Although Roger Angell has written over 100 pieces on baseball, one of his favorites remains “The Web of the Game,” a story about the May 21, 1981, NCAA Regional Tournament game at Yale Field between Yale and St. John’s University.
Angell, who has been with The New Yorker for more than 45 years and has written about baseball for 40 years, discussed both baseball and the literary world at a Morse College Master’s Tea Tuesday.
Angell attended the Yale-St. John’s game with former Red Sox pitcher “Smokey” Joe Wood, who coached Yale’s baseball team from 1924 to 1942. In 1981, Wood was in his 90s and still living in New Haven.
“We drove up to his house, and this old man came out with a cane. My heart was beating so hard, and I reached out to shake his hand, and he screamed ‘Ow!'” Angell said. “I thought that I had met history and broken his arm.”
In the game, Yale All-American pitcher Ron Darling ’82 threw a no-hitter through 11 innings, but future New York Mets teammate Frank Viola matched Darling, and Yale lost 1-0 in 12 innings.
“About halfway through the game, Smokey Joe Wood said that it was the best college game he had ever seen, and he had seen so many,” Angell said. “My mother had been a Red Sox fan and had seen him pitch, and my father had seen him as a Harvard student. Baseball runs through American life. There is that thread.”
Having grown up around authors — his mother was a fiction editor for The New Yorker and his stepfather is author E.B. White — Angell said he fell naturally into writing. While he still edits fiction for the New Yorker, Angell’s primary literature has been about baseball. He said his success can be attributed to his ability to relate to the subject matter.
“We’re all involved in sports in very complicated ways, but I’ve always tried to come clean and say what I felt at a certain point,” Angell said.
As an example, Angell cited the 1962 Mets, who in their first year went 40-120. As the season progressed, more and more fans would turn out to the games because a win was actually meaningful, he said. New Yorkers had been desensitized by the Yankees’ constant winning, and it was something new to root for the underdogs.
“I went to a game and there was a fan blowing on this horn, hoping for a rally,” Angell said. “I asked myself, ‘Who is he blowing the horn for?’ Well, he was blowing it for me. There’s more of a Met than a Yankee in all of us because all of us are used to losing more than winning.”
Drawing parallels between writing and baseball, Angell said they are both exceedingly difficult. Writing, he said, is a laborious process that never gets easier. Angell showed a proof of an upcoming article author John Updike had hand-edited within the past two days, and said it revealed how much Updike had altered his own work.
Similarly, Angell said, baseball is accepted by other athletes as the most challenging sport. Superstars repeatedly fail or succumb to the pressure to perform at such a high level in the public eye.
In his most recent book, “A Pitcher’s Story,” Angell writes about the 2000 season of Yankees pitcher David Cone. Only two years before, Cone had pitched a perfect game and was a 20-game winner. But in 2000, Cone’s 37-year-old arm began to fail him, and he suffered a disastrous season. Angell said he and Cone realized the book was taking on a different tone than they had expected, but they nevertheless decided to continue with the project.
“The season started and he struggled and struggled and struggled,” Angell said. “It was embarrassing and painful. We had no agreement, and Cone didn’t have to do this, but he didn’t walk out. Losing is a lot more interesting than winning.”
Morse College Master Frank Keil said Angell is a fascinating writer.
“He’s delightful to talk to, and I knew that he must be likeable because of the way players have let him into their lives,” Keil said. “I thought it was great how the questions were dichotomous with both baseball and writing.”
Alex Remington ’06 said he went to the tea because of his interest in baseball but appreciated the parts about literature as well.
“His stories about baseball were so elegant,” Remington said. “He came from the perspective of a fan more than as a journalist because he writes about what he himself sees. His writing connects with the average fan in the bleachers.”