Legendary New Yorker writer and editor Roger Angell is considered to be among the greatest baseball writers. He brings a fan’s love, a fiction writer’s eye, and an essayist’s sensibility to the game. No other baseball writer has a through line quite like Angell’s: born in 1920, he was an avid fan of the game by the Depression era, when he watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit home runs at Yankee Stadium. He began writing about baseball in 1962 and continued through the decades, lately blogging about baseball’s postseasons.No Place I Would Rather Be tells the story of Angell’s contribution to sportswriting, including his early short stories, pieces for the New Yorker, autobiographical essays, seven books, and the common threads that run through them. His work reflects rapidly changing mores as well as evolving forces on and off the field, reacting to a half century of cultural turmoil, shifts in trends and professional attitudes of ballplayers and executives, and a complex, discerning, and diverse audience. Baseball is both change and constancy, and Roger Angell is the preeminent essayist of that paradox. His writing encompasses fondness for the past, a sober reckoning of the present, and hope for the future of the game.
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About the Author
Joe Bonomo teaches in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Field Recordings from the Inside: Essays; Conversations with Greil Marcus; Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band; and Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found.
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On the afternoon of September 19, 1920, the New York Giants hosted the Cincinnati Reds at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. Both teams were out of playoff contention, but the game, played in pleasantly cool weather, was an exciting contest that the Giants took in eleven innings. The Giants looked to be in command early behind starter Jesse Barnes, who was cushioned with six runs through three innings. The Reds' left-handed Fritz Coumbe, who'd turn out to be the game's hard luck Renaissance Man, relieved starter Adolfo ("the Pride of Havana") Luque in the third inning, with his team down 6–2. Cincinnati drew two runs closer in the top of the fourth, then tied the game in the seventh when Coumbe, unsatisfied with merely holding the Giants to four hits, launched a homer to the right-field stands, with catcher Ivey Wingo on first. Barnes hit the showers.
The game stayed tied into extra innings. As can happen in baseball, the resolution came startlingly, and for the visitors, mercilessly quickly. In the bottom of the eleventh with none out, Coumbe walked second baseman Larry Doyle. Frank Snyder then smacked a line drive, and as left fielder Pat Duncan bobbled the ball, Doyle switched into high gear, ran hard, and slid home with the winning run. A tough result for Coumbe, who had pitched well in long relief and whose tying two-run homer made it into the eternity of the box score but in a losing cause. More than thirty-seven thousand had turned out for the inessential game, the largest crowd of the season. The thick throng of fans departed the Polo Grounds elated, many climbing the steep Brush Stairway up Coogan's Bluff to Edgecombe Avenue and reentering the long, leisurely, sunny Sunday in front of them.
Elsewhere in the city a preoccupied man and woman had their minds on other things, welcoming into their family a baby boy, their second child following a daughter, Nancy, born four years earlier. In the coming decades the boy will evolve into an ardent New York Giants fan and a regular visitor to the Polo Grounds; he'll cheer for the Yankees at the stadium across the East River too. (And in the far distant future he'll switch allegiances to the Boston Red Sox and to a futuristic local nines called "the Mets." But we're getting ahead of ourselves.)
They named him Roger, and they took him home to East Ninety-Third Street.
Born in 1889 in Cleveland, Ohio, a lifelong Indians fan, Ernest Angell grew into a robust and physically active young man, perennially challenging his body against its considerable limits. Roger Angell would write that his father was "lean and tall, with long fingers, brown eyes, and an air of energy about him." Ernest didn't know his own father, Elgin, well; he died on July 4, 1898, aboard the French liner La Bourgogne when it collided with a British merchant vessel off Sable Island, near Newfoundland. Adolescent grief aside, Ernest, intelligent and hard working, thrived as a student. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University in 1911, earning a law degree there two years later (in 1954 he'd add a law degree from Bard University as well), and then served as an infantry captain in the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe in World War I. A lawyer steeped in politics, Ernest cared passionately about social issues and disadvantaged citizens and over the course of a long career published numerous articles in law reviews. When Roger Angell was a teenager, his father served as regional administrator for New York of the Securities and Exchange Commission before joining the law firm of Spence, Windels, Walser & Hotchkins. Ernest found his true calling when he was elected national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union, his work there often spilling into the Angellhome on Ninety-Third Street in the form of books, pamphlets, and lively, sometimes heated, dinnertime conversations among family and friends.
Ernest would summer with the family in New Hampshire in the White Mountains near Chocorua, and there he met the pretty and stylish Katharine Sergeant, three years his junior, who had graduated from the elite college prep Winsor School in Boston and would later graduate from Bryn Mawr. They were married in 1913 in Brookline, Massachusetts, and for a spell lived back in Cleveland, where Ernest worked as a lawyer and where Katharine gave birth to a daughter, Nancy, in 1916. Following Ernest's hiring at a law firm, the family moved to Manhattan, where in 1924 Ernest purchased a brownstone at East Ninety-Third Street, described in a New York Times column as a "modern residence." Literary-minded, Katharine had already published articles and reviews in several journals when in 1925 Harold Ross hired her as a manuscript reader at a fledgling weekly magazine he was publishing called the New Yorker. In a profile of Katharine published in 1996, Nancy Franklin noted the role that luck played in Katharine's early career: "like thousands of other young and youngish people — when she was hired [at the New Yorker] she was thirty-three and was the mother of two small children — in New York in the nineteen-twenties, she was in the right place at the right time." Katharine swiftly rose to become the magazine's first fiction and poetry editor, collaborating with Ross within a richly productive working relationship, helping to shape the magazine's early tone, attitude, and audience.
In "Home and Office," an essay that ran in the December 1, 1926, issue of the social work journal The Survey, Katharine, assertive in her tone, careful to cover all bases, wrote about the appeal and the limitations of being a working wife. "I can hardly remember a time in my childhood, absurd a child as I must sound to admit it, when my plans for myself 'grown-up' did not include both marriage and a definite career," she begins. She acknowledges that though luck has gone her way, she'd worked hard for her professional place. A prototypical and unapologetically feminist essay, "Home and Office" charts the choppy waters navigated by a mother and working professional. Katharine debates the pros and cons and nuances of "the woman's place," helpfully offering her own daily and seasonal home and work schedules as a kind of guide for women in her position — or those dreaming of it.
"Often I am asked why I work at all and I can give no one reason," she writes. "They are countless." Among them Katharine lists her "strong personal conviction" that she's expected to work, that "[I'm] not a happy or agreeable citizen unless I am working, unless I am busy up to all my capacities, and my particular capacities do not happen to be domestic ones." (She adds: "Frankly, I do not do housework well.") She confesses to "a personal need for the opportunity to follow [her] own bent," hesitating to employ the unoriginal and "somewhat ludicrous term 'self-expression' — but if honest, I must admit to a distinct personal ambition that is thwarted and an underlying cause for unhappiness when I cannot do the work of mind, not hands, for which I am best fitted." To this catalog she adds the obvious economic benefits of working, concluding powerfully: "Most important of all, I work because I know I am a better wife and mother if I do. I personally have more to give to my children and my home, and I fondly hope that I shall continue to be to my children an individual who interests them as a person quite apart from being that important but much-taken-for-granted figure, 'Mother.'"
Key to successful working parents is a supportive and patient spouse; Katharine worked hard to balance work and home, but pressing against her happiness were Ernest's infidelities. "My mother, for her part, waited some years and then told us that it was our father's love affairs that had destroyed the marriage," Roger Angell revealed decades later. While an officer in France during the war, Ernest had picked up "different ideas about sex and marriage. He had even encouraged [Katharine] to try an affair of her own: they would be a modern couple" (living in a "modern residence"). One month before Roger Angell turned nine, his mother filed for divorce from his father. The news made it into the Times (dateline Reno, Nevada), which reported that the suit provided joint parental control of Nancy and Roger and an annual five thousand dollar alimony for Katharine. (Ernest would remarry in 1939.)
Thus began young Roger's dual-home adolescence, with older sister Nancy as companion until she left for boarding school: weeks spent at his father's on East Ninety-Third Street; weekends at apartments on East Eighth and, later, East Forty-Eighth Streets; and summers in Maine with his mother and E. B. White, a promising young writer whom Katharine had championed at the New Yorker and with whom she'd fallen in love. When Katharine married Andy (everyone who knew White personally called him Andy), she oddly neglected to tell her two children, who learned of it a couple of days after the fact when a relative spotted the item in Walter Winchell's column in the New York Daily Mirror. Ernest had insisted on joint custody of his children: "a big mistake for everybody, mistake for my mother, mistake for my father, mistake for the children that my father should be the main day-to-day place where we lived, but we made the best of it," Angell recalled. "My father was admirable in many ways, although he didn't know anything about being a father because he hadn't had a father of his own." As weekends and holidays were divided among homes, Angell got around, moving from the Upper East Side and the Village to alternating warm-weather days spent across the Hudson River at his father's rented cottage at Sneden's Landing in the Palisades and his stepfather's farm in Maine. He stayed focused on school and play and bonded with his school mates, all the while soaking up the sophisticated goings-on of his parents' working lives, much of it beyond his ken and tantalizingly, glamorously so.
Angell attended Lincoln School in upper Manhattan, a progressive institution that encouraged wide interests in its curious and precocious young students, and Angell enjoyed the same encouragements at home. ("No Lincoln parent was ever known to have said, 'Shut up, kid,'" he observed.) Indulging his fascination with the natural world, Angell gathered numerous animals and pets at East Ninety-Third (including, at various junctures, snakes, horned toads, salamanders, tropical fish, mice, a Boston terrier, cats, and a Javanese macaque — a gift from New Yorker writer Emily Hahn); enjoyed trips to city museums; and read avidly in literature and natural history books. When he was eleven, his father hired a young Columbia University student, Tex Goldschmidt, to keep company with Angell on afternoons; Tex affectionately, if unofficially, tutored Angell, quizzing him about girls and sports, all the while urging the liberal New Republic and Marxist New Masses onto him and taking him to Sergei Eisenstein films downtown. Goldschmidt generally encouraged a dynamic and healthy political and socially aware consciousness in Angell, and the brief relationship forever imprinted him. "Tex saved my life," Angell wrote frankly, "and perhaps he did more than that for Father."
There were, in the city and beyond, the enjoyable diversions of tennis matches and hockey and college football games, but the sport that consumed Angell as a young boy was baseball. Providentially he lived his childhood and adolescent years in a city where baseball prospered in a golden age. Between 1920, the year Angell was born, and 1938, his first year in college, the New York Giants and the across-the-river Yankees won or lost sixteen championships between them, five times facing off with each other. (What of the Brooklyn Dodgers? "The lowly Dodgers ... were just another team in the National League to me back then," Angell acknowledged.) He pulled for both the Giants and the Yankees, and his memories of the Polo Grounds and early Yankee Stadium, and the players on the field, are vivid, stuffed with affectionate details.
"I liked it best when we came into the place from up top, rather than through the gates down at the foot of the lower-right-field stand." Angell is recalling a favorite approach, often trailing his father, to the Polo Grounds. "You reached the upper-deck turnstiles by walking down a steep, short ramp from the Speedway, the broad avenue that swept down from Coogan's Bluff and along the Harlem River, and once you got inside, the long field within the horseshoe of decked stands seemed to stretch away forever below you, toward the bleachers and the clubhouse pavilion in center." Ernest would often urge his young son to notice how, say, first baseman Bill Terry would hit for extra bases by exploiting the Grounds' enormous, odd configuration but would miss out on what would've been a home run in any other park, "and, sure enough, now and then would Terry reaffirm the parable by hammering still another triple into the pigeoned distance. Everything about the Polo Grounds was special, right down to the looped iron chains that separated each sector of box seats from its neighbor and could burn your bare arm on a summer afternoon if you weren't careful." Noting the "thin wedge of shadow for the bullpen crews" along the outfield walls, young Roger evocatively envisioned them as "cows sheltering beside a pasture shed in August." Early Metaphor.
Visiting Yankee Stadium in the Bronx was something else altogether: "If the Polo Grounds felt pastoral, Yankee Stadium was Metropole, the big city personified." Once inside the park, "up the pleasing ramps, I would stop and bend over, peering through the horizontal slot between the dark, overhanging mezzanine and the descending sweep of grandstand seats which led one's entranced eye to the sunlit green of the field and the players on it." He adds: "Then I'd look for the Babe." Of course, Ruth and others — Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, and Lefty Gomez among them — were gargantuan figures to Angell, and with their Giants counterparts — Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Dolf Luque, and the rest — acted out the sunny drama of a game that, Angell reminds us, you had to go watch in order to follow. Radio coverage was scarce in the 1930s, so sports-beat writer accounts, which Angell would gobble up in the four daily newspapers his father brought home each day, provided fans with recaps, box scores, and stories if they couldn't get to the park that day. "Sports were different in my youth — a series of events to look forward to and then to turn over in memory, rather than a huge, omnipresent industry, with its own economics and politics and crushing public relations," Angell reflected. "How it felt to be a young baseball fan in the thirties can be appreciated only if I can bring back this lighter and fresher atmosphere. Attending a game meant a lot, to adults as well as to a boy, because it was the only way you could encounter athletes and watch what they did. There was no television, no instant replay, no evening highlights. We saw the players' faces in newspaper photographs, or in the pages of Baseball, an engrossing monthly with an invariable red cover, to which I subscribed, and here and there in an advertisement."
"To turn over in memory." Angell, as every friend and colleague of his testifies, is blessed with a stunningly prodigious memory. As Angell kept score during games, a ritual to which he attends to this day, he cultivated evocative details and imagery. The 1933 World Series — Angell was a teenager, and this was the first postseason he followed avidly — pitted the Washington Senators against the Giants. Indicative of the growing popularity of the sport, five New York radio stations broadcast the Series that year. "I listened either to Ted Husing, on WABC, or to the old NBC warhorse, Graham McNamee, over at WEAF or WJZ," Angell remembered. "I knew how to keep score by this time, and I rushed home from school — for the four week-day games, that is — turned on the big RCA Stromberg-Carlson (with its glowing Bakelite dial), and kept track, inning by inning, on scorecards I drew on one of my father's yellow legal pads." When Ernest returned home from Wall Street, his teenage son would sit with him and run through the game, "almost pitch by pitch, telling him the baseball."
On off days, when teams were idle and the parks depressingly dark, and over the course of long winters, Angell was required to pay attention to other matters of growing up. In the fall of 1934 he matriculated at Pomfret School, a college prep boarding school in Connecticut, three hours northeast of New York City. The scholastic and intellectual demands were high, with intensive courses in Latin and Sacred Studies, the ideology of which the agnostic Angell would instinctively resist. His graduating class was small: twenty-eight students. He endured serial hazing and more than one lonely weekend while away, and at graduation earned the dubious prize of carrying the seniors' class flag, a distinction awarded to the less popular students. "There were occasional weekends which you got by keeping your marks up," he'd recall years later. "You'd go home for a weekend, by train, and that meant a lot. And vacations were absolutely wonderful and went by in a flash." When he applied himself, notably in his English classes, Angell succeeded, but he also recognized in himself a certain contrarian reserve. "I never worked very hard in school. I realized later I was a smart guy, I was a smart kid. I was a highIQ kid and I could do quite well without working." He adds, "It was a form of rebellion against my parents who had both been such serious students. My mother graduated third or fourth in her class at Bryn Mawr. It was a form of rebellion that I would not try very hard." Excess energies were diverted to literary pursuits: he coedited The Pontefract, a biweekly newspaper, and later cofounded the Coffee Club, a literary group that produced a magazine called MS (for "manuscript"), featuring stories and poems.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Place I Would Rather Be"
Copyright © 2019 Joe Bonomo.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Preface Acknowledgments Trying Out Good News Forever Delay on the Field You Want to Laugh, You Want More, You Want It to Be Over Notes Bibliography Index