REST IN PEACE ROGER ANGELL: THE POET LAUREATE OF BASEBALL

By STEVEN TRAVERS

The former New Yorker scribe passes away ate age 101. This is an excerpt from Best Sports Writing Ever by Steven Travers.

Any argument over the “greatest baseball book ever written” will no doubt include The Summer Game by Roger Angell. Who knows what “the best” is? Obviously The Glory of Their Times is up there. I am a big fan of Ball Four and have a personal affinity for Pat Jordan’s books. Some might even rank Moneyball as number one.

But when discussing the best baseball writer, the learned and the well read often choose Roger Angell. Again I think Pat Jordan is right up there, but as an influence it is hard to discount Mr. Angell. He was a native New Yorker, leaning towards the New York Giants and not the Yankees. Like so many he was devastated when “the boys of summer” went Hollywood, and in many ways his subsequent writings were therapy for the pain and suffering he like everybody else felt in losing the Dodgers and Giants. 

He was erudite, educated; a man of letters. Only such a man would be hired by The New Yorker at the apex of that magazine’s cultural significance. It like the city it was named after was all about Sinatra swank, the royal ambience of the Big Apple in full bloom that made us the New Rome. New York was the center. 

It was not like The New Yorker had never touched on sports or baseball. In researching this book I found several worthy sports essays and included “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” by John Updike (1960). But the magazine, which was read for Broadway reviews, liberal political opinion, and culture, did not have, oh dear no, a baseball reporter! Why, how gauche. How primitive indeed. How common, to mix with the hoi polloi in Brooklyn, for Heaven’s sake. “Why, our maid lives in Brooklyn, and it so hard to find good help these days.”

But Angell just kept producing excellence, which is as American and egalitarian and meritocratic as it gets, and over time his baseball essays became a regular feature. He would go to Spring Training and write an essay that read like a travel guide for the rich Manhattanites venturing down there for the winter. Eventually there was a pattern; a visit to some team stirring up particular interest in a given season, then coverage of the World Series. There were variations but this was the general idea. The articles became popular; very popular in fact.

The chapters in The Summer Game are each collected New Yorker essays over a decade, the 1960s and early 1970s. I have covered two of them as articles: “The Flowering and Subsequent Deflowering of New England”, and “Days and Nights With the Unbored”. In typical Angell fashion neither title sounds like a baseball piece. I will refrain from heavy coverage of these two chapters – first on the 1967 Boston “impossible dream” and second the 1969 “Miracle Mets” – and hone in on the others. Every one could have been selected among the “best articles,” but I chose two above the rest. 

***

It started innocently enough. Angell was introduced to the joys of baseball by his father, to whom he dedicates this book. After an ode to “Box Scores” which each Spring begin to appear like the swallows at San Juan Capistrano, he heads down to Sarasota for Spring Training, 1962.

From the beginning and lasting for a long time, Angell mostly reports from the stands. This is as unprofessional as it gets, as any sports scribe can tell you. Sitting in a box seat, with regular people. Why, paying for his tickets! Bringing his daughter along. 

A professional sits with other emotionless, hardened professionals in the press box with the free booze and the free buffet. He takes an elevator to the clubhouse, interviews the professional players, returns to the press box to finish his piece off and get it in on deadline, like a professional. He is not allowed to clap or root. He is a mercenary. The home team is his job, not his team. He leaves through underground stadium catacombs, avoiding fans, and emerges in a special parking lot reserved for the professionals of professional baseball. He shows up at Jilly’s or Toots Shor’s, where he joins the other professionals – writers, gamblers, horse players, those “in the smart money” – in a reserved room in the back away from autograph seekers and tourists. Maybe a showgirl or two with the right . . . attributes, is allowed into the inner sanctum in order to lend some curvature to the Earth. 

Roger Angell disdained all of that. Eventually, as he became famous, as the writers in the press box increasingly had been influenced by him, he surely spent more time in the press box, but his articles always had the touch of the common man sitting among his fellow man.

That was the feel of “The Old Folks behind Home”, in which he describes ordinary exhibition games watched by retirees in Florida. As someone who has experienced both the Grapefruit League and the Cactus League (both as a pitcher and as a journalist), I can attest there is a significant cultural difference that has emerged between the two.

Florida remains for the “old folks,” the retirees, many from New York, but Phoenix is far more hip. It is about golfing, suntanning, and incredible night life. For these reasons, over time many teams have packed up their bags and moved from Florida to Arizona. When the fabled Dodgers finally left Vero Beach, that said it all.

But in 1962, other than a few teams like the Giants, Indians, Angels and Cubs, most MLB teams trained in the Sunshine State. Angell moves languidly between Sarasota, St. Petersburg and Tampa. This is all before the Mariel boat lift and the influx of Cuban culture into Florida. It is slow and Southern. The Yankees, naturally, are the hot attraction with the likes of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. 

The Yankee fans in Tampa are different. They made Angell feel “Northern again. Already I had begun to forget the flavor of Florida baseball – the older, easier pleasures of baseball in the spring in the country.” 

    We now fast-forward six years to another Spring Training, 1968. Angell covers mostly American League clubs training in “The Short Season”. “The most significant moment of preseason athletics for the Boston Red Sox took place not in Florida but on a mountain slope at Heavenly Valley, California, late in the afternoon of last December 14, when Jim Lonborg, taking a last run on an expert trail through heavy, crusty powder, crossed his right ski tip over his left while making an easy right-hand turn and fell slowly forward, snapping the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee,” writes Angell. 

This is a crucial moment in the history of the Red Sox, and is part of the long-held “curse” many believed held sway over this team from the time Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees until they beat the Yanks on their way to the 2004 World title. 

Throughout this book I have involved myself in certain events that had to do with me. In this case, the Lonborg accident at Heavenly Valley is part of my father’s story. Donald Travers graduated from the University of San Francisco Law School and passed the California Bar in 1959. Since his brother was a highly placed political insider and best friends with future Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, head of the top corporate law firm in San Francisco, my dad believed he would be given entre to a position there. No such luck. Instead he had to accept a job with a small firm in tiny little Willows, located somewhere between Sacramento and Yuba City. In other words, the middle of nowhere.  

The firm was headed up by a man named Hugh Killebrew. He told my dad he was cousins with Harmon Killebrew, slugging third baseman of the Minnesota Twins. My dad was not really sure whether to believe him. Later at an A’s-Twins game we saw Hugh talking to Harmon. They were cousins. Hugh used to fly one of those little Piper twin-engine private planes. I once flew in that plane, quite an experience. My dad always said he was worried Hugh would crash it.

Anyway, my dad left the firm after a year or so when an old associate called to offer him a job teaching business law at City College of San Francisco. He “moonlighted” with a law practice on Van Ness Avenue in the afternoons, and always stayed in touch with Hugh Killebrew.

Well old Hugh knew how to play his cards right. He married into the family that owned Heavenly Valley Ski Resort. If you have never seen Heavenly, it needs to be on your “bucket list.” For sheer visual beauty, it may be unsurpassed in all the world. It has a direct overlook of Lake Tahoe. It also features an expert run called the Gun Barrel that is not for the faint of heart. It is steep and perilous, right up there with KT-22, located on the north side of Tahoe at Squaw Valley (home of the 1960 Olympics). I have skied all these runs and can attest they are not for beginners.

Well, once married into the family, Hugh was made director of operations at Heavenly Valley, and in a story he told my dad, in December of 1967 American League Cy Young award winner Jim Lonborg showed up to ski. Hugh gave him a tour of Heavenly and of the ski runs. At first Lonborg kept to the safe runs, unwilling to risk injury. Then Hugh suggested the Gun Barrel. Longborg demurred, not wanting to risk hurting himself.

To which Mr. Killebrew – remember, cousin of Harmon Killebrew, whose Twins lost to Lonborg’s Red Sox on the last day of the ‘67 campaign – said, and I quote from his conversation with my dad, “Oh, you’re an athlete, come on!”

His pride challenged, Lonborg descended down that steep mountain and the rest is history. For Red Sox fans who rue that day I can tell you the man to blame was my father’s ex-law partner. Not that I am saying the “curse” has long tentacles or anything, but a few years later Hugh Killebrew took that little private plane of his up and crashed, dying on the spot just as my dad always feared might happen. Lonborg did pitch again, but was a shell of what he had been in 1967.  

***

Having given us a couple of primers on Spring Training, Angell now returns to 1962 with “The ‘Go!’ Shouters”. This is the beginning of his storied association with the New York Mets. Perhaps Angell’s writing about the Mets, who he saw as his natural adopted team replacing the lost Giants and his lack of enthusiasm for the corporate Yankees, is his most popular work. It certainly contains the beginnings and the end, as his descriptions of the 1969 World Series are some of the most priceless baseball reminiscences ever committed to paper.  

But so are his musings on what he saw in June, 1962 at the Polo Grounds. History tells us the Mets were, as previously mentioned, the very worst team ever. In April and May, when Angell “refused frequent invitations” to come see “those amazin’ Mets,” they were the worst of all the worst. But TV invitations were constant, urging fans to “bring the wife,” to come on Sunday “after church and brunch.” Angell also noted that despite losses piled on losses, there had been a couple of come-from-behind wins, including a double-header sweep of Milwaukee, which probably put the Braves’ manager’s job in immediate jeopardy.

With Los Angeles and San Francisco due in town on Memorial Day weekend into early June, he put it on the calendar, buying seats for all five days (seven games). Again, he bought his seats, instead of securing credentials through The New Yorker. But it is precisely because he sat in the stands that we get a flavor of these early Mets and of baseball fandom impossible to replicate from behind the glass of the press box. 

It starts with his attending a twin-bill against Los Angeles with his 14-year old daughter. The place is packed. This is the very first return of the Dodgers after fleeing Brooklyn four years earlier, and this L.A. team is way better than any of the Brooklyn clubs. They are stacked. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Maury Wills and Tommy Davis. Frank Howard and John Roseboro. Ron Fairly and Willie Davis. All in their prime, in first place, invincible, on their way to a second World Series title in four years. This is not “wait ‘til next year” or “the boys of summer.” This is L.A., baby, a whole new scene in Tinseltown. They are conquerors back in town to conquer. 

The biggest Polo Grounds crowd since 1942 watches L.A. utterly destroy the Mets. It is not baseball, really. It is the Christians being eaten by the lions in ancient Rome. Angell’s daughter wonders if this is normal, and is told no. “This is like the fifth grade against the sixth grade at school,” she says. 

The crowd “ooohs” and “aaahs” at the elegant Dodger stars. They root for the Mets but worship the Dodgers. Then they start chanting, “Let’s go, Mets! Let’s go, Mets!” “The fans’ hopes, of course, were insane,” writes Angell, but that is the point. 

Angell is perhaps the first to capture a brand new vibe, a very unique vibe. Remember, this is New York, home of champions and winners. It is not a town that will root for losers, but there is something irresistible about these floundering New York Mets that is the beginning of a lifelong love affair. These people are not at Yankee Stadium to watch Mantle and Maris crush hapless American League foes, but watching the Mets be the crushed and hapless home team is appealing. Angell captures the sounds, the feeling of it all. It is his talent, his art. He is made for this team and this time. 

The second game is won by Los Angeles, but is a close one. It features the Mets pulling off a triple-play, which Angell writes is “something I have never seen in more than thirty years of watching big-league baseball.” 

But there are more important facts at play here. For one, fans do not leave. It is a long day, a double-header, but they stay, chanting “Let’s go, Mets!” until the last out. This is Fun City; restaurants, bars, women, single people, all await, but the fans prefer to stay until the very last pitch. 

Over the following days New York’s losing streak stretches to 15 games, to L.A. then to San Francisco, whose impressive club comes rumbling into town and perhaps look even better than their rival Dodgers. They feature former New York stars, in particular Willie Mays, and draw more huge crowds to the Polo Grounds. They sweep four straight, but while some of the wins are lopsided, some feature admirable Met efforts, if not actual good play. 

Angell just gobbles up the beauty of these great Giants; sluggers, slick fielders, mound aces; Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda. A team for the ages, once roaming these very grounds, now belonging to the Golden State with their beaches, their movies, their mountains and bridges. Must they steal everything? 

Against the Giants Angell detects fans shouting “Go!” and using foghorns to blast their cries into the air, mournfully hoping against hope for some small victory, which never comes even when small bits of competency occasionally show up, all surrounded by errors and Giant mashings off the wall, followed by hard strikes thrown by San Francisco’s aces, the likes of whom include Juan Marichal and Jack Sanford, at the height of their abilities. 

But again, the fans stay in their seats despite the score or inning. Again, some of these are night games, and of course there is the never-ending allure of Manhattan and its nocturnal pleasures a short subway ride away, but these fans are faithfully married to baseball, and to the Mets

Angell detects a couple of Yankee fans slumming at the Polo Grounds, analyzing and decoding the players below like auctioneers looking for spare parts, a player or two who could be sold to the Yanks for a September run. But Met fans are human, and their “exultant yells” capture Angell’s heart. He gets them. These are his people.

In the Saturday double-header much beer is sold and the crowd is raucous. The Mets keep it close then San Francisco blows it open, of course. Nobody is bothered. On Sunday the crowd is filled with kids, a beautiful sight and sound. Angell notes the Mets are like France’s “missing generation” in the 1920s, a gap between old vets and some fairly impressive youngsters. The crowd begs and pleads but despite some impressive efforts, San Francisco pulls away to complete the sweep, by both West Coast teams in their first trip back to the Apple. 

In a cab with his daughter, who becomes a baseball fan during this special weekend with her wonderful dad, Angell notices a group of “Negroes . . . carrying portable radios.” They are listening to the Mets game. This is a good sign to him; their fans are diverse and plentiful and come in all colors. 

Angell returns to the Mets in 1963 and 1964. The scene is more of the same. The crowds are bigger, sometimes sell-outs. The 1962 Giants have rallied to beat the Dodgers for the pennant. In 1963 both Los Angeles and San Francisco are loaded. But we get the genesis of a love affair between a city and a losing baseball team, in a town that normally reveres only winners. This will be brought full circle when he describes the 1969 post-season (previously reviewed as a New Yoker stand alone essay). 

The next part of the book is entitled “Classics and Campaigns – I.” “A Tale of Three Cities” remains one of my all-time favorite pieces of baseball writing. I used this chapter in large part in my 2009 book about the 1962 baseball season in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

While Angell’s descriptions of New York – the ambience surrounding the Mets, the savvy and love for the game espoused by its fans – his cultural observations of both L.A. and San Francisco are absolutely fascinating. We open at Dodger Stadium after a short re-cap of games one and two of the 1962 National League play-off between the Dodgers and Giants, one of the most exciting moments in baseball history.

L.A., up by four with a week to go, simply forgot how to score runs, and “thus permitted their gasping pursuers to catch them on the final day.” In the first play-off game at Candlestick, “the Dodger team displayed the muscle, the frightfulness, and total immobility of a woolly mammoth frozen in a glacier; the Giants, finding the beast inert, fell upon it with savage cries and chopped off steaks and rump roasts at will, winning 8-0.” Who today writes like this? “Woolly mammoths?” 

The Giants have gone out to an early, seemingly insurmountable lead in the second game at Dodger Stadium. This is the first year of the marvelous “Taj O’Malley,” as Angell calls it, and Los Angeles has set an all-time attendance record. But they are front runners, then and now. With the club down and out, the stadium is less than half full. L.A. has not scored in 36 innings. With San Francisco holding what looks like a safe early lead, L.A. finally scores a single run, yet this non-descript act so “unnerves” the Giants they become – check out this writing – “aghast at this tiny evidence of life,” so the Giants “stood transfixed, their stone axes dropping from their paws, while the monster heaved itself to its feat, scattering chunks of ice, and set about trampling their tormentors.”

This contest, “best described in metaphor and hyperbole,” is despite said metaphors of pre-historic Earth creatures struggling to survive, possibly the worst played baseball game of all time. L.A. wins, 8-7. The game is up to that time the longest nine-inning affair in history, and to this day possibly the sloppiest, worst-pitched, least economical and most fundamentally unsound performance by two teams ever, contenders or also-rans. This includes terrible managerial decisions by the Giants’ Alvin Dark and the Dodgers’ Walter Alston. Ultimately San Francisco just gives it away to Los Angeles.

Now, back in the play-off, 45,693 Los Angelenos, including Frank Sinatra and Roz Wyman, show up for the penultimate game three. It is a “noisy, shirtsleeve crowd,” a day game played in the heat and smog, and Angell describes the scene perfectly; the confidence of its fans so easily “shaken”; the perfect stadium somehow too beautiful for the Hollywood elites who occupy it like Napoleon’s soldiers finding themselves in the Kremlin with a full bar; the transistor radios carrying the voice of Vin Scully; the new electronic scoreboard telling the crowd what to cheer about like robots; and flashes of the “orbital progress” of Astronaut Wally Schirra, a product of nearby USC’s post-graduate engineering school, at that time circling the Earth as part of what Tom Wolfe will call The Right Stuff.

We get further description of “O’Malley’s Safeway,’”a disconcerting color-coded system meant to direct fans to just the right parking spot and just the right seat, but in 1962 this system has not yet been mastered by the locals. 

Then there is the game. It is eerily similar to game three at the Polo Grounds in 1951. Dodgers manager Walt Alston, Hall of Famer, master of World Champion teams in 1955 and 1959, a consummate professional, has been hounded all season by the presence of “celebrity coach” Leo Durocher, who has undermined him to the players and press from day one in a blatant attempt to usurp his job from him. Alston makes a series of the worst decisions in the entire history of baseball, each resulting in further disaster and destruction, and accompanied by failure, fatigue, incompetency and sheer ineptitude by his “players” worthy of the ‘62 Mets, all resulting in the Dodgers blowing a 4-2 lead and losing 6-4, at which point the Giants leap in the air “like Watusi.”

Alston locks himself in his office after the game while his players, who have gotten ahold of  a stash of whisky and champagne meant for the victory celebration, claw and scrape against his door trying to get at the poor bastard in what I describe in A Tale of Three Cities as being like “a scene from Night of the Living Dead.”

Angell returns to his hotel before departing for the airport and notices an exhibit of “elegantly framed” Dodger portraits. “No one was looking at the pictures.”

He flies to San Francisco for the World Series and writes that the San Francisco Chronicle has a headline reading, “WE WIN!” written the same size as “FIDEL DEAD.” The Cuban Missile Crisis is brewing 3,000 miles away at this very time.

Angell arrives in downtown San Francisco to a massive celebration, and the elites at the Chronicle are concerned that the gents of the City might be mistaken as rubes “like Milwaukee, or something!” He attends a cocktail party where a woman tells him of “a lot of trouble in the past few years,” as if describing “a scandal or sickness in her family.”

His description of Candlestick, in its third year, is classic. It looks “like an outbuilding of Alcatraz,” is windy, with cold concrete ramps, but is “a festive prison yard” for the opener. Every Yankee slugger draws worries from the fans sitting around Angell . . . “here comes Berra.” The teams split the first two games. 

Back in New York the Yanks take a 3-2 lead heading back to San Francisco, where a rare Pacific storm halts play for days and re-aligns the pitching staffs. Charles McCabe of the Chronicle writes that “total triumph is unsettling,” that to win the World Series would be too much, like Douglas MacArthur on the deck of the “mighty Mo,” somehow not fair or right. In the end he gets what he wants, a 1-0 game seven Yankee triumph with Willie McCovey’s last-out line drive settling in Bobby Richardson’s glove.

In 1963, despite the World Series again being played in his hometown of New York City, Angell chooses to watch the four-game Dodger sweep in a series of bars. This further enhances his image as a “man of the people.” As best I can tell he has sat in the stands or in bars, all with real fans, in all his writing heretofore. 

In 1964 he describes the end of the Yankee dynasty, their last-gasp seven-game loss to the Cardinals, describing in brilliant detail how Bob Gibson, dog tired with nothing left in the tank, is kept in the game by manager Johnny Keane because “I had a commitment to his heart,” and after giving up a two-run homer in the ninth, barely holds on for the 7-5 win that clinches it.  

We get the Dodgers again in 1965 and 1966. Sandy Koufax is the hero of this story, at least in dominating Minnesota in the ‘65 Fall Classic, but his descriptions of the 1966 Baltimore-L.A. Series are masterful. Before we get to that point our intrepid writer visits the brand new Houston Astrodome, but in “A Terrific Strain”, he writes that while in Los Angels he reads The Glory of Their Times. There are more great descriptions of L.A. and Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers are a veteran, defending World Champion crew, albeit a team that scores about one run a game, which somehow Koufax and Drysdale make stand up night after night. Baltimore is young and out of their league, but Angell’s descriptions of Gold Glove center fielder Willie Davis making a series of errors followed by “an angry Little League heave into the Dodger dugout” is excruciating. They just give it away to the Orioles.

Koufax is as good as ever but his defense so bad even he cannot overcome it. A kid barely out of high school named Jim Palmer shuts out the Dodgers. They get great pitching in Baltimore but after the second inning of game one, Los Angeles never scores again and is swept in four straight.

Angell’s descriptions of the 1967 (where he might have sat in the press box) and 1969 World Series have been reviewed earlier, but in between he gives us the memorable 1968 seven-game Tigers-Cardinals classic, won by Detroit after trailing three games to one., While this Series embodies a time baseball was thought to be “dead” from a lack of offense, all I remember of it was awesome baseball. I loved good pitching and here it was in spades: Gibson, Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich. 

    One of my favorite chapters included Angell calling baseball “The Leaping Corpse”, and his writing about the wildly entertaining brand of baseball being played in the new divisional set-up beginning in 1969 is excellent. Looking back, it was a “golden age.” He gives us the 1970 Big Red Machine, Baltimore’s redemption in the 1970 Series, Pittsburgh and Roberto Clemente in 1971, and a great little road trip to see both the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants in 1971, a time when both clubs are hot, in first place, and on their way to division titles. 

    Great memories in a great book.

Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.

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