The Books: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross; ‘Do the Rookies Know How Willie Mays Played?’, by Roger Angell

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Next up on the essays shelf:

The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross

The Fun of It is a collection of “The Talk of the Town” pieces in The New Yorker, grouped by decade, which is a lot of fun because you can see how the “voice” of the magazine developed, and how “The Talk of the Town” has grown and changed over the years.

Oh, Roger Angell.

He is, to this day, a regular contributor to The New Yorker (that’s how I first got to know him), and was also its fiction editor for years. He is in his 90s now, but still around. And if I see he has written something, anywhere, anytime, I clear the deck to make room for it. His pieces require room. Not because they are daunting or difficult, but because they are internally vast. He writes about sports (mainly), and baseball in particular (mainly). His essays on baseball rank among the most beautiful sports writing in existence. There is so much competition in sports writing, so many voices clamoring to be heard, so many people trying to describe what it is about baseball that hooks its fan so deeply. Roger Angell is the bar, he’s the one to beat. Nobody does it like him. His pieces are so pleasing, too, not just in nerdy detail and sweeping knowledge of his topic, but in format and voice. It pleases me to read him in the same way I find iced coffee pleasing on a hot day, something to savor and linger over.

I remember in the week following 9/11, New Yorker writers each wrote a couple of paragraphs. Much of it I avoided (too raw), although I still remember John Updike’s piece, and I raced towards Angell’s, because I felt an enormous and urgent need to hear what he had to say. Not that he would tell me what to think, or how to interpret, or reflect my own feelings, nothing as boring as that. But because I knew his prose would be perfect, I knew he would provide a vast space for reflection: the man always always rises to the occasion.

There is an entire collection of essays in this same New Yorker compilation series of Sports Writing for The New Yorker (The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker (Modern Library Paperbacks)), which is probably why Roger Angell does not show up so much in this Talk of the Town collection (he dominates in the other).

The following piece is short (as most “Talk of the Town” pieces are), and dates from spring training time, 1998.

Roger Angell (although he doesn’t name himself in the piece until the final paragraph where suddenly he blazes forth with the “I” narrator – a startling and emotional device) travels to the Giants’ spring training stadium out in Scottsdale, Arizona. Willie Mays, now 66 years old, sits in the clubhouse. Rookies stream in and out of the locker room, talking to reporters, hanging out at their lockers, and Angell says he has a desire to pull them aside and say, “Do you have any idea how this man played?”

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With only a couple of paragraphs, Angell sets the scene. Willie Mays is a long way away from his starting years in the 1950s, and when reporters come up to him to ask him about his legendary career, or the same old plays he is always asked about, he either pretends not to remember or seems uninterested in the discussion. It is a typical athlete move: you know Willie Mays remembers, you know Willie Mays has no doubt of how great he was, but it’s poor form to sit around bragging. Sure, athletes on occasion pound their chests and shout, “I am the greatest”, but baseball players tend to talk more about teamwork, and “well, it was a good effort from all of us, although yeah, that grand slam felt good …” Anyone who spends baseball season watching those post-game press conferences knows what I’m talking about.

So Roger Angell, who doesn’t name himself, but coyly says “a visiting senior writer from back East”, happens to bring up one play that sparks Willie May’s memory. The famous Billy Cox play.

What I love about Roger Angell’s writing is, yes, its easy elegance, its clear emotional quality, but also … how suddenly it can launch you into the nerdiest of geeky excitement. He is not afraid of it. That is why he became a writer in the first place, to express those types of feelings, to try to put into words what baseball is, to the players, to the fans, to everyone.

The astonishing feat of Willie Mays’ throw that day reminds me of another miracle of space-time three-dimensional awareness only given to genius athletes – the mid-air pause (a post about Rudolf Nureyev and Coco Crisp, of all things.)

And watch how Angell brings in the “I”. It’s a bold move. It works.

The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross; ‘Do the Rookies Know How Willie Mays Played?’, by Roger Angell

Mays, in self-protection, has developed a selective memory and conversational openers from his visitors about his celebrated overhead catch against Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series or the four-homer game in 1961 no longer light up the Proustian hot stove. Nor do knowing references to any of the other lifetime six hundred and sixty dingers bring much response – not the homer that beat Warren Spahn, 1-0, in the fifteenth inning (eyeroll, with incomprehensible murmur), or the monster blow against the Astros’ Claude Raymond after Mays had fouled off thirteen consecutive fastballs (“Grmpf. How’d you know about that?”). This year, though, a visiting senior writer from back East got lucky when he brought up an early Maysian catch and throw against the Dodgers – the Billy Cox play.

“Damn!” Mays cried excitedly. “You saw that? You were there?”

Yes, the writer had been there – as a fan at the Polo Grounds. “August, 1951,” he said. “Cox was the base runner at third. You caught the ball running full tilt toward right, turned in midair, and threw him out at the plate. You threw before you could get turned around – let the ball go with your back to the plate. The throw went to the catcher on the fly – it must have been Westrum – and he tagged Cox out, sliding.”

“You got it!” Mays said. “I’ve been sayin’ this for a long time, and nobody here believes me.” He was kidding, of course, but his voice had come up at last, almost the old, high Willie piping. “Now, tell ’em how it was.”

I told it again – it was easy because I’d never seen such a play, before or since – and, as I did, it seemed to me that Willie Mays and I could still see the long, curving flight of the white ball through the afternoon light, bang into the big mitt, and the slide and the amazing out, and together remember the expanding moment when the staring players on the field and those just emerging from the dugouts, and the shouting fans, and maybe even the startled twenty-year-old rookie center fielder himself, now retrieving his fallen cap from the grass, understood that something new and electric had just begun to happen to baseball.

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4 Responses to The Books: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross; ‘Do the Rookies Know How Willie Mays Played?’, by Roger Angell

  1. Kerry says:

    Love this!

  2. DBW says:

    Just…wow.

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