Saturday, May 14, 2011

On the Coffee Table: Roger Angell

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote when he was, of course, still alive and a relatively young man, that he wouldn't mind being as old as E.B. White as long as it meant he could actually be E.B. White. I have very similar feelings about Mr. White's stepson, Roger Angell. Angell, now 90 years old, has had a long, successful and varied career as a writer. But he is best known for his many essays on his life passion: baseball. In fact, a very strong case could be made for him as the most profoundly insightful sportswriter of the 20th century.

Image via Barnes & Noble

Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion is one of several collections of Angell's New Yorker baseball columns. First published in 1977, the book contains 16 essays from the 1972-76 baseball campaigns. The 1970s were, without question, a time of transition for the sport: the introduction of the designated hitter, the end of the reserve clause and the subsequent rise of free agency, more night games, more AstroTurf, American League expansion, etc. The economics of the game have changed beyond recognition since that era, of course, but Angell's musings still resonate with the baseball world of 2011.

I have to admit that, as much as I admire Angell's writings, his season and post-season synopses can be a bit tedious: that one-game-after-another feel. He's at his best when he follows his insatiable curiosity to probe the deeper mysteries of the game: the world of the talent scout, the sudden and total demise of a star pitcher, the physics of the knuckleball, the passion of three die-hard Tiger fans, etc. My favorite chapter of the book is also its shortest: "Stories for a Rainy Afternoon." It is the only essay in the book that had not previously been featured in The New Yorker.

My favorite passage, however, comes at the end of Angell's write-up of the epic Game Six of the 1975 World Series (p. 306, University of Nebraska Press, 2004):

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazard flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
That pretty much says it all.

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