Several years ago the Saturday Review called Roger Angell “the best baseball writer ever.” Some might consider that a distinction without much distinction, but impassioned baseball readers know otherwise. Today, with the reassuring certitude of the game being shaken by strikes, bumptious owners and spiraling salaries, Angell, 61, continues to write about the sport, as he has for 20 years, with intelligence, respect and affection. A fiction editor at the New Yorker magazine, he is the son of the late Ernest Angell, onetime chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union, and his wife, Katharine, who later married the writer E.B. White. Recently, following the publication of Angell’s Late Innings: A Baseball Companion (Simon and Schuster, $17.50), he spoke to Dolly Langdon of PEOPLE about the game and the pleasure he takes in reporting it.
When did a literary type like you become interested in writing about baseball?
It started with the Mets back in 1962 when they were brand-new. They were the worst team that ever took the field, but they were so young and so opposite from the Yankees that New York adopted them with a wild and passionate attachment. Many people tried to understand this phenomenon, but now it seems obvious: There’s more Met than Yankee in all of us. We fail disastrously more often than we triumph.
Do you agree that baseball is the thinking man’s game?
Not exactly. Baseball is a writer’s game. There’s time to take notes. There’s time to think about what’s about to happen and what does happen and what might have happened. There’s a lot of what might have happened in baseball. Football, basketball and hockey have less of that because the action is swirling and it’s so hard to say just what did happen. They’re much less orderly than baseball.
Non-fans are frequently baffled by the endless compilation of baseball statistics. What purpose do they serve?
The unforgiving rigor of the statistics we keep means that every player is not only playing against the other team, he’s playing against perfection, which is why the game is so hard. In most sports, players can be in unnoticed slumps or think they’re doing well, but in baseball the figures tell exactly how they’re doing. There are no excuses.
Why do you think your baseball writing is so popular?
I really think that writing about baseball is a way of writing about myself. I’m a fan, and one of the things I’ve permitted myself is to let my feelings show. I can say “my Mets,” and I can talk about my suffering over the Red Sox when they begin inexorably to lose in June or September. So there’s a lot of agony, a lot of self-examination. Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle once wrote, “Baseball is not a life-and-death matter, but the Red Sox are.” And that’s exactly right. I think you can’t really belong to baseball unless you belong to a team. You can’t belong in the abstract, and belonging and caring is what baseball is all about.
You seem to associate being a fan with anguish. What’s wrong with winning?
Winning is wonderful, but in a way you have to deserve it. I think the real fans are the fans of terrible teams, because they know what good baseball is and they know how far their own players fall short. The rallying cry that has always struck me as so poignant and beautiful is, “Come on, you bum!” which means, “We know you’re no good, but we want to win.”
How do you react to owners like the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner, who seem so desperate to win at all costs?
Steinbrenner uses ballplayers to glorify himself. I really don’t think he understands what sport is all about. It’s very difficult for him to accept that he is engaged in something the point of which is to see what the outcome is going to be. One of the differences between sport and entertainment is that the outcome is unknown. Steinbrenner doesn’t seem to get any pleasure out of that: What gives us pleasure doesn’t please him, unless he’s won. If winning is all there is, sport has been perverted.
Has baseball ever seen an owner like Steinbrenner?
Charlie Finley, who owned the A’s, had the same wish to dominate the players and humiliate them. Charlie’s players in many ways despised him, but I think he rather made for a team esprit because he kept them hanging together against him. I don’t think that’s happened with Steinbrenner.
Are you offended by the huge salaries paid to players today?
It seems insane to pay a 23-year-old man $1 million a year for playing ball. We need to put money like that to better use. But this is a societal problem. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with the game or the athlete. In fact, I would like to see the athletes get the money instead of having the owners keep it all. But the big salaries have immeasurably increased the distance between fans and the players.
In the old days, when the players were paid blue-collar salaries, fans felt there was an alliance between themselves and the players. Now the players are like rock stars, television stars, and people go, to some extent, to see what these rich, famous young men look like. A lot of the speculation is not about how they hit the curve ball, but how they spend their money and what their sex lives are like. There is also a rage directed at the players now, because a lot of fans feel that if you’re getting a Superman salary, you should come up with a Superman performance. When you can’t, they feel they’re being shortchanged.
Do you think athletes lose their motivation when they’re so highly paid?
What makes athletes perform is pride. They don’t want to look bad out there. And if you’re making $1 million, you feel that all the more. You don’t want to be shown up.
Are you disturbed by the way television covers the game?
The way time passes at a ball park is special. It’s boring at times, but people who go to ball parks are not afraid of being bored. Network television producers, on the other hand, are bothered by a sport they can’t program for a certain length of time and that doesn’t have a built-in climax. They can’t stand to have anyone bored, and their instinct is that the game itself isn’t good enough. As a result, there is a constant flow of superfluous talk on baseball televised by the networks.
How do you feel about some of the recent innovations in the game—designer uniforms, domed stadiums, artificial turf?
I don’t mind the uniforms, but I think indoor ball parks are an abomination. Baseball is an outdoor game, and part of the pleasure is going outdoors and feeling that you’re sort of out in the country. Artificial turf takes away that sense. It’s less pleasing, and the players hate it. It’s like playing on concrete. It’s bad for their legs, and it shortens careers.
Has baseball changed fundamentally in your lifetime?
One of the real appeals of the game hasn’t changed. A player’s baseball life tends to last about 10 or 12 years at the most. The fan is there all the time, so he sees, in effect, a birth, a flowering, an aging and a death. It’s a life story, with all the aspects of life itself, enacted over a decade or less. And not all the stories are happy ones. I once did a piece on Steve Blass, the Pirate pitcher, who suddenly, in the middle of his career, could not get the ball over the plate. There was nothing wrong with his arm. It was a psychological problem suggesting the enormous pressures that athletes are under. Blass was perfectly open about it: He was heartbroken, and so was I.
Why do you write so often about Reggie Jackson?
Reggie makes it impossible not to write about him. He’s always on; he has an actor’s responses, and he changes characters within the space of five minutes. It could be two or three different Reggies that will be talking, depending on who’s talking to him. A lot of people think, well, he’s a phony. But he’s not. He’s all of those people. Yet he’s a man with terrible doubts about his own capacities, and so he carries a great burden. I admire him as a man and as a player.
Are baseball players worthwhile role models for the rest of society?
There’s always a temptation in this country to make sport stand for something more than it is, and I hesitate to do this. Sports are exciting because we see people under stress doing things of excruciating difficulty, then being required to do them again and again. We ask a lot, and if athletes can do these things, it means that we as a species can do them, and this is significant. It’s stirring.
As a child, did you ever fantasize about playing yourself?
Oh, sure, I dreamed of being a pitcher someday, coming in for some important game with the Yankees or the Giants. Then when I was in my middle 30s I had a dream I still remember. I dreamed I was living out in the suburbs and that I walked down to the garden, across a little brook and onto a stretch of lawn. There were three monuments out there, just the way there were then in Yankee Stadium. I walked up, and my name was on one of them, with the date of my birth and a blank after it. What was being buried there were my baseball dreams of being a player.