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I Gotta Be Me
2004-05-25 08:29
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

While I was doing research on Curt Flood up at the Hall of Fame library last week, I took the opportunity to look up some of my favorite baseball writers. Pat Jordan, Lee Allen and Ed Linn were just a couple I had time to get to. In Roger Angell's file, I found a lengthy interview that appeared in a literary publication called "Writing on the Edge." Conducted in July of 1993 by Jared Haynes, Angell talked about writing and baseball of course. Here are some words of wisdom then from one of the true masters of baseball writing:


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 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.

…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 I 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.

…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.

…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 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.

'Nuff said, right? Further, Angell discussed the importance of writers taking their subjects seriously:


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 about it without sounding as if I were inviting the audience to feel superior.

Finally, I like this story about how ballplayers feel about us fans:


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 ethey 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.

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