Keeping Score: Bantering about baseball writing

Published: 6/3/2022 6:01:35 PM

Good morning!
Two late scribes who influenced my baseball writing were polar opposites. Roger Angell, was born in Manhattan, educated at Harvard and wrote for the New Yorker on West 44th Street.

Jim Bouton was born in Newark, attended Western Michigan University and toiled on a pitcher’s mound in the South Bronx.

Angell, who died on May 20 at age 101, began chronicling baseball in 1962. According to his New York Times obituary, editor William Shawn told him to “go down to spring training and see what you find.”

The New Yorker was thick as the Franklin County phone book in those days, and news wasn’t reduced to 280 characters or less. People had time to ruminate on Angell’s long pieces that were upward of 5,000 words.

The Oct. 28, 1967, issue cost 35 cents and contained Angell’s treatise about the Red Sox pennant winning season. It was aptly titled The Flowering and Subsequent Deflowering of New England.

Neophytes to the Angell Method knew what they were in for from the opening sentence: “The laurels all are cut, the year draws in the day, and we’ll to the Fens no more.”

Angell’s writing was loaded with metaphors and anecdotes. Jim Lonborg etched the names of all 19 batters he hit during his 22-win season; manager Dick Williams “had the same approximate hopes for tenure as a titled Balkan bridegroom in a Hollywood marriage;” infielders Joe Foy and Rico Petrocelli were “subject to fatal spells of introspection when approaching ground balls.”

He set the mood by writing of Maine lobstermen calling the Red Sox score from boat to boat, of church bells ringing at midnight in Charlestown, N.H., after Pudge Fisk’s home run, of “button hawkers, ice cream wagons and police horses” outside Fenway Park.

His craftsmanship was a forerunner to other books that went beyond hero worship. Roger Kahn’s bestseller “The Boys of Summer” was his account of covering the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune.

The short-lived (1924-66) broadsheet was staffed by ascending writers like Tom Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Walter Lipmmann, Judith Crist and Jimmy Breslin. Kahn’s colleague Bill White compared the Trib with the Gray Lady: “Here we write. Up at the Times they copy read. We have a newspaper here on Forty-first street. They have an insurance company on Forty-third. This is the writer’s newspaper in America.”

BOUTON’S BREAKTHROUGH 

The Valley Advocate was a writer’s newspaper. Publisher Geoff Robinson and editors Richard Asinof, Steve Diamond, Jon Harr and Dick Poleman let me choose my stories and develop my own style. I hadn’t gone to J-School at Syracuse or worked for a school newspaper, I simply liked to write and loved baseball.

Also, I was tired of reading laundered quotes uttered by ballplayers who could do no wrong. After Babe Ruth’s home run at the 1933 All Star game in Chicago he reportedly said, “Golly gee, isn’t it swell?”

Really? Ballplayers cursed, drank and caroused. Ruth was notorious for his ribald behavior. “I suppose I could write two books,” he said, “one for the kids and one for the adults.” 

Ball Four was the book for adults, and Bouton was in the perfect place to write it. His career with the New York Yankees was meteoric, from winning 39 games in 1963-64 to going 4-17 in 1965, and all the while he was taking notes.

He kept a diary of his 1969 season in Seattle which together with his Yankees anecdotes became the basis for Ball Four which was edited by Leonard Schecter and printed by Dell Publishing in 1971.

It dished on player infidelities, clubhouse pranks and drunken revelries. Mark Armour of sabr.org wrote that Angell called Bouton a “day-to-day observer, hard thinker, angry victim and unabashed lover of the game.”

In 50 years since the first printing of 5,000 copies, total sales have reached over 5.5 million according to the Hall of Fame.

Bouton was shunned for breaking the code: what’s said in the locker room stays in the locker room. Six years later during spring training, he was doing a TV gig in Winter Haven where the Red Sox were hosting the Yankees. I was standing near the first base coach’s box and heard a loud angry shout and turned to see Thurman Munson chasing Bouton away from the batting cage.

THE REGGIE QUOTE

In June, 1978, I covered a series between the Yankees and Red Sox at Fenway Park. Almost a year to the day earlier, Billy Martin had pulled Reggie Jackson from a game in the middle of the inning for not hustling after a fly ball.

They nearly came to blows that afternoon, and the hard feelings still lingered. The Yankees had lost two of three and Jackson was in a foul mood. Reporters had given up on him, but I ventured over and asked, “Why are you upset? You won one game. One game is all you needed.”

“This is my job,” said Jackson, unbuttoning his jersey and glaring at me. “This is my job. This is my job! I’m concerned about my job.”

Everyone rushed back over and a young cub reporter I didn’t know said, “Reggie the Red Sox are seven games up on the Yankees a third of the way through the season. At this pace, they’ll finish 21 games ahead.”

You can fill in the blanks to Jackson’s reply. “If the Red Sox finish 21 games ahead of the Yankees, I’ll ____ your ____.”

The hacks gasped and collectively stepped backward.

When Hartford Advocate editor Dick Polman heard Jackson’s comment he laughed and asked, “You gonna use it?”

Of course I used it, it was Bouton-esque.

The story ran on the front page in all three editions — Amherst, Springfield and Hartford — and was headlined “The Boys of Simmer” a play on manager Don Zimmer’s name.

The Reggie quote got lots off attention. A Red Sox fan who planned to show me her husband’s vast collection of Red Sox memorabilia called and canceled. Springfield Union columnist Jim Fox called it “a tasteless display of locker room journalism.”

Others were thrilled. A Red Sox fan at Joe’s Cafe in Northampton came over and thanked me. A letter to the editor pondered, “wouldn’t it be great if…”

It’s doubtful Roger Angell would have used Jackson’s quote during William Shawn’s tenure, but the New Yorker has included four-letter words in quotes since David Remnick became the editor.

I only met Angell once and that was in Jupiter, Fla. We were in a slow-moving elevator going up to the press box at Roger Dean Stadium. He grudgingly accepted my alms to him and we stepped off the elevator. He went his way and I went mine. We both had stories to write.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com


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