The Summer Game, Roger Angell. New York: Open Road Media, 2013 (originally published in 1972).
Summary: A collection of Angell’s essays covering the ten seasons of Major League Baseball from 1962 to 1971.
This year we lost Roger Angell, the long time writer for The New Yorker, at the ripe old age of 101. He was a shaping force at the magazine as well as being considered by some, “The Poet Laureate of baseball.” I knew of Angell’s writing, but it was not until now that I discovered why he was so esteemed. Quite simply, he gave words to what any of us who love the game feel about its attraction. The final essay of this book, “The Interior Stadium” gets as close as anything I’ve read to describing the game’s mystique:
“Form is the imposition of a regular pattern upon varying and unpredictable circumstances, but the patterns of baseball, for all the game’s tautness and neatness, are never regular. Who can predict the winner and shape of today’s game? Will it be a brisk, neat two-hour shutout? A languid, error-filled 13-2 laugher, A riveting three hour, fourteen-inning deadlock? What other sport produces these manic swings?”
The Summer Game collects articles Angell wrote for The New Yorker from 1962 to 1971, which is quite wonderful because this was the time when I most avidly followed the name, reading The Sporting News and watching every World Series game I could (when I was not in school). He begins with spring training at the camp of the New York Mets, who were destined to become New York’s lovable losers until late in the decade, when they became champions. He describes games at the old Polo Grounds before Shea Stadium was built and the “Go” shouters.
He traces the championship teams of the sixties and especially the World Series matchups between them: the Yankees and the Dodgers, the Giants, the Cardinals, the Red Sox, the Twins, the Mets, the Reds, the Orioles, and the Pirates. There are all the stars I grew up with–Mays, Maris, and Mantle, Koufax and Gibson and the generation that followed, Yastrzemski, Rose and Perez, Clemente and Stargell.
As the players changed, so did the stadiums. Angell describes the demise of the old box-like stadiums with seats close to the game for the bigger stadiums in the round, used for multiple sports in many cases but with fans much more distant. It is ironic that most of these stadiums that were “new” when Angell wrote have since been demolished in favor of parks much more like the old fields with modern amenities. Even the shiny new Astrodome, although still preserved, no longer serves as a baseball venue.
The heart of the book is Angell’s accounts of the World Series games of each year. He brings back memories of the dominating performances of Koufax and Drysdale, and of Bob Gibson, who broke the hearts of Boston fans in his showdown with Jim Lonborg. Gibson, pitching his third game of the series was dead tired but hung on to win 7-2. Likewise, he reminds me of the hopes fulfilled when the Pirates in nearby Pittsburgh overcame the dominating Orioles of Earl Weaver to win the 1971 World Series. Some have criticized his inning by inning, sometimes play-by-play approach, but for me, it was a walk back in time, a reminder of great baseball of the past. He fills in the detail and drama of those games long tucked away in the recesses of memory.
He describes a game in transition as leagues expanded, playoffs were introduced and old stars faded as new names like Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson came on the scene, as TV revenues grew and with them, salaries, and new stadiums. And yet, it is the same summer game, played on a diamond, between baselines, nine players in the lineup on each side, fans in the seats behind first or third, filling out scorecards, rooting for the home team, vicariously sharing in the glory of the game.
Thank you Roger Angell! One can only hope there will be baseball in heaven so that Roger Angell can write about it.