Review: Five Seasons

Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion, Roger Angell. New York: Open Road, 2013 (First published in 1977).

Summary: Roger Angell essays covering the seasons of 1972 to 1976 that arguably transformed baseball into the sport it is today.

I’ve been discovering the marvelous baseball writing of the recently deceased Roger Angell, one of the great baseball writers. This book includes essays from the seasons of 1972 to 1976, my college years. One of the marvels of this collection was simply to relive in the reading the historic seven-game series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox in 1975. It was the era of the Big Red Machine, Yaz, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, and Luis Tiant with the Red Sox (the latter yet another great player traded away by the Indians!).

Along the way, he reminded me of the Oakland A’s championship teams united by their love of winning and their shared resentments of Charlie Finley, the brilliant and flawed club owner. By contrast, Angell recounts an afternoon watching the Giants in the twilight years of Horace Stoneham’s ownership, a gracious host.

We read of the final games of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, as well as the years of Nolan Ryan’s greatness. He also writes of Steve Blass, who threw an amazing World Series game with the Pirates, and in subsequent years lost his control. He could pitch well in practice, his arm was sound, but he could not get his head sorted out. And finally he hung it up.

He takes us behind the scenes, at spring training games, the rebuilding of both Yankee Stadium and the Yankee team and Walter Alston’s brief playing career and the end of his managerial leadership of the Dodgers. We learn about the reserve clause that bound players to their teams, the fight to gain free agency, the owners lockout, and subsequent agreement that changed baseball as players won larger salaries and became more mobile. Angell tells the other side, about how many players want to remain in a community and hated trades.

One of the “behind-the-scenes” accounts in the book was Angell’s trip with Ray Scarborough, an Angel’s scout as he evaluated players. We learn what scouts looked for in pitchers (body, mechanics, and a good fastball with control) and hitters (good contact, whether they got hits or not) and the fraternity among them even though they scouted for rival clubs. It all came down to the draft and who chose who.

It was a time of change with the corporatization of the game, artificial turf, a changing of the guard of stars, and the power struggle between the Players Association and owners. But so much of this book just revels in the game, the ups and downs of each season, rain delays, and the quirks of each ball park, the contenders, the playoffs and the World Series. Angell reminded me of games I’d seen and players I remembered: Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench and Pete Rose (alias Charley Hustle).

For the young fan, the book tells us something of how we got to the present. For older fans, it is a time to remember. For all of us, Angell’s descriptions invite us to a special kind of fantasy baseball, reliving in our minds real games and personalities of the past.

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