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Best Baseball Essays

“He was relentless about being clear,” said Charles McGrath, a former writer for The New Yorker who contributes to The New York Times, who described Angell’s one-word remarks (“Argh!”) in the margin of his copy.

Angell’s prose is clear and erudite, elegant and informed; he is a fan with a wicked eye for detail, a sense of humor and a curiosity about the way athletes perform.

From his debut as a baseball writer, in 1962, a story told from spring training ballparks in Florida: “Big-league ball on the west coast of Florida is a spring sport played by the young for the divertissement of the elderly — a sun-warmed, sleepy exhibition celebrating the juvenescence of the year and the senescence of the fans.”

Ann Goldstein, Angell’s editor, said, “His memory for plays and his ability to make an image or a metaphor is as strong as it ever was.”

Last month, he offered a tribute to Don Zimmer on The New Yorker’s website, in which he wrote: “He was a baseball figure from an earlier time: enchantingly familiar, tough and enduring, stuffed with plays and at-bats and statistics and anecdotes and wisdom accrued from tens of thousands of innings. Baseball stays on and on, unchanged, or so we used to think as kids, and Zimmer, sitting there, seemed to be telling us yes, you’re right, and see you tomorrow.”

Angell did not expect to receive the Spink Award, which has gone to writers like Ring Lardner, Red Smith, Shirley Povich and Dick Young. Angell was not a newspaper reporter, not even a daily beat writer and certainly not a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He filled his notebooks but did not have to convert his jottings into an article under a tight deadline. He had months to digest his observations and then wrote long — very long.

“I didn’t have to write after a game,” he said. “That was unforgivable.”

He added, “Jerome Holtzman tried to get me in,” referring to the former Chicago sportswriter and the writing award, “but there was some opposition.”

Angell was nominated by the New York chapter of the baseball writers’ organization within the last decade, but the chapter chairman omitted a biography, said Jack O’Connell, the association’s secretary/treasurer. “We needed a bio even if everybody knew who he was,” he said. “It was procedure.”

It fell to Susan Slusser, a sportswriter for The San Francisco Chronicle, to propose that the Bay Area chapter of the association nominate Angell last year. She grew up a baseball fan and started reading Angell’s articles when she was 8 or 9 because of her father’s New Yorker subscription.

“One of my first grown-up books was ‘Five Seasons,’ ” Angell’s second collection of baseball essays, she said, adding, “We all worship at the altar of Roger Angell.”

When he accepted the award Saturday at Doubleday Field, Angell said that he collected “.300 lifetime talkers like a billionaire hunting down Cézannes and Matisses”— loquacious folks like Keith Hernandez, Roger Craig, Bill Rigney and Dan Quisenberry. And he gave his thanks to baseball, “which has turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and so exacting, and so easy looking and so heartbreakingly difficult that it filled my notebooks in a rush.”

Angell no longer writes long baseball articles for The New Yorker, only blog posts like the one on Zimmer. But in February, he wrote, at length and with emotion, about his nonagenarian life in “This Old Man.” It opened with a description of infirmities that quickly found its way to baseball imagery:

“Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. Arthritis.”

At 93, he is older than the dead-ball-era pitcher Smoky Joe Wood was when Angell described him as “the old man to my left” at Yale Field in 1981. He and Wood watched a pitchers’ duel between Ron Darling of Yale and Frank Viola of St. John’s, preserved in his article “The Web of the Game”; late in the game, he realized that he was yet another person to have exhausted Wood’s memories.

“He had played ball for fourteen years,” Angell wrote, “and people had been asking him to talk about it for nearly sixty years. For him, the last juice and sweetness must have been squeezed out of these ancient games years ago, but he was still expected to respond to our amateur expertise, our insatiable vicariousness. Old men are patronized in much the same fashion as athletes; because we take pride in them, we expect their intimacy in return. I had intruded after all.”

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Most recent books read:

My Cubs: A Love Story, by Scott Simon
Grade: B+. I always get a kick when someone outside of the game who is serious fan, and not just someone looking to glom on to the extra celebrity status of running with a winner, publishes a heartfelt book like this.

Casey Stengel: Baseball's Greatest Character, by Marty Appel
Grade: A-. An accessible tribute to a legendary figure in the game and a good education for a generation of fans that never heard of Ole Case.

Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son, by Paul Dickson
Grade: B+. Another "colorful character" who spent a lifetime in the game.

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