The Summer Game

A few weeks ago it was announced that Roger Angell had been named the 2014 winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, presented annually to a sportswriter “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” The award is presented at the Baseball Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies each summer.

Angell has been a regular contributor to the New Yorker, where he writes often — but not exclusively — about baseball. He may be best known to many fans for his commentary in the Ken Burns documentary series Baseball.

His essays are always a delight to read, and many of them have been collected and published in book form. It’s impossible to describe why I enjoy his writing so much. You’ll just have to read for yourself.  You could start with his story about the dramatic downfall of pitcher Steve Blass, or  an essay about his visit as a skeptical baseball pilgrim to the Hall of Fame.

One of my favorite Angell pieces came from  an essay he wrote in the spring of 1963 called “Box Scores,” which begins with this passage.:

Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue. The view from my city window still yields only frozen tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid, information packed weeks and months just ahead.

That piece appears in Angell’s first baseball book, The Summer Game, which was published in 1972. I pull it off the shelf about this time every year and my mood is “abruptly brightened” as I begin to read it.

In the summer of 2000, I was living in Woodstock, NY, a sleepy hamlet an hour north of New York City.  The town library was having a used book sale and I spotted a first edition of Summer Game in a box marked “one dollar.”  I picked it up, even though I already owned at least one copy, figuring I could share it with a friend and maybe introduce them to Angell’s writing for the first time.

I didn’t open the book until I got home, and when I did I was stunned.  My one dollar book was autographed by Roger Angell.  And not only was it autographed, it was inscribed: “For Dick Young, with my best, Roger.”

Could the book have belonged to the Dick Young, the legendary New York Daily News sportswriter.  Probably not, I thought. After all, it’s not an uncommon name.

Then I flipped through the book and found a sheet of paper. It contained several typewritten paragraphs, and it was clear that it was the first draft of a review of the book, presumably written by Young.  It begins:

“The summer game is, of course, baseball. Baseball as seen through the eyes of a great fan and writer. Mr Angell loves the game and once you’ve finished the first few chapters you’ll know why…”

Draft of Dick Young's book review

(click for larger view)

Young died in 1987, and I have no idea how the book ended up in Woodstock a dozen years later.  Maybe he had a summer home nearby. It seems likely that wherever the book came from, it sat undisturbed on a shelf somewhere for almost 30 years between the time Young read it and when I found it.

The style of the two writers couldn’t be more different.  Young was brash and blunt, and got to the point quickly. “”Don’t be a (bleeping) Hemingway,” he would say to other writers. “We don’t need any essayists here. Talk to your readers.”   Angell was an essayist, of course, and he wrote languid, contemplative pieces.

On my best day my prose can’t approach anything Roger Angell wrote.  But when I pull that book off the shelf every spring I feel a little bit of a connection to those two great writers, and our shared love for the summer game.