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See What You Find

Roger Angell at the 2009 New Yorker Festival.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Baseball, like anything else a person can love, can make you better or make you worse. Moment by moment, it is almost always the latter; no one is at their best while watching their team's bullpen implode. But in the long run, and depending upon how you use it, all that caring will either make the game and the people that play it more or less real to you. How that shakes out is a question of where you situate yourself in it, mostly, and what you're trying to find.

If you insist on sitting at the center of the experience you will care a lot in the least meaningful way. Everyone you see will work for you in various roles, and everything that doesn't happen the way you want it to happen will arrive as a personal affront. Basically every result will disappoint to some extent. Many people care about baseball (and other things) in this way, either despite or specifically because of how little it demands; all you really need to do is want. Caring like this is finally just a matter of appointing yourself boss of some people you will never meet and then fuming privately over their poor work product. That this commanding position of idle, superior, risk-free disapproval is something like the American Dream for a solid, seething plurality of Americans is not ideal, but also beside the broader point. To care like this about baseball is to make it just another TV show to watch, or another place to put the broader feeling of being hard done-by that is every American's by right. But if you want to leave it at that, it can absolutely be left at that.

Roger Angell's career writing about baseball, which started with a New Yorker assignment in 1962 and didn't really end until he died last Friday, began when he explained some rather mundane baseball stuff to an editor who didn't care about the sport at all. That happened long enough ago to qualify as lore, but was legit enough to be mentioned by New Yorker Editor-in-Chief David Remnick in his farewell to Angell. William Shawn sent Angell to Spring Training to "see what you find," and he did that and then kept doing it. "I went on with it because I enjoyed it so much and I seemed to find a way of writing about baseball that was easy for me," Angell told Salon in 2000, "kind of like myself."

By then, Angell was already recognized as the best ever to do it. "I've been accused once in a while of being a poet laureate, which has always sort of pissed me off," he said in that Salon interview, "That's not what I was trying to do. I think people who said that really haven't read me, because what I've been doing a lot of times is reporting. It's not exactly like everybody else's reporting. I'm reporting about myself, as a fan as well as a baseball writer." He was poetic, albeit in a way that was more flintily precise and apposite—the right words, and nothing else—than pyrotechnically virtuosic, but Angell's stories were journalism, full stop. The features he wrote at The New Yorker, and that filled out the collections that my parents bought for me as a kid, were New Yorker stories—features about people, reported as deeply and humanely as possible, over the sort of timeline that other publications don't tend to afford their writers. He blogged, too, and was also the magazine's fiction editor for decades, but it was in those features that Angell did what he did best. Which, simultaneously, was write some of the better, cleaner, more clarifying sentences ever written about what is surely one of the most written-about subjects in American life, and locate whatever was most human or meaningful in any given story and then graciously lead it to the front.

At Lit Hub, Michael Lindgren writes that he "learned to write by reading Roger Angell," and in retrospect I guess I did, too. I didn't know that was happening, but I knew that something was. I was a kid, and I cared about baseball with my whole hungry being, in the way that kids do before they find other things to care about. I wanted to know everything about it, to become filled up with it and so become it. The whole of the game was there in the Angell stories I read, the mechanical and technical aspects of the performance, and also the human chaos of the performers, and also the uncertain tension in which the game suspends the two. I had not known, even in all my headlong tweenage caring, that there was actually that much there to care about.

Angell's early life seems, by the numbers, almost overbearingly picaresque. His father was a co-founder of the institution that became the ACLU and twice the Socialist Party candidate for President; his mother's second husband was E.B. White, who codified contemporary literary style and created Stuart Little; at his father's in Manhattan, the family received four different daily newspapers; at his mother's in Maine he caught flounder in Eggemoggin Reach and ate it for breakfast. He grew up in a brownstone on the Upper East Side surrounded by books and pets—a macaque monkey that he described as "an inveterate biter" was among them for a while—and help; the person that took him to Yankee Stadium for the first start of Lefty Gomez's Hall of Fame career, in 1930, was his governess, Mrs. Baker. It is all true, but it is also all enough to give Wes Anderson a tummyache.

Angell was 9 years old when Mrs. Baker took him to Gomez's first start; he tells that story and others in a New Yorker story from 1992 that stands as probably the greatest single achievement in the history of Remembering Some Guys. If there is maybe some irony in the usage of the word "immortal" to describe Albie Booth, a 5-foot-6, 144-pound Yale halfback who never played any professional sport, there is certainly no acid in it. No lie, either: By the time that story ran, Angell was in his 70s, and Booth and the cyclists Angell watched in the endurance races and the prehistoric Rangers stars he cheered at the since-razed Madison Square Garden were all still with him. There is no hint of valediction in it, but the story tracks back a long way; part of why Angell remembers the players he saw so well was that he grew up before television. As a result, he writes, "attending a game meant a lot, to adults as well as to a boy, because it was the only way you could encounter athletes and watch what they did." (A lot of the names he remembered, Angell allows, had less to do with the rare experience of having seen those players play than the music of those names—"Eppa Rixey, Goose Goslin, Firpo Marberry, Jack Rothrock, Eldon Auker, Luke Appling, Mule Haas, Adolfo Luque.") It feels almost rude and anyway unnecessary to write that the screwball he worked on in his teens didn't fool many hitters. "I fanned a batter here and there," he writes, "but took up smoking and irony in self-defense."

Of all the things that a person with that experience could become, Angell somehow became a minimalist. Or, anyway, he became a very particular and subtle type of hedonist. He wrote about something he cared about, and that transparently fascinated him more and more as he continued to learn more about it, but never in a way that was outwardly indulgent. The sentences did precisely what they needed to do, and nothing more; the features lay out whatever he deemed the most meaningful story to find in whatever he set out looking for, and left out the things that distracted or detracted from that. I cannot relate to that restraint or that focus, but as I have re-read his stuff over the last week—reading I did with increasing desperation, hiding under it like a tarp in a storm—I have found myself envying the perspective most of all. Not just the steady and unstinting humanity of it, but the ability to treasure what needs treasuring about the game and the people playing it—which really is precious, and fragile, and fleeting—while keeping the rest, which is much less beautiful but no less real, safely in view.

"Professional sports have a powerful hold on us," Angell wrote in his 1975 story about Steve Blass and the yips that cost him his big league career:

Because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities, and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses. But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only man—only ourself. We are no longer at a game.

The New Yorker

And yet Angell knew where he was, even then. Franchise values and salaries had begun their long climb to the present; there has never been a time when baseball's owners cared about anything that someone who valued the game, or just other people, might also care about. "Sport is no longer a release from the harsh everyday American business world but its continuation and apotheosis," Angell continued later in that same paragraph. "Those of us (fans and players alike) who return to the ballpark in the belief that the game and the rules are unchanged—merely a continuation of what we have known and loved in the past—are deluding ourselves, perhaps foolishly, perhaps tragically." A quarter-century after writing that, in that Salon interview, he was more direct about it. "The stuff about the connection between baseball and American life, the Field of Dreams thing, gives me a pain," Angell said. "There's a line at the end that says the game of baseball was good when America was good, and they're talking about the time of the biggest race riots in the country and Prohibition. What is that?"

It is understandable to want baseball to be good, or to have ever been essentially good, just as it is understandable to want to believe that about America, or anything else. But if that belief only seems to become more untenable from one moment to the next, it is also finally a distraction. A thing does not need to be perfect, or inherently or intrinsically good, to be worth loving, and there is no real value in caring about something you cannot bear to see clearly. None of this really even has to be important, let alone as important as it can feel; the caring is the thing, the aspect that anchors and elevates and exalts not just what you love, but also the person who cares, simply through the clear-eyed loving of it. Anyway, consider the alternative.

"We don’t like [ballplayers] as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves as much, either," Angell wrote in The New Yorker in 1992. "Baseball becomes feasible from time to time, not much more, and we fans must make prodigious efforts to rearrange our profoundly ironic contemporary psyches in order to allow its old pleasures to reach us." When that light goes out, it stays out; what keeps it on, whatever keeps it on, seems very valuable.

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