A Brit Learning Baseball Through Books: The Summer Game and Living Forever

“Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young. Sitting in the stands, we sense this, if only dimly.”

– Roger Angell, The Summer Game

It’s taken me pretty much the whole summer to finish The Summer Game, which feels fitting given the book’s leisurely pace and episodic nature. As it’s a collection of Angell’s reporting on baseball for the New Yorker in the sixties and early seventies, it was easy to dip in and out of, the perfect companion for a summer of decorating, holidaying, captaining a softball team of certified underdogs and of watching mostly painful but occasionally joyous Toronto Blue Jays games.

Roger Angell’s name has come up more than any other in conversation with friends and acquaintances who know that I enjoy baseball and that my life revolves around books professionally and personally, or if you will, on and off the field. “You have to read Roger Angell,” they all said, without exception. And while I’d disagree with them that reading Angell is an absolute necessity for baseball fans, I now understand why and agree wholeheartedly with those who call him the ‘poet laureate of baseball’ (even though he dislikes the term himself).

Angell is widely regarded as having been one of the first baseball writers to truly write from the fan’s perspective, and in his columns in the sixties and seventies this was his clear intention. This approach never feels contrived or overtly journalistic, either, which is a testament not only to Angell’s mastery of prose but also to his own fandom and deep, true love of the game. He describes various fan experiences alongside his descriptions of the game and the plays, which are always enjoyable in themselves. But I enjoyed this book the most when Angell was describing his experiences in the stands, jostling with fellow patrons, or in a bar in New York, enjoying the raw camaraderie of a game of the nascent New York Mets being watched on television by excitable workers.

Much of the book focuses on the Mets, and the trials and tribulations of their early existence through to their miraculous 1969 World Series win over the Orioles. Attaching himself as a fan to the often hapless Mets, Angell’s descriptions of the ups and downs remind us, as all the best baseball writing does, of what we are rooting for and why. “This,” he writes of the Mets fans’ cheering, “was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me.”

There are also many accounts of the various playoffs and World Series games of Angell’s heyday, the struggles and triumphs of which are chronicled in perfect detail, always in the context of fandom and the fan experience. I found this to be good mental preparation for the October baseball that will soon be upon us, when my beleaguered and beloved Blue Jays will at last be out of contention and I’ll have to find someone else to root for in the playoffs. But Angell also writes exceptionally well about Spring Training, which is often dismissed as meaningless by incoherent fans and Twitter commentators with 17 followers.

As the opening quote of this post emphasises, Angell has a profound sense of time, linearity and narrative, which are three things that hold the game of baseball together and which pull us in as fans and spectators. His ability to connect the time he’s writing about with the infinite timeline of baseball is a true gift.

I did find that if I read too much of it at once I became weary of reading endless run-downs of plays, scores and outs, but this doubtless has more to do with my own millennial attention span than with Angell’s writing. This is my only caveat when recommending The Summer Game, which I absolutely do for any baseball fan: that many of the passages contain straight up reportage on the game, which seems dated at times. But many who will have read Angell’s columns at the time will not have seen the games at the ballpark or on television, with options being limited. So from that perspective, it’s a historically interesting document on the consumption and experience of baseball too.

All in all, it’s a great book that I enjoyed a lot, and that I think is worth owning and dipping into here and there throughout the baseball season (and the offseason, for that matter). Also, I can’t help but think that Angell’s musings on time might hint at some kind of magic: he celebrates his 98th birthday this month.

I bought my copy of The Summer Game on eBay for around 99p. It’s best to find a second hand copy if you can, in my opinion. Old books smell great.

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