"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 amiability and coyness of the "Talk of the Town" [section of that magazine]. Angell sometimes adopts Eustace Tilley's stiff-upper-lip or cautiously balanced response to the rapacious, stupid, vulgar or mendacious policies that have been plaguing the sport, instead of letting his own anger and dismay rip as decisively as it does elsewhere. Also he is a bit fond of New Yorker status words—"équipage" for team, "match" for game, etc.—and of euphonious but slightly arch expressions like "the fealty of the fans." But this is nitpicking and obscures the main point of Angell's relation to The New Yorker, which is positive and bracing (in both senses). Just as he owes his full-bodied, free-wheeling, ruminative style to his magazine's willingness to allow its writers the space, time and freedom to develop the subject in their own individual way, so, too, Angell's point of view fits into and is sustained by its dominant editorial purpose: the conservation of traditions.
The primary tradition of baseball is pastoral—not just the sunshine, swept dirt and green grass but the spacious space and slow time of the game. This affects not only the dynamics of play but also the tone of conduct. (p. 1)
[As] Angell brilliantly observes, the particular charm of modern baseball has been that the old "Parks" (Shibe, Sportsmen's, etc.), "Fields" (Ebbets, Forbes, etc.) and "Grounds" (Polo) were in intensely urban settings and were filled with the resonances between the countryside of the past and the city of the present. Thus, the Polo Grounds was both a "green barn" on a lazy summer afternoon, complete with birds in the eaves, and a dirty, noisy, crowded, intimate neighborhood of "front stoops and fire escapes."… (p. 14)
With appropriate rue, Angell reports on the new stadiums, which are suburban—not only in location but in character: pretty, clean, unobstructed, dull, isolating. Most of the seats are remote from any part of the field and many of the fans are remote from the game, following it by portable radios and diverted between pitches and innings by baseball's answer to TV—the massive electronic scoreboard. And beyond the supermarket functionalism of Shea and Dodger Stadiums lies the first of the "giant living rooms," Angell's apt metaphor for the Houston Astrodome, "complete with manmade weather, wall-to-wall carpeting, clean floors, and unrelenting TV show."
Such décor breeds a complementary decorum: well-dressed, polite fans who never rise above a hand-clap and never descend to a boo and who dutifully respond to the programed jokes, cheers, cartoons and ads on the scoreboard. (pp. 14, 16)
Another tradition rapidly falling by the wayside in the last decade is team identity and fan loyalty. Thanks to the relocation of many teams, which has reached the point where some franchises resemble the career of a utility infielder, and the shifting around of players through expansion of the leagues, few of the clubs are left with any of the identifiable character they once had….
What then is an ex-Giant fan like Angell to do? Well, there are still the pastoral roots that flower briefly each year in spring training. There are still the clarity, tautness, precision and slowly mounting tension of the close, well-played game. There are the omens which reveal the outcome of a game, a pennant race, a World Series, or even the changing character of a team. There is the mystique of "jinxes" and "luck"—the ever-present vagaries and inner logic of chance, which makes baseball such a tense, exacting and revelatory sport: its relentless testing of the players, each isolated and on his own whether at bat or in the field, each aware that success or failure will come in inches….
But most of all, there is what Angell calls "the interior stadium," fostered by baseball's unique quality of clockless time, that fills with each game's own tempo, mood, character and duration…. This intense watching leaves a residue of memory and desire, which enables Angell to replay the great performances and games he has seen. Moreover, baseball time cancels the alterations of historical time, joins the players of the past to those of the present in a seamless, unchanging fourth dimension. (p. 16)
Ted Solotaroff, "Green and Spacious, Played in Clockless Time," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 11, 1972, pp. 1, 14, 16, 18.
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