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Heated debate: Does Angell deserve baseball writer’s top honor at Cooperstown over Bisher, Durslag?

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana is on an interesting debate occurring in the sports writing fraternity.

From the column:

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The National Baseball Hall of Fame has been awarding the J.G. Taylor Spink Award annually since 1962, recognizing career excellence as a baseball writer. Spink, the long-time publisher of the Sporting News, was the first winner, followed by giants like Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan, Red Smith, Jim Murray, to name a few.

The honor doesn’t mean there’s a bust of the writer wearing a team cap at Cooperstown. However, there is a nifty plaque with the roll call of winners. All in all, it’s pretty nice to have your name on that plaque.

Usually, voting for the award flies way below the radar. But not this year in the sports fraternity.

The finalists for the Spink are: Roger Angell, Furman Bisher, and Melvin Durslag.

At issue is whether either of the two long-time newspaper columnists (Bisher in Atlanta and Durslag in Los Angeles) who wrote on tight daily deadlines should get the nod over Angell, whose brilliant, if not iconic, prose appears only occasionally in the New Yorker and book collections of his essays.

Interestingly, the debate is taking place on Twitter and Facebook, light years away from when the three candidates began their careers lugging typewriters up to the press box decades ago.

As much as anybody, Dave Kindred is responsible for launching the conversation. In a Facebook post, he said that he voted for Angell over the late Bisher, his long-time friend.

Kindred wrote:

I’d be thrilled if Furman won. I’d go to Cooperstown for the ceremony. Hell, I’d make the speech for him if asked. Both Angell and Furman are Hall of Fame-worthy, but one’s a magazine/book guy, one’s a newspaper columnist — so their work is judged by different standards.

It just seems to me that Angell should have won this thing 25 years ago; few journalists ever wrote baseball with greater understanding for a wider audience.

Naturally, sportswriters being sportswriters, weighed in with their diverse opinions in the comments section of Kindred’s post.

Here’s some samples:

Mark Purdy: That’s one magnificent trio of nominees. But I have to go with Furman on my ballot. I suppose it’s partially because as a daily newspaper hack, I’m inclined to side with those facing multiple weekly deadlines rather than one every two or three months. And it’s not as if Angell, a wonderful writer, has been ignored in the awards department. He’s been honored by organizations that would never salute the likes of Bisher or Durslag. Angell was elected a Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for crissake (other fellows include Thomas Jefferson, Jonas Salk and Duke Ellington). Props to him. Spink to Bisher.

Philip Hersh: I went with Roger. At his best, pure genius on a page. But Mark’s argument is solid.

Claire Smith: I honestly do not think I would have recognized the magical connection between beautifully crafted prose and the sport that was made for writers if it were not for Roger Angell. Good choice, Dave. Will follow your lead.

Orange County Register column Mark Whicker engaged in a spirited Twitter debate with Kindred. Whicker is pro-Bisher. One of his tweets said: “My view is the Spink is not a Pulitzer. It should go to those who regularly wrote about the game, on mundane and profound days alike.”

Indeed, a big issue is the exact criteria. Is the Spink supposed to be limited to beat reporters or columnists? Or can it include someone like Angell?

On his blog, Joe Posnanski notes there are no instructions on the ballot.

Posnanski writes:

Everyone is just supposed to know what it is all about. But I’m not 100% sure so I looked it up. The award is given for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” What does that mean? As you know, we in the BBWAA love to parse words so that “most valuable” doesn’t necessarily mean “best” so let’s take a look at the words here.

Meritorious means “deserving reward or praise.” That’s pretty simple.

But “contributions to baseball writing” is trickier. What the heck does that mean?

Actually, the “contributions to baseball writing” makes the task quite simple here, in my view. It has to be Angell. As Kindred says, it is stunning that his name wasn’t engraved on that plaque a long time ago.

Sure, Angell doesn’t write on deadline and has months to polish his essays “into glistening jewels,” as Posnanski writes. That shouldn’t matter. To suggest that you could come close to writing like Angell with the extra time is like saying with a lot of practice, you could get a hit off of Sandy Koufax.

Indeed, perhaps there’s your comparison. Angell is the baseball writing equivalent of Koufax, a one-of-a-kind artist on the game. Fortunately, unlike Koufax, Angell’s career has spanned generations. At age 93, he still is writing about baseball as only he could for the New Yorker.

Here’s a passage from Angell on one of Mariano Rivera’s final games at Yankee Stadium:

Mariano came on with one out in the eighth, and surrendered a single but no runs, and along the way gave us still again his eloquent entering run from deep center field; the leaning stare-in with upcocked mitt over his heart; the reposeful pre-pitch pause, with his hands at waist level; and then the burning, bending, famed-in-song-and-story cutter. All these, seen once again, have been as familiar to us as our dad’s light cough from the next room, or the dimples on the back of our once-three-year-old daughter’s hands, but, like those, must now only be recalled.

Angell’s writing blows me away now the same way it did more than 35 years ago when I discovered his work as a young kid who aspired to be a sportswriter. I still have memories of being held captive by his first book, “The Summer Game.” Angell’s writing on baseball truly inspired me, and as Claire Smith says, I’m sure many others too.

This isn’t a vote against Bisher, one of my all-time favorites on a professional and personal level, or Durslag, who had a distinguished career. And memo to the Hall: Time to get Dave Anderson of the New York Times on the ballot sooner than later. He’s certainly worthy.

Rather, more than anything else, it really is time to give Angell overdue recognition at the game’s most revered address. When you talk about someone who contributed to baseball literature, how many people rank higher than him?

Angell deserves to have his name on that Spink plaque, along with Rice, Smith, Runyan, Lardner, Murray and the others.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Heated debate: Does Angell deserve baseball writer’s top honor at Cooperstown over Bisher, Durslag?

  1. Ed, I too was moved to become a constant follower of Angell after reading the same baook. His words are so perfect and so dead on. He, along with others are serving, but Roger to e is special

  2. I commented on Joe Posnanski’s blog without knowing that Durslag also is a finalist. I said that it’s like Lindsey Nelson’s line about choosing the greater announcer, Red Barber or Mel Allen–either way, he said, you get a Sir. Comparing Angell and Bisher, I said they’re both deserving but what decides it for me is that Angell is here to smell the roses. That said, when we talk about baseball writers, several of the recipients either covered baseball on a regular basis for only part of their careers–for example, Red Smith covered St. Louis and Philadelphia for about 15 years and was great, but his true greatness came as a columnist for nearly 37 years in New York, and that’s what the award really was for. Jim Murray never covered a team regularly, but wrote a daily column that often included the Dodgers. So there are different standards already within the voting. I also made the point that a case could be made for Roger Kahn, as much as I think his writing tends to descend into the egotistical.

  3. When they vote in Bill James, the most “meritorious contributor to baseball writing” of anyone, then I’ll worry about these other guys.

  4. Two of these guys are worthy candidates. But no more worthy than Tom Boswell. And two of the best candidates continue to be ignored: Bill James and Allan Simpson. Bill’s annual Baseball Abstract changed the way we look at baseball numbers. Allan founded what has become the Bible of Baseball, and he is a much better writer than Spink ever hoped to be.

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