Tom Verducci wrote about Angell in this week’s Sports Illustrated. Stop what you’re doing and read it now.
It is a beautiful piece. If you didn’t know it, you’d think Angell was the author of the story. When Verducci receives his Spink Award one day, I’m sure they will point to this profile as an example of his work.
It gets to the essence of what makes Angell a true treasure.
Writing well is hard. It requires constant thinking. The gears, flywheels and levers of the mind click and clatter nonstop. Writing is flying an airplane without instruments, almost always through the dark storms of doubt. It is new every time.
There’s an added difficulty with writing about baseball: The writer ages but the players do not. They are perpetually young, replaced almost imperceptibly by younger versions of themselves. Every season is like a summer-stock version of Bye Bye Birdie. Then one day a ballplayer with $100 million banked calls you “sir,” and you realize the chasm has grown Olduvai Gorge–wide.
Over the last half-century nobody has written baseball better than Roger Angell of The New Yorker. What he does with words, even today at 93, is what Mays did in centerfield and what Koufax did on the mound. His superior elegance and skill are obvious even to the untrained eye.
A bit of quintessential Angell and a last line that belongs with Red’s: It is the summer of 1969, and Angell tries to decide which baseball he likes best, having sampled the Miracle Mets at Shea Stadium, the fledging Montreal Expos in the country-fair setting of Jarry Park and the bat-banging percussive might of the Red Sox and the Orioles at the Fens. “Then I remembered that I didn’t have to choose, for all these are parts of the feast that the old game can still bring us,” he wrote. “I felt what I almost always feel when I am watching a ball game: Just for those two or three hours, there is really no place I would rather be.”
By then Angell, more comfortable in the baseball cocoon, was adding expert reportage to his observational skills. He sought out the good talkers and had the manners and skill to elicit their most honest thoughts. Blass, a righthander who suddenly lost his ability to throw strikes, opened up to him as he had to no other writer. The Red Sox legend Smoky Joe Wood sat with Angell at a Yale–St. John’s game that turned out to be a classic duel between future big leaguers Ron Darling and Frank Viola. Pitcher David Cone, in his first three hours with Angell on a book collaboration, told such deep, moving stories about his childhood and his alcoholic father that Cone’s wife, Lynn, said in amazement, “I’ve never heard any of this!”
And then there was Gibson, the notoriously stern Cardinals ace who regarded reporters as he did poison sumac. “I never worked harder to set it up,” Angell says of the interview. “I was terrified. Gibby brings me to his house and he gives me a swimsuit, and we’re sitting by the side of his pool, and for three or four days I’m with him all the time. And he’s telling me every single thing I want to know. When the piece was finished, he sent me a picture of himself and wrote, ‘The world needs more people like you.’”
And his philosophy on writing:
In 1961, at a spring training B game in Orlando, catcher Norm Sherry told Koufax, who had nearly quit after the previous season because of chronic wildness, to take a little off his fastball to find the strike zone. It worked. Koufax threw seven no‑hit innings. It was the beginning of his march to pitching immortality. Koufax would later explain his apotheosis as “taking the grunt out of my fastball.” What Angell understood and mastered was taking the grunt out of writing. White showed him the way.
“Be clear,” Angell says. “You can write long, but be clear. And remember, you are speaking to the reader. It’s a letter to the reader.
“I used to have a terribly hard time starting, because when I wrote I didn’t do first drafts. I wrote the whole piece on typewriters and would x out and use Scotch tape. I think I began to realize that leads weren’t a big problem. You can start anywhere.”