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


Mark said...

Thanks for this. I discovered this many years ago in a used bookstore and have cherished it ever since. It's an enthusiasm that's hard to share with anyone since the intersection of Greek tragedy aficionados and people who know anything about the '61 series is not really extensive .

Joe Bonomo said...

You said it! Thanks for writing.

Greg Moore said...

I have longed to read Fall Classic again since I was a child (14 years old in 1961), and I would have had to subscribe to New Yorker even to view it, as they guard their reprints as if they were pharaohs' tombs. It was a great pleasure, even more hilarious than I knew it, since I have since studied Greek.

Joe Bonomo said...

Yeah, you can get full access to the NYer archive if you subscribe. But it's in A Day in the Life of Roger Angell which has been reissued!