Taking a break from the 28 years we’ll have to digest the Alex Rodriguez steroid saga — his contract runs through 2017, which if he retired then would mean his Hall of Fame eligibility would run from 2023 through 2037 — I meant to post something I read last week. It’s from “The Fadeaway,” by Roger Angell, about his 33 years of editing the recently deceased John Updike in his day job as an editor for The New Yorker. From the February 9-16 issue of the magazine:
Updike’s sentences are fresh-painted. In all his writing, critical or fictional or reportorial, he is a fabulous noticer and expander; he’s invented HD. So armed, he felt free from the start to take up and engage with all that lay within the range of his attention and put it down on paper. He had never to my knowledge written about sports when, on a morning in late September, 1960, he was stood up by a woman in Boston with whom he had an assignation and instead went to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox, in the final home game of Ted Williams’s career. Ted hit a home run in his last at-bat, and Updike came home and wrote “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” and sent it off to the magazine: the most celebrated baseball piece ever. The text grew not just out of the event but from Updike’s youthful attachment to the Splendid Splinter; when he decided to leave New York and The New Yorker, in 1957, and move his young family to the suburbs, he chose Boston, as he later explained, in part to be closer to Ted Williams. My own baseball writing was still two years away when I first read “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” and though it took me a while to become aware of it, John had already supplied my tone, while also seeming to invite me to try for a good sentence now and then, down the line, like the one he slips in when Williams fails to doff his cap after circling the bases in the wake of that homer: “Gods do not answer letters.”
How about that? Not only was Updike’s piece worthy of such a superlative (testifying to the esteem in which it’s held, I own it as part of three separate anthologies), but it essentially served as a prototype for one of the great baseball writers of all time. You learn something new every day.
Angell was a latecomer to the world of baseball writing, taking up the challenge when he was in his early forties. His first pieces ran in 1962, not coincidentally the first year of the Mets’ existence. This page has a couple of his pieces from around that time. One is about taking up the Mets’ cause in their inaugural year, during a stretch where the two former New York teams, the Dodgers and Giants, returned to play the Mets at the Polo Grounds, Angell’s favorite haunt:
“I tell you, there isn’t one of ‘em — not one — that could make the Yankee club,” one of them said. “I never saw such a collection of dogs.”
“Well, what about Frank Thomas?” said the other. “What about him?What’s he batting now? .315? .320? He’s got thirteen homers, don’t he?”
“Yeah, and who’s he going to push out of the Yankee outfield? Mantle? Maris? Blanchard? You can’t call these characters ballplayers. They all belong back in the minors — the low minors.”
I recognized the tone. It was knowing, cold, full of the contempt that the calculator feels for those who don’t play the odds. It was the voice of the Yankee fan. The Yankees have won the American League pennant twenty times in the past thirty years; they have been world champions sixteen times in that period. Over the years, many of their followers have come to watch them with the smugness and arrogance of holders of large blocks of blue-chip stocks. These fans expect no less than perfection. They coolly accept the late-inning rally, the winning homer, as only their due. They are apt to take defeat with ill grace, and they treat their stars as though they were executives hired to protect their interests. During a slump or a losing streak, these capitalists are quick and shrill with their complaints: “They ought to damn well do better than this, considering what they’re being paid!”
Suddenly the Mets fans made sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river.This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try — antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me.
Right out of the box, that last line is almost good enough to hang with Updike’s most famous phrase. Here’s a shorter piece that leads off The Summer Game, Angell’s first collection of essays. Devoted to the arrival of pitchers and catchers, it’s a nice little tonic to chase away what is turning out to be one of the ugliest weeks for baseball in a long time:
Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened,as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue. The view from my city window still yields only frozen tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid, information-packed weeks and months just ahead. I can remember a spring, not too many years ago,when a prolonged New York newspaper strike threatened to extend itself into the baseball season, and my obsessively fannish mind tried to contemplate the desert prospect of a summer without daily box scores. The thought was impossible; it was like trying to think about infinity. Had I been deprived of those tiny lists of sporting personae and accompanying columns of runs batted in, strikeouts, double plays, assists, earned runs, and the like, all served up in neat three-inch packages from Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Baltimore,Houston, and points east and west, only the most aggressive kind of blind faith would have convinced me that the season had begun at all or that its distant, invisible events had any more reality than the silent collision of molecules. This year, thank heaven, no such crisis of belief impends; summer will be admitted to our breakfast table as usual, and in the space of half a cup of coffee I will be able to discover, say, that Ferguson Jenkins went eight innings in Montreal and won his fourth game of the season while giving up five hits, that Al Kaline was horse-collared by Fritz Peterson at the Stadium,that Tony Oliva hit a double and a single off Mickey Lolich in Detroit, that Juan Marichal was bombed by ye Reds in the top of the sixth at Candlestick Park, and that similar disasters and triumphs befell a couple of dozen-odd of the other ballplayers — favorites and knaves — whose fortunes I follow from April to October.
The box score, being modestly arcane, is a matter of intense indifference,if not irritation, to the non-fan. To the baseball-bitten, it is not only informative, pictorial, and gossipy but lovely in aesthetic structure. It represents happenstance and physical flight exactly translated into figures and history. Its totals — batters’ credit vs. pitchers’ debit — balance as exactly as those in an accountant’s ledger. And a box score is more than a capsule archive. It is a precisely etched miniature of the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoor sports. Every player in every game is subjected to a cold and ceaseless accounting; no ball is thrown and no base is gained without an instant responding judgment — ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay — and an ensuing statistic. This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory,to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that prickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of Don Giovanni and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins.
The small magic of the box score is cognominal as well as mathematical.Down the years, the rosters of the big-league teams have echoed and twangled with evocative, hilarious, ominous, impossible, and exactly appropriate names. The daily, breathing reality of the ballplayers’ names in box scores accounts in part, it seems to me, for the rarity of convincing baseball fiction.No novelist has yet been able to concoct a baseball hero with as tonic a name as Willie Mays or Duke Snider or Vida Blue. No contemporary novelist would dare a supporting cast of characters with Dickensian names like those that have stuck with me ever since I deciphered my first box scores and began peopling the lively landscape of baseball in my mind — Ossee Schreckengost, Smead Jolley, Slim Sallee, Elon Hogsett, Urban Shocker, Burleigh Grimes,Hazen Shirley Cuyler, Heinie Manush, Cletus Elwood Poffenberger, Virgil Trucks, Enos Slaughter, Luscious Easter, and Eli Grba. And not even a latter-day O. Henry would risk a tale like the true, electrifying history of a pitcher named Pete Jablonowski, who disappeared from the Yankees in 1933 after several seasons of inept relief work with various clubs. Presumably disheartened by seeing the losing pitcher listed as “J’bl’n’s’i” in the box scores of his day, he changed his name to Pete Appleton in the semi-privacy of the minors, and came back to win fourteen games for the Senators in 1936 and to continue in the majors for another decade.
Hang in there, folks. It’s just a couple more days…