Roger Angell Essay - Critical Essays

Angell, Roger


Roger Angell 1920–

American nonfiction writer, short story writer, critic, and editor.

Angell has a deft ability for analyzing the intricacies and subtleties of the game of baseball and for focusing on events and people that reveal the sport's ongoing human drama. Since 1960 Angell has been contributing essays and general observations on baseball to The New Yorker. Several features that characterize the magazine are evident in Angell's writings: finely crafted prose, painstaking analysis, and dry humor. His pieces have been collected in three highly acclaimed works—The Summer Game, which covers the years 1961–1971; Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion (1972–1976); and Late Innings: A New Baseball Companion (1977–1981).

Angell is most concerned that baseball maintain the traditions which have united players and fans in a continuing seasonal ritual, providing lasting memories that tie the present to the past. Critics have praised the sensitive concern and passion with which Angell chronicles an era of significant change, when many intimate midcity ballparks have been replaced by massive suburban stadiums. Angell particularly dislikes the advent of artificial turf, free agency, designated hitters, and multimillion dollar revenues, but he finds little change in the essence of the game itself. Most critics view Angell as an extraordinarily talented writer who has found his niche in writing about baseball but whose work can be appreciated by the general reader as well.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)

Keith Cushman

Angell is simply the most elegant, stylish, and intelligent baseball writer in the country today. His annual autumn account of the World Series [that appears in the New Yorker] has come to be a major event for me—and on occasion it proves to be better than the World Series. Angell knows that baseball is a game deeply wedded to ritual and tradition, and the perennial smack of horsehide against leather is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with inflated schedules, floating franchises, and an American League club called the Texas Rangers. Money has become the name of the national pastime, and a decided elegiac note runs through Angell's expert reporting. The Summer Game collects Angell's New Yorker baseball writings, and the teams parade by—in spring training, in heated pennant races, in the World Series—from the 1962 Amazin' Mets to the 1971 world champion Pirates. Perhaps some would feel that a few of these pieces are a little too ephemeral for republication, but everyone who understands with the author that baseball is a country of the heart will recognize The Summer Game as the treasure it is.

Keith Cushman, in his review of "The Summer Game," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, April 15, 1972; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company): copyright © 1972 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 97, No. 8, April 15, 1972, p. 1456.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

The bare bones of Roger Angell's "The Summer Game" do not seem promising. Ten years' worth of reports on baseball that have already appeared in The New Yorker, where Mr. Angell is chief resident buff? Twenty-one installments on our great national pastime written during a period when—thanks to expanding teams and schedules, carpetbagging owners and Charles O. Finley—baseball has threatened to become our great national bore? Pages devoted to such forgettable episodes as the triumph of the New York Yankees over the San Francisco Giants in the 1962 World Series, or the Orioles' sweep of the A's in the 1971 divisional playoffs? Who—as the expression goes—needs it? But what such a summary of "The Summer Game" fails to reckon with is Mr. Angell's love of the game. It is a love that sees a fair complexion beneath the old girl's flaking make-up. It is a love that still finds the prospect of a summer without box scores to mull over "like trying to think about infinity." It is a love that sees poetry in names like Ossee Schreckengoat, Smead Jolley, Cletus Elwood Poffenberger and Luscious Easter. It wonders how many Burleigh Grimeses can dance on the head of a pin.

It is a love that had Mr. Angell chasing around the country from 1962 to 1971 attending "grandmothers' funerals"—his euphemism for significant confrontations on emerald diamonds all the way from San Francisco Bay to Back Bay. It had him poking around the vulgar splendors of the Houston Astrodome, trying to imagine plastic worms a-wiggling beneath the pluck-proof plastic grass, or sitting at the right hand of Judge Roy Hofheinz, "the Kublai Khan of the Domed Stadium," who swigged his coffee from a golden cup, dropped cigar...

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Ted Solotaroff

"The Summer Game" provides such finely observed and finely written reportage on major-league baseball during the past decade that I hope it will triumph over certain of its disadvantages. One is that it is a collection of pieces. Collections don't sell unless they have an obvious gimmick, and I don't see any in sight for Roger Angell's witty but tactful coverage. Still, "The Summer Game" is a genuine book, unified by its ongoing account of the new developments and distortions of the sport and integrated by Angell's consistent ability to capture the "feel" of the player, the game, the series, the pennant race, and by his articulate and imaginative defense of the sport itself against its adversaries, beginning with the major league owners.

All of this creates a second liability: Angell's book is written for the sophisticated fan rather than for the adolescent one—chronological or arrested—that most sports books are aimed at. A writer concerned with the nature and nuances of baseball space and baseball time, or with the social and psychological differences between the pastoral old ball parks and the new programed stadiums, or who refers, however naturally and aptly, to the "Caligulan whims" of the owner of the Oakland A's, or who elegantly sums up the Mets in 1968 as a team that "went on winning, sometimes implacably, sometimes improbably," is not likely to reach many of the heavy consumers.

There have been a few relatively adult baseball books such as [Jim Bouton's] "Ball Four" and now "The Boys of Summer" which make the best-seller lists, mostly because they cater to the contemporary penchant for candor or nostalgia or both, and satisfy the fan's perennial question of what So-and-So is "really like." Angell has none of this; his base of observation is behind first base rather than in the clubhouse or hotel room. He will tell you that Choo Choo Coleman, a catcher for the early Mets, "handles outside curve balls like a man fighting off bees," but nothing about his sex life or racial attitudes. Angell's book has the further misfortune of following in the wake and glare of the similarly titled "The Boys of Summer," by another Roger (Kahn) to boot. Hopefully, some readers will pick up "The Summer Game" and looking for the cant of the new journalism—two parts low-down, one part corn, and a dash of obscenity—they will discover the freshness, accuracy and the unexpected depths of Angell's prose—roughly the difference, in baseball parlance, between a flashy but limited thrower and a polished and versatile pitcher: Vinegar Bend Mizell going against Warren Spahn. Page for page, "The Summer Game" contains not only the classiest but also the most resourceful baseball writing I have ever read….

Now and then Angell lapses into certain mannerisms of The New Yorker, where he is an editor and where these pieces first appeared. His genuine enthusiasm and empathy can tail off into the habitual...

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Paul Gray

Angell is a formidable humorist. Yet he sees all the current tinkering with baseball as no laughing matter. He imagines a time when the World Series will be totally surrendered to television, transported to some domed stadium, and made the excuse for a week of canned spectaculars. If network and baseball moguls have not already dreamed up this plan, they will now. Angell protests: "We are trying to conserve something that seems as intricate and lovely to us as any river valley….

True fans need no convincing. They can read Five Seasons for remembrances of games, pennant races and World Series past, for another chance to think about their beloved sport under the tutelage of an expert….

Angell's style neatly complements the balance, pace and mathematical exactitudes of the game he celebrates. He does not throw many high, hard ones; he favors the change of pace, the roundhouse curve. (p. 95)

Five Seasons contains leisurely off-the-diamond reporting: Angell travels through the hinterlands with a major league scout, a species of rugged individualist now threatened by cooperative head-hunting and centralized data banks. He visits three hyperfans of the Detroit Tigers and comes up with a deft report on the joys of obsession. He spends time with Steve Blass, a top pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates until, during the winter of 1972, he inexplicably lost the knack of getting batters out....

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Jonathan Yardley

Make no mistake about it, Five Seasons is a "baseball book." It is, in point of fact, one of the two best baseball books we have—the other being Angell's The Summer Game, published in 1972—and anyone who loves our national pastime is going to love Five Seasons. But it is also so much more than a baseball book that a grave injustice will be done if only diehard fans read it. If its central subject is a game, it is also deeply concerned with larger, and in some cases darker, questions….

As one who admired The Summer Game with unreserved ardor, I followed Angell's dispatches [in The New Yorker] in the five years after its publication with uneasiness and apprehension; it...

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Edward Hoagland

I've never read a sporting novel that succeeded as do novels of the sea or of the West,… although I've read a number that attempted to inflate one sport or another into a subject as pelagic as the sea and as enormous as the West. The solution seems to lie with a zinging new book out about baseball by Roger Angell called Five Seasons…. [It] is so jammed with glee and eagerness and lore and exact fact that they all do manage to meld together. (p. 76)

The savage element of money has invaded even the players' side of baseball lately and has lent it what may turn out to be a new dimension. Angell takes an uncertain crack at defining this, having defined all of the old dimensions already. On...

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Donald Hall

Roger Angell's Five Seasons bears comparison with one other baseball book—Roger Angell's The Summer Game (1972). The new book is even better than the first, and renders the game from various places of enlightened vantage. In The Summer Game Angell remained largely in the stands, describing the green mural as innings transpired before him—descriptions which blended the welcome repetitions of the game with its sudden minute varieties of action. He described a painting (a strange one, with moving figures) which carried its own light with it. Now in Five Seasons he describes baseball as if it were sculpture, which changes as you perceive it by walking around it, or as day's light moves over...

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Art Hill

Rather than try to match superlatives with other reviewers of Roger Angell's new baseball book [Late Innings] let's just say Angell is back, and the stuff is as good as ever. That should be news enough for most fans, because Angell is special to so many of us….

The degree of his caring about baseball, I think, is what makes Angell so special. Quite apart from his tremendous technical knowledge and his sharp eye for a significant, generally unnoticed detail, he obviously loves the game unstintingly. And anything that threatens it—such as the inclination of some team owners to adopt a farcical playoff system in 1981—threatens him. Some of us appreciate that.

As always,...

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Jonathan Yardley

Late Innings is [Angell's] third collection of baseball pieces, and on the whole it reaffirms his position as the most astute and graceful chronicler the sport has known. I say "on the whole" because, at the risk of seeming to deface a national monument, I find Angell somewhat short of his best in many of these articles, which appeared in The New Yorker between 1977 and 1981. He has, perhaps, stayed too long at the fair; especially in his by-now-traditional spring-training and post-season pieces, he too often seems to be going through the motions—brilliant and inimitable motions, to be sure, but familiar ones all the same. This may cause no ennui on the reader's part, but I sense some on Angell's; he...

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Mark Harris

The 16 essays in "Late Innings" cover the period from 1977 to 1981 and, depending upon our geography, connect to our nostalgia for a past so recent that is has not been remembered. They also re-establish a claim about which there cannot have been much doubt. Although Mr. Angell's specialty is baseball, he marvelously avoids the clichés and weary formulations that characterize baseball writing. He never draws upon the stock of jargon that has been gathering for a century. He sees things by looking at them, not by remembering what has been so often said about them. He listens hard, especially to baseball players themselves (never to publicists), and by some masterful technique writes down the things these highly...

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Wilfrid Sheed

Angell is doted on by the dabblers, the people who pick baseball up and put it down as the mood strikes, but is not, I believe, fully approved of in [sports columnist] Red Smith's kingdom, the press box, because he doesn't have to meet deadlines. In fact, most journalists wouldn't know what to do with the extra time if it was granted, as their occasional books show. But the Deadline is a stern discipline which makes for a brotherhood, and Angell isn't quite in it.

In fact, as a New Yorker writer, he has no natural allies in the business. He talks of dedicating Late Innings to the fans—by which he seems to mean something very close to E. M. Forster's "the sensitive, the decent and the...

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