The book jacket of roger Angell's latest collection of baseball pieces, Once More Around the Park ( Ballantine Books, $18.95), depicts a man, head unseen, clutching a notebook. This decapitated figure is, of course, the author himself, as anyone who has ever toured the baseball beat with him will instantly recognize. Indeed, when Angell is on the job, that little book with its intricate scribblings, squiggles and doodles is never out of reach. Let me amend that slightly, for in the confusion following the World Series earthquake of 1989, the two were briefly and agonizingly parted until an almost tearful reunion was effected. The notebook is preeminently the reporter's tool, and for all of Angell's renown as a sort of baseball poet laureate, a reporter is precisely what he considers himself to be. The elegance of his prose aside, the man deals in information, lots of it. It is, in fact, his power of observation, his eye for the minutest detail, that sets him apart not only from most baseball writers but also from most writers, period.
Consider the—to borrow one of his favorite adjectives—enormous number of details in his World Series descriptions, or in his treatise on the ball itself and the difficulty involved in catching and throwing it. There is brilliant reporting, too, in the profiles of such disparate personalities as Steve Blass, the unfortunate pitcher who inexplicably lost his control; Bob Gibson, the glowering presence on the mound who never lost his; Dan Quisenberry, the piquant submariner. These accounts, like most of the others in this book, were first written for Angell's home publication, The New Yorker, and culled by the author from previous collections, forming what he calls a re-collection. Perhaps inadvertently, Once More Around the Park is top-heavy with pitching stories (also included here is the famous account of old Smoky Joe Wood watching a memorable college game), but, as Angell suggests in his chapter "On the Ball," pitchers "as a group seemed to be much livelier and more garrulous than hitters," perhaps because "a pitcher is the only man in baseball who can properly look on the ball as being his instrument, his accomplice."
It has become fashionable in some critical circles to anoint Angell, much to his chagrin, as baseball's Emerson, the voice of its conscience. Overlooked in all of this unnecessary cerebration is how truly funny he can be. His description of Luis Tiant's eccentric windup, reprinted here from his account of the 1975 World Series, remains a comedy classic. The "basic Tiant repertoire," Angell concludes, involves, among other gyrations: "(1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch, the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head"; and "(6) the Low Flying Plane.... While he is pivoting, an F-105 buzzes the ballpark, passing over the infield from the third-base to the first-base side at a height of 80 feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes." The garish Houston Astro uniforms of 1979 caused their players, in Angell's view, to resemble "a troupe of gazelles depicted by a Balkan corps de ballet." Catching knuckleball pitchers involves spending "six or seven innings groveling in the dirt in imitation of a bulldog cornering a nest of field mice."
That Angell has been able to retain this freshness of approach after nearly 30 years of such exquisite chronicling is in itself an achievement worthy of loud huzzahs. When he first started writing his baseball stories for The New Yorker in 1962, his role was that of a passionate and educated fan commenting from the grandstand. As his reputation grew, he found doors opening to him, so that by now he has himself become something of an establishment figure, befriended, even beloved by players and front-office executives alike. His has been a journey not without hazards, for those granted such access can easily sacrifice perspective. The insider sportswriter is all too familiar a sight on the journalistic landscape; in the end he becomes little more than a glorified gossip columnist. Angell, though he might be faulted for being overly kind to some of the game's more churlish participants, will never suffer such a fate.
No, for all of his well-deserved celebrity, he has lost neither his passion nor his loyalty to the higher calling of fanhood. And he is without illusions: "In this country's long love affair with professional sports, the athlete has more and more come to resemble the inamorata—an object of unceasing scrutiny, rapturous adoration and expensive adornment—while the suitor or fan remains forever loyal, shabby, and unknown." We should all be grateful that from these shabby ranks we should have so eloquent a spokesman, so keen an observer, so adept a reporter as Roger Angell. May the pages of that notebook be forever full.