Sunday, March 30, 2014

Baseball, The Bicentennial, and 70s America: A Conversation with Dan Epstein

In Dan Epstein's entertaining new book Stars & Strikes: Baseball & America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76, two simultaneous stories unfold: the 1976 season, a tumultuous campaign that ended in a World Series sweep (Reds over Yankees); and the nation's 200th Birthday, an equally noisy, flashy affair. With deep affection for the game and the era, Epstein takes a wide-lens approach, observing the many unlikely instances when the nation's pastime and pop culture crossed paths. Stars & Strikes is meticulously researched, bouncing between recaps of both essential and oddball games of the 1976 season and touchstones of American culture, notably the nationwide Bicentennial celebrations but also the CB craze, Billboard album and single chart sightings, burgeoning music scenes, Hollywood movies, violent urban unrest, the Olympics, and the Presidential Election. The result is a wild, illuminating and very funny book.

Baseball—like any sport, like anything—does not exist in a vacuum, and Epstein, whose previous book Big Hair and Plastic Grass explored baseball against the decade of the 1970s, is especially hip to this. (I interviewed Epstein, along with fellow baseball writer Josh Wilker, here in 2011.) Some of the connections he traces are innocuous—Bill Buckner looks like porn star Harry Reems who happened to be on trial in 1976—and some purely metaphoric, but throughout, Epstein happily enjoys detailing the boisterous, ricocheting figures, events, and trends of sport and culture in the funky mid-70s. If there is a central figure in Stars & Strikes it's Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the gangly, mop-haired, 22-year-old phenom starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers whose curious, talking-to-the-ball and mound-tending style of play captured the attention and affections of the Motor City and then the nation. (I vividly remember Fidrych pitching on Monday Night Baseball, the Bird's "coming out party" that Epstein writes about so memorably, and throughout the rest of the '76 season; as a kid I loved his joyful, weird, appealing personality.) As Epstein shows, Fidrych's starlight shined bright, and well beyond the game: he was invited backstage at an Elton John concert (and walked away with a pair of John's boxers, autographed), appeared on television variety shows, was considered for a part in the film version of Grease, and was generally mobbed wherever he went. Fidrych serves as a kind of locus in the book for the meeting of a difficult, slow-paced, occasionally-exciting strategic game with celebrity-obsessed, trend-watching, People magazine-consuming culture. In many ways, the Fidrych phenomena embodied the ethos of 1976, on the field and off.

Epstein has his most fun observing wacky moments: the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates "rained-in" at the Astrodome when a torrential storm prevented fans from driving to the stadium; California Angels luring designated hitter Tommy Davis away from Casablanca Records (KISS, Donna Summer, et al) where he'd recently been hired thinking that his days playing ball were over; owners Bill Veeck's and Ted Turner's over-the-top ways of promoting their teams to dwindling crowds. Epstein unearths 70s pop trends (mystic pyramid power, TM, etc.), and cites Top 40 pop and R&B hits as a kind of musical score to the long season (each chapter in the book is named after a hit song of the year). But Epstein doesn't shy away from more complex issues: he acknowledges the vexed race relations polluting both MLB clubhouses and city streets, describes Los Angeles Dodger Rick Monday's famous snatching of the American flag from the hands of protesters who tried to ignite it in the Dodgers Stadium outfield, and reminds us that the mind-boggling salaries players enjoy today are the result of hard-fought battles between players and owners that resulted in the revoking of the infamous Reserve Clause, the contractual item that allowed owners to keep players forever, pay them little, and trade them away with impunity. The freedom granted the players via the Basic Agreement in 1976 played out, of course, against the country's long and prideful celebration of its own freedom earned two centuries earlier.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Epstein to discuss Stars & Strikes, baseball, writing, and 1976.


Dan Epstein
In the preface you explain how being taken to see The Bad News Bears in 1976 turned you on to baseball. Beyond your personal attachments to and sentiment for the era, why 1976 as a subject for a book?

I would find 1976 endlessly fascinating, even if it hadn’t been my first year as a hardcore baseball fan, or even if I hadn’t been there to enjoy it in the first place. Whether you are talking about what was happening in baseball or in American culture, 1976 was radically different than the years that immediately preceded and followed it, and I don’t think you can say the same thing about any other year of the decade. It’s a year of such huge transition: It’s the last season before full-scale free agency kicks in, where Charlie Finley dismantles his A’s dynasty, where George Steinbrenner really begins to lay the foundation of his legendary/infamous tenure in the Bronx, and the Phillies and Royals emerge as legitimate contenders. Bill Veeck returns to the South Side of Chicago, while Ted Turner buys the Braves; they both took similarly Barnum-esque approaches to luring fans to the ballpark despite fielding terrible teams, though of course the Turner/Braves story would turn out very differently than the Veeck/White Sox one. It’s Reggie Jackson’s lone season for the Baltimore Orioles, which many people forget even happened. It’s the last great season for the “Big Red Machine,” and the only full season that Mark Fidrych ever pitched—though no one could have guessed either of those things at the time…

Musically, the year is dominated by arena rock and AM pop cheese (“Convoy” and “Afternoon Delight,” anyone?), but disco, punk and hip-hop (all of which will significantly impact popular culture in the coming years and decades) are all beginning to make a move. In the cinema, the year effectively begins with Taxi Driver and ends with Rocky, two films that are steeped in mid-70s urban grit but convey very different messages—and it’s highly unlikely that the latter’s “feel good” underdog tale would have resonated the same way with audiences even a year earlier. On cultural level, we’re more worried about the Swine flu, Legionnaire’s Disease and killer bees than we are about the “Red Menace”. Politically, the US is finally out of Vietnam, we’re not at war anywhere in the world, and we’re about to kick Gerald Ford (and thus the remnants of the Nixon administration) to the curb with Jimmy Carter’s election in November. And all of this is set against the backdrop of the nationwide Bicentennial celebration, an outpouring of American unity and pride that’s both genuinely heartfelt and hilariously crass—but which, even at its most superficial, would have been as impossible to imagine a year earlier as it would be impossible to imagine now. And that’s really just the tip of the red, white and blue iceberg, folks!

What are the most compelling ways that the cultural and political background of 1976 was reflected in the game of baseball?

There was no getting away from the Bicentennial in 1976; you saw star-spangled “76” and Bicentennial ribbon logos everywhere, including on most of the teams’ yearbooks and scorecards. Bill Veeck put his peg leg to good use while marching in a “Spirit of ‘76” recreation before the White Sox home opener, while the Phillies—whose hometown was the unofficial epicenter of the nationwide Bicentennial celebration—piled the red-white-and-blue imagery extra high during their Opening Day ceremonies and in the festivities preceding the All-Star Game at The Vet. And, in general, the whole “Hey America, let’s party!” vibe of the Bicentennial was pretty evident at the ballpark, reflected most obviously in the goofy promotions staged by Bill Veeck and Ted Turner. You also had the Yankees returning to the national spotlight at a time when New York City had basically been written off as a lost cause by the rest of the country, and the riot that occurred at Yankee Stadium after Chris Chambliss hit his pennant-winning home run was really as much about waving a middle finger at the rest of America as it was about celebrating the Yankees’ first American League pennant since 1964.

Politically, there wasn’t as much of an overlap; Gerald Ford threw out the first pitches at the Texas Rangers home opener and at the All-Star Game, and Bowie Kuhn spent much of the season worried that congress was about to strip baseball of its anti-trust exemption, which is why he kept angling (however unsuccessfully) to put a new franchise in Washington, DC. There was also some national fallout from the sale of the San Francisco Giants to Toronto (which was eventually squashed), since it looked pretty bad for the country to be losing one of its major league baseball teams to Canada on the eve of the Bicentennial. But for the most part, the game seemed blissfully distant from the politics of the time.

Did you encounter any cognitive dissonance between what you remembered of 1976 as a kid and what you learned subsequently while researching and writing as an adult? Did Grown Up Dan have any sobering news for Kid Dan?

I was absolutely convinced for 35 years that I’d watched Davey Lopes steal second, third and home off of Johnny Bench in the first inning of a Reds-Dodgers game on August 6, 1976, which was the first game I ever saw at Dodger Stadium. (And the first NL game I ever saw in person, period.) I dug up the game’s box score while researching the book, only to find that while Lopes had indeed stolen second, he’d reached third on an error by Dave Concepcion and beaten the throw home on a fielder’s choice. So, his speed had still made a difference, but not in the mind-blowing way I’d recalled.

As far as any conversations between my grown-up and kid selves, I would have definitely encouraged my younger self to appreciate and savor every moment of Mark Fidrych’s brilliant rookie season. If I am to be brutally honest about it, many of my Ann Arbor, Michigan fourth-grader friends and I spent the first month of The Bird’s brief flight telling each other that he was a “fake” whose unique mannerisms and eccentricities were simply ruses “to get publicity,” because we were cynical little products of the Nixon era who thought we already knew everything. I didn’t really come around to being a Bird fan until I watched him take down the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball, at which point even a know-it-all 10 year-old like myself had to admit that Fidrych was the real deal.

I notice that you avoid using current advanced statistical measurements in describing players' achievements in 1976, preferring old-school stats like pitcher's wins and batting average. Was this a conscious decision on your part? We do have those stats available for players of that era, after all.

Yes, it was a conscious decision on my part to not use advanced stats in Stars And Strikes—not because I’m an advanced stats-hating curmudgeon, but because I didn’t think they were relevant to this narrative. I’m trying to paint a picture here, one that will take you back to a specific moment in time; and at this particular moment in time, hitters were primarily judged by their Triple Crown stats, and pitchers were primarily judged by their Won-Loss records and their ERAs. No one knew about WAR or OPS or WHIPS or BABIPs in 1976, and thus those terms had no bearing upon the way lineups or rotations were constructed, or how players were rated or perceived.

If I were to write a book on the 2012 season, then I would certainly talk about advanced metrics, because they constitute a major part of the baseball dialogue here in the second decade of the 21st century, and because they were at the center of the controversy over the AL MVP vote that year. But when Larry Bowa batted second for the Phillies throughout the 1976 season, no one was tearing their hair and lamenting the folly of putting a guy with a .283 OBP in the two-hole, because that’s exactly where most managers of the day put their speedy spray hitters who could bunt well. If we’re going by WAR alone, Mark Fidrych should have not only won the AL Rookie of the Year award for 1976, but he also should have snagged the AL Cy Young and AL MVP. But WAR simply wasn’t part of the conversation at the time, and I felt it would distract from the narrative to impose it onto it now. I hate when I’ll be reading a biography of a player from, say, the pre-WWII years, and suddenly the writer will start prattling on about the player’s WAR. It’s like a needle being abruptly dragged across a record; it completely breaks the spell and takes me right out of the story. That’s not to say that someone couldn’t write an interesting paper or book applying advanced statistical analysis to the 1976 season, but that’s not the kind of book Stars And Strikes is, or was ever intended to be.

The Bird was The Word in '76
Do you think that a player today can capture the nation’s imagination and become a gate attraction and pop celebrity at the level that Mark Fidrych did in ’76? I’m thinking maybe Fernando Valenzuela in the early 1980's, but he was more of a local phenomenon.

I actually think Valenzuela would have been a national phenomenon on the level of Fidrych if a) the players’ strike hadn’t chopped two months out of the middle of the 1981 season, and b) Fernando had been able to speak English at the time. I don’t think Middle America (or the mainstream media) circa ’81 was ready to fully embrace a Latino athlete who didn’t speak English, despite Fernando’s considerable charisma and charm. But in the case of both Fidrych and Fernando, it took some time for their legends to spread outside of their home cities, which I think made them all the more intriguing to fans and journalists elsewhere—it was almost a total word of mouth thing during Fidrych’s first month on the mound, like, “Hey, have you heard about this guy?” That kind of slow-build could never happen today, what with the Internet and 24-hour sports channels, and any ensuing backlash would be significantly swifter today, as well. Think about Yasiel Puig last season; by the end of his first week in the big leagues, he was already being alternately hailed as the most exciting player five-tool player since Roberto Clemente, and vilified as a selfish showboat whose unwillingness to “play the game right” threatened the very fabric of our society.

Personally, I dig the Flamin' Groovies reference you drop in on page 164. Are there any songs, or pop culture touchstones, that you thought you'd get in the book when you started but for some reason didn't?

Oh, man—there are so many, and rarely does a day go by where I’m not reminded of another pop cultural tidbit I would have loved to somehow shoehorn into Stars And Strikes. For instance, there was a series of day-long rock concerts at Comiskey Park that summer dubbed “The World Series of Rock,” but which were moved elsewhere after some stoner accidentally started a fire in the stands during the Aerosmith/Jeff Beck/Derringer bill on July 10; I completely forgot about it until after the final manuscript revisions were finished. But so it goes. I like to think of Stars And Strikes as kind of a 1976 mix tape in book form—it isn’t possible to include every game, every news event, or every hit song/film/TV show, but you can bring the best and most colorful bits together to create an immersive and evocative time capsule. And ultimately, that’s what I hope I managed to accomplish.

Given its far-reaching financial consequences and effects on the player salaries, the Basic Agreement, which banished the Reserve Clause, was certainly good for the players. Do you think that it's been ultimately good for the baseball?

There’s no question that the repeal of the Reserve Clause and the advent of full-scale free agency have had greater long-term effects on the game than anything else that happened in 1976, or that the repercussions haven’t exactly been pretty. That said, I have absolutely no doubt that banishing the Reserve Clause was, morally, the right thing to do; the players make the game what it is, and thus they deserve to be paid whatever the market will bear, and they deserve to have some degree of self-determination regarding who they play for. And while there will always be a segment of the fan population that likes to rail against “player greed,” I would argue that greedy owners have had much more of a negative effect on the game throughout baseball’s history, most glaringly so in the free agent era. Think of the collusion scandals, or the owners that refuse to spend their portion of the revenue sharing on actually improving their teams or facilities, or the oily scumbags like Jeffery Loria who cry poor and get their corrupt asses bailed out by Major League Baseball, or the owners who extort publicly-funded new stadiums out of their communities. Those things piss me off way more than the idea of Albert Pujols being able to wipe his ass with hundred dollar bills.

Bowie Kuhn
What do you think will be Bowie Kuhn’s legacy as a Commissioner of Baseball?

Well, Kuhn’s in the Hall of Fame, of course, but I think Charlie Finley’s “village idiot” assessment of him actually wasn’t far off the mark. Emma Span and Rob Neyer have both written humorous columns in the last few months about how Kuhn was largely incompetent and came down on the wrong end of just about every major issue he presided over during his tenure as commissioner. But neither of them mentioned one of his most egregious lapses in judgment, which was initially siding with the owners when they voted to lock the players out of spring training in 1976. Most of the owners were prepared to let the lockout extend into the regular season if the players didn’t voluntarily give up the rights they’d just won in the Messersmith decision, and Kuhn went right along with them—at least until he belatedly realized that it would be a major faux-pas to shut down America’s national pastime right as the country’s 200th birthday celebration was heating up. As we used to say on the playground: No shit, Sherlock! 

Is there another year in baseball and American culture that you could imagine writing a book about?

Oh, yeah—a couple, actually. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to keep them under my ’76 Tigers road cap for now.

If you could go back in time as an adult fan and attend one baseball game and one concert in 1976, what would they be?

No question at all on the ballgame: It definitely would be the Yankees-Tigers game of June 28, during which Mark Fidrych efficiently beat the Yankees 5-1 on a Monday Night Baseball broadcast. I watched that game on TV from my grandparents’ house in Tuscaloosa, AL, where I was spending the summer, and it’s still just as exciting and goosebump-raising for me to watch now as it was that night. But man, I would love to actually be there for it, to witness The Bird’s national coming-out party in person, to feel that insane energy reverberating around old Tiger Stadium, and to smell the billowing clouds of Michigan dirt weed smoke. That would be absolute heaven to me.

Picking just one 1976 concert is way more difficult. Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies at the Roundhouse? Queen on the US leg of their Night At the Opera tour? KISS on their Destroyer tour? Thin Lizzy on their UK Jailbreak tour, with Graham Parker and the Rumour opening? The Last Waltz? Ultimately, though, I’d have to set my time machine for a rendezvous with the P-Funk Mothership at the Houston Summit on Halloween 1976. George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars on Halloween 1989 was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen in my life, so to be in the presence of Parliament-Funkadelic in their mid-70s prime would have been a funky privilege indeed.


Stars & Strikes is out on April 29. For fun here's The Baseball Project singing about the 1976 season. Play Ball!

Photo of Epstein by Katie Howerton.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Starting to Sweat

Longtime rock and roll town-crier Lindsay Hutton (The Next Big Thing) kindly sent me a scan of this letter I wrote to him back in 1988. I'd just moved from Maryland to Ohio, and had seen the address for The Vindicators, the Fleshtones fan club that Hutton ran, on the back of one of the Fleshtones' albums. In the late 1980s it was tough to find much news about the band. As I'd come to learn, there were experiencing a bit of a rough patch at the time, the first of many. They were "among" bass players, weren't playing away from the east coast all that often, were dealing with substance abuse issues, and had no American label, not even the rumor of one. I wouldn't see the band live again until 1992 or '93, by which time Ken Fox had been playing bass for a few years and the rough waters were behind them. For a while, anyway. So, cheers to Lindsay for keeping the Super Rock flame going during turbulent times—and in Scotland, of all places. In the early 1990s Anne Streng would begin the band's Hall Of Fame, keeping fans of the band well-informed with mailings and updates, until Steve Coleman began running the band's website in 1995.

Loose leaf paper, hand-written, snail-mail. The roots of my "research" for Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band run pretty deep and go back pretty far. I had no idea how long the road would be.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Newspaper Strikes, Printed Box Scores, Other Relics

"How'd Mantle do last night?" "Dunno."
If Roger Angell is too much with me these days, it's because his diminishing output is pulling against my insatiable need to read him. I've been considering some of his earliest writing on the game lately, and as his first essays and casuals recede into the distance, I'm reminded of what other aspects of culture are vanishing. In the April 20, 1963 issue of The New Yorker Angell wrote an unsigned "Comment" about box scores. He later used it as the first piece in his first book, The Summer Game, in 1972, but with a slightly tweaked opening. Here's how the original "Comment" begins:
The simultaneous reappearance of spring and the newspapers has made it certain that one of our favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid information-packed weeks and months to come. When spring training began and Bertram (Big Six) Powers remained an obdurate holdout, our obsessively fannish mind tried to contemplate the desert prospect of a baseball season without daily box scores.
Here's how Angell rewrote the opening for The Summer Game:
Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue. The view from my city window still yields only frozen tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid information-packed weeks and months to come. I remember a spring, not too many years ago, when a prolonged newspaper strike threatened to extend itself into the baseball season, and my obsessively fannish mind tried to contemplate the desert prospect of a baseball season without daily box scores.

The rest of the brief piece—Angell would title it "Box Scores" for The Summer Game—reads the same as its '63 version. The edit isn't particularly profound; likely Angell felt that the specific reference to Bert Powers would distract or prove dated a decade later. Powers had led the New York Typographical Union No. 6 into a four-month New York City newspaper strike against the Daily News, New York Journal American, New York Times, and New York World-Telegram & Sun. The strike ended on March 31, 1963, one week before the baseball season began. Ten years later, Angell was obviously still pleased enough with his blooming flower metaphor, deepening it with the seed catalogue and dreary winter details, but Powers receded into history.

Of greater interest is the archaic notion of a newspaper strike, and of such a stoppage preventing access to a box score. In 1963 Angell welcomes the "information-packed" months about to begin, but now we have 24/7 statistics, far too many numbers for the average fan to pore over in a single day, let alone care about. Many have waxed moist-eyed about the decline of the newspaper industry, and I certainly don't want to add to the lament except to say that it's worth reminding ourselves how, to a baseball fan, the preciousness of a once-a-day box score could have been interfered with by forces beyond his control, and just how much blessed, image-inspiring story that three-inch recap provided. "To the baseball-bitten," a strike-relieved Angell wrote in 1963, "[a box score] is not only informative, pictorial, and gossipy but lovely in aesthetic structure."
It represents happenstance and physical flight exactly translated into figures and history. Its totals—batters' credit vs. pitchers' debit—balance as exactly as those in an accountant's ledger. And a box score is more than a capsule narrative. It is a precisely etched miniature o the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoor sports. Every player in action is judged against a standard of absolute perfection; no ball is thrown and no base ids gained without an instant responding judgement—ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay—and an ensuing statistic. This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory, to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that prickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of "Don Giovanni" and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins.
That such a pleasing blend of evocation and data, image and numeral could be mortally threatened by a newspaper strike is somewhat charming to me, and a startling reminder of how omnipresent were daily print newspapers and how great was our reliance on them. Angell's response to such a threat is yet another reminder of just how long he's been at it, what remains eternal about the game he loves, and what about it may be gone for good.

Here's the cheery cover of the April 20, 1963 issue of The New Yorker. Happy Spring. (Soon!)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Roger Angell, Getting Into Shape

Holiday, May 1954
Before Roger Angell joined the staff of The New Yorker, he edited and wrote for Brief, an Air Force magazine, and then for Holiday, an upscale travel and literary magazine. For the May 1954 issue of Holiday, Angell wrote "Baseball—The Perfect Game," his first long-form essay about baseball, eight years before his initial Spring Training report appeared in The New Yorker ("The Old Folks Behind Home," April 7, 1962).

In his introduction to Ten Years Of Holiday (Simon and Schuster, 1956), a selection of essays from the magazine, Clifton Fadiman wrote, with manifesto brio, "Holiday is not an organ of the intellectuals."
Holiday is a magazine of civilized entertainment. It aims at satisfying and spurring the leisure-time interests of a sizable number of moderately well-heeled Americans. It is wielded to no doctrine except that of making propaganda for the politer pleasures of our time.
Fadiman claimed for Holiday a "new kind of American journalism" in which editor, publisher, and advertising manager "cheerfully relinquish some of their triune omnipotence, and in which the main idea is to get the writer to produce the best he has in him, on the theory that you must give him his head before you can get him to use it." (Fadiman also wrote: "The editors of Holiday know that fun is fun, but they are also subtly urging on us the peculiar discovery that thinking can be fun too.") Holiday published an impressive array of writers in its time, and Ten Years Of Holiday gathered some of the most eminent, E.B. White (Angell's step-father), James Thurber, Frank O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Alistair Cooke, Jean Stafford, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Arthur Miller among them. (A unique magazine, Holiday ceased publication in 1977, by which point it had been merged with its former competitor, Travel.)

Fadiman seemed uninterested in baseball as subject matter, to put it mildly. In the introduction he writes, humorously if back-handedly, that Angell "writes so well about baseball that he almost comes near to practically succeeding in making that organized season tic transiently, mildly semi-interesting. (To me, I mean—he will delight all decent people.)" Angell's first editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn, was similarly unimpressed with the game, but Angell would find a lifelong home there. "Baseball—The Perfect Game," then, reads retroactively as a job application of sorts, Angell outlining for himself and his future editors just what about the game of baseball might deserve his, and our, sustained, thoughtful attention. In 1954, Angell was not yet in mid-season form. There are a few moments in this essay where he gives in to some italicized over-emoting, and a bland sentence such as "a solidly hit triple with the bases loaded is unbelievably exciting to see" would embarrass him a few years down the line, but, in essence, "Baseball—The Perfect Game" is prime Angell: knowledgeable, gently persuasive without being defensive, highly observant, anti-sentimental, funny, and literary in its attention to evocative details and telling imagery.
Commissioner of Bseball Ford Frick (left) and Roger Angell, 1954. Angell's presenting a bound copy of May '54 issue of Holiday (photo cropped)

Angell begins his defense of the game by observing that everyone seems to be talking about baseball—even its detractors—and that the game binds us in its community-making rituals, inspiring self-identification, hometown pride, and fierce loyalties. After sharing fond memories of watching Joe DiMaggio play, Angell writes:
Possibly I am getting crotchety or sentimental, but it seems to me that the major leagues today are suffering from an unfortunate shortage of true stars—of men of the caliber of DiMaggio, Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, Sisler, Dizzy Dean, Hubbell, Johnson, Hornshy, Mathewson, Frisch, Speaker, Alexander, Waddell. All of these men were not only magniicent ballplayers but they had that other quality, that aura of distinction and excitement, that distinguishes the true star. Such men have never been numerous, but in the past there have almost always been five or six of them active in the majors at the same time, plus a larger assortment—men like Heilmann, Cochrane, Simmons, Hartnett, Greenberg, the Waners, Bob Meusel, Rabbit Maranville—who were almost equally talented. Today, out of all the active big leaguers, most experts would rank only Ted Williams and Stan Musial and perhaps Bob Feller in the very first rank and would have a hard time picking another four or five in the second group. And even a man like Musial, who has won the National League batting crown six times, lacks that extra dimension, that spark that kindles the imagination. On the field and off, he appears to be exactly what he is—not a hero, but an extremely likable, pleasant man who is extremely good at his profession.
"This is not in plea for more roughnecks in baseball, but only a complaint against uniformity," Angell continues.
More and more, there is a flattening out of differences, and off the field most ballplayers now look and not like suburban householders instead of like giants. There is a reason for this, of course; they are suburban householders. Better pay and better working conditions have made big-leaguers prosperous and respectable. No one can legitimately complain against such a gain, yet the fan still longs for an occasional gangly, country-boy rookie like those immortalized by Ring Lardner, for a scrapper like Frisch, for a hater like Cobb, for a likable loudmouth like Dean, and for an outright baseball god like Babe Ruth. 
The suburbanization of America notwithstanding, it's interesting that Angell would bemoan the lack of "true stars" in 1954; after all, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were already patrolling their respective outfields (one fewer season for Mays, because of the war; Mantle was infamously 4-F). But soon enough Angell would have more than his share of stars to admire, think, and write about: Harmon Killebrew, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Don Drysdale, Bill Mazeroski, Luis Aparicio and Frank Robinson all debuted in 1954, '55, or '56—and all of them were future Hall of Famers. Angell, the writer and the fan, was set for a while.
Saved this cigar, at least

After sharing some particularly goofy shenanigans of quirky, early-era players, Angell advances on one of his earliest and most consistently-irking subjects, the adverse effects of television. In the mid-1950s Angell was already noticing the tendency of "roughneck" players to tone down for the cameras, an unfortunate move that I feel—with some terrific, loud, and vulgar exceptions over the decades—has led us to the Jeter Era of polite and really boring athletes:
The big-league ballplayer is now in range of the TV eye every moment he is on the field and therefore unlikely to cut up or indulge a crazy whim; instead, he is worrying about his appearance and often staging his “battles" or complaints for the benefit of the camera.
What is even more deadening is the odd passion radio announcers have for reducing every ballplayer to the same respectable, dull level by describing them all as level-headed, quiet-spoken, home-loving, friendly good fellows. 
All big leaguers appear on TV and radio interview shows now, and all have fallen into this insipid pattern. Certainly none of them nowadays would be so gauche or full of gusto as to make the mistake Babe Ruth made on a radio program once. Imitating the sound of a pitched ball hitting a glove, he slammed his fist into his leather windbreaker and then blanched. “Jesus!” he exclaimed to several thousand fascinated listeners, “I broke the Goddamned cigars!”
"Baseball—The Perfect Game" explores one of the central themes in Angell's baseball writing, the paradox of the supreme difficulty of the game and the apparent ease with which its players play. Patient with (and sympathetic to) those who find the game dull, Angell insists that it's the disconnect between boredom and elite skill, numbing routines and extravagant catastrophes that gives baseball its peculiar, renewable energy, and which allows fans to half-heartedly imagine that they could be out there, too. "Unknowing people, new to the game, often complain that 'nothing happens' in a baseball game," Angel notes.
Innings pass, the teams change sides, yet no one scores or appears to come close to it. This, of course, is far from the truth. It is only the fantastic, almost contemptuous ease with which a big-league team completes the routine plays that make it appear, when a good pitcher is working, that it will never be scored on. Yet disaster, as every player and every fan knows, waits on every pitch and can descend with appalling violence and speed. A pitcher can be working beautifully after six perfect innings and the find himself, in the space of four minutes, on his way to the showers. A scratch hit, a bit of bad luck, an adverse call on a close pitch and a hit ball which just eludes the fingers of a racing outfielder, and the pitcher is done, his team defeated. Here, in its purest form, is the drama, the perfection of baseball. Action and tragedy, defeat and triumph are suddenly enacted, against a background of apparent safety and invulnerability. A good baseball game, in those innings of mounting tension before the break and the sudden coming of excitement, can be fondly described, as Red Smith described a World Series game last fall, as “fine entertainment, splendidly close and dull and dragging...."
Angell concludes with a litany of rhetorical questions that serve as bullet points for the matters he'll essay over his career. "Is it any wonder then that baseball managers frequently worry themselves into the hospital with the thought that a single inconsequential April decision of theirs can mean the loss of millions of dollars in September?"
Is it any wonder that the players, grown professionals, can turn into scuffling, snarling animals on the hot, sun-baked August infields, as the pennant scramble moves toward its climax? Is it any wonder that such childishness as home-town pride and hero worship grips great segments of the population of America and that adults will pay well for the right to sit under a broiling midsummer sun on hard seats in order to scream and pray over the flight of a hall? Is it any wonder that to those of us—those millions of us—who love the game, baseball will always remain the only game, the sport of our hearts’ content? 

"The more you analyze this dull, splendid game," Angell writes earlier in the essay, "the more wonderful it becomes." Observing this in the mid-1950s, early in his career, already a decades-long fan but not yet one of the great baseball essayists, Angell was plugging into the current that has surprised, delighted, and sustained him so well.

(Photo of Roger Angell and Ford Frick via Brooklyn Visual Heritage. Caption reads "Two men in suits posing for picture in office at unknown location; framed painting of a man and boy playing baseball in background. Typed label on verso: 'Ford Frick, Commissioner of Baseball, accepts a bound copy of the May issue of Holiday magazine from Roger Angell, associate editor of Holiday. In Mr. Angell's article, "Baseball—The Perfect Game," he explains why baseball is America's national pastime and what makes an adult American sit under a broiling Sun in order to scream or pray over the flight of a ball'.")

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Essays, Ctd.

A couple essays have appeared recently, from which I've excerpted. "34 of 86 Stories" in Passages North:
Myth is born of the urge to name what’s nameless, to convey enormity between finite covers, or to describe one end of the Brooklyn Bridge to the other, even if it was really the Verazanno-Narrows. Myth describes something, or some people, or some event, or some place, that makes contact with vastness. Beyond my Saturday afternoon allowance sagas, my incidents as a wandering child may have been far fewer in number, smaller in scale than I remember—would I really leave the store where my mom was shopping to wander off, or am I conflating other visits to the plaza that I took, later, on my own, as a restless, sullen teenager? If I’ve elevated little journeys to mythic proportions—if I’ve told tales—then I must need them to explain something, a religion of adolescence in which to have faith
An essay wanders. An essay doesn’t trail the straight line that can’t exist in nature but the path that meanders, u-turns, takes lefts, circles back, forgets its origins. An essay sets out down a lane that’s both familiar and not, well-known and full of surprises. When I essay the past I wander, too, bring back objects that I’ve pried from the ground, or found hidden, or imagined half-built in the sky—and by the time I’ve returned home these things have changed, grown impossibly large or small, their transformation undetected until I look down at my hands. And those places where I found them? They’ve changed, too.
and "The Rememberer's Paradox" in Ohio Today:
As a kid I remember recognizing that my family home wasn’t unique. When I’d play at Karl’s house or visit Mrs. Pollack’s for piano lessons in her basement, I’d feel overwhelmed by images of strangers in framed photos, by matchless odors and unfamiliar floor plans, and by the dawning knowledge that this house, too, has a family that stretches backwards through time, through parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, etc., and that this family might experience the same dynamics that mine does. I’d multiply this by the dozens of homes surrounding me, and I’d get dizzy. (And melancholy, before I knew the word.) It seemed impossible that the intensity of family life in my house might be replicated in every house on the street, block, town, county, state, country, continent….
Before an essayist embarks on the journey from “I remember” to “I write,” he accepts a paradox: to get there I must lose my way. An essay that knows its own ending when it begins is less an essay than an exercise in wish-fulfillment. Shifting memories play a crucial role: how I recall last week or the summer when I was ten affects the persona I wish to embody today, the shading I want (even need) as I essay myself as subject matter. Remembering something accepts black holes and dropouts, illogic and broken chronology; a story fills up the holes, links them, covers them over with plot and scene. We recall in ruins, and there are as many ways to preserve or renovate those ruins as there are writers.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Roger Angell's Been Keeping Score

In the May 22, 1995 issue of The New Yorker, Roger Angell wrote, "With some baseball games, the best of them, you can take a look back afterward, in memory or on your scorecard, and find the unexpected play or late at-bat that turned the thing around.
This doesn’t happen with anything like the same regularity in other teams sports, and it’s one of the reasons that baseball offers hope as one of its steady ingredients: balm for your pain; restoration for your foundering, down-on-its-luck team; and that little three-run rally by the good guys in the bottom of the eighth which starts when your No. 7 batter lifts a feeble Roman-candle pop that just falls in behind first base and sends a runner scurrying along into scoring position.
I hope that one day the Baseball Hall of Fame gives Angell a call and asks him to donate his scorecards. [I've since learned that Angell's papers are housed at the Hall; the list of his donated items, including scorecards, is impressive.] Cooperstown ought to showcase the meticulous work of a dedicated baseball watcher like Angell, whose scorecards—if he's kept them—would date back to the late 1920s/early '30s. (Angell's father was a lawyer, and Angell remembers using his father's long yellow legal pads to keep score when he was a kid in the living room, listening intently to some middling New York Giants game on the radio.) Unsurprisingly, Angell has written affectionately and memorably about scorecards and their usefulness—as above—and I've gathered a few of his references over the decades (all, of course, from The New Yorker):

Here are two from a Spring Training report (April 25, 1977):
Later on, swarms of second-stringers began to crowd into the lineup, quickly causing my scorecard to resemble a botched arithmetic test, so I cheerfully gave up following the game….
I stuck with the game until the end of the seventh inning, by which time matters stood at 16-12, in favor of the Padres, and my scorecard looked like a volume report from the Chicago commodities market.  
From a Winter postseason recap (November 24, 1980):
O my Mets! I came back to Shea—came back home, really, after a sensible defection of several summers—when they began to win, or almost win, a lot of games in June, mostly on nerve and pitching and some plain luck. I have a private scorecard symbol for an eye hit—two tiny circles under the pencil stroke that indicates a single—and a good many of my Mets scorecards saved from midsummer, I notice, have those beads peeping out from the thickets of some Mets rally.
From a midsummer account (August 15, 1983):
[My] squidgy, messed-up scorecard looked like a child’s work of art (a valentine, a birthday card)…. 
And three more from postseason essays (December 5, 1988; November 22, 1993; November 24, 2003, respectively):
Watching [the Red Sox’s] six-run second-inning assault against Doyle Alexander, I at last devised a neat addition to my scorecard symbols—a little
on the left-hand margin of the appropriate box, standing for a ricochet off the green wall....
The smoking 15-14, thirty-two-hit morass looks not better on one’s scorecard, which yields up dripping, sanguinary slices whether read vertically or across….
Watching, you knew that [Aaron] Boone had glimpsed [Juan] Pierre, or the idea of Pierre, whirling past first base, and wanted him stopped there. He’d given up the run—the winning run, as it turned out—because he was afraid of the next one, or a bunch more. Call it a forced mistake. And as I put the play into my scorecard, I circled it, for elegance. 

Looking back afterward...
Angell posted his first baseball piece to the New Yorker blog on October 17, 2008 and, with the exception of a magazine recap of the 2009 postseason, all of his baseball commentary now appears on the magazine's blog. (They're archived here.) I don't know whether this turn of events is Angell's idea—he's slowing down, at age 93—or whether the magazine has deliberately moved him off of the printed page, or a combination of both, or other factors about which I'm unaware. Reading his blog posts of the last couple of postseasons is good fun, of course, and they cumulatively round out the playoffs in Angell's pleasing manner—with not a few impulsive musings that might've been edited out of the magazine. Yet I miss the breadth and heft of his longer print pieces. (In the early- and mid-1990s, those long pieces got much shorter under the controversial editorship of Tina Brown, down from his customary 30-plus pages to 10 or so, where they remained.) Perhaps it's too much work for Angell now, and it's more convenient for him to weigh in whenever he feels like it with short pieces on the blog. Is he capitulating to the current cultural shift toward smaller and smaller fields of comprehension, or does he genuinely prefer blogging to long-form writing? Who knows. Whatever keeps him working.

One terrific advantage to blogging if its immediacy, and every baseball fan was treated to something really special on the morning of October 28, 2011, when The New Yorker blog posted Angell's scorecard of the tremendous sixth game of the Cardinals/Rangers World Series, in which the Rangers were twice one strike away from winning the Championship. In one of the greatest World Series games I've ever watched, David Freese tied the score with a miraculous bottom-of-the-ninth triple (with two strikes on him), and then won the game on his next at-bat with a home run in the eleventh. Here's Angell's scorecard of the insanity:

Note his excited, red-inked "On 2 & 2, 2 out" and the all-cap "WALK-OFF!" notes on the right, the chaos of the slashes and circlings and cross-outs. There's something about the energetic, up-to-the-second scribbling that matches the game's urgency and lived-in excitement, the lead changes and tensions, dramatizing how one later can "find the unexpected play or late at-bat that turned the thing around." I'd love to see many more of these parallel stories that over the decades Angell's been telling, in neat orderly rows and in predictable and wildly unpredictable fashion.

Photo of Roger Angell by Elon Green via Nieman Storyboard.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Impossible Truths of Spring

The early sounds of baseball just got a bit dimmer for me upon hearing that eight or so inches of snow are expected to fall over Chicagoland tonight. Deep breath. I need to fortify myself against this surreal and impossibly-long winter. I need to look at this for a while and remind myself that it's still within the realm of possibility:

Friday, March 7, 2014

Mock Heroism: Angell, Aeschylus, and Mel Allen

Roger Angell published his second book, A Day In The Life Of Roger Angell, in 1970. (He debuted with The Stone Arbor and Other Stories, in 1960.) A collection of humorous pieces he'd written for The New Yorker, A Day In The Life gives the impression of a light read. From the jacket: "Here is a proper guidebook to chaos, a survival manual for anyone who has ever arisen with the conviction that only be keeping his eyes tightly closed throughout the day will he perhaps bypass the banana peels of fate, dodge the hurtling anvils of idiocy, and skirt the open manholes of mayhem—and thus arrive home again to the safe harbor of evening and insomnia." The subtext may be modern anxiety and absurdity; the top is all froth: parodies, urban satires, silliness ("nonsense" is how the book jacket puts it), and puns—casuals, in industry parlance. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Victor Navasky sniffed, "We couldn't help observing, however, that Mr. Angell has unwittingly, but with wit, given us a quiet parody of the magazine that made all this possible. This slim volume is elegant, pointed if often pointless, and defiantly untrendy." I've dipped into the book only occasionally, not really finding much traction with Angell's lighter pieces (this goes for his annual Christmas poems in The New Yorker, too). One drawback (for this fan): A Day In The Life Of Roger Angell contains only a single baseball piece, but it's a good one.

"Fall Classic" is an anomaly in Angell's baseball reportage; it's not reportage at all, really, but a mock-heroic take on the 1961 World Series (the New York Yankees beat the Cincinnati Red in five games) in the form of Greek drama. Published in the October 14, 1961 issue of The New Yorker, less than a week after Vada Pinson flew out to Hector Lopez in left at Crosley Field, ending the series and giving the Yankees their nineteenth championship, the parody allows Angell to indulge stylistic excess a bit, and it's interesting to watch him, at the cusp of his career as a baseball essayist, experiment with form, with ways of capturing the game. He's never published anything like "Fall Classic" since, and has never bothered to include it in one of his baseball collections, which is a shame because it's a fun read and a tour de force. In this "garland of mixed autumn strophes," Angell pokes some fun at the Maris-and-Mantle-driven powerhouse Yankees squad and retroactively invests a somewhat dull Series with faux drama, all the while popping the bubbles of baseball's self-importance.

A grand subtitle indicates that Angell composed the piece "after an evening of Aeschylus at the City Center, followed too quickly by an afternoon of Mel Allen and the World Series." Here's how the piece opens:
(Scene: A mighty concrete theatron, triple-decked, brave with bunting and bright with October sunshine. As the action commences, wealthy Athenians are still crowding the diazoma and the klimakes as they search for their seats. In the center of the orchestra we see the altar, a mound of earth topped with a rectangular slab of rubber. On either side of the curving green proskenion there is a paraskenion, in foul territory, each containing a low shelter. From these shelters, from tme to time, appear heroes, arbiters, and godlings. Enter Melalender, a soothsayer.)
Hail, all hail, fandom, and thrise welcome be
To our vasty temple, House That Ruth Built,
Parnassian shrine and skene once more
To our unconstrain'd autumnal revels,
Where this day, not unwitnessed, shall unfold
A fresh renewal of full sacred rites,
Capstone, you might wanna say, of another
Great season of the great Attic pastime!

Soon, before thy to-be-affrighted eyes,
Will appear right fell fiends, Reds from the house
Of the Cincinnati, boldly to wrest,
If wrest they can, the cup of victory
From the hands of the bestrip'd=flannel-clad
Atticans, children of Hephaestus' seed,
And holders—yes,m again!—of the precious,
Hotly fought junior-circuit gonfalon!

Fiends, I said, though sworn am I by my vows
To dread Pallas to strict neutrality,
And therefore I adduce, most hastily,
Refutal: that, for all I wot, these bold,
Hot-eyed hordes from corn-belted Tartarus
May be good-conscienc'd, clean-limb'd fellows all,
Known for their reverence of hoary sires.
And now, pray, bend ears to this suasive plea.
Angell in 1970
We know what's coming: a television commercial for shaving blades, hawked by a singing Chorus ("How are ya fixed for blades, / Striplings and elders? / How are ya fixed for blades, / Ye chin-tress'd elders?"). Etcetera. Man, there's a lot to savor here, not least imagining Mel Allen (a soothsayer!) stumble his way gamely through poetic iambs. (I love that Angell can't resist Allen slipping in some Alabamaian "you might wanna say"'s.) Of course the Yankees are in the World Series again; the Stadium feels epic, mythic, and ripe for satire because of that. Note the the spectators at the Stadium are described as "wealthy."

A quick summary of the action: a Ghost enters, none other than the shade of Casey Stengel, the recently ousted Yankees skipper who can't seem to stay away from his former dugout. Aghast at the team's arrogance and nonchalance, he chides them, bringing up an all-too-recent painful memory:
Lo, what do I behold? My fellers all,
Mine erstwhile band of belaurelled heroes,
By o'erconfidence thus besapped again?
Do I roam scorned for naught? Awake and hear,
Ye fledglings of my brood! Look, look, alas,
Upon the shade of they late Allfather,
So coldly bann'd by them that should have loved
The wise maunderings of his merry tongue.
Mark ye these wounds from which the heart's blood ran
When, not a year since, quite o'ercome we were,
In the glutted haughtiness of our rpide—
Felled by one mighty Mazeroskian
Four-ply swipe! Remember ye not that black day?
Awake, ye myrmidons! The footsore ghost
That once was Casey bids ye all arise!
Athena, a fan
Yankee management ("Furies") comes to sourly retrieve the Ghost, but not before the Ghost, shrinking, asks, "But who put my ketcher in left field?" Management replies—"in a barbaric yawp"—"Houk! Houk! Houk!" Great stuff.

Orestes appears next. That would be, of course, the God of Right Fields, Roger Maris, who, hoping for some divine assistance in the shape of a mammoth home run, is approached by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage, and law and justice. Maris—Orestes—is stricken, afraid that Athena has come to punish him
For full many an impious blow struck
In o'ermuscled pride this half-twelvemonth past!
Dost thou come to thunder the heretofore
Murmured plain of scrines—that in rank hubris
I have shaken the sixty-column'd shrine
Of the godling babe, the Sultan of Swat?
But Athena hasn't come to discipline Marris for his season-long assault on Babe Ruth's sacrosanct home run record. Athena is also the goddess of crafts and skill—that is, she's a fan. She wants nothing more than his autograph on her tablet before she ascends back to the heavens.

"Fall Classic" ends with a bit involving Reds reliever Jim Brosnan—"Brosnaeus," in our character list—who was knocked around quite a bit in the Series. Angell gives us an anguished soliloquy from the doubtful and intimidated Brosnaeus, standing on the mound after he's relieved the pitcher:
They swarm, they swarm, these bestriped tigers!
The loathly blood is dripping from their eyes.
Welladay! In my deep-furrowed mind's eye—
Unmyopic orb!—the foredoomed outcome
Full plainly I see: but brief minutes hence
Curv'd goat's horns my double done shall adorn.
Aloed irony that I, a poet,
With a E.R.A. of three point oh four—
A true servant of Euterpe, Clio,
And their seven sisters of Helicon—
Should fall, dist-strewn, spittl'd, and dishonored,
To such an hairy band of thewy-skull'd
Picture-book perusers! Out upon it!
Brosnaeus prays to the Gods for intervention against the lordly Yankees and, after another chirpy (and clearly intrusive) shaving jingle from the Chorus, he gets it:
(A colossal lightning bolt descends from above the Grand Concourse, accompanied by an infuriated roar of thunder. Chorus disappears in blue smoke. A cloudburst drops several billion gallons of wine-dark rain on the orchestra, scattering heroes, arbiters, and Athenians, and quickly washing away the entire playing surface. Only Brosnaeus and Melalender are left in view.) 
Wow! There it is, fans—five-o'clock lightning!
     BROSNAEUS (his face turned up in wonder):
This strain'd drama is now played out.
Somebody up there liketh me!

"Fall Classic" is on one hand, vintage Angell the baseball writer: it's funny, clever, mildly biting, knowledgeable, and written out of deep affection for the game, its players (and announcers), and its history. On the other hand, it's an odd and quirky one-off, and an approach never returned to by Angell in his baseball writings. But it's a lot of fun. Angell has always rolled his eyes at those who take the game too seriously, who forget that baseball is a game, not a life-or-death drama. He includes himself in those who get carried away at times, asking—no, demanding—more of the game and its human players than it, and they, are obliged to give to us. By casting the '61 World Series as a Drama, not drama, he gently makes fun of us all.
Orestes, "in the guise of a muscular blond right fielder"
Brosnaeus, "a bespectacled philosopher and fireman"

Image of Athens bust via L'Aragosta. 
Image of Roger Maris via USA Today
Image of Jim Brosnan via The Baseball Reliquary

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Angell, Baseball, and Television

Television, Roger Angell wrote in 1999 in his introduction to E.B. White's This Is New York, is “the biggest altering force of our century." As a writer who's covered baseball since the early 1960s, and who's been a fan of the game since the 30s, Angell has had a predictably fluid and unsurprisingly vexed relationship to televised baseball. Watching his beloved game on the "boob tube," he's gone from being an Eisenhower-era appalled skeptic to a 21st Century begrudging semi-fan. Alive for over eight decades, Angell skirts dangerous, "Get off my lawn!" fogeyism in his coolness toward television (and, one imagines, toward online streaming). Shrugging, he'd likely agree with that assessment. Angell isn't only one of the greatest writers about baseball, he's a cultural barometer, a walking time capsule embodying the popular and contentious story of television. He's been writing for so long that his experience with and knowledge of the game have created a vast canvas on which we can chart his affection for the game as well as the sport's evolving, growing, complex relationship with popular culture itself.

In a cranky op-ed ("Baseball's Strike Zone") for The New York Times on April 8, 1972, in advance of the publication of his first baseball book The Summer Game, Angell, lamenting the results of a recent Gallup poll that indicated that football had replaced baseball as Americans' favorite sport, asks, "How, one wonders, could baseball fade so quickly, even while seeming to keep us such good company? Could those glib McLuhanite prophets be right when they say that baseball is too mild, too stately, too countrified for our quick, loud times?" He adds:
Bowie Kuhn, the Baseball Commissioner, has pointed out that the poll was taken during the football season, and that a midsummer pulse-reading might bring quite a different answer. Perhaps, but first he should demand a new question. Here is what the Gallup people asked their fan-sample: “What is your favorite sport to watch?” Not, it should be noted, the much plainer "What is your favorite spectator sport?"
            The preference sought was probably for any sport witnessed in person or seen via television, but the use of the word "watch," in fact, strongly suggested the latter form; nobody comes home from Yankee Stadium and says, “I watched a ball game today," Mr. Gallup's sample, surely, was making a judgment about its favorite televised sports entertainment, and, in a major piece of non-news, voted for football. 
Sports exist on two levels now, Angell complained, on the field and on television, "and every fan knows that there is often an immense difference between the two. They have discovered in the last decade that football is the finest of all televised sports (mainly because of the instant replay) and baseball very nearly the worst." Televised baseball is a bore, he admits:
However nimble the camerawork or crisp the commentary, the screen offers mostly a prolonged closeup of the home-plate umpires neck, in the foreground of a distorted two-dimensional montage of batter and battery—a tableau that is occasionally interrupted when a pitch is struck, and two or three flurried, cross-out shots hopelessly try to suggest the divergent flights of ball and baserunner and fielders across enormous spaces. Baseball's splendid distances are simply untranslatable on television, and so too is its lovely mystery, the slow, taut, speculative ticking of baseball time, which, conveyed upon the home screen, implacably urges a nap.
            Since watching television is the real national pastime, I’m a little sorry that baseball portrays itself so poorly on the box. Sorry but not desolated, for the real thing—the old, elegant McCoy, and still one of man’s marvels to see—awaits us, just as soon as the strike negotiators are allowed to do their duty. Now, gentlemen, if you please: Take us out to the game.
Roger Angell at home, NYC

Two decades earlier, Angell had presciently observed an uneasy relationship between television and baseball in an unsigned "Comment" piece in the May 27, 1950 issues of The New Yorker. Couched in mild alarm for the invasive nature of new media generally, Angell cites two worries specific to baseball. "Everywhere, the decline of privacy continues, speeded by electronics," he laments. "At a recent ball game,"
a sensitive microphone at home plate picked up the rich comments of one of the team managers to the umpire and sent them winging to thousands of radio sets, instantly turning the listeners into involuntary eavesdroppers. In another ballpark, the chance remark of a second baseman to another umpire, to the effect that the official was hamming up his signals for the benefit of the television audience, led the umpire to banish the player from the field. And then the United States Cabinet, apparently uneasy in the confines of its lonely and untapped chamber, moved out to Chicago and held a public session before television cameras and a crowd of spectators. This state of affairs has been developing for a long time—ever since the perfection of the candid camera, armed with which photographers began coolly walking in the front door and taking pictures of the family in its bathrobe. Within their limits, the radio people followed suit, and now the television men are operating on the same brash assumption—that a man armed with an ingenious machine is endowed with the inalienable right to intrude. All of us, whether we like it or not, are being turned into performers and are fumbling to see if our necktie is straight. The baseball manager's rhubarb, hitherto sacrosanct, is tempered by the presence of the microphone, listening over his shoulder with cupped ear; umpires and Cabinet members are wondering whether their decisions look right on a sixteen-inch screen; and members of Congressional committees are wondering whether a committee meeting is valid unless it is held before microphones and television cameras. 
Sixteen years later, in the middle of his uncharacteristically gloomy essay "Cast A Cold Eye" in the November 15, 1976 issue, Angell levels his criticism at the garrulous broadcast crew (including Reggie Jackson, not yet a Yankee) calling postseason games for ABC:
The next day, the third man in the crew (replacing Bob Uecker) was Keith Jackson, a football specialist, whose excited, rapid-fire delivery makes a routine double play sound like a goal-line stand. Three-man broadcasting crews, by the way, probably make sense in covering football, where a great many things happen at the same time, but baseball has no such problem, and three hyperglottal observers usually succeed only in shattering the process of waiting that is such a crucial part of the game. People who don't know or don’t like baseball make poor announcers, for they are too impatient to sense the special pace of each game, and thus habitually overdramatize. Since they suggest that almost every play we see is memorable, we become distracted and then dulled, so that we are unlikely to remember the actual incidents in a game—sometimes very small ones indeed—on which the outcome truly depended. In the third inning of the second game, the Yankees scored two runs, to take a 3-2 lead, and had Chris Chambliss on first base, with one out. The next batter, Carlos May, hit a bounder to the right side that took a high hop off the artificial carpet and over first baseman Mayberry’s head. It went for a single, but Chambliss progressed only as far as second base, thanks to a bit of mime by the Royals’ shortstop, Fred Patek, who put out his glove for the imaginary incoming peg with such verisimilitude that Chambliss actually slid into the bag.
Patek's head-up ploy cost the Yankees a run, as the next batter flied out; "it may even have cost them the game," Angell observes,
Cosell's on tonight
yet the telecast buried this pivotal moment in its customary overreporting, and it was soon forgotten. Network makes every baseball game sound just about like every other. But this is perhaps a forgivable matter. What I cannot forgive is the networks’ implacable habit—and NBC, which handles the World Series, is almost as much at fault here as the ABC people—of dismantling the game of baseball and putting it back together on our screens in a form that they find more manageable. That form, of course, is “entertainment,” and thus centers on personalities rather than events. Reggie Jackson is an extremely perceptive young man, and by the middle of the second game from Kansas City it had become plain that he was no longer just describing a ballgame; he was engaged in an open duel with his more celebrated colleague for dominance in the proceedings. He had already come to understand a first principle of television—that while we at home may think we are simply watching a game, what we are in fact attending is Howard Cosell.
Fast forward two decades. In a deep funk about baseball's rancorous devolving, brought upon in part by the players strike, Angell gives it to television again in the November 27, 1995 issue ("The Game's The Thing"), this time crankily including the new Wild Card playoffs and division expansion among TV's nefarious effects. Alluding to previous nail-biting October games, Angell sighs, "I doubt that we’ll ever get that sort of baseball back again, if only because there are so many games now that they are diminished in the sorting out."
By arranging for an extra round of post-season meetings, with preliminary divisional playoffs that include “wild card" clubs which failed to win their regional sectors but outdid the other certified losers, the baseball planners have increased the chances that there will be some wonderful or god-awful games somewhere in October but in the process have destroyed the essential critical ingredient, which is rarity. They have also confused and driven away uncountable sports followers who once thought of themselves as baseball fans but, it quickly became apparent, could not understand how this new postseason worked (even the players had problems with this, to judge by dugout conversations l heard during the last week of the regular season) or quite remember who was playing. Many friends with whom l happily used to talk baseball at the end of the summer have fallen into this category. As things came down, there were thirty-one postseason games this time around (out of a mind-bending possible forty-one), which made for plenty of baseball entertainment, just as the owners and planners had hoped, but, inevitably, less that can be remembered. Baseball feels like the rest of America now: it feels like television.
Yet, later in the essay, Angell makes a characteristic, Montaigneian turn and seems to come around to the cameras, to how they add to one's enjoyment of the game. "Televised baseball, to which I again had recourse at home, has its discontents (one of them is named Brent Musburger)",
but its details can add texture and filigree that you sometimes miss at the park. Watching [Orel] Hershiser’s habitual clicking of his head off to his left in mid-pitch, for instance, you suddenly notice how it opens up the entire right side of his body for the full-sweeping, forward and downward delivery. From Seattle we were given closeups of [Carlos] Baerga’s earplugs (defense against the Dome din), and also of a pleasing earlier moment, when twenty-two-year old Bob Wolcott, the Mariners’ surprise starter and winner in Game One, was found sitting next to [Randy] Johnson in the dugout after giving way in the eighth to the bullpen relievers, who would sew it up for him. Both men were smiling over Wolcott’s outing, and then the Unit gave him a little slap on the thigh with the back of his glove: Great game, kid. The hovering camera eye has trained us to keep close watch on the dugout after ugly moments as well. Sometimes we can actually pick up the magic word in the act of formation, as when the manager’s lower lip is placed just behind his upper teeth and the famous fricative takes wing. Mike Hargrove gave us a demonstration when his left-handed reliever Paul Assenmacher, inserted in a game expressly to get rid of the left-hitting Tino Martinez, threw ball four instead. And who can blame him?

I'm cherry-picking here: 1995 was hardly the first time the generally-upbeat Angell admitted to enjoying baseball on TV. In fact, an affection for the communities fostered by watching televised baseball informs one of his earliest New Yorker pieces (published in 1950, the same year he gave voice to complaints). But any pleasing nod to the game on television is usually tempered by concern for TV's entrenchment, and for culture at large. Somewhat regrettably, I have seen many more games on television than I have in person; as much as I love going to games and will try to get to as many as I can, that ratio will probably not diminish much in my lifetime. Roger Angell, and many of his generation, grew up in the park. He watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back homers in Yankee Stadium when he was a boy, and was raised listening to baseball on the radio, that window into the imagination, and catnip to those who visualize a game in the "interior stadium," in Angell's term. Though Angell blogs now, and has come around to blaring modernity, television—and memories of its early monochromatic angles, flat dimensions, and growing troupe of crowing announcer-personalities—might always feel like an intruder to him.

Photo of Angell via The New York Times