Roger Angell Wilfrid Sheed

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Wilfrid Sheed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 plucky," a band of fellow spirits which one just has to take on faith. And speaking of Forster, imagine Angell's clip being passed around a locker room to appreciative chuckles: "As E. M. Forster said (I can still see him, with one spiked foot on the top step of the dugout and his keen, Ozark-blue eyes, under the peak of the pulled-down cap, fixed on some young batter just now stepping up to the plate), Only connect."

Neither a jock nor an English major would make much of this, but Angell soldiers on gamely. In his earlier baseball musings [Angell] seemed to accept his distance, and watch baseball under glass, like the New Yorker's Eustace Tilley peering through his monocle. But in his later books, especially [Late Innings], he has decided to go out and find those allies or quit. Among the players themselves, he notes that a surprisingly large number don't really like baseball or think about it more than they have to. But every now and then, he spots one of his phantom fans disguised in a baseball uniform, and his faith is restored.

Temporarily. These chronic reconversions lend a pinch of drama to what would otherwise be a random collection of pieces. Late Innings records a cycle of little deaths and rebirths as each spring he determines to give up the game, not because he thinks it unworthy of him but out of a sheer Sisyphean Angst rare in his dodge. (p. 46)

Thus our hero, stranded between two wastelands, too sensitive for one and too hearty for the other—but look, isn't that Bob Gibson or Pete Rose or Catfish Hunter, fellow humans all, arriving just in time? Or it might be a fellow teaching the fundamentals to kids or a PhD poet persuading her husband to take up professional pitching—always our hero is rescued (John Updike would probably call the book Angell Is Risen) in time to enjoy another surprisingly good season and an epiphany of a World Series.

There is nothing stagey about any of this. It is exactly what many of us go through every year, and Angell is our spokesman. How good does it make him? Previously he had been a crack utility-infielder at the New Yorker—short-story writer, film critic, fine editor—but hardly a household word. Then suddenly he found a whole new field to himself. Baseball had no [Eudora] Weltys or Updikes or [Pauline] Kaels to go up against; Angell's natural rivals were all chained to deadlines and space limitations and the hardened expectations of sports-page readers.

Angell could write any way he liked for a bright audience with no expectations—a heaven-sent opportunity to be terrific if you're even good. But there's usually a reason for such vacuums. Just try making spring training interesting sometime, with its unknown casts, its changeless routine, and its fly-me-to-Florida (or Arizona) settings, and you will see why other writers have left it to Roger. Angell's apparent freedom is like having the run of the Gobi Desert. Yet by a kind of hunt-and-peck method, a promising rookie here, a ruminating veteran there, he floods these bleak encampments with color. In his glowing vision, there is hardly such a thing as a dull ballplayer or a meaningless game: he will spot something in a pitcher's motion or a hitter's eyes that rivets you on the inessential until it fills the canvas. The heresy that "it's only a game" which bedeviled Red Smith becomes meaningless. Anything so sweetly concentrated on as this becomes as important as anything else—while the spell lasts.

So this is not, after all, some journeyman writer stumbling on a lucky subject. Angell was born to write about baseball; it consumes him, as artists are consumed, and there's no point asking how he'd do at something else. His feel for the game is sensual, and this seems to come through even to the heathen. He can describe a batter's swing with the thoroughness and exaltation of a man carving a statue. His years under glass taught him to see the game as an art student should; now that he knows the players he is ready to talk to them on a much deeper level than thin post-game chitchat. Other sportswriters know all that they need to know about a dozen or so sports, but Angell is a man of one sport, one god, so reading him is quite different in intensity from reading anybody else. He is indeed the Apostle to the Gentiles, and not in the same racket as the others. (pp. 46-7)

[Angell also reverses] Red Smith's tactic for dealing with a basically trivial subject, by removing it from the world of value altogether: baseball for baseball's sake might be his motto. Small boys can daub at it if they wish: insofar as they come into it, they are all to the good. "[Watching Tom Seaver] we had become children too, and this could not be permitted to last." As for old men, Angell tells a nice story about watching a college game with Smokey Joe Wood, a hero from the trolleycar days. Angell wants breathlessly to talk about the past, but Wood is too wrapped up in the game right there in front of him to pay much attention. Gradually, watching it through the old man's eyes, the author sees that this particular Yale-St. John's game is one of the greatest ever played, if not the very greatest, and he might have missed it if he'd had his way. Angell has just been taught a lesson of a kind one usually turns to him for.

My one caveat about this elegant chronicle of five seasons (1977–1981) is that the extramural stuff—the baseball strike, women reporters in the clubhouse, and whatnot—could as well have been handled by any concerned citizen, and I'm only sorry that this fine pictorial writer had to be bothered with it. (p. 47)

Wilfrid Sheed, "Reds," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted by permission of the author), Vol. XXIX, No. 14, September 23, 1982, pp. 45-8.∗