Roger Angell, RIP: Hitting for distance

Roger Angell, at his induction as a J.G. Spink Award winner at the Hall of Fame.

The great New Yorker essayist and baseball companion has passed at 101. The Elysian Fields gains an incomparable baseball companion but the works he left for us continue to instruct, delight, resonate, and embrace. I can do no better now than to re-publish the tribute I wrote upon his centenary in September 2020.

“Since baseball time is measured only in outs,” Roger Angell once wrote, “all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Perhaps a man whose last known published anthology is called This Old Man can’t be called forever young.

At age one hundred as of today, Angell himself can be called forever. Six anthologies of his singular New Yorker baseball writings, plus his unlikely election to the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, places him there.

“Unlikely?” you say. It was, until Susan Slusser—the San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, when she was president of the Baseball Writers Association of America—made it her personal mission to get Angell elected despite the fact that he’d never held down a daily baseball beat in any newspaper and was never a BBWAA member. “I felt very strongly,” Slusser once said, “that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”

Angell was inducted the same year as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas among players; Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre among managers; and, the Texas Rangers’s Eric Nadel as the Ford C. Frick Award-winning baseball broadcaster. “J.G. Taylor Spink,” Angell said, beginning his induction speech, “this was one of that early fun of tingling baseball names that rushed over me when I was a boy and first began reading about and hearing about baseball.”

As I wrote elsewhere last February, Slusser knew the often-forgotten parallel between baseball and its writing: a winning team must have at least one man who hits for distance. Angell’s distance hitting since 1962 has been as instructive and as much fun as this year’s Slam Diego Padres have been hitting for distance with the pillows occupied.

This son of Katherine Sergeant Angell—New Yorker fiction editor, who birthed her son nine days before Eddie Cicotte broke the Black Sox silence with his grand jury confession, and nine years before she would re-marry to New Yorker literary legend E.B. White—even hit for distance describing hits for distance. He hit a hefty belt of his own in 1975 when describing the first spring training encounter between a freshly-minted Met outfielder named Dave Kingman and a freshly-minted Yankee pitcher named Catfish Hunter.

Now, with one out in the top of the second, Dave Kingman stood in for the Mets, occasioning a small hum of interest because of his height, which is six feet six inches, and his batting style, which is righthanded, tilted, and uppercutting. The hum was replaced by an explosion of sustained shouting as Kingman came around on a high Hunter changeup, caught all of the ball—every inch and ounce of it—with his bat, and drove it out of the park and out of the lights in a gigantic parabola, whose second, descendant half was not yet perceptible when the ball flew into the darkness, departing the premises about five feet inside the left field foul line and about three palm trees high. I have never seen a longer home run anywhere.

. . . The Yankees were still talking about the home run the next day, when Hunter told Ron Blomberg he hoped he hadn’t hurt his neck out there in left field watching the ball depart. Others took it up, rookies and writers and regulars, redescribing and amplifying it, already making it a legend, and it occurred to me that the real effect of the blast, except for the memory and the joy of it, might be to speed Catfish Hunter’s acceptance by his new teammates. There is nothing like a little public humiliation to make a three-and-a-half-million-dollar executive lovable.

The Mets inadvertently launched Angell’s baseball odyssey in the spring of their birth. New Yorker editor William Shawn—in what was surely the single most unlikely but unimpeachable moment of American inspiration since Benjamin Franklin took whomever up on the admonishment to go fly a kite—sent Angell to spring training to see what he might find. The man who succeeded his mother as the magazine’s fiction editor assented.

“[I]t was clear to me,” he wrote introducing his first anthology, The Summer Game, “that the doings of big-league baseball . . . were so enormously reported in the newspapers that I would have to find some other aspect of the game to study.”

I decided to sit in the stands . . . and watch the baseball from there . . . I wanted to pick up the feel of the game as it happened to the people around me. Right from the start, I was terribly lucky, because my first year or two in the seats behind first or third coincided with the birth and grotesque early sufferings of the Mets, which turned out to be the greatest fan story of all.

The odyssey since has seen Angell ease naturally, intelligently, and empathetically, from merely a fan among fans with a notebook and pen in his hand to an observer of particularly acute insight, especially when it came to reminding his readers that, when all is said and perhaps too much done, the men who play the game are only too human, just publicly so. Few essays published in my lifetime remind you so humanely as “Gone for Good,” his June 1975 observation (including time spent with the man) of pitcher Steve Blass’s unexpected and un-repairable collapse.

Like anyone in hard straits, he was deluged with unsolicited therapies, overnight cures, natruopathies, exorcisms, theologies, and amulets, many of which arrived by mail. Blass refuses to make jokes about these nostrums. “Anyone who takes the trouble to write a man who is suffering deserves to be thanked,” he told me . . .

“There’s one possibility nobody has brought up,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever said that maybe I just lost my control. Maybe your control is something that can just go. It’s no big thing, but suddenly it’s gone.” He paused, and then he laughed in a self-deprecating way. “Maybe that’s what I’d like to believe,” he said.

Angell never had to come right out and say that Joe and Jane Fan, huffing, puffing, and threatening to blow down the house of a player who’s just failed dramatically, don’t get it. He’s never forgotten that even the greatest of the greats have their moments of mere humanity on the field, that the one thing a multi-millionaire player has in common with the guy just up from the minors is that, at any moment, he can look anywhere from silly to incompetent no matter what he’s done before or might do after.

Or, if a manager, he’ll stop thinking, perhaps allow sentiment and affection to supercede baseball’s immediate or coming need, and have to live with the disaster thus inflicted upon him. You may demur from the late John McNamara’s keeping creaky Bill Buckner at first base, instead of sending normal late replacement Dave Stapleton out, for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 World Series. But McNamara’s widow is also right to insist his entire baseball life shouldn’t be judged by one lapse in baseball judgment. (“We lost Game Six,” McNamara has also said, “but [the Mets] won Game Seven.”)

Angell empathised with those such as the Mets who were born in purgatory and fought their way to the Promised Land in eight years; with craftsmen such as Bob Gibson, artists such as Sandy Koufax, and such little engines that could as the 1985 Royals, the 1990 Reds, and the 2002 Angels; and, with a breed gradually more rare as time and the professional game went forward—an owner who genuinely loved the game, longtime Giants owner Horace Stoneham:

He is shy, self-effacing, and apparently incapable of public attitudinising. He attends every home game but is seldom recognised, even by the hoariest Giants fans. His decisions are arrived at after due consideration, and the most common criticism levelled at him is that he often sticks with a losing manager or an elder player long after his usefulness to the club has been exhausted . . .

. . . [W]hen I read that the San Francisco Giants were up for sale, it suddenly came to me that the baseball magnate I really wanted to spend an afternoon with was Horace Stoneham. I got on the telephone to some friends of mine and his (I had never met him) and explained that I did not want to discuss attendance figures or sales prices with him but just wanted to talk baseball. Stoneham called me back in less than an hour. “Come on out,” he said in a cheerfully, gravelly, Polo Grounds sort of voice. “Come out, and we’ll go to the game together.”

“Baseball is mostly about losing,” Angell said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “These fabled winners here in the Hall are proud men. Pride is what drives every player, but every one of them knows or knew the pain of loss, the days and weeks when you’re beat up and worn down, and another season is about to slip away.” When Angell laboured to profile Gibson himself (“Distance,” republished in Late Innings), a pitcher whose pride was second to almost none, Angel would remember to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, near his Hall induction, that he was terrified.

Gibby brings me to his house and he gives me a swimsuit, and we’re sitting by the side of his pool, and for three or four days I’m with him all the time. And he’s telling me every single thing I want to know. When the piece was finished, he sent me a picture of himself and wrote, ‘The world needs more people like you’.”

Angell wanted and got to spend an afternoon talking baseball with Horace Stoneham? I’d still like to spend an afternoon or evening talking baseball with Angell. With a promise not to call him baseball’s prose poet laureate (a description he’s known to despise), with the quiet prayer that Angell would answer mere me as Stoneham once answered him. The coronavirus world tour makes that impossible for now.

At least his baseball anthologies—The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, and Game Time—continue living up to their customary subtitles: A Baseball Companion. He’s been that, in the permanence of print and the timelessness of lyric prose, at minimum. They’re the next best thing to sharing a seat at the ballpark with him.

Like the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, Angell grew up in New York as a Giants fan. Maybe there was something to those Giants, after all, beyond the sixteen pennants and five World Series championships they won while playing in northern Manhattan. Their old rooters included baseball’s future Cicero and Homer. Except that we know better: Cicero was ancient Rome’s Vin Scully, and—I say once more, with no apology, in wishing him a very happy centenary—Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell.

Renaming the Spink award, revisited

Claire Smith

Claire Smith at her Hall of Fame induction. The Spink Award deserves a better re-naming than “Career Excellence.” Smith would be one viable candidate for whom to re-name the award appropriately.

The good news, in case you missed it as I did, is that the Baseball Writers Association of America last February removed the name of J.G. Taylor Spink from the award that enshrines baseball writers in the Hall of Fame. The bad news is that the BBWAA re-named it the Career Excellence Award.

That’s the kind of name you affix to a retirement party and a gold or platinum watch to someone who’s spent his or her life with the company without having been particularly above and beyond the simple call of duty. It’s not the kind of name by which you honour the best of your best.

When first we learned the writers were considering the purge of Spink’s name from the award, I was (and remain) all in. Spink may have published The Sporting News for almost half a century, but he also opposed “organised baseball’s” racial integration. Ironically enough, the Spink Award was established in 1962—the year in which Spink himself passed away but Jackie Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame.

“In August 1942,” noted Daryl Russell Grigsby in Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball, “[Spink] wrote an editorial saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands . . . Spink’s defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.”

There have been fan riots in the stands, of course, but unless I’ve missed one the customary causes seem to have been copious alcohol (Ten Cent Beer Night is only the most notorious of that lot) or large enough contingents of opposing teams’ fans in the home ballparks.

You’re far less likely to see a fan brawl inspired by race than you are by, say, a not-so-friendly argument between Cub and White Sox fans during interleague play. Heaven help Chicago if the Cubs and the White Sox ever tangle in a World Series for only the second time in their history. (The first: 1906—when the Hitless Wonders, the White Sox whose .230 team hitting average was the American League’s lowest, beat the 116 game-winning Cubs in six.)

When the BBWAA first announced they would remove Spink’s name from the award in question, I noted a Spink Award Hall of Famer (oops! now we call her a Career Excellence Award Hall of Famer), Claire Smith, telling USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale the previous summer, “If this is the time of introspection, if Mississippi can change the flag, and Confederate statues can be removed from state capitals, we can do this.”

They did half of “this.” The other half should be considered un-tenable. Those baseball writers deemed worthy of Cooperstown enshrinement deserve far better than being called mere Careers of Excellence. (While we’re pondering, when will now-retired Thomas Boswell receive his due election to the Hall of Fame?) For whom, then, should the award really be re-named?

I thought almost a year ago that re-naming it for any of the following would be proper. I haven’t changed that thought since. Let’s revisit, in alphabetical order.

Roger Angell—The first non-BBWAA member elected to the Hall. He wasn’t a daily baseball beat writer, which blocked him from BBWAA membership. It took San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser, when she was a BBWAA president, to nudge and push the BBWAA into recognising Angell’s oeuvre as long overdue for honour. Yet again, with the same feeling: Angell isn’t baseball’s Homer; Homer was ancient Greece’s Angell.

Alison Gordon—The first lady to be sent onto the baseball beat, in 1979, covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Star. Said she, a well regarded humourist when handed the Blue Jays, and who died in 2015: “You had to have a sense of humour to cover the Blue Jays, at least in the first few years.” Said one-time Jays outfielder Lloyd Moseby: “A lot of women that are in the profession right now should be very thankful for what Alison did and what she went through. She took a beating from the guys. She was a pioneer for sure.” She also went on to write some fine crime novels hooked around baseball.

Sam Lacy—One of the first black members of the BBWAA. Lacy was to the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American what Wendell Smith was to the Pittsburgh Courier, a consistent but prudent pressure point upon major league baseball to end segregation in the game once and for all. It’s a shame that he could and did write a fine memoir but his baseball journalism, so far as I know, remains un-collected.

Jim Murray—The Los Angeles Times fixture (1961-1998) was what Fred Allen would have been, had Allen chosen to become a sportswriter instead of a transcendent radio comedian. Murray was actually awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990, about which he rejoined the committee gave it to the wrong man: he said the award belonged to one who brought a corrupt government down, not one who quoted Tommy Lasorda correctly.

Shirley Povich—The grand old man of Washington sports journalism. Which is very good for a grand old man who became the Washington Post‘s sports editor at the ripe old age of 20 and raised that sports section all by himself. “Shirley Povich is the only reason I read your newspaper,” Richard Nixon once told then-Post publisher Katherine Graham. Well.

Damon Runyon—He may or may not be remembered more on Broadway, but Runyon is actually a Hall of Fame baseball writer (elected posthumously in 1967) who’s credited with being perhaps the first to highlight the unusual, the eccentric, the weird, and the surreal, on field or in the stands. (If you don’t believe me, you might have a gander at Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.)

Claire Smith—The Padres tried to manhandle her out of their clubhouse after Game One of the 1984 National League Championship Series. Padres first baseman Steve Garvey said not so fast, then buttonholed Smith to give her an interview. It provoked then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth to rule equal clubhouse access for writers regardless of gender. From the Hartford Courant (the first woman assigned to the daily Yankee beat, in 1983) to the New York Times, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to ESPN (she was a news editor before the network included her among 300 staff cuts in 2020), Hall of Famer Smith’s career can be described in two words: baloney proof.

Red Smith—He may have been as close to a poet laureate among daily baseball writers as the art got. Winning his Pulitzer Prize in 1976 helps his case. So does being big enough to do what the comparative few have done, admit when he got things wrong in the past, whether it was coming to see baseball’s owners weren’t exactly among the pure or whether it was seeing the International Olympics Committee was (and too much remains) a 19th Century relic.

Wendell Smith—He was the first black member of the BBWAA, not to mention the first black sportswriter to be enshrined in Cooperstown. His writings for the Pittsburgh Courier carried the heaviest water on behalf of ending baseball segregation. He also planted the name of Jackie Robinson into Branch Rickey’s ear, when Rickey seized upon Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s death to put into motion what he’d long wanted, bringing black players to the “organised” game. Smith’s criminally un-anthologised; the Hall of Fame has a considerable collection of his thanks to his widow’s donation, but this Smith deserves far deeper recognition and honour.

That might be a far tougher group from whom to choose renaming the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame award. But on this we might agree once and for all: “Career Excellence Award” simply swung and missed.

On renaming the J.G. Taylor Spink Award

A Red Smith Award or Wendell Smith Award for Hall of Fame writers?

Did you forget that the Baseball Writers Association of America is thinking of changing the name of another award, too? Much was written and said over taking Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s name off the Most Valuable Player award, and the BBWAA also ponders taking J.G. Taylor Spink’s name off the Hall of Fame award given to a distinguished baseball writer every year.

Being a baseball writer myself if not a member of the BBWAA, I have particular interest in the Spink Award, even if I have more chance of winning the Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary than the Spink. The BBWAA wants to change the name because Spink himself, the longtime publisher of The Sporting News, opposed “organised baseball’s” integration, and they are not wrong.

“In August 1942 [Spink] wrote an editorial saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands,” Daryl Russell Grigsby reminded us in Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball. ” . . . Spink’s defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.”

Claire Smith, an African-American lady and the first of her gender to receive the Spink Award, has nailed it herself. “If this is the time of introspection,’’ she told USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale last summer, “if Mississippi can change the flag, and Confederate statues can be removed from state capitals, we can do this.” If Landis can be removed from the MVP award because of his active enforcement of baseball’s old and disgraceful colour line, then yes, Spink can be removed from the Hall of Fame honourarium still bearing his name.

The BBWAA is voting on that as I write. Remove Spink’s name, though, and for whom would you re-name the award?

With the MVP the choices may be simpler. You can choose Happy Chandler, the commissioner who refused to disallow Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the colour line at last; you can choose Rickey himself. You can choose instead the African-American player who remains the only one to win the MVP in each of the National and the American Leagues, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

The choices to re-name the Spink Award? One can think of quite the handful, Spink winners all, including a Pulitzer Prize winner or three while thinking.

There’s Red Smith, as close to a poet laureate of daily baseball writing as the game has known from his years with the New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times. There’s Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times fixture whose wit made you think he was what Fred Allen might have been if Allen had chosen sportswriting instead of radio comedy. There’s Shirley Povich, the grand old man of Washington baseball, who practically raised the Washington Post‘s sports section by himself. Practically.

There’s Damon Runyon, who wrote eloquently, edgily, and wittily about baseball when he wasn’t celebrating Broadway. (You really should hunt down his anthology, Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.) There’s Ring Lardner, baseball storyteller and reporter alike, at least before the Black Sox scandal put the first serious dent into his love of the game. (The live ball era finished what the Black Sox started for Lardner.)

There’s Wendell Smith, whose reporting for the Pittsburgh Courier was a phenomenal pressure point toward baseball’s integration, which also begs the question why the best of his baseball writings haven’t been anthologised for today’s generations who need to know the arguable most powerful black press voice toward Jackie Robinson’s advent.

There’s Smith’s African-American colleague Sam Lacy, who did with the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American what Smith did with the Courier. He became one of the first black members of the BBWAA while he was at it. (Lacy published a memoir, but his baseball and sports journalism, too, has yet to be anthologised so far as I know.)

And, especially, there’s Roger Angell, about whom it’s been said (by me, to a fare-thee-well, but tough tarantulas) that he isn’t baseball’s Homer, Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell. He was also the first non-BBWAA member and first non-daily baseball reporter to be honoured with the Spink Award.

Any one of those writers’ names would absolutely grace the award. But I have another dog in the hunt, by way of a journalism legend named Murray Kempton.

Kempton once attended the Meyer Berger Award luncheon at Columbia University. His Newsday colleague Jim Dwyer heard him say, “You know, I never won the Berger Award.” A New York Times honouree, Sara Rimer, said, “Murray, you just won the Pulitzer!” The courtly Kempton reminded her, “The Pulitzer is named for a publisher. The Meyer Berger is named for a reporter.”

In 1993, Kempton told David Remnick for a New Yorker profile (which included the aforementioned tale), during one of New York’s too-frequent tabloid wars, “In the end, my view of this so-called tabloid war is that I just don’t consider the character of publishers. I’m rooting for my friends—the reporters.”

(Harking back to a 1962 issue of Sport, Kempton wrote then of the Polo Grounds’ re-opening with the birth of the Mets: The return of the Polo Grounds to the National League was like the raising of a sunken cathedral. It is a place sacred in the history and hallowed in the memory. Christy Mathewson used to make his home on the bluff above the Polo Grounds. When he was working, Mrs. Mathewson could look out her window at the scoreboard and, when the seventh inning came, put the roast in the oven secure in the knowledge that her husband would be finished and showered and home from the plough in an hour.)

For re-naming the Spink Award, I’m rooting for my kindred, too—the reporters.