Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Opening Day," a Roger Angell short story from 1950

Roger Angell began writing about baseball for The New Yorker in 1962, filing his first Spring Training report from Sarasota, Florida in the April 7 issue. He'd been with the magazine for many years by that point, and had published many stories, a handful of small, "Talk Of The Town" pieces, a couple of which were baseball-related, and one substantial World War II article ("Iwo Mission," January 6, 1945) about a harrowing mission in the Pacific Theater. (Angell served in Air Force and had worked as a writer and editor at a military magazine). In doing some research, I discovered "Opening Day," a short story published in the April 22, 1950 issue of The New Yorker. Until the 1962 Spring Training essay, this was Angell's longest piece about baseball.

"Opening Day" is charming, if slight. The story takes place in an unnamed bar on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan on Opening Day, presumably of the 1950 season. Here are the opening paragraphs:

It was just past noon on the first day of the baseball season. Herman, the bartender, was washing glasses, and the front door of the bar on Ninth Avenue was hooked open. Even behind the bar, he could smell the warm breath of April moving across the room. The only other person in the bar was a small gray man in a large fedora, who was sitting at a table in a booth, He was studying a copy of the Morning Telegraph over his beer, carefully underlining his horses with a pencil. “‘Take me out to the ball game’,” Herman sang softly. “Tum-tee turn turn turn tee.” He held the last glass up to the light and then placed it on the shelf behind him. “‘Buy me some peanuts and CRACK-erjack,’ ” he sang.
            "For Christ’s sake,” the man said quietly, looking up from his paper.
            “Sorry,” said Herman. “Opening day, that’s all." He put down his towel and walked around the end of the bar, under the big television set, and over to the jukebox, beside the front door. None of the titles on the machine were new ones, but Herman studied them at length before he dropped in a nickel and pressed the button for “Deep Purple.”
            As the music began, a small boy wearing chaps and two holstered cap pistols rode rapidly through the front door on a tricycle. “When’s it start?" he asked, circling Herman expertly. “Cause I gotta go home to lunch.” He wheeled down the straightaway behind the bar stools, narrowly missed a hatrack, and came up the other side of the room.
            "It ain’t gonna start at all for you, Julius,” Herman said sternly. "You stay in here one more minute and they’ll be in after my license. Six squad cars and the Mayor and J. Edgar Hoover. Then there’ll be no bar, no ball game, no television, nothing. So wheel right on out, see? Go home to lunch or I’ll be up and see your old lady again.”
            “O.K.,’” Julius said. “Don’t get sore. I’ll be back, though,” he said over his shoulder as he disappeared into the street.
Soon two well-dressed women, Mrs. Foltz and Mrs. Kernochan, enter the bar, atwitter with excitement at the start of the baseball season, complaining about endless, dark winters of nothing but watching wrestling and basketball yet buoyed by April and their confidence that the New York Giants will prevail in the coming season. The man preoccupied by horses overhears and joins the conversation, unwittingly setting himself up for some tart scorn and moral judging at the hands of the two women. Contentious talk turns from the immorality of horse racing, gambling and Sunday ball games to the far more dangerous topic of Giants versus Yankees—with a peaceful, agreed-upon dismissal of "them crummy Brooks." As voices and tensions rise, Herman steps in to cool things down, and a sense of civic politeness—leavened with the forgiving balm of the start of baseball—prevails. After the man scoots off to place a bet, Mrs. Kernochan admits to finding him "kind of cute," whereupon she's greeted with a guffaw and a friendly pinch on her ass by her friend. "Spring is sure here, all right," she said. The smitten and curious Mrs. Kernochan's eyes, meanwhile, are sparkling. The End. And the Beginning. “Opening day, that’s all."

Angell preferred to write nonfiction about baseball, to report what he sees, to essay the always surprising marvels of the game, to sift the ordinary facts and the mythic details. "Opening Day" is a pleasant fictitious vista of barroom hopes and April optimisms, less a story about baseball than a story about the charmingly loosened mores among women and men drinking in a bar in the afternoon as Spring does its devilish work. But as the title makes clear, the story is a tribute to a particular, "Play Ball!" optimism. Angell's talent for evocative narrative detail that so enlivens his decades' worth of baseball writing is vivid here, and so many of his baseball-related interests are present: the romance of saloons; the charming, dogged innocence of child fans; the good-natured if intense ribbing among competing fans; female interest in the game; New York as the mid-century Capital of Baseball; the personal possibilities between men and women against the backdrop of America's greatest game.

I found this photograph of a Manhattan bar taken in 1950 by the great Berenice Abbott. It's across town (on First Avenue) from the fictitious bar in "Opening Day," but it helps me to see the kind of saloon that Angell imagined his baseball fans inside of, on high noon on the first day of the season. For the record, in 1950 the Yankees won the American League pennant by three games over the Detroit Tigers, and swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series; the crummy Brooks took second place in the National League, the Giants third. The gambler in "Opening Day," an unapologetic Yankees fan, had plenty to crow about were he to wander into a bar in April of 1951 and find Foltz and Kernochan perched there, drinking highballs.

Photo via Artsy.

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