I may be giving my late grandfather too much credit but I think he was the one who hooked me on the great Roger Angell's writing.
My introduction began with "Five Seasons," which I believe was Angell's second baseball compilation from his writings in The New Yorker magazine. "Five Seasons" covered the Major League Baseball seasons from 1972-76 and some of the talked-about topics in baseball at the time: growing labor unrest, free agency and Charles O. Finley.
I found Angell's writing so interesting, even as a preteen, that I checked his first book, "The Summer Game" out of the library and read about a time even earlier than mentioned in "Five Seasons".
Angell captured everything I wanted in a chronicling of baseball season. Insight. Detail. Humanity. Fun. But my favorite articles from him came when he traveled away from the ballpark. My favorite of Angell's from "Five Seasons" is "Three For The Tigers," a profile on three Detroit Tigers diehards struggling with their team's fading from late 1960s powerhouse to '70s irrelevance.
Although Angell's first two baseball "companions" were very popular, the one that struck me the most was the book that I placed on my Christmas list -- and received -- back in the early 1980s. "Late Innings," published in 1982, documents the baseball seasons from 1977-81. Unlike his two previous books, "Late Innings" covered seasons that I followed on television and in the newspaper.
Also, "Late Innings" is dark and brooding, reflective of a time in baseball when labor strife was everywhere and culminating in a strike in 1981. The title of Angell's chapter on MLB's notorious summer interruption is simply called "The Silence" and begins with Angell listening to a cab driver's radio, waiting for the nightly scores to be read, only to realize there are none.
"No line scores, no winning and losing pitchers, no homers and highlights, no records approached or streaks cut short, no 'meanwhile over in the National League,' no double-zip early innings from Anaheim or Chavez Ravine, no Valenzuela and no Rose, no Goose and no Tom, no Yaz, no Mazz, no nothing."
It's the second-to-last chapter in the book. In the final chapter, Angell documents semipro players competing in a game that seems all but dead.
That book spoke to me more than any book I read as a teenager and has an impact to this day. I can appreciate its melancholy tone, an honest look at the game pondering its uncertain future.
But my favorite chapter in "Late Innings" is also a trip away from the field (and also melancholy). It's titled "The Distance" and it's a profile on Bob Gibson, the late great Hall of Fame pitcher whose passing was just announced last night.
Gibson had been retired from the game for five years when Angell wrote the story on him. It is a wonderful article. I consider it the most memorable profile on any human being by any writer that I have ever read. I read it at age 17, in complete awe of a player I had never watched and barely knew.
Gibson's personality is well-known. He didn't play baseball to make friends. His sport wasn't a social club, it was a business, a job. He didn't gab with the opposition. He disliked All-Star Games because his enemies were suddenly his teammates. His dealings with the media were prickly. He would throw at batters but mostly what he was doing was throwing inside because that is how he made his living. Baseball wasn't a fun, friendly exercise in give-and-take. It was survival of the fittest, a battle for turf.
Angell begins his profile with Gibson on the mound in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series, the game in which he set a record for striking out 17 Tigers in one game. His catcher and buddy, Tim McCarver, stops the game to point to the scoreboard that says that Gibson had tied Sandy Koufax's record with his 15th strikeout. Gibson can't figure out what McCarver is doing and insists that McCarver give him the ball. When Gibson finally turns around to see the scoreboard, he realizes what's happening and dutifully doffs his cap to the crowd, saying later, "I hate that sort of thing."
From that opening by Angell, I knew this: this man was my kind of player.
I've written about Gibson a few times on this blog, mostly in the first three or four years, before the current Cardinals became a source of misery for my Dodgers in the playoffs. But Gibson is my favorite Cardinal of all-time and it's because of what I read in that Angell article.
I've always admired the best pitchers in baseball above any other kind of player. I have an affinity for people who are able to perform their task at a high level with minimal help. They are their own man, they come up with their own plan and they achieve it better than almost anyone.
I don't have anything in common with Bob Gibson. I am not a Black man. I am not an exceptional athlete. I didn't grow up in the Midwest or in the ghetto. But the way he goes about his business? Wow, that's me.
I don't make friends easily at work. I'm not in competition with them or anything, but I don't see the point in happy banter when there is a mission in front of me. Gibson had no use for small talk. Words should have a purpose, and, my god, that's me.
Angell's article title "The Distance" refers to Gibson's aloofness when it comes to performing those social rituals of baseball and the general distance of his personality (as well as his distance from the game, having been retired). Gibson was not a belligerent man. He was classy, intelligent, well-spoken and genuine. He had to overcome a lot to become a Hall of Fame pitcher, because of racism, because of the wayward path he took to reach the majors. He played for the Harlem Globetrotters before his major league career. "It was all right being with the Trotters," Gibson told Angell in his story. "But I hated that clowning around. I wanted to play all the time -- I mean, I wanted to play to win."
Yup. I understand exactly where Gibson is coming from.
Angell's story impressed me so much as a teenager because of the lengths that he went to explain what made Gibson tick.
Not only did Angell go into great detail about specific games that Gibson played, but he described Gibson's skills and his makeup, his pitching motion and how he ranked with the other greats of his time.
Angell then interviewed Gibson's former teammates, McCarver and Joe Torre and Mike Shannon, for telling quotes. Then Angell went to Gibson's home to talk to him and then -- and this still gets me to this day -- swam with Gibson in Gibson's pool at home! Who does that? What writer does that? But sure enough, there are quotes from Gibson -- good quotes -- while they were both seated in the pool.
Gibson is described as shy and someone who doesn't have a lot of time for strangers. There is a quote in the story about his conversation with a cab driver who though he could've been a good ballplayer that cracked me up when I reread it last night. I'm pretty sure what Gibson actually was was an introvert. He was an introvert in a very public game.
I know this because there is a famous quote in Angell's story, a quote that fits Gibson so well that Angell ends his story with it, that is something that an introvert would say.
Gibson was asked by a reporter after he struck out 17 Tigers if he was surprised by the feat. Gibson's answer shocked followers at the time. "I'm never surprised by what I do," he responded.
An introvert is not surprised by what they do. They spend so much time analyzing themselves, looking inward, that they know all of their strengths and weaknesses -- what they can achieve and what they can't.
Gibson was on a mission every time he took the mound and there was a plan in place. Nobody get in his way.
I admire that. Even if I never saw him pitch.
One of Gibson's famous quotes is a go-to whenever someone is discussing when a player knows when it's time to hang it up. Gibson said he knew it was time to quit in 1974 when he gave up a grand slam to the Cubs' Pete LaCock. I've read that quote many times. The first time I read it was in Angell's story.
I have 37 cards of Gibson. I don't seek out his cards except when it comes to cards of his that help me complete a set. I expect the next two cards of his that I'll get are his 1967 and 1970 Topps cards as I'm currently working on each of those.
It basically took me until Angell wrote his story for me to know who Gibson was. Gibson's last Topps card from his career is in the 1975 Topps set, but I never saw it when I was collecting cards that year.
It's a fine tribute to Gibson, and quite apparent in a set in which the border colors seemed to have no relationship to the player or team portrayed. But in this case, the red-and-yellow borders match Gibson's uniform exactly.
Every once in awhile I stumble across a retro card of Gibson, some A&G card or an insert featuring legends. Most of those legends cards don't mean much to me, but I'll hold on to the Gibsons. There's something about that card, that man, that makes me want to keep him in my collection.
I wrote about this once before, but I traded away Gibson's 1968 Topps card and regretted it immediately.
I was fortunate enough to receive the card a couple of years later and I vowed to myself to never let it go again. I haven't.
Gibson's playing style speaks of a time that's disappeared from baseball. His aggressive nature on the mound, scowling at hitters, throwing up-and-in repeatedly, would never be accepted in the current baseball climate. He would be vilified on social media, and his friction with the media would be amplified.
I admire Gibson for what he was and how he stood up against so much during his career. Angell's story ends with a wonderful soliloquy about the unrealistic expectations fans have of athletes and an athlete's place in the world once in he retires.
I would never consider an athlete a hero, that's never been something I subscribed to even as a kid, but Gibson is the closest that it gets. I am glad Gibson is finally relieved of his pain -- pancreatic cancer is a horrible disease -- and I will continue to be inspired by his career.
Many thanks to Roger Angell -- now 100 years young -- for first bringing him to me.
(RIP also to Dodgers '60s greats Lou Johnson and Ron Perranoski! My goodness!)