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Angell enters the Hall

Fans not just of baseball or of baseball writing but of writing in general will be happy to hear that Roger Angell has won the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award. As New Yorker editor David Remnick notes in his post announcing the news, the recognition has come none too soon: Angell, ninety-three, has been writing on baseball for decades and seemed, perhaps because of his literary associations, overlooked in favor of famous beat-writer Cooperstown inductees like Red Smith and Ring Lardner.

The Summer Game, Angell’s first collection of baseball writing, was published in 1972 and contains essays dating to the 1962 season – including “The ‘Go’ Shouters,” one of several on the nascent New York Mets and their fans, whose ranks I was doomed to join. “The ‘Go’ Shouters” was the first thing from Angell I ever read, and it stands alongside “The Web of the Game” (recounting a Yale vs. St. John’s pitchers’ duel between future big leaguers -- and Mets -- Frank Viola and Ron Darling) and the palindromic-headlined “Not So, Boston” (how the 1986 Red Sox snatched defeat from the jaws of victory) as my favorites. The latter is collected in Season Ticket, for which Angell borrows a quote from Ted Williams to adorn the contents page: “Don’t you know how hard this all is?” Williams meant batting in particular and baseball in general, but it could also apply to writing well, not just about baseball but about anything.

Angell has made it look easy for many years – whether in his reviews or in his “Greetings, Friends” Christmas verse in the New Yorker or in his pieces on baseball – but his awareness of the effort required is apparent from the careful composition and the clarity of his prose, his respect for the work reflected in the thoughtful regard in which he holds his subjects. Maybe his even longer career as fiction editor at the New Yorker has had something to do with it? In any case, the magazine has posted links to a number of Angell’s baseball pieces here

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Delicious stuff from a distinctive writer. Football may have surged but there is no salvation outside of baseball. Pitchers and catchers is the annual call to life.  Springtime and hope rises again. Angell has the gift. But he has the game to show it. His description of the mathematics of the box score is but one of his innumberable gems.  The oncoming winter is endured for the breath of life of Spring that follows. It does not equal or come close to Paul's: "Rejoice always because Christ is risen", but somehow told better. Paul could have used better followers. The spring of resurrection and redemption  will come as baseball always does. 

A well-deserved tribute.  I used to love to read his summaries of a baseball season, published a month or two after the World Series, and to relive it all with him.  I especially remember how I savored his description of the (unfortunately) Los Angeles four-game sweep of the diabolical Yankees in the 1963 World Series, with the transcendent Sandy Koufax leading the forces of good on to victory--a triumph I was unable to follow up-close because I was studying in Rome, but which I was able to enjoy through Angell's description of that proof that there is a God. 

The most memorable line ever written by a sports writer. I was going to quote it from memory, but I decided I had better look it up. As it turned out, I could have quoted it from memory, but looking it up lets me include the preceding sentence. Angell  had been invited to inspect the then state-of-the-art Houston Astrodome. The eye he cast upon the new wonder of the world was somewhat baleful. Then came this:

"Later, after practice, I went out and walked around on the new surface, which has the consistency of an immense doormat. I dug down with my fingers and found the spine of one of the hidden foul-line-to-foul-line zippers that hold the new infield together; I had the sudden feeling that if I unzipped it, I might uncover the world's first plastic worm."

If I had ever accomplished a line like that I would have retired on the spot in the certain knowledge that I could never do more than I had just done.

Roger Angell is a classic.

So much is doubtful. But that Roger Angell is the baseball writer for the ages is beyond doubt.