On July 26 in Cooperstown, New York, most of the focus will be on Hall of Fame inductees Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas -- all great players -- and a prestigious group of managers including Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa. There is another honoree, however, to whom attention must be paid: Roger Angell, arguably our greatest living baseball writer.
Make that writer, as Angell, now 93, is the author of seven books and is still writing essays, poems and blogs for the New Yorker. He is now musing on topics like aging and losing: not as in what you see on a scoreboard, but as in losing a wife, a daughter and a beloved dog in less than two years. His recent piece on that subject will likely be adding some awards to his collection.
That it was so personal surprised many, because Angell doesn't talk much about himself. In fact, he doesn't talk all that much. I'm fortunate enough to be his downstairs neighbor, and was able to pick his brain shortly after he got word that he'd be joining the Cooperstown class of 2014. By the way, he is the first non-member of the Baseball Writers Association of America to do so.
"I just didn't expect it because I never thought they'd go outside their own Guild," says Angell, who was a fiction editor for his magazine for years, and who wrote his first baseball piece in 1962. "That's why I'm so grateful to the baseball writers, because these guys think of me for years as a guy who drops in and asks for help. It's a good thing they did, because there's a lot more deserving than me, like Bill James."
Angell is especially happy to be standing alongside a trio of rather legendary managers. "I know all three of those managers very well," he says. "We're going to have some wonderful conversations." He is particularly fond of Joe Torre. "[He] always said something interesting... but he never threw his players away. All the time, 12 years, he was asked again and again about the players on his team -- a terrible slump, or pitchers who can't get anybody out, and invariably, he would change the argument."
Even just a few minutes with Roger Angell are sure to be filled with wisdom and wit, and among the nuggets he shared with me:
On rooting for the Yankees or Mets:
I went back to being a Yankees fan as I was when I was a kid here. I was a Mets fan for a long time, but I'm not stupid. I don't believe in suffering. Who really turned me around was Torre. It's going to be awhile [for the Yankees]. It started over a year ago. I don't think Derek [Jeter] is going to have a great year. It's going to be tough.
I don't think baseball has really made up its mind about steroids. So many people used steroids, and the rules for a while were so vague. There wasn't any real ban on it. Now I think they got it right. The owners are indignant about players cheating, but then [they] go build a new ballpark and get different dimensions and hit more home runs. And now they talk about how the home run is baseball's most sacrosanct record. I wrote once saying this is like having the Olympic 100 meter dash and you ran it at 107 meters, then 96 meters, then 109 meters, and you kept the records.
On the secrets of his success:
The thing as a writer that you learn that I really came to appreciate is you find people who can talk. And you go back to them again and again. You find someone who can speak in sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes it isn't very easy. There was a catcher named Ted Simmons, a great catcher, great handler of pitchers, and a good hitter -- switch hitter. He would stiff me and would keep me in the distance. More than a year went by, and whenever I saw him, I tried to get him to listen to me. Then in Spring Training, he comes out of a game, and I go into the clubhouse and he says "hello." I said, "Ted, I noticed that you're better batting left handed than right-handed, even though you're a natural right-handed hitter. Why is that?" And he asked, "why do you think?" I said "Well, it occurred to me you have to throw the ball back to the pitcher all the time, maybe your top hand is strong. He looked at me and said "I didn't think you ever noticed that." From then on, we were pals.
On the state of sports writing:
You have to talk about sports writing now and up to 10 years ago, because the Internet, instant communication, everything has changed. There's much greater emphasis on statistics, maybe too many statistics. I think we're relying on the modern era to do our remembering for us, which is really too bad. I once was doing a piece on home runs and I went to Carlton Fisk, who hit one of the two or three most famous home runs in history. I asked if he had any personal memory of it. He said, "It's very interesting you asked that, because whenever I see the film clip of me going down the line and waving my arms, I leave the room. I try to keep the memory personal." For the longest time, you had to remember what was there, because it wasn't coming back. There are a lot of good writers around, better than when I started. But I don't know how much they're read now, because our attention span is so quick. There's a lot of 'tough guy' stuff going on about sports, mostly on talk radio. Each guy is more knowing that the next, saying cynical things about the players. There's a sort of anger in the background. You are not the ballplayer but you know more than they do.
On baseball's endless allure:
Baseball is very suited to writers. It moves at its own pace. There's plenty of time for watching, taking mental notes, and once in awhile having an idea. The way baseball moves is very much part of what it is. It's like no other sport, it's linear. One thing then another then another.
On his style:
I was in my thirties but still too shy to talk to ballplayers or sit in the press box. So I decided to sit in the stands, because this was a story that had never been written, about what it's like to be a fan. Along in there, I started what became my tone of voice. I am writing about me. I described myself as a Mets fan from the beginning. I also used whatever words or metaphors came to mind because I didn't want to sound like a sportswriter. If you're allowed to write like yourself, it's a big privilege.
When I was very young, but already into sports, Roger Angell came to our home for a party. He spilled red wine and was seriously upset with himself. The next day, we opened the door to find a handwritten note of apology, and a vintage Jackie Robinson card for me. My mom told me one day that note would have more value than the card.
That card probably is worth some good money today, but spending time with Roger Angell is invaluable.
Michael Corvo is a student at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism. He is a contributor to RotoWire.com and is currently working on a Showtime documentary about Kobe Bryant.