May 9, 2003
Roger Angell, Part I
Roger Angell, The New Yorker's celebrated baseball writer, has a new compilation out titled "Game Time", which contains many new pieces along with some previously published ones as well. BP correspondent Alex Belth caught up with Angell last weekend and talked about growing up a New York Giants baseball fan, the present-day Yankees, plus other topics New York baseball-focused and otherwise.
Baseball Prospectus: How did you get your start as a baseball fan, and as a writer?
Roger Angell: I got my start as a fan in the most traditional way possible: My father was a big baseball fan. My father had grown up in Cleveland, and when I was a kid, we would be going to Giants games here in New York, and Yankees games. As I've written, I think it still works with kids under 10 that their first big obsession is with baseball. They become aware of this gigantic lore. Some of the first players that I saw were people like Babe Ruth, and Carl Hubbell and Lou Gehrig, and I remember when Joe DiMaggio first arrived in my teens. So it goes back a ways.
BP: Where did you grow up?
Angell: I grew up close to where I live now. I grew up on 93rd Street, and on the way to school, my school bus which went up 5th Avenue when 5th Avenue went both ways, sometimes in the morning I would meet Col. (Jacob) Ruppert on his way to his brewery on the east side. He owned the Yankees. By that time I was 10 years old, so I would have a mitt, and I would give the mitt a whack and look at him, and expect him to stop and say: 'Young man, here's my card, take this up to the Stadium for a tryout.' It never happened. My father was a real fan, and he told me what to watch for. He had grown up in Cleveland in the Cy Young, days, and uh, his heart was broken for the rest of his life (laughs).
BP: So did you grow up as a Giants fan or a Yankees fan?
Angell: Both. I think I was more of a Yankee fan at first, but the Yankees were winning so often...that I discovered along the way that I was more a Giants fan than a Yankees fan.
BP: (Did you pull for the Giants) strictly because they were the underdog?
Angell: Cause they were the underdog, sure. And naturally you attach yourself to the underdog. But I think I enjoyed the Polo Grounds more than Yankee Stadium because it was such an eccentric and interesting park.
BP: Were most of the Giants fans of an older generation, because they were the dominant New York team before the Yankees?
Angell: Yeah, it's true. But I think if it had been some other city like Pittsburgh, I would have been a Pirates fan. It was just local. I was not a Dodgers fan, because the Dodgers always meant trouble for the Giants. I didn't actually go to a game at Ebbets Field until I was almost grown up.
BP: When did you want to become a writer?
Angell: My parents were divorced and I was living with my father during the weekdays. My mother was an editor at The New Yorker, was one of the first editors of the New Yorker. So it was sort of a family business. And she was married to E.B. White. So there was a writer close at hand. I think the aspirations came naturally.
BP: Did your mother write herself?
Angell: No, she was a famous fiction editor and early art editor. Famous figure in the family of The New Yorker, Katherine White. She was head of the fiction department, so I wound up in the fiction department myself many years later. But I remember watching E.B. White write, and I was a great admirer of his stuff because it looked so effortless and at the same time I could see how much effort had gone into it. He used to write the Comment Page, in the first page of the New Yorker. Every week. And that day, up in their place in Maine, he would close himself in his office and he would come out for lunch, and not say anything, and then you'd hear the sounds of sporadic typing in there, and then he'd mail it off and the end of the day and say it wasn't good enough. He was always saying that writing is hard, which is true.
BP: So writing was the family business.
Angell: The New Yorker was the family business. There was endless talk about The New Yorker all the time. Harold Ross, and all these people. I knew these people when I was young. Sure, it was an everyday sort of thing. My father was a lawyer, and I saw a lot of him, but he never begrudged me going into writing; in fact he encouraged me. So it was a natural sort of thing, and I grew up thinking I was going to do something in publishing. I had no idea I'd end up at The New Yorker, and I had no idea that I'd end up writing about baseball.
BP: When did you arrive at The New Yorker?
Angell: Well, I graduated from college, went overseas in the Pacific and became the managing editor of a G.I. weekly out there. Air Force. A magazine called "Brief." I had amazing preparation for what I would do later on. After the war, by this time I had begun to publish in The New Yorker, when I was quite young, publishing fiction. I wrote an article about a bomber mission in the Pacific. I didn't want to go to work for The New Yorker because it was the family business and you know you want to do things on your own. I went to work for a magazine called "Holiday," a new monthly started up after the war by Curtis Publishing. It was a famous travel magazine; it was a wonderful magazine that produced great writers, and artists and photographers from around the world. And I had a lot of fun doing that. I went to The New Yorker in the fall of '55. My parents were living in Maine. E.B. White was writing other stuff and my mother had retired by this time. It was a natural thing for me to do since I was a writer and editor and contributor to The New Yorker.
BP: When did you first write about baseball?
Angell: In '62. I had written some sports pieces, I had written a piece about the New York Rangers. I was a hockey fan; I was a sports fan. I did a couple of other things. And I had written a baseball piece for "Holiday," sort of a generic baseball piece. I said if you want I could go down to spring training. I certainly did not have it in mind to write a lot about baseball. The thing was, (my editor) didn't want sentimental writing about sports and he didn't want tough guy writing about sports, which were the choices back then. You were either weepy, or you were tough. The first year I went to spring training I found the newborn Mets in St. Petersburg. This is 40 years ago. I didn't think of myself as a sports writer so I didn't dare go in the clubhouse or sit in the press box. I sat with the fans. And I realized that the stuff that's ignored and never gets reported on is the fans. Nobody ever wrote about the fans. So I wrote about the fans, and I've continued to do so. I've continued to write in a form that allows me to write in the first person. And that allows me to say I am a fan of this team, or react to things as a fan as well as a baseball writer that now knows something about the game.
The Mets were just a great fan story when they arrived. They played in the Polo Grounds and they were one of the worst and most entertaining teams that ever played. And that was a terrific story. And New York was used to the Yankees, winning all the time. Somebody said they had become like General Motors. And here was a team that was just terrible, but large numbers of people turned out to cheer them on, and if they won a game there was wild excitement. So I wrote that. They were something like anti-matter to the New York Yankees. I remember sitting there at the Polo Grounds, and there was a guy sitting near me in the stands blowing this mournful horn. TWUUUHH-TRUUUHP. And I wrote that there is more Met than Yankee in all of us, because losing is much more common than winning. When I heard that horn blowing I realized that horn was blowing for me. In some way, I began to settle into the kind of writing that I would do later on. They call me a "baseball essayist," or a "baseball poet laureate," and I hate that. I'm not trying to write baseball essays, and I'm certainly not trying to be poetic. I try to avoid it. I've been able to find myself and baseball a natural fit, and everybody wants to write about himself. That's why we do it (laughs).
BP: When were you aware that this was going to be something you were going to be doing regularly?
Angell: I think what happened was, I went to the World Series every year, again keeping my distance. But what happened in the 60s was that there were three great World Series and pennant races in a row. In '67, there was a four-way race in the American League between the White Sox, Twins, Tigers and the Red Sox. The White Sox went out first, and the Tigers were in it until the last day. The Sox had won and I was in the Red Sox clubhouse when news came that the Tigers had lost, and the Red Sox were in.
BP: The Impossible Dream Team.
Angell: Yeah, there was a great World Series that fall. Carl Yastrzemski was an extraordinary player, carried that team all the way through September. The Red Sox lost of course. And the next year was the Tigers and the Cardinals, and Bob Gibson struck out 17 batters in the first game. Something that never had happened before. And the year after that was the sudden arrival of the Mets: The biggest upset in modern times. These were three great late seasons and post seasons in a row, and by that time I was there writing about this first-hand. I was involved in some way. I felt involved. I learned how to attach myself to teams and I learned how to ask the right questions. It was a lot of fun. And the readers liked it so I went on doing it.
BP: When did you start approaching the locker room and the press box?
Angell: I did that in the sixties. I began to sit in the press box. I remember following the Red Sox around and sitting in the Press Box at Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium. A lot of writers were very good to me, and Cliff Keane one of the old Red Sox writers, famous guy for needling people, would make fun of me for taking so many notes. I'd fill up my notebooks, because I knew I was going to be writing much later, and I didn't know what would be useful at that time. So I would take notes and take notes. Keane would say to me, "How many pages today Rog, 20, 30?" I remember Keane trying to be cynical about Yastrzemski because Yastrzemski was such a great star. There was a game in Tiger Stadium where the Sox were behind a couple of runs, and Yaz came up and he said: 'OK Yaz, prove you're the MVP: Hit a home run.' And he hit a home run (laughs).
BP: What was it like in the locker room during that period?
Angell: Well, it wasn't nearly as crowded as it is now. The masses of TV people weren't there. You didn't have every local television channel in the land trying to represent something in the clubhouse. I think players were a little more accessible. And they were different, they were different. The great example that comes to mind right away is [Bob] Gibson after that 17-strikeout performance. He stood in front of his locker; writers were four and five deep at this point. And all of us had our pencils poised. This was in '68, and racially things were very uptight still. Someone said to Gibson: 'Were you surprised at what you did today?' Gibson looked at him and said: 'I'm never surprised by anything I do.' You could see this going through the writers like: 'What did he say? What did he say?' I hung around, after the crowds had left, and I was talking with Gibson a little bit, and I said: 'Are you always this competitive?' He said: 'Oh, I think so. I got a three-year old daughter, and I've played about 500 games of tic-tac-toe with her and she hasn't beat me yet.' And he meant it. He meant it.
BP: What were your impressions of the Cardinals in the 1960s?
Angell: You have to remember that when Gibson joined the Cardinals, he had played with the Globetrotters, as a second team. Many people forget this. But they played in the South and the black players would have to stay with black families when they went down there. Gibson hated this. Those were tough times.
BB: What was Bill White like in those days?
Angell: I didn't get to know him until later. He was a roommate of Gibby's at one point. He reminded me that when he changed clubs--he went over to the Phillies, I think the first at-bat he had against Gibson, Gibson hit him. He said: 'We're no longer roommates.' And of course that has really changed. This business of knockdown pitches and fighting for the inside part of the play has gone by, and if anybody gets hit now they look deeply insulted. It's too bad, because I really love the inside pitch, and the struggles of the batters to establish themselves.
BP: Those Cardinals were known for being a very racially integrated team. Did you get that impression from them?
Angell: Yeah, I think so, but the team I remember for that was the '79 Pirates. The greatest racial mix that there has ever been. Just unbelievable combinations of people. Suave, inner-city African Americans, and white guys from the South. Phil Garner was the son of a minister from the South. And of course Willie Stargell. You had South Americans, Latinos. The clubhouse was a mass of ethnic energy. All kinds of music going on. At one point I thought they were going to start sacrificing chickens. And rock music. That was the "We Are Family" thing. And everything revolved around Stargell, who was the guy that held it together. And they were so excited by themselves. It was just terrific.
BP: One thing I noticed in your feature about Gibson was that his reputation had diminished when the piece was published in the early '80s. These days Koufax and Gibson are clearly remembered as the outstanding pitchers of the 1960s, while Juan Marichal's reputation has suffered in comparison.
Angell: Well, Marichal was the one whose reputation has faded, you're right. And if you asked players from that era, 'who was the best pitcher?' they always mention Koufax, they always mention Gibson, and they all say the one everyone overlooks is Marichal, who was so tough because he had all those different pitches coming from so many different directions. He really knew how to pitch. Had a very wide range of skills.
Alex Belth is the author of Bronx Banter, a web site devoted to New York City baseball. Before focusing on baseball full-time, Alex worked in the post-production side of the film business for the likes of Ken Burns ("Baseball"), Woody Allen ("Everybody Says I Love You") and the Coen brothers ("The Big Lebowski"). Catch Part II of his Q&A with Roger Angell next week. You can contact Alex at AlexBelth@aol.com
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