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

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