Unlike many of my contemporaries, I did not grow up reading Bill James. I wasn’t familiar with James’ Baseball Abstracts until my cousin gave me his collection in 2002, but in many ways, Bill James is the Internet–the outsider, the guy writing in his basement, intellectually curious, irreverent, superior, caustic and funny. The guy who doesn’t have to actually face the athletes, who really doesn’t have any interest in talking to them.
There have been other writers who played a big part in influencing the current generation of baseball writers–from Tom Boswell and Peter Gammons to James’ protogee Rob Neyer and Bill Simmons.
But for me, the early role model was Roger Angell because he was a writer and a fan. Here is Angell discussing his first baseball assignment for the New Yorker in the spring of 1962 (from a wonderful interview conducted by Jared Haynes “They Look Easy, But They’re Hard,” originally published in Writing on the Edge in 1993):
I was in my forties–I was forty-one–and I knew enough to know that I didn’t know a great deal about baseball, even though I was a true-blue fan. I’d followed baseball all my life. But I was wary of talking to players; I felt nervous about that.
…And also, although it was not a conscious plan, I wrote about myself, because I was a fan. It set a pattern for me. I am a fan, I refer to myself as a fan, and I report about my feelings as a fan, and nobody else, to my knowledge, does that. It’s not great thing, but those old restrictions on reporting seemed to say that you can’t put yourself in the piece and you can’t betray emotion. It’s funny, because most of the beat writers are just as much fans as the rest of us, or more so. If you sat up there and didn’t care about baseball in some personal way, it would be a deadly assingment, I think, year after year.
Angell is an editor first and a writer second. So who influenced his approach to writing about baseball?
A great model for me was Red Smith, who was a model for almost every sportswriter. The great thing about Red Smith was that he sounded like himself. His attitude about sports was always clear. He felt himself enormously lucky to be there in the pressbox. He was not in favor of glorifying the players too much–Godding up the players, in Stanley Woodward’s phrase. But was Red Smith in every line. You knew what he had read and what his influences were.
I don’t try to be a literate sportswriter; I try to be myself. It’s as simple as that. Everybody’s got to find what their voice is. You’ve got to end up sounding like yourself if you’re going to write in a way that’s going to reward you when you’re done. If you end up sounding like somebody else, you’re not going to be any good. You won’t get anywhere. Readers are smart. They will pick up whether the tone is genuine or not. Tone is the ultimate thing writers have to think about. You could write on a given subject–a ball game or a national crisis or a family crisis–in twenty or thirty different ways. You only have to pick what you want people to make of this.
Words to live by. Angell has often said that writing and baseball may look easy but they are both extremely hard. I try to never forget this because neither gets easier with practice. I can’t get away from the reality with writing because I do it regularly, but it’s more tempting to lose track of how hard it is to play the game.
I’ll always be grateful to Angell for making this clear. And for setting a wonderful example of the writer as fan.