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Bronx Banter Interview: Roger Angell
2003-05-09 10:00
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

This interview originally appeared at BaseballProspectus.com.

Roger Angell, The New Yorker's celebrated baseball writer, has a new compilation out titled "Game Time", which contains many new pieces along with some previously published ones as well. BP correspondent Alex Belth caught up with Angell last weekend and talked about growing up a New York Giants baseball fan, the present-day Yankees, plus other topics New York baseball-focused and otherwise.

Bronx Banter: How did you get your start as a baseball fan, and as a writer?

Roger Angell: I got my start as a fan in the most traditional way possible: My father was a big baseball fan. My father had grown up in Cleveland, and when I was a kid, we would be going to Giants games here in New York, and Yankees games. As I've written, I think it still works with kids under 10 that their first big obsession is with baseball. They become aware of this gigantic lore. Some of the first players that I saw were people like Babe Ruth, and Carl Hubbell and Lou Gehrig, and I remember when Joe DiMaggio first arrived in my teens. So it goes back a ways.

BB: Where did you grow up?

Angell: I grew up close to where I live now. I grew up on 93rd Street, and on the way to school, my school bus which went up 5th Avenue when 5th Avenue went both ways, sometimes in the morning I would meet Col. (Jacob) Ruppert on his way to his brewery on the east side. He owned the Yankees. By that time I was 10 years old, so I would have a mitt, and I would give the mitt a whack and look at him, and expect him to stop and say: 'Young man, here's my card, take this up to the Stadium for a tryout.' It never happened. My father was a real fan, and he told me what to watch for. He had grown up in Cleveland in the Cy Young, days, and uh, his heart was broken for the rest of his life (laughs).

BB: So did you grow up as a Giants fan or a Yankees fan?

Angell: Both. I think I was more of a Yankee fan at first, but the Yankees were winning so often...that I discovered along the way that I was more a Giants fan than a Yankees fan.

BB: (Did you pull for the Giants) strictly because they were the underdog?

Angell: Cause they were the underdog, sure. And naturally you attach yourself to the underdog. But I think I enjoyed the Polo Grounds more than Yankee Stadium because it was such an eccentric and interesting park.

BB: Were most of the Giants fans of an older generation, because they were the dominant New York team before the Yankees?

Angell: Yeah, it's true. But I think if it had been some other city like Pittsburgh, I would have been a Pirates fan. It was just local. I was not a Dodgers fan, because the Dodgers always meant trouble for the Giants. I didn't actually go to a game at Ebbets Field until I was almost grown up.

BB: When did you want to become a writer?

Angell: My parents were divorced and I was living with my father during the weekdays. My mother was an editor at The New Yorker, was one of the first editors of the New Yorker. So it was sort of a family business. And she was married to E.B. White. So there was a writer close at hand. I think the aspirations came naturally.

BB: Did your mother write herself?

Angell: No, she was a famous fiction editor and early art editor. Famous figure in the family of The New Yorker, Katherine White. She was head of the fiction department, so I wound up in the fiction department myself many years later. But I remember watching E.B. White write, and I was a great admirer of his stuff because it looked so effortless and at the same time I could see how much effort had gone into it. He used to write the Comment Page, in the first page of the New Yorker. Every week. And that day, up in their place in Maine, he would close himself in his office and he would come out for lunch, and not say anything, and then you'd hear the sounds of sporadic typing in there, and then he'd mail it off and the end of the day and say it wasn't good enough. He was always saying that writing is hard, which is true.

BB: So writing was the family business.

Angell: The New Yorker was the family business. There was endless talk about The New Yorker all the time. Harold Ross, and all these people. I knew these people when I was young. Sure, it was an everyday sort of thing. My father was a lawyer, and I saw a lot of him, but he never begrudged me going into writing; in fact he encouraged me. So it was a natural sort of thing, and I grew up thinking I was going to do something in publishing. I had no idea I'd end up at The New Yorker, and I had no idea that I'd end up writing about baseball.

BB: When did you arrive at The New Yorker?

Angell: Well, I graduated from college, went overseas in the Pacific and became the managing editor of a G.I. weekly out there. Air Force. A magazine called "Brief." I had amazing preparation for what I would do later on. After the war, by this time I had begun to publish in The New Yorker, when I was quite young, publishing fiction. I wrote an article about a bomber mission in the Pacific. I didn't want to go to work for The New Yorker because it was the family business and you know you want to do things on your own. I went to work for a magazine called "Holiday," a new monthly started up after the war by Curtis Publishing. It was a famous travel magazine; it was a wonderful magazine that produced great writers, and artists and photographers from around the world. And I had a lot of fun doing that. I went to The New Yorker in the fall of '55. My parents were living in Maine. E.B. White was writing other stuff and my mother had retired by this time. It was a natural thing for me to do since I was a writer and editor and contributor to The New Yorker.

BB: When did you first write about baseball?

Angell: In '62. I had written some sports pieces, I had written a piece about the New York Rangers. I was a hockey fan; I was a sports fan. I did a couple of other things. And I had written a baseball piece for "Holiday," sort of a generic baseball piece. I said if you want I could go down to spring training. I certainly did not have it in mind to write a lot about baseball. The thing was, (my editor) didn't want sentimental writing about sports and he didn't want tough guy writing about sports, which were the choices back then. You were either weepy, or you were tough. The first year I went to spring training I found the newborn Mets in St. Petersburg. This is 40 years ago. I didn't think of myself as a sports writer so I didn't dare go in the clubhouse or sit in the press box. I sat with the fans. And I realized that the stuff that's ignored and never gets reported on is the fans. Nobody ever wrote about the fans. So I wrote about the fans, and I've continued to do so. I've continued to write in a form that allows me to write in the first person. And that allows me to say I am a fan of this team, or react to things as a fan as well as a baseball writer that now knows something about the game. The Mets were just a great fan story when they arrived. They played in the Polo Grounds and they were one of the worst and most entertaining teams that ever played. And that was a terrific story. And New York was used to the Yankees, winning all the time. Somebody said they had become like General Motors. And here was a team that was just terrible, but large numbers of people turned out to cheer them on, and if they won a game there was wild excitement. So I wrote that. They were something like anti-matter to the New York Yankees. I remember sitting there at the Polo Grounds, and there was a guy sitting near me in the stands blowing this mournful horn. TWUUUHH-TRUUUHP. And I wrote that there is more Met than Yankee in all of us, because losing is much more common than winning. When I heard that horn blowing I realized that horn was blowing for me. In some way, I began to settle into the kind of writing that I would do later on. They call me a "baseball essayist," or a "baseball poet laureate," and I hate that. I'm not trying to write baseball essays, and I'm certainly not trying to be poetic. I try to avoid it. I've been able to find myself and baseball a natural fit, and everybody wants to write about himself. That's why we do it (laughs).

BB: When were you aware that this was going to be something you were going to be doing regularly?

Angell: I think what happened was, I went to the World Series every year, again keeping my distance. But what happened in the 60s was that there were three great World Series and pennant races in a row. In '67, there was a four-way race in the American League between the White Sox, Twins, Tigers and the Red Sox. The White Sox went out first, and the Tigers were in it until the last day. The Sox had won and I was in the Red Sox clubhouse when news came that the Tigers had lost, and the Red Sox were in.

BB: The Impossible Dream Team.

Angell: Yeah, there was a great World Series that fall. Carl Yastrzemski was an extraordinary player, carried that team all the way through September. The Red Sox lost of course. And the next year was the Tigers and the Cardinals, and Bob Gibson struck out 17 batters in the first game. Something that never had happened before. And the year after that was the sudden arrival of the Mets: The biggest upset in modern times. These were three great late seasons and post seasons in a row, and by that time I was there writing about this first-hand. I was involved in some way. I felt involved. I learned how to attach myself to teams and I learned how to ask the right questions. It was a lot of fun. And the readers liked it so I went on doing it.

BB: When did you start approaching the locker room and the press box?

Angell: I did that in the sixties. I began to sit in the press box. I remember following the Red Sox around and sitting in the Press Box at Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium. A lot of writers were very good to me, and Cliff Keane one of the old Red Sox writers, famous guy for needling people, would make fun of me for taking so many notes. I'd fill up my notebooks, because I knew I was going to be writing much later, and I didn't know what would be useful at that time. So I would take notes and take notes. Keane would say to me, "How many pages today Rog, 20, 30?" I remember Keane trying to be cynical about Yastrzemski because Yastrzemski was such a great star. There was a game in Tiger Stadium where the Sox were behind a couple of runs, and Yaz came up and he said: 'OK Yaz, prove you're the MVP: Hit a home run.' And he hit a home run (laughs).

BB: What was it like in the locker room during that period?

Angell: Well, it wasn't nearly as crowded as it is now. The masses of TV people weren't there. You didn't have every local television channel in the land trying to represent something in the clubhouse. I think players were a little more accessible. And they were different, they were different. The great example that comes to mind right away is [Bob] Gibson after that 17-strikeout performance. He stood in front of his locker; writers were four and five deep at this point. And all of us had our pencils poised. This was in '68, and racially things were very uptight still. Someone said to Gibson: 'Were you surprised at what you did today?' Gibson looked at him and said: 'I'm never surprised by anything I do.' You could see this going through the writers like: 'What did he say? What did he say?' I hung around, after the crowds had left, and I was talking with Gibson a little bit, and I said: 'Are you always this competitive?' He said: 'Oh, I think so. I got a three-year old daughter, and I've played about 500 games of tic-tac-toe with her and she hasn't beat me yet.' And he meant it. He meant it.

BB: What were your impressions of the Cardinals in the 1960s?

Angell: You have to remember that when Gibson joined the Cardinals, he had played with the Globetrotters, as a second team. Many people forget this. But they played in the South and the black players would have to stay with black families when they went down there. Gibson hated this. Those were tough times.

BB: What was Bill White like in those days?

Angell: I didn't get to know him until later. He was a roommate of Gibby's at one point. He reminded me that when he changed clubs--he went over to the Phillies, I think the first at-bat he had against Gibson, Gibson hit him. He said: 'We're no longer roommates.' And of course that has really changed. This business of knockdown pitches and fighting for the inside part of the play has gone by, and if anybody gets hit now they look deeply insulted. It's too bad, because I really love the inside pitch, and the struggles of the batters to establish themselves.

BB: Those Cardinals were known for being a very racially integrated team. Did you get that impression from them?

Angell: Yeah, I think so, but the team I remember for that was the '79 Pirates. The greatest racial mix that there has ever been. Just unbelievable combinations of people. Suave, inner-city African Americans, and white guys from the South. Phil Garner was the son of a minister from the South. And of course Willie Stargell. You had South Americans, Latinos. The clubhouse was a mass of ethnic energy. All kinds of music going on. At one point I thought they were going to start sacrificing chickens. And rock music. That was the "We Are Family" thing. And everything revolved around Stargell, who was the guy that held it together. And they were so excited by themselves. It was just terrific.

BB: One thing I noticed in your feature about Gibson was that his reputation had diminished when the piece was published in the early '80s. These days Koufax and Gibson are clearly remembered as the outstanding pitchers of the 1960s, while Juan Marichal's reputation has suffered in comparison.

Angell: Well, Marichal was the one whose reputation has faded, you're right. And if you asked players from that era, 'who was the best pitcher?' they always mention Koufax, they always mention Gibson, and they all say the one everyone overlooks is Marichal, who was so tough because he had all those different pitches coming from so many different directions. He really knew how to pitch. Had a very wide range of skills.

BB: What are your impressions of the Yankees during the past 10 years?

Roger Angell: Torre's Yankees have made me a Yankee fan again, because of him. I was not particularly a Yankee fan, because I was not a Steinbrenner fan. I was just interested in other teams. But the way the Yankees played, and the atmosphere that prevailed there, the sense of professionalism and accomplishment....the presence of people like, well particularly Paul O'Neill, and Bernie Williams and David Cone. So many people all working together, who made very little reference to themselves. There were occasional exceptions; players here and there like Wells. But it was the perfect clubhouse atmosphere and it was a new thing for New York to have a Yankee team like that. I didn't enjoy it because it was like the old Yankees; I just liked it for itself. And they became the most interesting team in baseball, which is really amazing with the Yankees because there are so many preconceptions that are attached to the Yankees. So much of that encrusted history and lore. But these were interesting and lively teams that rejuvenated themselves. That post-season in 2001 was a great thing for everybody in a way. The play that Jeter made against the A's, which was like the necessary last ingredient, was really something. Everybody remembers that.

BB: Does Jeter rank with the all-time Yankees yet?

Angell: I don't need to rank anybody, let's wait and see. There is no hurry to rank him. I don't like to rank people unless they've arrived. I mean ranking Barry Bonds is extremely interesting now. But I don't need to rank Jeter yet. Let's see what happens. I remember when Doc Gooden had that great year (in 1985) and everybody was putting him in the Hall of Fame. And only some people said: 'Well, it was a pretty good year, let's see what happens.'

BB: The same can be said of Soriano now.

Angell: Yeah, he's just arriving. It's fun to watch people arrive. I don't have a great interest in the Best Ever. Or the Best this, or the Best that. You can play that out in the winter, but it is overwhelming sports now. We all want to have the sense that we were there at a historic moment, or that we were watching something historic, this next home run, or base hit. It makes you think about this constantly. If you look back in baseball history, I look back at the consecutive game streak, when Lou Gehrig broke the existing record. I've looked back at the newspapers of the time, and it was a little thing at the bottom of a paragraph. That was all. There was not this self-consciousness about records in the old days. What you watched is what mattered.

BB: Are you a fan of baseball writing?

Angell: I'm a fan of baseball books, yeah. I think my favorite baseball book of all time is "The Glory of Their Times," because it was thrilling to find out that some of these early players that we saw in distant, historical terms, were still around, living as old guys here in the country with perfect memories of what it had been like to play country ball. Larry Ritter went around with a tape recorder, while no one else noticed this. Suddenly there was a connection. We knew about baseball being in the past. We knew that baseball was both an old game and a young game. Which is still the case. It was an extraordinary piece of writing and reporting.

BB: Have you followed Bill James' writing career?

Angell: Yeah, I like Bill James. I'm not a sabermetrician, but I got to know Bill James early on, and I liked him a lot. He certainly opened up an entirely different area for us to understand baseball.

BB: Did the first publication of the Baseball Encyclopedia change the way you looked at statistics?

Angell: I wrote a long piece when it came out about what a significant thing it was to have it. I was aware of certain marks before it came out--number of games played, home run records. We are reminded of it every day now. I think that I had already sensed that every player who plays is playing against every other player who has ever played. Certainly if you have the Encyclopedia there, you look back at the lifetime stats of anybody, and of World Series games, it confirmed for you in interesting and exciting detail what you had already sensed. And we all had a few records that we would carry around as our favorites. Now they are all printed out. I remember a record I picked up very early on, that almost nobody is aware of. One of my favorite stats of all time is that from August of 1931 to August of 1933, the Yankees played something like 304 games without being shut out once. An extraordinary team record; nobody has ever come close to that. Just think of that. And there were great pitchers pitching then too.

BB: What was your experience like writing "A Pitchers Story" with David Cone?

Angell: He was just great. We had no written agreement. We had sort of talked about this as a joint venture. He kept wanting me to do it, and then we had a contract. But he wasn't involved in the contract and he could have said at any point when he started to lose, I'm sorry I can't do this. Nine out of 10 players would have gone that way, and all he did was keep apologizing. He said: 'I'm sorry I'm letting you down.' I said: 'You're not letting me down.' And at some point I said: 'This is more interesting that winning.' Which is true: Losing is much more interesting than winning. It was actually thrilling to go through with this and again, instead of looking at it from somebody who is a masterful pitcher, in control of everything, to see him hold onto some vestige of what he had been, to pull off a decent performance now and then.

BB: Was it awkward for you that he pitched so poorly?

Angell: It wasn't awkward, it was painful. It was horrible. It was painful for everybody that knew him, including his teammates. It was tough to see an accomplished and proud and extremely successful guy like that suddenly lose his form entirely, and struggling to find it. Torre, to his credit, stayed with him, and stayed with him. It was an amazing summer all along.

BB: What was your impression of Cone's 2001 season with the Red Sox?

Angell: He pitched well. He had a good season. He had some bad luck. He had some setbacks. The team completely fell apart. They fired the manager (Jimy Williams) mid-season. They had an inappropriate pitching coach who became the manager (Jim Kerrigan), who did not get the backing of the ownership. It was extremely ineffective, horrible. But Cone hung on and pitched well, through difficulties. He pitched a great game in Boston against Mussina, where Mussina came one out away from a perfect game. David was the losing pitcher but pitched nine innings. He had to go chew out Mussina, because he knew what a great game he pitched. Really. That was standard for David. The Sox came back down here and played at the Stadium the following week, and David made it a point of going to see Mussina, and said: "'What you want to remember is that we both pitched in a game that we'll never forget.'

BB: What do you make of Cone's comeback? When we first spoke last week, Cone had just hurt his hip, pitching for the Mets.

Angell: It's a good story. But yeah, I had a bad feeling about it last week. I could see it coming. I can't understand why nobody said anything about it. The writers or the coaches, but I saw Cone limping around, favoring that hip for a while now. I could see this coming.

BB: You've shifted your rooting loyalties over the years. Which teams are you pulling for these days?

Angell: I always change my loyalties because I get interested in the team I'm writing about. If I go and spend two days watching a team, I follow that team for the rest of the year. If I become aware of the people in the lineup and talk to the players a little bit, I'm interested in that team. I'm always interested in the Mets, I'm always interested in the Red Sox, I'm always interested in the Giants, my childhood team. I'm interested in the A's because I was always close with that team. I knew Bill Rigney very well. They were a great story in the '70s, and later when they came back with Tony La Russa, who ran such an admirable outfit. There are a lot of teams. I'm sort of a fan of the Angels now because they played so well in the World Series last fall.

BB: You weren't heartbroken that the Giants lost?

Angell: It almost killed me. It almost killed me. It was horrible. I mean I was there, I saw it happen with Giant fans. It was just appalling. Extremely painful. My God, they are up by five runs in the seventh inning of Game Six and lose? You don't get over that right away.

BB: What players do you follow closely these days?

Angell: Well, there are obvious ones like Pedro, Jeter. I was a great fan of Edgardo Alfonzo. When he arrived with the Mets, he really knew how to play baseball. A few of his coaches said: This guy already knows how to play. He picked it up in South America somehow. He was a complete ballplayer from the moment he arrived. And then there are always players that I haven't noticed before. Nowadays we are all victims of Bud Selig's horrible new schedule, and we are sequestered from seeing teams except in local divisions. I've never seen nearly enough of Garret Anderson for instance, who is a wonderful player. And that happens a lot.

BB: Are you not a fan of interleague play?

Angell: Sure, I think interleague play is fine. I have to say in defense of Bud Selig--I'm not a huge Bud fan for various reasons--but a lot of what he's done has been a success. Interleague play has been a success; the three divisions are working out OK. I don't like the schedule. I'm dead against the new schedule. I mean the new schedule was passed because teams didn't want to spend all that money on traveling, and the writers didn't want to be away from home so long, so far. But if you think about it, the great thing about baseball now is that we have some extraordinary stars, some of the best players who have ever played, but they are scattered all over. And you've got to be alert now. I mean the Giants are going to here (at Shea) for three days in the middle of August. Three days to look at Barry Bonds: That's terrible. Meantime, we get to see the Mets play Montreal, and the Phillies and Florida over and over and over again, which is not my idea of the best outcome for baseball.

BB: How do you like the contemporary game compared with previous generations?

Angell: I don't think in those terms. I don't think: This is the best time. I think that's a way to make yourself not enjoy what's going on. There is no doubt in my mind that we have as talented a bunch of players playing right now that the game has ever known. There is no doubt. These guys are extraordinary athletes. We have a rush of wonderful infielders, and great shortstops. Great shortstops who can hit. So why don't we enjoy what we are seeing? I don't have to say, this is the best time. Why make that choice? People are always ready to give up on baseball and say It wasn't what it was. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, and maybe it's about to be the best it's ever been. It's perfectly possible. I don't think people have any awareness of the contributions Hispanic stars have made to the game. They are the powerful force that has made the game as good as it is right now. They are not nearly appreciated enough.

BB: Is it more difficult to talk with players now?

Angell: It's much harder, because I'm so old. I'm 82. I approach them with my white hair. When they call you "sir," you're in trouble.

BB: Does the same thing go for the likes of Torre, and Zimmer?

Angell: No, the old guys know me, so I can talk to them. We go back a long ways. We look at each other and say, 'still here?' But a lot of my best friends in baseball are gone. Bill Rigney was my best friend in baseball, and he died a couple of years ago.

BB: Underneath his stoic calm, Torre is a tough Italian guy from Brooklyn, huh?

Angell: Torre was a catcher for most of his career. No gentle guys are catchers. Torre has got an immense sense of authority. He's tough enough. He doesn't go around acting tough because that's not his nature. But the players who come to play for him come to realize that he was a hell of a player. He shared an MVP award one year, lead the league in batting. So the next year he lost 64 points off his batting title. And he always points to that. He's also the guy who'll tell you about the day he grounded into four double plays. He's always putting himself down, which is a way he can help his team, because every player has horrible times, and they want to be reminded of that and not how great a player their manager was. But I go back to Bonds, who is one of the most exciting and interesting people to think about that I've encountered in baseball. It's amazing to me what he's done in the past couple of years. And all the old players that I've talked to about it, have said, 'I've never seen a guy locked in like this'--never, ever, ever. It's just astounding. It's really fun to place him in the category of the best who ever played. You have to put him among the top three outfielders of all time. He now belongs there with Ruth and Mays. I had a long exchange with a writer named Charlie Einstein, who is a friend of mine, a retired writer who lives around here. He used to cover the Giants; he went out with the Giants from New York to San Francisco. He's the biographer, and chronicler and closest friend of Willie Mays. And I wrote in my piece, I quoted a local writer out there, Ray Ratto, saying that Bonds is the best outfielder now that's ever played. He's number three. And he's never going to rise above three because the other two were Mays and Ruth. Of course Bonds was pissed off. But Einstein wrote, if I can remember this correctly, this means we have a second outfield of Aaron and Williams and DiMaggio, a third-best outfield of Clemente, Cobb and Mantle. And he said: 'Who is going to tell Stan Musial that he's on the fourth team?' (laughs)

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