Angell, longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker and frequent contributor of articles about baseball to that magazine, is a splendid writer regardless of the subject, but his unabashed love for the game imbues his essays with an elegance and insight that is rare. Today more than ever, there is no shortage of coverage of your favorite team or sport, but no one can both clearly describe the action, explain it, and elevate it above the mundane like Angell.
The Summer Game pulls together essays Angell wrote between 1962 and 1972. There's an essay from nearly every World Series during that span, including the Amazin' Mets who went from their founding season in 1962 (when they lost 120 games) to winning the World Series just seven years later. The 1960s were a time of great upheaval and chance for baseball — the league expanded from 16 teams to 24, the season expanded from 154 games to 162, the playoffs expanded from just the World Series to add a preliminary round of games, television began to dominate the coverage and change the way the game was played and watched (the first night World Series game was played in 1971; in 2015 every game was played at night), new stadiums were built with all the charm of tin cans, players were on the cusp of gaining free agency and million-dollar salaries. Angell chronicles each of these changes with thoughtful clarity and consideration; the book is worth reading strictly for this historical record of a tumultuous decade but Angell's writing makes it so much more than that.
Of course, I can't make such a claim and expect you all to take my word for it, so here are some examples of his mastery.
Sometimes Angell tackles the "big picture", as when he wrote in 1966 about the first-ever domed stadium, the Houston Astrodome, and the unwelcome introduction of the big flashy scoreboard that is now ubiquitous:
Baseball’s clock ticks inwardly and silently, and a man absorbed in a ball game is caught in a slow, green place of removal and concentration and in a tension that is screwed up slowly and ever more tightly with each pitcher’s windup and with the almost imperceptible forward lean and little half-step with which the fielders accompany each pitch. Whatever the place of the particular baseball game we are watching, whatever its outcome, it holds us in its own continuum and mercifully releases us from our own. Any persistent effort to destroy this unique phenomenon, to “use up” baseball’s time with planned distractions, will in fact transform the sport into another mere entertainment and thus hasten its descent to the status of a boring and stylized curiosity.
But he didn't always write on such an abstract level. Describing a 1962 spring training game in Florida, A watery wash of indigo clouds hung lower and lower over the field during batting practice, deepening the greens of the box-seat railings, the infield grass, and the tall hedges in center field, and for a time the field, a box of light in the surrounding darkness, resembled an aquarium full of small, oddly darting gray and white fish.
He was there in 1962 when the New York Mets played their first season, and he marveled at the way jaded New Yorkers embraced a team that lost 120 out of 154 games:
It seemed statistically unlikely that there could be, even in New York, a forty- or fifty-thousand-man audience made up exclusively of born losers — leftover Landon voters, collectors of mongrel puppies, owners of stock in played-out gold mines — who had been waiting years for a suitably hopeless cause.
Even his play-by-play game descriptions were a level above the ordinary:
But no lead and no pitcher was safe for long on this particular evening; the hits flew through the night air like enraged deer flies, and the infielders seemed to be using their gloves mostly in self-defense.
And he had a knack for describing players that made you feel they were standing right in front of you, like Detroit Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich: He pitched the first two innings like a man defusing a live bomb, working slowly and unhappily, and studying the problem at length before each new move.
Or Tommie Agee of the Mets: I’ll bet that a lot of local Little Leaguers have begun imitating Agee’s odd batting mannerism — a tiny kick of the left leg that makes him look like a house guest secretly discouraging the family terrier.
Or Baltimore Orioles pitcher Dick Hall: Dick Hall is a Baltimore institution, like crab cakes. He is six feet six and one-half inches tall and forty years old, and he pitches with an awkward, sidewise motion that suggests a man feeling under his bed for a lost collar stud. … Hall is almost bald; he has ulcers, a degree in economics from Swarthmore, a Mexican wife, four children, and an off-season job as a certified public accountant; and he once startled his bullpen mates by trying to estimate mathematically how many drops of rain were falling on the playing field during a shower.
Maybe I didn't need Angell to make me fall in love with baseball all over again this spring. But I can't imagine a better companion for the season to come.
A classic collection of early sportswriting by renowned reporter Roger Angell Acclaimed New Yorker writer Roger Angell's first book on baseball, The Summer Game, originally published in 1972, is a stunning collection of his essays on the major leagues, covering a span of ten seasons. Angell brilliantly captures the nation's most beloved sport through the 1960s, spanning both the winning teams and the horrendous losers, and including famed players Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, and more. With the panache of a seasoned sportswriter and the energy of an avid baseball fan, Angell's sports journalism is an insightful and compelling look at the great American pastime.