With drug scandals, end-of-season disappointments, and winter-meeting, team-building hiccups, the sport of baseball could seem like it’s in the doldrums.
But now comes news of a real grand slam: The Baseball Hall of Fame will honor Roger Angell with its J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which goes to those who chronicle the game in words.
Angell, who has long served as the fiction editor of The New Yorker, has also written classy, intelligent and deeply felt long-form pieces for the magazine over the last 50 years. Many of his pieces have been anthologized (see, for example, “Once More Around the Park.”)As his editor, David Remnick, opined the other day, “Roger Angell is the greatest of all baseball writers.”
Period. Underlined. No question about it.
Angell embodies two important passions in my life — baseball and writing — though I’m a relative newcomer to his work, given that I’ve only been reading him for three decades or so.
What makes Angell special is how he tells stories and how he always manages to find heart and humanity in the game.
For evidence, I’d offer up a triple-play of Angell’s classic pieces (and The New Yorker has helpfully posted one of them):
• “Down the Drain,” the aching tale, from 1975, of Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who inexplicably went from top-of-the-game, World Series success to inexplicable oblivion (read it here
• “Before the Fall,” another career-end story of a pitcher, the Kansas City phenom David Cone, then pitching for the Yankees (2001). “I was writing a book about Cone,” Angell writes, “but almost from the beginning he was aware that it wasn’t going to turn out the way we’d hoped.”
• “In the Country,” probably my all-time favorite Angell piece (I’ve used it in non-fiction writing classes). This one comes from 1981, and it starts with letters Angell receives from the girlfriend of a semi-pro pitcher named Ron Goble. Before you know it, you are witness to the pain and joy of these people, as baseball, cancer and sheer determination course through the lower levels, but entirely human stations of the game.