’s pacings in the third-base coach’s box are portraits that have long been fixed in our own interior permanent collection, and the fall of the Polo Grounds will barely joggle them. What does depress us about the decease of the bony, misshapen old playground is the attendant irrevocable deprivation of habit—the amputation of so many private, repeated, and easily renewable small familiarities. The things we liked best about the Polo Grounds were sights and emotions so inconsequential that they will surely slide out of our 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, heat-heavy flags on the roof. The steepness of the ramp descending from the Speedway toward the upperstand gates, which pushed your toes into your shoe tips as you approached the park, tasting sweet anticipation and getting out your change to buy a program. The unmistakable, final “Plock!” of a line drive hitting the green wooden barrier above the stands in deep left field. The gentle, rockerlike swing of the loop of rusty chain you rested your arm upon in a box seat, and the heat of the sun-warmed iron coming through your shirtsleeve under your elbow. 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 floodlit cigarette smoke. All these we mourn, for their loss constitutes the death of still another neighborhood—a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that our environs are being replaced by mere events, and we are stabbed by the realization that we may not possess the score cards and record books to help us remember who we are and what we have seen and loved. 
April 25, 1964

The cover illustration of the April 25 issue of The New Yorker depicts the moon guardedly watching the earth as a satellite giddily orbits it in far-fetched, yet actual, modernity. The world is changing. As Angell was writing his farewell to the Polo Grounds, the Beatles were likely assaulting his senses if he had the radio on: on April 4 they occupied the top five positions in Billboard's Top 100, an astonishing feat of cultural domination that will likely never be repeated. Within a year, the Beatles would play Shea Stadium to shrill, deafening screams. The suburban venue was space-age new, the Polo Grounds long-leveled, and with it "what we have seen and loved."

Every generation of baseball fans mourns their parks and stadiums that are razed for progress and the bottom-line: Angell's farewell ("O lost!" he'd write of the Grounds in his next column) is indelible not only for its details and rendering of a mood and era gone, but for its particular time in post-Kennedy, Moon Race newness. We never really saw the likes of the Polo Grounds and Ebbetts Field again, did we? Or for that matter, the Astrodome or the Kingdome. I hope whoever is around to say goodbye to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field will do so with Angell's panache, respect, and finely-tuned ear for gains and losses.

Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace: The Polo Grounds on the way out.

Photo of demolished Polo Grounds via The Greatest Stadiums On Earth.

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