I had the considerable pleasure to interview the great baseball writer Roger Angell in 2006. Below, I reprint a Q and A I made in 2008 from the original interview. New York Times obituary here.
How to write like an Angell
April 29, 2008 | Orange County Register, The: Blogs (Santa Ana, CA)
Author/Byline: Timothy Mangan; music critic | Section: The Arts Blog
1278 Words | Readability: Lexile: 1030, grade level(s): 6 7 8
I spoke with longtime New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell back in 2006 upon the publication of his eloquent memoir, “Let Me Finish.” It struck me that his baseball writing was nothing but criticism in another form, and I’ve learned a lot from reading him (for instance, it’s important to be a fan of the artform you’re writing about, and allow the reader to know it). Here’s just part of the interview I had with him, put in the form of a Q and A. Writers take note: you might learn something.
TM: What’s going on with your baseball writing?
RA: Well, I’m not doing much but I’ll be doing some more. It’s hard for any writers to get close to the players now, because there’s so much media around them and they’re so media attuned that its hard to get stuff out of them that really feels fresh. But I share that problem, it’s not just because I’m old. But also I am old and they look at me and they call me sir, which is a big disadvantage.
TM: But you’re still going to games?
RA: Oh yeah, yeah. But as I say it’s harder to get — as players talk with this horde of writers and media people now they do it in an interview room, so it’s little bit different. But the game is so various, there so much going on that there’s always plenty to write.
TM: As a writer myself, I’ve always found your baseball reporting fascinating. How do you do it, do you take notes, use a tape recorder?
RA: Well, once the tape recorder came along I used tape like everybody else. But, watching a game, through the season I take a lot of notes. I’m sort of a joke in the press box, or used to be years ago when guys were writing on typewriters and sending takes out, taken by messengers who would telegraph them even to their newspapers. And I would fill up a notebook, because I would be writing weeks later in many cases, and I didn’t know what I would be writing or how much of this game I would use. Most of it I would never use, but if I wanted to go back to a game in Fenway Park in early September or July or something like that, I had to know what was there, and I would write down — not just keep score — but write down how it looked or how it felt and stuff like that, so that if I did repair back to it, it would be fresh.
And baseball has a way — it’s one of the great assets — but it moves at exactly the right speed for a writer. You can watch and also take notes. And you can write how it looked but also how you felt watching it. So games can be brought back with some clarity.
TM: I take notes at concerts, but use them the next morning. To use notes weeks later, though, you must take very detailed notes.
RA: Well I do, and people would laugh at me. There was a writer, a tough old Boston Post writer named Cliff Kane, who was a friend of mine, and he would watch me and he’d say [Angell, in thick Boston accent], ‘How many takes today Rog?’ 20? 30?’ — ‘takes’ being a page of copy, you know.
TM: And how many would it be?
RA: Well I don’t know (laughs). I was just filling up pages in a notebook. But the thing about baseball also is that it presents itself with such clarity, you can see every single thing. There is a famous play I saw I wrote about in my last book, that I’d seen 20 years before, a missed triple play in Atlanta, and highly disputed. And when I put this book together a couple of years ago, my last baseball book [“Game Time”], I wanted to put in that play. I thought about it and I called up the umpire who made the call at home plate. He’d retired: Paul Runge. I found him in California and I introduced myself and he was grumpy about being interrupted. And I [told him] I’m talking about the first inning of a game in County Stadium in Atlanta in August of 1984, and he grunts, and I describe the play and then suddenly his voice comes alive and he says. ‘Yes. Yes, he misses home plate’ — He’s going into the present tense! — He said, ‘He misses home plate by three feet, he’s on the first base side, he misses it by three feet, he hasn’t touched it yet.’ Suddenly he’s in the present tense talking about an event from 20 years ago. And think of all the plays that this umpire has seen but suddenly it’s alive and in front of him.
TM: There’s another story too that you checked up on. The one about Willie Mays hitting all those foul balls:
RA: The 13 foul balls (laughs). I called Claude Raymond, because Willie Mays told me he fouled off 13 pitches and then took Claude Raymond deep. And then I call up Claude Raymond, who’s a retired broadcaster in Canada, and I say Willie Mays and he says, ‘Oh yes, he fouled 13 pitches, 14 pitches, and what an honor.’ And then so I write this, and then my old friend Charlie Einstein, who was a beat writer with the Giants and he said, ‘I scored that game.’ He said it was seven (laughs).
TM: There’s another great piece in “Game Time” about that great Willie Mays catch.
RA: Yeah, the Billy Cox play.
TM: You couldn’t have been taking notes back then.
RA: No, I was a fan, I was a fan.
TM: You must have a good memory:
RA: No, well everybody remembered that play. It was how Willie announced himself; it was the first great play he ever made.
TM: You were there, right?
RA: Yes, and then [in “Game Time”] I describe myself talking about it with Willie when he’s an old guy.
TM: It’s a fantastic ending.
RA: He makes me tell it over and over.
TM: And his eyes light up.
RA [imitating Willie]: ‘That’s right, that’s right. You were there? That’s right.’ (laughs)
TM: You bring in so much into your baseball writing, your feelings at the time, the way everything looked, the smells, the weather, the fans. It seems unique to me.
RA: Well, I was very lucky because at The New Yorker you could pick your own form and when I started up, William Shawn, the editor then, felt we didn’t have enough sports, but he was very wary about getting standard sports stuff which is either hard-boiled or sentimental. And he said that I don’t want either of those. And also, you had so much space as a writer in The New Yorker and plenty of time to write this and you could pick your own form. And I picked the first person and I wrote as a fan. I didn’t feel like a sportswriter, I didn’t dare sit in the press box yet. So I watched the early Mets as a fan. I’ve done that all along, I’ve used ‘I’ a lot and the ‘I’ is a baseball fan as well as being a baseball writer and that’s allowed me to write about myself, which is what writers really want to do. I didn’t realize it at the time but it’s what we do want to do and I think if my baseball writing is different, that’s what makes it different, that there is a lot of ‘I’ in it. And everybody else has been told keep yourself out of it.
TM: So, will you be writing about baseball again soon for the magazine?
RA: Oh, they’ll be some, I’m sure — well, not if I get fired. I mean I’m kept around to write about baseball I think. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I’ll be writing something about Barry Bonds I suppose, like everybody else. But different.