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BGS: An Interview with Roger Angell
Posted By Alex Belth On May 15, 2013 @ 2:07 pm In 1: Featured,4: Gold,Banter Gold Standard,Baseball,Games We Play,Magazine Writers,Roger Angell,Sportswriting,Writers | Comments Disabled
You’ll enjoy this, Jared Haynes’ interview with Roger Angell. I came across this when I was at the baseball Hall of Fame doing research eight years ago. Found it in Angell’s file and think it’s just great.
Originally published in the fall 1992 edition of Writing on the Edge  and reprinted here with permission.
Roger Angell has been a fiction editor for The New Yorker since 1956 and has contributed to the magazine for close to fifty years. He is best known for his pieces on baseball, written for the magazine’s “The Sporting Scene” section. Many of these pieces have been gathered into collections (The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket).
Every time I read one of Angell’s articles, I come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of baseball. His year-end roundups sift through the minutiae of the long season to see what, at the end, really mattered, what was startling and unexpected, and what came to nothing. Other pieces investigate the skills and knowledge that players need to play their positions; or illustrate the swings in momentum within an at-bat, a game, a series, or a season; or tease apart the conflicts between differing factions—owners, management, players, and, most forgotten of all, the fans.
I talked with Roger Angell early in July in his office at The New Yorker. The day was hot and muggy, and because of a traffic jam, I arrived late and anxious. Angell greeted me graciously and gave me a glass of water and time to wind down. We then spent a pleasant hour and a half talking about writing and baseball, while the faint street sounds of New York wafted up from seventeen stories below.
WOE: When did you first start to consider yourself a writer?
ANGELL: The wish to be a writer was built into me very early, because of my family background. My mother was connected with The New Yorker from the second year of its existence, in 1926. And then my stepfather, E. B. White, was a writer. So I was attracted to that. My father was a lawyer; he wrote a couple of books, but he was a lawyer primarily. I was not attracted to the law, but that was not a vote against him. He was always completely supportive of whatever I chose to do.
I was a kid writer in school and editor of the school paper. I knew I would end up in publishing somewhere, editing or publishing, and I’ve been both an editor and a writer all my life. During the war I became managing editor of a GI magazine in the Pacific called Brief, which was the only weekly slick-paper, coated-stock, enlisted-man’s publication in that war. That was great practice. We covered all of the central Pacific, something like 2 million square miles. I had to write every week and help get the thing together. It’s not bad; I’ve gone back and looked at it and we did a pretty good job.
WOE: Would you say that the influence of your mother and stepfather was fairly direct? I don’t mean that they taught you, but did they give advice?
ANGELL: It was more from watching, but, sure, their influence was important. It mattered for me in psychological terms, because my parents were divorced when I was about eight years old and I ended up with my father, which was not the best arrangement. I saw a lot of my mother, but she was away. I was young and I yearned for her, so what she did, working forThe New Yorker, was of great significance to me. And what Andy White, my stepfather, did was attractive to me. My mother always supported my wishes to be a writer, my baby efforts. I had a first contribution to the famous Franklin P. Adams column, “The Conning Tower,” when I was about nine years old. I dashed it off and my stepfather picked it up and sent it in and it got published.
And, of course, when I got older, I realized that Andy White was a wonderful model. He was there at hand, and he wrote so well. I learned things from him, the main one being to try to write simply and directly and to try to make it sound easy. Be clear, be unaffected if you can, and try to arrive at a tone that is your own tone, not somebody else’s. It takes a while for you to recognize what your own tone is. I also learned how hard writing is. He made it look easy, and anybody reading E. B. White thinks, Well, this was a snap, this was a cinch for him. Of course it wasn’t. He suffered the way all writers suffer. I remember summers in North Brooklin, Maine, when he was writing “Comment”—he wrote that first page of The New Yorker for years. He’d write on Tuesdays, as I recall, when he’d close himself in his study all day. He’d come out for lunch looking pale, and he wouldn’t speak. Then he’d go back in there. He’d mail it off in the late afternoon, and then, half the time, he’d try to get it back because he thought it wasn’t good enough. Of course, it was good enough, but I recognize the impulse. Every writer understands that. Writing is hard; it’s really hard. Maybe he should have told me to turn back before it was too late!
Most writers are made at an early age. I don’t think many people come to it as a late idea. But there are always people who think, “Say, maybe I could become a writer!” I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you’re a writer. Isn’t that interesting. Someday I’m going to sit down and write a book.” You try not to laugh or scream. A writer named Roger Burlingame—someone my father’s age—had this happen years ago. Someone came up to him at a party and said this. So Burlingame asked him, “What’s your line of work?” and the man answered, “Well, I’m a civil engineer.” “That’s amazing,” Burlingame said. “You know, you won’t believe this, but all these years I’ve told myself that someday I’m going to sit down and build a bridge.”
When I talk to groups of young writers, I sometimes ask them, “Do you really want to do this?” I have cautionary tales about how tough it is, and how it doesn’t get any easier. They think that once they get the hang of it, the difficulty will go away, and of course it’s not true. Back in the mid-seventies, I was writing a piece about the Super Bowl, of all things—a “Sporting Scene” piece. The Super Bowl is two weeks of hype followed by two hours of football. I was there for a full week of the hype and I got to know the other writers. Just after the game we were in the pressroom eating a sandwich, and I said, “Now the hard part comes, we gotta write this stuff.” And a writer next to me—l was older than he was by about fifteen or twenty years—actually turned pale, and said, “You mean, it’s still hard for you?” and I said, “Yeah.” I understood his problem and I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s never going to get any easier.”
WOE: Did you have any worthwhile writing instruction in school or college?
ANGELL: When I was a freshman at Harvard, they had some remarkable instructors in composition. Wallace Stegner was there and Mark Schorer—celebrated teachers of writing. They were all in their late twenties. There were five or six sections that were all top-class. We had to write every week, which was good practice. But there isn’t much to say in a classroom about writing. You can talk endlessly about a piece of copy, or a paragraph or a sentence, and to some effect, but in general terms you can’t go much beyond “Show them, don’t tell them,” “Keep it direct,” “Be effective,” “Don’t be pompous”—all the standard things.
In those days, the great influence, the great exemplar, was Hemingway. I remember in that course at Harvard, we used to get our themes back in sort of a mail-box, with pigeon-holes, and of course you’d pick out other people’s stories and read them. Whenever I did this, I realized that every one of us was writing like Hemingway. I still remember the first sentence of one of my classmates’ stories I’d picked up: “Eddie stank of squirrel guts.”
WOE: Your first published works were short stories.
ANGELL: I wrote those pieces when I was in my twenties and thirties. I was just trying to become some kind of a writer. There were a couple of them that were OK, I guess. I really didn’t decide to stop; I just didn’t have a lot more stories to tell.
Of course in my work as an editor, I’ve been aware of most of the reigning influences in the short story.
WOE: Who have those been?
ANGELL: Oh, Raymond Carver was a very powerful influence. Donald Barthelme, back before him. Salinger to an extraordinary degree. Before that, Cheever and John O’Hara. Updike has been an influence all along, and a very strong one, but he’s difficult for students. His flavor is distinct, but not perceptible sentence by sentence. Barthelme was almost overpowering as an influence for a while because that quirky, pasted-together style looked easy, and of course it wasn’t. There was only one Donald. When he’d been going a few years, his brother Frederick Barthelme—Rick Barthelme—began sending us stuff that was exactly like Donald’s. I had to tell him, through Don at first, because I didn’t know him, that we already had one of these, we couldn’t use two. But then in time he arrived at his own way, his own approach to writing, which was entirely different, and we published a great many of his stories. I don’t think there is a dominant short-story model now. It’s strange. I don’t think there’s any meaning to it. It just doesn’t happen at the moment that there is a model. I can’t think of any.
WOE: How did you come to start writing about baseball?
ANGELL: William Shawn, then the editor [of The New Yorker], wanted to have more sports in the magazine. I had written a piece for the magazine about hockey— I’d been a hockey fan. But he was wary because he understood the difficulties of writing about sports. He didn’t want us to be cynical, he didn’t want us to be too knowing, and he didn’t want us to be sentimental. He said, “Why don’t you go down to spring training and see what happens?” I went to Florida in the spring of ’62, I guess, and wrote that first baseball piece, and I just kept going after that. I had no idea it would go on this long. It was never planned that this would become such a specialty of mine, a considerable part of a career. I just went on from year to year because I always found something else I wanted to write about. It seemed to be a good fit.
WOE: How did you envision that first assignment when you went down to Florida?
ANGELL: What I did was write about baseball from the fans’ point of view. 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 very nervous about that. So I sat in the stands and reported on what that was like. The piece was called “The Old Folks Behind Home.” It was about old men and women watching spring training. The great preponderance of fans in ’62 were old folks.
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 no 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 have this surface objectivity and toughness, but underneath it all, I’ve noticed, they 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 assignment, I think, year after year. Some of them are fans of other teams, not the team they’re covering. But if it comes down late in the season, to the last week or the last weekend, and your team still has a chance to get into the playoffs, you look around in the pressbox and everybody up there is pulling for them, and an occasional hopeful yell escapes their lips, even though no cheering in the pressbox is the absolute rule.
WOE: Has your vision of the assignment changed over the years?
ANGELL: Sure it’s changed. I eventually came to know more about baseball. I came to know some players and I began to feel free about going onto the field and into the clubhouse and talking to some players. And then, I guess in the seventies and early eighties, I began to realize that there was a great deal about the game I didn’t understand, and that many people didn’t understand. I still feel that way. That’s one of the reasons I’m still doing this. Baseball is intensely complicated, beautifully complicated. If you can get the players talking about what they do, it can make for interesting pieces. The best defense against partisanship is expertise, because the game is too painful otherwise. Year after year, it hurts to be a fan. There is much more losing than winning in baseball, if you think about it—in all sports, actually. If your hopes have been high, it can be almost unbearable. Sometimes it becomes a long slow ache, if you’ve been a Red Sox fan. Or it can be a sudden shock if you’ve gotten your hopes up for the first time, when your team comes from nowhere and seems to have a shot and then suddenly falls apart before your eyes.
WOE: It seems that you play the odds—you have three or four favorite teams that you cover.
ANGELL: The day-to-day teams that I follow most have been the Mets and the Red Sox. In 1986 I suddenly had to figure out which of the two I cared more about. It was true act of discovery; this was not contrived at all. Late in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, I suddenly realized the Mets were about to be eliminated and I was downcast. I was surprised. I would have bet the other way, that I cared more about the Red Sox, but I was wrong. So I had to write and confess that there was more Met than Red Sock in me. And my readers—I get quite a lot of mail from readers who care about baseball—my New England mail was remarkably forgiving. I thought I would be excoriated.
The other team I’ve followed is the Oakland Athletics. I’ve gotten to know the management well, first from a Profile I wrote about Roy Eisenhardt. I also admire the Haas family, the Levi Strauss people who decided to buy the team in 1980. Walter Haas, Sr. is a true baseball fan, a sports fan. They really wanted to do something for the city of Oakland. They’re liberal multi-millionaires, which is a surprising combination. They’re admirable people. Oakland was a depressed city, a city with a high preponderance of minorities, in very dire straits. They thought it would be good for Oakland to keep a big-league team, and it has been good for Oakland. This sort of concern is very rare among owners. Oakland is among the two or three most admired franchises by the players and by people who really know baseball.
WOE: You mentioned how complicated the game is. One of the pieces I’ve most admired is “In the Fire,” the one about catchers. I think it opened my eyes as a fan to how difficult and complex the game is.
ANGELL: What I learned on that story was how smart catchers have to be. They really do run the game. They see everything out there; they’re the only ones who are looking out at the field, except for the fans. I think that was the first “What do you do?” piece that I wrote. Players I talked to at first couldn’t believe that was all I wanted. They were sort of close-mouthed and thought I was after just another sports story, but I said “No, just tell me what you do.” I think for most reporters that’s probably a pretty good question, because all of us are entranced with what we do, if it’s complicated at all, and love to talk about it. So once they began to talk about it I couldn’t shut them up. There’s a lot about catching I couldn’t get in there. As I said in the piece, this is just beginning to get into what it’s all about.
On these “What do you do?” pieces, I tend to leave out the most obvious or most famous player. I don’t want to go to the top man, because what he does may seem too easy to him. So I didn’t go to Johnny Bench, although he talks about baseball and about catching very well. The people I did go to were great talkers. Of course any reporter knows enough to go to a good talker. You remember who talks well—who talks in sentences and now and then even in paragraphs. There are several Hall of Fame talkers in that same piece.
WOE: What goes into researching and writing a piece on baseball?
ANGELL: It depends on the piece. The big fall roundup really requires me to go to games fairly steadily through the summer, to take notes and keep scorecards. I also used to keep enormous stacks of newspapers and clips, The Sporting News, Baseball America, the Times, out of town papers, and last year, The National. I’d have stacks and stacks of stuff like that around here and at the end of the year I’d have to try to make some sense out of it. The biggest question, first of all, is what to leave out. There’s far more material than I can deal with. If you get a brilliant World Series like the one last fall, between the Braves and the Twins, that’s easy, because you know you’re going to hurry to the World Series in the piece. And the playoffs were just as good. You want to go back and recreate the feeling of those very close, low-scoring games, when most of us were just getting to know these young players. We didn’t know them well at all because they were both last place teams the year before. As I wrote, a great many fans said, “Who are these guys? I don’t care about these guys.” And then of course they played so well, it was like discovering baseball for the first time. I’d come in and people around here would say, “Wow! I’m worn out.” They were terrific games. It was like a World Series that was nothing but one long ninth inning.
There’s a lot to organize for those pieces in the fall. This year I’m going to try to do a shorter piece about the World Series, if I can break the habit.
When I go to games, I take a lot of notes. I take a standard, three-subject school notebook like this [picks it up off his desk], and I write all the way through games. This is a piece I’m working on, getting ready to write right now, about Class A baseball, the lowest level of organized ball, up in Oneonta, New York. I was up there last week. People who have known me in various pressboxes around the league know that I write a lot during the games. It’s a kind of joke—all the notes I take. But the reason is that I’m going to write much later than anybody else. I may be at a game in July and the chances are I won’t use any part of it in an autumn piece, but you never know. You don’t know when you’re watching a game if this is going to fit into something else that happens in September and something else that happens in October, or some recurrent theme I want to pick up on, or something about this particular player that I’m going to see later on. Well, I can’t remember what happened at this at-bat back in June. I can’t suddenly pull this out of the air. It’s got to be down on paper.
WOE: Do the notes allow you to revisualize the play?
ANGELL: Yes, if the notes are okay. I sometimes write down little things, how someone looks standing up at bat, what the pitcher’s mannerisms are up on the mound, or even what happened on a particular play, if it’s unusual. Baseball is a sport uniquely suited to writing, because you can go back and reconstruct a game from fairly simple notes and from a scorecard. You can bring back a moment, or even the pattern of the game. When something started to happen, if there was a game with a shift in it, a hinge in it. Then you can say this is why this game started this way and went that way. It all moves at a pace that allows you to write it down and watch it beginning to happen. Usually if there’s a shift in the game you can go back and say, “Well, actually this began the inning before or the inning before that.” You can do it in some detail. I don’t think anybody does it in more detail than I do. I’ve been laughed at sometimes for this, but I think fans like it. Baseball is really a writer’s game. All those idle moments at the ballpark where you look around and enjoy the day or the evening and another peanut, and now and then a thought actually comes, or even an idea crosses your mind. That doesn’t happen much in basketball or hockey because too many things are happening. And in football you can’t tell what’s happening. In baseball, you can. It’s very rare that something happens where people will say, “What was that?”
WOE: Do you tend to write in complete sentences in your notebooks?
ANGELL: I don’t think so. These notebooks [on Class A baseball] are different because I wasn’t doing very careful stuff about these games themselves. I was doing it about the setting. No, these aren’t sentences. These are quotes in some cases. But in my game notebooks I sometimes have something drawn. I make a little rough sketch of what someone looks like. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Will Clark, who has this elegant, beautiful swing. It’s such a wonderful thing to watch. I would begin to watch how he’d do this and I’d make a drawing of that column made by his front leg and the fulcrum as he twists his body around.
WOE: What is most difficult for you in writing?
ANGELL: Starting a piece seems to be extremely difficult for me. It always has been. People around here are used to my cries of rage and woe, because I can’t get cranked up. Once I start to write, I’m pretty quick. But starting is a terrible block for me. Perhaps the reason is that good writing is based on clear thinking, which is the hardest thing we have to do. It’s as plain as that. It’s hard to start to write because what you have to do is to start to think. And not just think with the easy, up front part of your brain but with the deeper, back parts of the unconscious. The unconscious comes into writing in a powerful way. When I was writing weekly pieces—and I think daily writers feel this as well—if I am having a hard time I can go to bed at night and say, “When I wake up I’m going to have the lead.” And you do. You can train your mind to do that. Some part of you is sitting there hunched over, under a light, looking over possibilities.
I think part of my problem is that I don’t write regularly. I’m not just a writer, I’m an editor—my full time job is an editor—so I write something and then I stop. Then I may not write again for a month or two or even three or four months. And when that happens, you’ve got to remember what writing is. You have to teach yourself all over again. It doesn’t come naturally. Whenever I’ve been in the situation where I had to write every week—I did the movies for the magazine for six months once—it was a cinch. I knew I came in on Tuesdays and I was going to write the piece. By the end of the day the piece would be done. That’s no problem. But if you’re going to write five thousand or ten thousand or even a fifteen thousand words, and you haven’t done anything of the sort for a good many weeks, it’s hard to get it right. But I think all this time I’m basically sorting out the material, mostly unconsciously; I’m getting ready to decide where to put the emphasis.
I think I’m also hampered a little bit by the feeling that I’m probably competing with myself, although I try to combat this. I don’t feel a need to write a better piece each time I go out, but l know that I’ve got something of a reputation and I don’t want to write a bad piece, I really don’t. I don’t want to let down the side—by which I mean I don’t want to let myself down. I recognize this feeling among ballplayers because the great motivating factor for every major-league athlete, anybody who’s been an athlete for a long time, is that you don’t want to look bad out there. People say players today are out there thinking about money, but the truth is, they want to do well. That’s why they’re there. There’s another connection between sports and writing—all writers want to do well. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so damned hard.
WOE: I remember your quoting one player who asked his teammates, “Please tell me when I need to retire.”
ANGELL: I think that was Bob Boone. Actually he’d said it the other way around. He was still playing and he was forty-three years old. He’d played more games than any other catcher. And now that Carlton Fisk has been injured all this year it looks as if he’ll keep that record. I was a friend of Bob Boone’s and I asked him once, “How do you keep going?” He said, “I never think about my age. Never. If I go into a slump, I don’t ask myself ‘Is this because I’m old?’” Because it’s tough enough without that. And then he said, “They’ll tell me when I’m too old to play. They’ll come take the uniform away and say, ‘You can’t play any more.’ I’m not going to tell myself that.”
WOE: When you go to do a piece on, say, Class A baseball, do you go with a specific purpose in mind? Do you know ahead of time what you want to get out of it? Or do you just go to watch the games and see what happens?
ANGELL: Well, I’m doing the piece on Class A baseball right now because Major League baseball is such a pain in the ass. We are burdened by front-office news and issues of money, with these squabbles with the commissioner—league rearrangements, expansion franchises, and all the rest of it—and it’s hard to remember what we came for, which is to watch baseball. I think all of us in the stands, not just writers but all of us, feel farther away from the game than we used to. It requires enormous effort to remember that we go to the park to have fun.
I don’t want to whine here, because I think I’ve become used to most of the terrific changes, the amazing changes in the game. They’re not amazing, they’re depressing. There have been significant changes in the apparatus of baseball since I began watching it. Diamond Vision is a huge change. Everything that happens out there is replayed up on that huge board. There is rock music between the innings and even during the innings sometimes. There is organized cheering in some ballparks. The Nipponization of sports is beginning to take hold here. And of course we’re all distracted by the publicity, the fame, and we don’t really identify with those players now. With all the blather and noise and distraction of big-time sports—which is very much the same sort of stuff that’s going on in America itself—it’s hard to remember why we were drawn to this in the first place.
I went back to Class A ball and up to Oneonta because I’d heard that this was a delightful small ballpark, with a president-owner who had been there for almost thirty years now. It’s a Yankee franchise. It’s short season Class A league, where the teams are made up of players just out of college. They’re new draftees. I watched them play a Red Sox team and then a Houston team and then I went over to Pittsfield and watched them play a Mets team. It’s nice. It’s small town baseball, the trees are very close, you’re within five yards of first base, you can smell the grass, the kids are young, and the stands are full of parents and babies. It’s the way spring training used to be. It’s a lot of fun and that’s all I’m going to try to say in the piece. I don’t have anything more to say than that.
WOE: What about revising pieces? When you get to the point where it’s “done,” do you give it to somebody else to look at?
ANGELL: I don’t do a lot of revising. I work at a typewriter. Writer friends keep telling me I should move to a word processor. Every interviewer comes in here, particularly younger ones, and sees this old Olympia, and the first thing they write in their notes is “Still writes on funky upright typewriter.” I don’t do a lot of drafts. I don’t rewrite big sections. I do the editing while I’m writing. I might rewrite a page or so. I write and I “x” out, I write and I “x” out some more. When I’m done, what I have is a great untidy stack of manuscript, a lot of which is held together with Scotch tape. But by the time I’m done, it’s pretty well the way it’s going to be. I sometimes might go back and add something—a thought, or a little theme, a couple of extra pages that I didn’t have the first time. And sometimes I’ll take out something that’s repetitious. But by the time I’ve gone through the process, it’s about ready to go to type.
I also have an editor here whom I rely on to tell me when I’ve been foolish or repetitious or boring, and I count on that. All New Yorker writers do that. The mark of a professional, or a veteran anyway, is that you know you’re going to make mistakes. You need somebody there to tell you that. My editor is now Chip McGrath, who is the managing editor here. My editor before that was Gardner Botsford, who is now retired. These are terrific editors. Gardner would sometimes cut a few lines and I wouldn’t even notice it. Reading the galleys I’d say, “Didn’t I have something else in here?” He’d be very pleased when I finally realized it, because he’d been so deft that there was no scar left.
WOE: That need for outside help is hard to get across to students when we’re teaching them writing.
ANGELL: Absolutely. A lot of my work as an editor involves young writers, and new writers tend to feel that the way they wrote it is the way it’s meant to be. Once you see your stuff in type you think you wrote every one of those words without crossing out a line. It’s an illusion that we all have, to some extent. And the truth of the matter is that any piece of writing is just the last proof; it’s the one we had to let go of because the deadline is here.
This [indicating a sheaf of pages on his desk] is a page proof of a new John Updike story. It’s very short, just five pages. These are some corrections from our copy desk, some suggestions on grammar and usage, whatever. But we’ve already sent him the author’s proof, which had a lot more on it—factual queries from the “checking department, little things he might want to consider. All that’s gone off to him and he has answered them, and his corrections are in this page proof. I’ve sent up the page proofs already by overnight mail. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning and we’ll go over these possible fixes. He will answer those questions, and meantime he will have some changes of his own. He rewrites on the author’s proof, but he also rewrites on page proof. He may have four or five sentences he’ll want to handle differently—rephrasing, new sentences—and sometimes he’ll ask me “What do you think? Is this better than that?” He’s open to my opinion because that’s what I’m here for. I’m not trying to rewrite John Updike, but to say “Why don’t you try it this way?”
WOE: And you find veteran writers more receptive to this?
ANGELL: Sure. And some very well known writers require quite a lot of editing. I don’t think it makes them lesser writers; it’s just what they are. Then there are some writers who are famously clean and write finished copy from the beginning. Updike is like that. With Donald Barthelme, you hardly had to do anything, but he still counted on me as an editor. I remember he said once, “I count on you to get the hay out.” And I count on my editors in turn when I’m writing.
WOE: I get the impression when reading your pieces that you are working on several ideas at once, some that you may not use until later. For example, the piece on catchers. You worked on it the season before but didn’t really get around to writing it until later. Do you consciously have several projects going on in your mind at once?
ANGELL: I wish I had more things going on. But, sure, the catching piece contained a lot of material and I wanted more time to get around and talk to more people. I don’t always have all that much time to get away from my desk and go out reporting. I wrote that piece in the winter. I started in spring training the previous year and finished writing it in the winter.
Right now I’ve got some notes on coaching from my spring-training travels that I haven’t used yet. I’m not sure there’s enough there, or that I understand enough yet.
WOE: You frequently mention the linearity of baseball in your pieces.
ANGELL: Well, watching a ball game is something like reading. Something happens and then something else happens, and something else happens after that. As I said before, you can go back in your mind and see which events or characters mattered during those early boring but necessary chapters. You have to pay attention because you don’t know what kind of a book or what kind of a game it’s going to turn out to be. You won’t know until you get on toward the end. Sometimes the whole thing goes flat. Sometimes it’s promising and then disappointing. Sometimes there are continuous themes, sometimes there are sudden changes. Now and then you realize that you’re reading a classic.
WOE: I’m curious as to how you envision your audience. How do you think about your reader?
ANGELL: I don’t have anybody in particular in mind. The person is probably me or somebody like me. I know a lot about my readers because I get mail from them right through the year. I think this is because baseball means a lot to people and perhaps also because I write about myself in my baseball pieces. One of the great privileges for me is that I’ve been able to say “I” a lot. I can cut directly to things I feel strongly about. Since I write personally, and since baseball seems to mean a lot to real fans, then they feel I’m writing to them and they write back. They write me not just about baseball, but about their lives. Floods of mail, or what seems like floods. I’m always behind. This winter, I wrote a piece about my baseball beginnings as a boy fan, and I’ve had well over two hundred letters, maybe three hundred letters, from people writing about their own baseball beginnings. And they’re not all old geezers like me. Whatever their age, they all seem to remember going with their father to the park for the first time, and when they first saw this team or that player.
We write because we want a response. Writing is a lonely occupation, but I think all writers are writing to somebody. As long as you remember that, you’re not going to go too far astray. You can’t write and then put it away. That’s what Salinger has been doing all these years, and it’s a shame, because I can’t believe that it’s going to be any good. He has had his own reasons, to be sure.
When you’re writing, you have to think about the person who’s going to be reading this, every moment. This is what I say to young writers I deal with. What will the reader think? What will the reader think? We are doing this very complicated thing in concert with the person who is going to read this. You have signed an invisible compact that promises that you are not going to let this guy down. You’re not going to play tricks on him, you are not going to lead him up this way and then turn on him and do something else.
Whenever I get the feeling that I’m writing well, it’s because in some way I can intuit or imagine what a reader is thinking. I think this must be true for most writers. It certainly is for me. You can set up things that are going to work later on in a piece. You prepare a reader almost unconsciously, and then something happens later on that connects with that earlier passage. The reader is pleased or saddened or whatever, sometimes not quite knowing why, butyou know why. This is the part of writing that is deeply pleasing if you can do it right. It’s another reason why it’s so hard. It’s never just you and the page. It’s you and the page and the person who is going to consume this object at the other end.
WOE: That idea of preparing the reader reminds me of your piece on Dan Quisenberry. Reading that, I feel he’s such an artist and such an interesting person. Then toward the end, you talk about how his pitching starts to fall apart, and his bewilderment about what went wrong is very sad.
ANGELL: Sure. And there’s another example of difficulty. This is another connection between baseball and writing. They are both intensely difficult. They look easy, but they’re hard.
WOE: Let me ask you about your style. It’s a very literate style. As I read through Season Ticket, I picked out just a couple of the many metaphors or allusions you made: a piece on the Detroit ball club of 1984 is called “Tiger, Tiger”; two women behind you in the stands are a Euripidean chorus; a particular player’s stance is like limeflower tea to your memory. These are things that the average reader of a newspaper sports section is not going to latch onto at all.
ANGELL: I hope I don’t do this in an affected way. I worry about this because I don’t want to use references that my readers are unable to follow. I think in The New Yorker you find an audience that is ready for this sort of thing. The references are ones that come readily to my mind while I’m writing, and if they’re literary, it’s because I’ve read a lot. But I also have a lot of very commonplace figures, a lot of jokes, slang, movie references, because this is also what I am. I’m an informal sort of a guy.
WOE: Is there any precedent for that kind of writing in sports? Where did it come from? Is it natural for you?
ANGELL: I think it’s natural for me. There are people in sports who have written this way. 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 he 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.
Sometimes when you’re writing, you find that your own feelings are quite different from what you thought they would be, and then you have to go with that. Sometimes there are complex things happening that you have to go along with. I wrote a piece which meant a lot to me, called “In the Country,” about a semi-pro ball player and his girlfriend, Ron Goble and Linda Kittle. He was playing semi-pro ball, she was a would-be poet, and they were living together. Baseball meant a lot to them. They took me into their lives and basically told me everything about themselves—an amazing thing to do. I went up to Vermont to write about baseball and ended up writing about them. I was very moved, because they trusted me. They said, “We’ve given you our lives.” A lot of emotion went into that piece that I didn’t really anticipate when I first went out to do it.
WOE: That was a wonderful piece—very respectful of their feelings, their ups and downs.
ANGELL: You have to respect your subject. If you’re writing about professional athletes, respect is a crucial ingredient. You can’t patronize these guys. There are many ballplayers who are less educated than the people writing about them. Many of them find it difficult to talk and it’s a big problem. If you put down exactly what they say—particularly Hispanic ballplayers—it sounds as if you’re patronizing. If their English isn’t good, you have to be very selective and suggest in a minimal sort of way that some of this is being delivered in an accent. But underneath this, you can’t laugh at these guys. You know that sometimes ballplayers can be laughable when they are talking about what they’ve done, or maybe just pretentious, too full of themselves. If you want to say they are too full of themselves, you have to say it, you can’t suggest it. I remember a couple of times I had what I thought was first-class stuff about a player, or a lively anecdote, but I didn’t use it because I couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t write it without sounding as if I were inviting the audience to feel superior.
Sometimes I don’t mind. If it was Reggie Jackson, I did sometimes try to suggest that he’s full of himself. But in the next minute, he would astound you with a line or an idea. He was always very aware of what he was doing, talking to writers. He was trying to use me and I was trying to use him. Every writer had that experience with Reggie.
WOE: Are there recurring themes in baseball you tend to come back to?
ANGELL: Difficulty is one. And heartbreak is an innate part of the game. Aging is very much a part of it, because if there’s any subtext to sports that really holds up over a long period of time it is that in a rather short span of years, you can watch an athlete go through a lifetime, so to speak. You watch him be born as a rookie, come to young manhood, and then to middle age; you see him begin to slow down, begin to worry, try to remember what it was he used to do so easily and effortlessly, and then fade away and die, in effect, all in the space of ten years. Even kids sense that. I remember seeing DiMaggio slow down. I was in my twenties then and I’d picked up on him when I was twelve years old. This is sad stuff. The last few seasons of Willie Mays were heartbreaking. You didn’t want it to happen.
WOE: I felt the same about Mickey Mantle.
ANGELL: I try never to go to Old-Timers games. They say, “Come back and see these wonderful guys.” I don’t want to see these wonderful guys. It’s hard enough for the rest of us to get old. I can look in a mirror, but what’s the fun of that? I want to remember these guys and what they looked like when they were at their best.
I try to stay away from the deeper meanings in sports. If they’re there, they’ll come through. You sense what they are. Sports are about us as a species. We want to see how people respond under conditions of enormous stress, however artificially prepared. We want to see how they perform when they fail and we want to see how they perform when they succeed. Then we want to see them go and do it again. That’s what makes you a pro. Some pitcher said years ago, “That’s the difference. People say to you, ‘You were great today, now go out and be great again tomorrow.”‘ That’s what separates us from them.
WOE: I have the impression that your writing has become more personal and contemplative about sports over the years, more about baseball the game than about the individual games that you’ve gone to see.
ANGELL: I guess so. It’s not a plan. I’m the age that I am and I have a different outlook on this than I did in my forties. People at my age become more contemplative. If it makes you any wiser, I don’t know. It’s a natural stage of things.
Your memory of things in the distant past becomes remarkably sharp. You remember things from thirty years ago, forty years ago with little effort, sometimes more clearly than what happened last week.
I want to keep fresh. I think if I become too distanced from baseball or too much seeing the larger picture, it’ll be time to stop, because this is a game played by young men. It’s very hard for me to talk to ballplayers now, because when they start calling you “Sir” you’re in big trouble as a reporter. They’re terrifically young. It’s harder for all baseball writers now because access is very difficult; they don’t want to talk to you. They make so much money and they see themselves as public figures, as television stars, once they’re on their way. The players don’t talk about baseball as much as they used to. The last great daily talker about baseball was Keith Hernandez, who played wonderful first base for the Mets—the best defensive first baseman I ever saw. When the game was over he’d sit down and have a couple of beers and several cigarettes and talk about the game with all comers. It was great stuff. There was always a crowd of writers around him, finding out what really happened. There aren’t many players like that around now.
Very few players think about the fans. They glance up there, and once in a while you will hear them say that the fans have been great, “the tenth player,” but that’s all by rote. The only player who surprised me about this was Willie McCovey, in San Francisco in the early seventies, when the Giants in mid-September were suddenly in first place or close to it. They had just lost a couple in a row and eventually they dropped back to third place, but ten days before the end of the season, they had a real shot. I was talking with McCovey and he understood how rare this chance was because he’d played in the World Series, in ’62, but not since then. He knew how rare it was for a player. I said, “Willie, the fans here are dying. Do you ever think about this? They’re really suffering.” And he looked up in the stands and said, “Yes, I know. When you step up to bat, you’re all they’ve got. If you fail, they fail.” Of all the players I’ve talked to, he’s the only person who saw that connection.
WOE: How has television affected the way fans see the game?
ANGELL: TV has made us all much more expert as fans. We know these games much better than we did, because we’ve seen so many of them. But this is an enormous subject. The biggest change in America in my lifetime has been television. I just went to my fiftieth reunion at Harvard, where I was on a panel discussing journalism and our times, or something like that. Tom Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, called me up a few weeks before and asked, “What are we going to talk about? What’s the biggest change in our life?” I said, “Television,” and he agreed. So we talked about television. It was gloomy stuff.
Television has totally altered the nature of sports. It’s made it a permanent all-star attraction. It’s all about winning, it’s nothing about losing—losing is pushed away. And more and more about money, of course. What it’s done to amateur sports is disastrous. Most college sports are corrupt now, and we know it. We have these mercenaries we pay to see, in many cases at very high prices to their lives. We watch these young men play basketball in the Final Four during the last couple of weeks of the basketball season and we know that very few of them are students. We know it, but we don’t remind ourselves, because if we did we’d be ashamed to be paying attention. Basketball is now seen as the quickest way out of the inner city for young blacks, which is heartbreaking because so few of them are going to make it. The money distorts everything.
WOE: What sort of advice would you give someone who wanted to go into sports writing? How would they would get into it and how would they learn the craft?
ANGELL: I think the usual way is to model ourselves on somebody in the field. If you’re young, you do this naturally There’s nothing wrong with this. I once heard Borges say that when he was young, he could write Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson better than they could. He told me, “I finally got over that, but it got me going.”
But I’m not sure I would encourage people to go into sports writing right now. Television has taken over so much of the reporting. That’s where the action is. It’s not as if you can’t get good sports writing jobs if you’re talented, but it’s a more limited profession than it used to be, or more challenging. The basic level of sports writing is higher than it was when I started. Writers are better educated; there are more smart, thoughtful, enterprising writers. With the structure of modern sport, you have to be more energetic to go out and do a good reporting job every day. I admire beat writers. It’s a difficult job to travel with a team every day, to really say what’s going on, and to report on the tone of the team, as well as to say who won or lost, and not to get jaded or begin to dislike the players. You have to be critical and also to be able to get along with the players so that you can get them to talk to you. It’s tough.
WOE: Especially if you’ve just written something unfavorable about the team.
ANGELL: Absolutely. But if you’re going to go into writing at any point, it always looks as if there’s too much talent around. The odds are always hopelessly loaded against you. But that’s true in most professions. You think, “I could never succeed in that.” Maybe you won’t, but you’ve got to try. If you want to do it, you will try. The figures are never as bad as they look, because a lot of the competition will turn out not to have much talent or won’t stick with it. If you’re going to do it, do it. But as I’ve been saying right along, writing is hard.
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