What I’m Reading: Game Time: A Baseball Companion

Game Time is a collection of essays by Roger Angell, who covers baseball for The New Yorker magazine. I believe most or all of these essays appeared in that magazine. They range from the very beginning of Angell’s career in the early 1960s to 2002.

The essays are uniformly of high, even literary, quality, with an emphasis on personalities, lives, and relationships, rather than action on the field. I notice that even when he does cover action on the field, or over a season, it comes out like a story. It’s a joy to read, although when reading a lot of essays back to back certain New-Yorker-ish tics come to the fore. For instance, everything is always fine: it was a fine game, so-and-so is a fine player, it was a fine play at third. And the reflex to get deeper, to figure out what it all means, on one or two occasions in the book becomes almost comical. But all in all, the writing is superb (or fine, even).

I think my favorite essay is one titled “Distance” from 1980, which is mainly about Bob Gibson, a once-fearsome pitcher who had at that point been retired for five years. Gibson was the most dominant pitcher in baseball in the late 1960s, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who did not hesitate to plunk batters crowding the plate. He was African-American and grew up poor in an era when blacks got little respect, so he carried himself with a certain pride than many interpreted as stand-offishness. Angell caught up with him in Omaha, his hometown, where he had opened up a popular bar-restaurant after retiring but lost none of the old prickliness.You can sense the difficulty Angell had in interviewing such a reticent man, yet he succeeds in giving the reader a detailed and moving look at an athlete past his best years, who never really had a place in life except on top of the baseball mound. He also succeeds in making us sympathize with Gibson, quite a feat for a man who previously had a well-earned image as a cold and emotionally austere man.

My least favorite essay was called “One for the Good Guys,” about the New Yankees late-season surge in 1996 that brought them to the World Series against Atlanta for their first Series appearance since 1978, and what a great group of players they had, and how well-deserved it all was, and how the city and country fell for them, and barf barf barf. Fortunately, this appears to be a one-season lapse on Angell’s part, and for most of the rest of the book he avoids Yankees boosterism.

Now Angell has a number of books, most of which appear to be collections of already-published essays like this one. I would imagine they are all of similarly high quality. Game Time would be a great read for any baseball fan with literary leanings, though probably any of the others would be just as good.

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