It isn’t always wise to open up Facebook. It’s bad enough that you can open it and find something ridiculously stupid. That’s bad enough. Last night, in the midst of the NCAA Division 3 baseball regionals, I opened Facebook … and found my favorite baseball writer of them all, Roger Angell, had been called home.
At age 101, it was hardly a surprise to hear that Angell had passed on. But somehow, when you consider that as a teenager he witnessed Babe Ruth in person, and in his final years he caught Shohei Ohtani via satellite TV, if any man had a season ticket here on Earth, he would seem to be the man.
Away from baseball, it’s interesting to note that Angell’s stepfather was E. B. White, author of the children’s classics “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” Angell didn’t write a word about baseball until he was 42; I had given up broadcasting it at 39.
The first despatches on baseball were written from spring training in 1962, which was almost entirely held in Florida then. Sent there by his editor, William Shawn of “The New Yorker”, Angell made a discovery that would change his life. Once he got a taste of baseball spring training, he covered it from then on as long as he was physically able to do so. Nothing seemed to make him madder than spring training being called off by labor strife, which it was in 1990 and 1995.
His “New Yorker” pieces were gathered in several books, most of which blind listeners can order from BARD. His best book though, “The Summer Game” is the one that isn’t available in audio form. That one is full of stories from 10 spring training seasons—1962 until 1972. His two most famous pieces don’t directly relate to spring training. One was called “Gone for Good”, about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitcher Steve Blass and his terminal loss of control on the mound. Blass ended up in the broadcast booth.
The other iconic Roger Angell piece was about a game which took place during the NCAA baseball regionals in 1981. The game took place a few years too early for ESPN to be there. No radio station covered the game. The teams were the visiting St. John’s RedMen (yes, that was their name), and the home standing Yale Bulldogs. On the hill for St. Johns was Frank Viola. He was opposed by the one exceptional baseball player Yale ever produced, pitcher Ron Darling. Years later, as well as being major league All-Stars, they would be teammates with the Mets.
While Darling and Viola matched each other out for out, strike for strike, the kind of discussion any baseball fan would like to have was going on in the stands. On one side, Roger Angell. On the other side, Smoky Joe Wood. Yes, the man who won 34 games in 1912, that Smoky Joe Wood.
Roger Angell had asked Howard Ellsworth Wood, (aka Smoky Joe), age 91 to accompany him to what Angell believed would be a truly special college baseball game. It was probably not a difficult argument to make, since Wood had coached at Yale for 20 years and still lived nearby. The two men got an eyeful. Darling didn’t give up a hit for 11 innings. The overmatched Yalies, while they got a few hits couldn’t touch Viola for a run. In the stands, Wood told Angell that the Redmen should shorten up on their bats as Ty Cobb did in Wood’s day. Finally in the 12th inning, Darling first gave up the no-hitter, then lost the game. Angell’s article about his afternoon outing was called “The Web of the Game.” Espn’s Ryan McGee considered the piece “the best baseball essay ever written.” If there’s a better one, I haven’t read it-not by Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon or Grantland Rice. Whatever happens during the present regionals’ weekend, nobody will chronicle it as well as he did that single game when Reagan was a relatively new president. R I P, Roger. You’ll be missed.0