“Hollywood,” wrote Johnny Mercer, is the place “where you’re terrific if you’re even good.” But you don’t have to go to Hollywood to attain this pleasant, vaguely humiliating condition; sportswriting will do.
Selected sportswriters get canonized by the faithful in every major city, and a precious few become national cults, but no matter how glibly or fervently they are honored, their impact on the outside world of letters remains slightly less than that of a movie starlet—and the best of them know it. When the late, wonderfully fluent John Lardner tried a regular humor column in the London Times, he became as awkward as a circus bear, as if he were performing for his betters; and in The Red Smith Reader, the few political pieces just read like sports pieces without the sports. Smith’s jauntiness seems for once out of tune and self-conscious, because politics is a different kind of joke.
Both Smith (also, alas, late) and Roger Angell, two of the very best, seem well aware of this deforming bind, and it affects their work. Smith was often praised for reminding his readers that baseball was a game that small boys could play: but so are mathematics and the violin. It hardly seems worth repeating. But Smith was a super self-deprecator, midwestern Catholic division (see under Eugene McCarthy, whose attitude toward the presidency was cerily similar to Red Smith’s on Sport), and this was one of the ways he did it. “I never had any soaring ambition to be a sportswriter per se,” he writes in a stuttering sort of preface, “I wanted to be a newspaperman…. I respect a good reporter, and I’d like to be called that…. I haven’t been ashamed of what I’ve done. I seem to be making apologies for it. I don’t mean to….” In short, a soul, or at least a persona, on the rack.
In real life, Red (it seems pertinent to say that I knew him) was capable of forgetting for weeks at a time that baseball could be played by small boys. In the late, bad hours, when lesser men may be found wrestling with the meaning of meaning, Smith would most likely be grubbing gleefully through the Baseball Encyclopedia to prove that Travis Jackson did so belong in the Hall of Fame. His world was sport, small boys or no, and he strayed from it at his peril.
But he did get some outside fame anyway—a mention in Hemingway, an appointment to a board of language purists for the American Heritage Dictionary—and the guess here (a phrase he used to bypass the first person, which he avoided like Yaweh in the Old Testament) is that the recognition flustered him a little. Hence the ungainly attempts to apologize and not apologize for his subject in the same breath; hence also an increase as he went along in think-pieces: analyses of the players’ union and other sub-athletic matters. He came to write less about the game as played and more about the game as paid for and manipulated. This edged him closer to straight reporting and the coveted other side of the newspaper where the big boys wrote.
Yet his method remained blessedly the same. All those chortling evenings had not produced the razor mind that some of his fans wanted and celebrated (in fact Red’s logic could wobble all over the place, puffed along by his sentiments) but they had produced a wonderful cartoonist in words who could skewer the guilty parties in a dispute even if he couldn’t quite skewer the issues. After he had done with the whimpy commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the fat, bland, scheming owner Walter O’Malley, he had no need of dialectics.
His collector for the Reader, sportswriter Dave Anderson, is at least half right when he says that there is no best of Red Smith: his vintage lines (and you read him for the lines) are scattered all over the map. But Anderson may still have done him a slight disservice by favoring columns about “big names, big events, big issues.” Anyone can do the big issues; Red was a master of the small ones. As with A.J. Liebling his eye wandered constantly from the stage to the cutpurses in the audience. His piece about the famous 1951 National League play-off game won for the Giants by Bobby Thomson’s home run starts with three paragraphs about a drunk crashing again and again into the ushers and special police until he gets to the diamond: a symbol of the Giants that year. And the day Floyd Bevens lost his no-hitter to Cookie Lavagetto in the 1947 Series, Red notes a hapless chap at the end of the press box whose letter “v” has jammed on him.
Smith’s long career began in a time when relatively few readers had seen the games and the rest depended on the thoroughness of his accounts to the polysaturated TV era when some clowning around is almost mandatory. Thus do changes in convention unleash genius. Red’s play-by-play reports had been only so-so—you can make only so many jokes while imparting information, and his knowledge of strategy seemed to be mugged-up rather than felt. But for clowning around, his gifts were formidable: a computer-bank mind crammed with anecdotes, a deadly retrieval system, and a tongue that liked to play, viz. the following on the occasion of Ted Williams being fined $5,000 for spitting: “It was a $4,998 mistake when Ted Williams chose puritanical and antiseptic New England for his celebrated exhibition of spitting for height and distance. In easygoing New York’s insanitary subway the price is only $2…. The price the Boston general manager set upon a minute quantity of genuine Williams saliva, making it the most expensive spittle in Massachusetts, suggests that the stuff is rarer than rubies,” and so on. No pair of desperate TV announcers on a rainy afternoon could go further with less.
A fourth gift Smith had was a small boy’s (him again) fascination with athletes. This becomes clear in To Absent Friends, a goulash of eulogies in which it seems that, if any funny saying or doing could be wrung from these deceased jocks, Red would wring it and massage it into a story. The net result is like a string of Lite Beer commercials full of jocular ghosts round a celestial bar. The reader is coaxed not to cry but to smile and shake his head: “there was a boy-o.”
Taken one at a time, these eulogies are real artifacts to be pondered by anyone who has to write a condolence letter. But when one reads them in bulk, the limits of the form become oppressive: the need to find “Class” in everyone, the automatic conversion of grouchiness into integrity, etc. Each of his subjects seems to have left the world with a little less warmth or laughter, which could become a problem.
To Absent Friends also gives the impression that Smith was all heart—a curious condition that he would have considered unprofessional. To balance his admittedly outsize generosity, Red would hastily revert to his tireless baiting of Kuhn and his predecessor Happy Chandler and the Olympics dictator Avery Brundage and to his sometimes unholy gloating over a losing team’s incompetence (he gave this up later). As a once shy and always undersized boy, he delighted in running with the virile roustabouts, the Toots Shors and Bill Veecks and Stout Steve Owenses, and sometimes he took on a tone of mocking banter suitable to such.
Sportswriters have inner lives just as much as the next artist, but because their output is taken less seriously, it seems only fair that they should be spared the heartless scrutiny we accord the Bellows and Mailers. Still it is not probing much further than he would himself to say that the quirk that gave Smith’s stuff definition and force was the craving of a myopic, highly literary homunculus to be one of the guys whatever it cost him in other ambitions.
And the guys were his subject, not the games, even when he was covering fishing and horse-racing. He had a good ear for clubhouse quotes, but he couldn’t have gotten his best material without those marathon drinking sessions. Weight for age, Red was a world-champion drinker and proud of it.
But what made him famous was his phrasing. In Smith’s world, coaches didn’t just tear their clothes, they rent their haberdashery; his teams not only overwhelmed their opponents but occasionally underwhelmed them or just plain whelmed them. To quote these felicities is to suggest that they were rare. On the contrary: they were the sparkplugs in every single column, the quality of which could often be judged by how much work the phrases had to do to get the column up the hill. When Smith talked about opening a vein and bleeding into his typewriter, this must be what he was talking about. He had a sure sense of the essay form and he didn’t need to send the waiter out for an anecdote, so there was nothing to bleed about there.
But those phrases, which had carried him from the Midwest to Philadelphia to New York to Olympus, really drained him. His favorite sport was fishing and there is no better metaphor for the passivity and guile, the planning and touch it takes to catch bons mots. Without them Red Smith was (to use another of his favorites) just another working stiff.
The case of Roger Angell illustrates other pressures, other tactics. Angell is doted on by the dabblers, the people who pick baseball up and put it down as the mood strikes, but is not, I believe, fully approved of in Red Smith’s kingdom, the press box, because he doesn’t have to meet deadlines. In fact, most journalists wouldn’t know what to do with the extra time if it was granted, as their occasional books show. But the Deadline is a stern discipline which makes for a brotherhood, and Angell isn’t quite in it.
In fact, as a New Yorker writer, he has no natural allies in the business. He talks of dedicating Late Innings to the fans—by which he seems to mean something very close to E.M. Forster’s “the sensitive, the decent and the plucky,” a band of fellow spirits which one just has to take on faith. And speaking of Forster, imagine Angell’s clip being passed around a locker room to appreciative chuckles: “As E.M. Forster said (I can still see him, with one spiked foot on the top step of the dugout and his keen, Ozark-blue eyes, under the peak of the pulled-down cap, fixed on some young batter just now stepping up to the plate), Only connect.”
Neither a jock nor an English major would make much of this, but Angell soldiers on gamely. In his earlier baseball musings he seemed to accept his distance, and watch baseball under glass, like the New Yorker’s Eustace Tilley peering through his monocle. But in his later books, especially this one, he has decided to go out and find those allies or quit. Among the players themselves, he notes that a surprisingly large number don’t really like baseball or think about it more than they have to. But every now and then, he spots one of his phantom fans disguised in a baseball uniform, and his faith is restored.
Temporarily. These chronic reconversions lend a pinch of drama to what would otherwise be a random collection of pieces. Late Innings records a cycle of little deaths and rebirths as each spring he determines to give up the game, not because he thinks it unworthy of him but out of a sheer Sisyphean Angst rare in his dodge. “Is there no cure,” he wails, “for this second-hand passion, which makes me a partner, however unwilling, in the blather of publicity, the demeaning emptiness of hero worship, and the inconceivably wasteful outpourings of money and energy that we give professional sports now?
“I would happily avoid ever again having to watch the beery rage of a losing crowd in some dirty big-city stadium on a sweltering night in August, or—just as bad—suddenly noticing across the room the patronizing stare of some baseball hater, a certified adult, when he hears me mention Reggie or Yaz or Willie and watches me wave my hands and take up the stance at a make-believe plate….”
Thus our hero, stranded between two wastelands, too sensitive for one and too hearty for the other—but look, isn’t that Bob Gibson or Pete Rose or Catfish Hunter, fellow humans all, arriving just in time? Or it might be a fellow teaching the fundamentals to kids or a PhD poet persuading her husband to take up professional pitching—always our hero is rescued (John Updike would probably call the book Angell Is Risen) in time to enjoy another surprisingly good season and an epiphany of a World Series.
There is nothing stagey about any of this. It is exactly what many of us go through every year, and Angell is our spokesman. How good does it make him? Previously he had been a crack utility-infielder at the New Yorker—short-story writer, film critic, fine editor—but hardly a household word. Then suddenly he found a whole new field to himself. Baseball had no Weltys or Updikes or Kaels to go up against; Angell’s natural rivals were all chained to deadlines and space limitations and the hardened expectations of sports-page readers.
Angell could write any way he liked for a bright audience with no expectations—a heaven-sent opportunity to be terrific if you’re even good. But there’s usually a reason for such vacuums. Just try making spring training interesting sometime, with its unknown casts, its changeless routine, and its fly-me-to-Florida (or Arizona) settings, and you will see why other writers have left it to Roger. Angell’s apparent freedom is like having the run of the Gobi Desert. Yet by a kind of hunt-and-peck method, a promising rookie here, a ruminating veteran there, he floods these bleak encampments with color. In his glowing vision, there is hardly such a thing as a dull ballplayer or a meaningless game: he will spot something in a pitcher’s motion or a hitter’s eyes that rivets you on the inessential until it fills the canvas. The heresy that “it’s only a game” which bedeviled Red Smith becomes meaningless. Anything so sweetly concentrated on as this becomes as important as anything else—while the spell lasts.
So this is not, after all, some journey-man writer stumbling on a lucky subject. Angell was born to write about baseball; it consumes him, as artists are consumed, and there’s no point asking how he’d do at something else. His feel for the game is sensual, and this seems to come through even to the heathen. He can describe a batter’s swing with the thoroughness and exaltation of a man carving a statue. His years under glass taught him to see the game as an art student should; now that he knows the players he is ready to talk to them on a much deeper level than thin post-game chitchat. Other sportswriters know all that they need to know about a dozen or so sports, but Angell is a man of one sport, one god, so reading him is quite different in intensity from reading anybody else. He is indeed the Apostle to the Gentiles, and not in the same racket as the others. Like M.F.K. Fisher or Isaac Walton, he can be enjoyed by the unwashed, and may even have wiped a sneer or two off the faces of those cocktail-party ghouls.
But note how he has reversed Red Smith’s tactic for dealing with a basically trivial subject, by removing it from the world of value altogether: baseball for baseball’s sake might be his motto. Small boys can daub at it if they wish: insofar as they come into it, they are all to the good. “[Watching Tom Seaver] we had become children too, and this could not be permitted to last.” As for old men, Angell tells a nice story about watching a college game with Smokey Joe Wood, a hero from the trolley-car days. Angell wants breathlessly to talk about the past, but Wood is too wrapped up in the game right there in front of him to pay much attention. Gradually, watching it through the old man’s eyes, the author sees that this particular Yale-St. John’s game is one of the greatest ever played, if not the very greatest, and he might have missed it if he’d had his way. Angell has just been taught a lesson of a kind one usually turns to him for.
My one caveat about this elegant chronicle of four seasons (1977-1981) is that the extramural stuff—the baseball strike, women reporters in the club-house, and whatnot—could as well have been handled by any concerned citizen, and I’m only sorry that this fine pictorial writer had to be bothered with it.
Another and yet more hag-ridden form of transmitting fun and games is TV announcing, and by chance the titan in this modest field has also committed a book, 1947—When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball, by Red Barber. That was the year, you will recall, when Jackie Robinson broke the color bar and Leo Durocher was suspended for consorting with gamblers and Laraine Day: a diverting year, and Barber, as Dodger announcer, was well perched in his famous catbird seat to watch it; but the best writing in his book mainly consists of quotes from other people (including Red Smith). Barber’s own contribution is a small but handy trove of inside poop concerning the prime movers—the sainted Branch Rickey of Brooklyn, who brought Robinson in, and Rickey’s vengeful protégé Larry MacPhail of the Yankees, who helped squeeze Durocher out for reasons that would have baffled Iago—wadded in repetition (“Yogi could swing that stick”) and old baseball scores wistfully heightened, as Barber used to heighten the teletype reports that came ticking into his lonely radio studio, in the days before announcers traveled with the team. Jogging one’s memory is the book’s principal, and I’m afraid almost only, achievement.
However the author has a couple of interesting things to say about his own calling. He was famous in his day for a soft, somewhat homogenous southern voice proper to the early 1940s when streamlined sound-mixing was a new toy, giving us singing groups like the Andrews Sisters, bands like Glenn Miller’s, soundtracks like Walt Disney’s, and the worst years of Bing Crosby; but also for his urbane, nonpartisan, and altogether idiosyncratic commentary. Something else happened in 1947 which would render this kind of commentary obsolete in no time flat, although this was not clear at the time. Up to then Barber, and all the little Barbers, had been employed by radio stations or networks. But in the hairy wars between Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey Barber found himself being fought over by the clubs, and he wound up in Branch Rickey’s pocket. The old Redhead, as we were obliged to call him, went on in his own blithe way, although his career may have been shortened by a tendency to review the new plays in town or whatever else came to mind—as if he were still alone in his studio busking for radioland. But the floodgates had been opened to a host of dismal company shills, whose collective sophistication sometimes suggests that baseball can also be announced by small boys.
Even before that, Barber had been asked by Commissioner Judge Landis (baseball’s version of De Gaulle, an autocrat famous entirely for being autocratic, who is for some mysterious reason universally admired) just to report the games and keep his opinions to himself. Baseball has never been too keen on free speech—what big business is?—and the owners have even been known to demand loyalty from newspapermen, with indifferent success. So baseball, in its odd way, needs its books—if baseball matters at all. And this, I believe, is where I get off.
September 23, 1982