Rather than try to match superlatives with other reviewers of Roger Angell's new baseball book, let's just say Angell is back, and the stuff is as good as ever. That should be news enough for most fans, because Angell is special to so many of us.
I first read most of the pieces in Late Innings ( Simon and Schuster, $17.50) as they appeared in The New Yorker over a five-year period. (The book chronicles five seasons of the game, from 1977 to 1981. Almost five, that is. As baseball itself did, he stops in the middle of the 1981 season.) And it is only fair to say that Angell is better in small, concentrated doses than in one long, 429-page reading. Still, if you care about baseball, this latest book and his first two together constitute the best history of the game's last 15 years.
The degree of his caring about baseball, I think, is what makes Angell so special. Quite apart from his tremendous technical knowledge and his sharp eye for a significant, generally unnoticed detail, he obviously loves the game unstintingly. And anything that threatens it—such as the inclination of some team owners to adopt a farcical playoff system in 1981—threatens him. Some of us appreciate that.
As always, Angell is mainly concerned with major league players, but there are some rewarding side trips, notably to the playing fields of Yale in the company of Smokey Joe Wood, the 91-year-old former Yale coach who won 34 games as a Red Sox pitcher in 1912, and to the big league locker rooms (or the corridors just outside them) with several bright female reporters who were trying to breach that journalistic barrier in 1979. This section is highlighted for me by a number of interestingly ambivalent quotes from male reporters, most of whom defend the women's right to be there, but sort of wish they would go away.
One of the most appealing aspects of Angell's reporting is the air of seeming innocence he takes with him when he talks to baseball people, whether it be in a World Series locker room or on a lazy spring afternoon at a training camp in Arizona or Florida. You don't get informative answers from players and managers unless you ask the right questions, but Angell makes it look easy—and the reader's sense of identification is enhanced by the perception, false but compelling, that he could have done it himself with hardly any effort, given the opportunity.
The part I like best is the one that strays the farthest from the megabuck world of big-time sport. Angell traces two years in the career of a 27-year-old pitcher, once a promising pro prospect, who's giving baseball one more chance to discover him after an eight-year layoff. From a marginal professional team in Idaho to a barely semi-pro team in Vermont, the author follows this foredoomed quest, first through the eyes of the player's sensitive and intelligent girl friend, and later by personal observation. It's a bittersweet story, but not really a sad one ('tis better to have loved and lost, etc.), and in it we meet at least a dozen good people to whom baseball is important for reasons wholly divorced from the profit system.
Bob Gibson is here, too, in a brilliant essay that deftly combines Angell's vivid recollections of the great Cardinal Pitcher's overpowering presence on the mound with a view of him in uneasy retirement in 1980. In one revealing quote. Gibson, at the time a successful Omaha banker and restaurateur, delineates the painful dilemma of the star who has outgrown his youthful skills. "When you've been an athlete," he says, "there's no place for you to go. I don't think the ordinary person ever gets to do anything they enjoy nearly as much as I enjoyed playing ball.... Maybe I'll still find something I like as much as I liked pitching, but I don't know if I will. I sure hope so."
The piquant side dishes notwithstanding, the meat and potatoes of a Roger Angell baseball book is still his expert summation of major league seasons, and, like Reggie Jackson, he peaks in October. His accounts of the World Series resemble intricately plotted morality plays in which the good guys always win—whether by skill, determination or luck—because it would be unthinkable that the good guys might lose in this best of all possible games.