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'.")

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