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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Most sportswriters, like most alternative-weekly film critics, worry they will look like saps if they let on they thrill in their subject. They labor to hide their rapture. This fear of looking like lightweights provides a road map to their predictable journeys on the page. But that has never been Roger Angell’s concern. He goes where he goes, and does it with a clear eye, gentle honesty and a love of language. That’s what makes him among the best ever at writing about sports.
Angell, who turns 80 this year, has been writing about baseball for the New Yorker since 1962, though until recently he devoted much of his time to other tasks at the magazine. A fiction writer whose collected volumes of New Yorker-published work include “The Stone Arbor and Other Stories,” published in 1970, Angell was for years chief fiction editor. He made a name for himself as a champion of clarity, and nurtured such major talents as Garrison Keillor, William Trevor and John Updike.
As Keillor told the Atlantic in 1997, Angell was an “old-fashioned seigneur of an editor,” the type “who was terribly generous with his praise and apologetic for his criticism and who, if a month passed without submissions from me, would write the most wonderful encouraging letters.”
Angell praises current New Yorker fiction and literary editor Bill Buford, the former Granta editor, for putting his stamp on the magazine’s fiction more than any previous editor has, but Angell’s stamp is there too, and even if he no longer writes his annual Christmas poem for the front of the magazine, the unaffectedly worldly perspective it conjured remains part of the magazine’s voice.
Angell edited a recent collection of New Yorker love stories, and also wrote an introduction to a new edition of “The Elements of Style,” the classic little book on writing by his stepfather, E.B. White, and William Strunk. But it is in his patient, resourceful baseball writing, which only the cloddish put down as “baseball poetry” (a term he detests), that Angell has touched the most lives. “I’ve been accused once in a while of being a poet laureate, which has always sort of pissed me off,” Angell told me one afternoon in his office at the New Yorker. “That’s not what I was trying to do. I think people who said that really haven’t read me, because what I’ve been doing a lot of times is reporting. It’s not exactly like everybody else’s reporting. I’m reporting about myself, as a fan as well as a baseball writer.
“And I am a baseball writer now. I really have learned a lot about the game after all this time. I don’t know everything. But I know a few things. I know what to look for. It’s a great game for writers because it’s just the right pace. You can watch the game and keep score and look around and take notes. Now and then you even have time to have an idea, which in many sports you don’t have room for.
“The stuff about the connection between baseball and American life, the ‘Field of Dreams’ thing, gives me a pain. I hated that movie. It’s mostly fake. You look back into the meaning of old-time baseball, and really in the early days it was full of roughnecks and drunks. They beat up the umpires and played near saloons. In ‘Fields of Dreams’ there’s a line at the end that says the game of baseball was good when America was good, and they’re talking about the time of the biggest race riots in the country and Prohibition. What is that? That dreaminess, I really hated that.”
Angell, always wary of nostalgia, often points out that baseball gets better all the time, its players bigger and stronger and faster, though he does not disguise his misgivings about the home-run glut disfiguring the game. “The modern game is all bangs and effects: it’s summer-movie fare, awesome and forgettable — and extremely popular with the ticket-buyers,” he wrote in a recent New Yorker. But overall, baseball is probably better than ever, and so is sports writing. Top papers, especially the New York Times, have worked hard in recent years to beef up their staffs with hungry, young talent, and the rise of Web journalism has opened up a vast smorgasbord of offerings. The typical fan can go to a site like Sportspages.com that can steer him to some of the best columns and stories published around the country on a given day.
Amid this proliferation, Angell stands out as even more of an original. He’s no insider, wondering if a backup catcher has strained toenail ligaments, yet he knows the game. He has never been a cardholder in the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, and therefore is unlikely ever to have a Hall of Fame vote, yet he has had long, insightful conversations with dozens of Hall of Famers and passed them on to readers. He’s a fan of the game, and proud to say so, yet he almost never lets that fact warp his lucid awareness or interfere with his sure instincts into personalities.
That’s why we need Angell more than ever. The unsavory aspects of sports keep gaining a higher profile. Sportswriters spend more and more time on the huge money athletes make — and the beyond-the-rules arrogance it breeds — and get used to holding their noses. Most love sports, deep down, but theirs is a complicated relationship, like that between some constantly spatting couple everyone expects to split up but never does.
Ironic distance has become not just a hip style but a survival strategy. It gets harder and harder to see that another approach still offers itself. But it does. This is the Angell approach, which is never shy about soaking in the pleasure there is to be had in a good ballgame or a good story. Sometimes this makes for writing that feels soggy, deft as it is sure to be. But taken as a whole, Angell’s accounts and his sensibility are courageous in their unwillingness to bend to cynicism. They enrich any baseball imagination. “I think every baseball writer’s goal is to one day write as well as Roger,” said Baseball Weekly columnist Bob Nightengale. “But that’s like saying you hope to hit home runs like Mark McGwire. You’re asking the impossible. So we do the next best thing. We read him as much as possible, knowing that we’re privileged. He’s not only one of the finest writers in America but one of the classiest men I’ve ever run across.”
Angell is looking for something out there, and he wants you to look along with him. Nothing seduces him like the giddy sense of community that comes when a team pieces together a long-awaited victory, as he wrote in his 1975 account of the classic World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. The Sox lost in seven, but thrilled their fans with a great Game 6, the night Carlton Fisk so famously worked his sorcery to ensure his game-winning homer stayed fair and struck the left-field foul pole at Fenway. Angell, no bloodless stooge, exulted along with all of New England.
I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends (and all the other Red Sox fans, all over New England), and I thought of them — in Brookline, Mass., and Broolin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damriscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont, in Waland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all five Manchesters; and in Ramond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives) and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born), and I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway — jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, and in bars and trailers, and even in some boats here and there, I supposed, and on the back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night) and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy — alight with it.
Such sentences just don’t get written anymore. The word-processing software would deface it in green underline, horrified that anyone could midwife a 194-word sentence. Most any Web editor would picture all the people tumbling away in cyberspace, heading off in search of something shorter, snappier and saltier to snack-read. And it’s true, the sentence almost needs a voice-over: “Do not try this at home! Mr. Angell is a trained professional!” But even more striking than the length and grandeur of the sentence is how openhearted it is, almost embarrassingly so.
That’s Angell. He did not become a sports fan by watching the “SportsCenter” crew wax glib every night. He did not fall in love with sports by tuning in to talk shows like the Razor and Mr. T in San Francisco that are more likely to devote an hour to fart jokes than to spend a minute talking about sports as if they mean it. Angell grew up a fan, pure and simple. He was 16 when Joe DiMaggio became a Yankee, and he joined much of New York in falling for the gangly, graceful Italian-American. That sense of seeking to identify with something in sports, neither stingily nor provisionally, has stayed with him.
“What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about; this is what we come for,” Angell wrote in that 1975 piece.
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naiveti — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
Angell was not so much born with a silver spoon in his mouth as silver words in his ears. His father was Ernest Angell, a Harvard Law grad and World War I veteran who went on to a career in law in New York. His mother was Katharine Sergeant Angell, whom Harold Ross hired at the New Yorker in 1925, where she was to continue working until she was 68. She was later head of fiction for the magazine, and edited famous writers of her time such as Mary McCarthy, John O’Hara, Alexander Woollcott and Vladimir Nabokov.
Her marriage to Ernest Angell ended and, in 1929, Katharine Angell married E.B. White, the great essayist and children’s-book author, whom she had met at the New Yorker. Roger Angell’s regard for White came through in a recent introduction he wrote for the classic “One Man’s Meat,” first published in 1942 after the small family had left Manhattan in 1938 for a saltwater farm in Maine. “He had grown up (he turns 40 in midbook), and he was too busy around the place to be a full-time stylist,” he wrote. “I think that ‘One Man’s Meat’ was the making of him as a writer. Freed of the weekly deadlines and the quaintsy first-person plural form of The New Yorker’s ‘Notes and Comments’ page, which he had written for more than a decade, he discovered his subject (it was himself) and a voice that spoke softly but rang true … ‘Stuart Little,’ ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ and 10 other books and collections were still ahead, but the author had found his feet.”
It was almost natural for Angell to make his mark at the magazine, starting with his first piece the year after he graduated from Harvard in 1942. He was in the Army Air Force at the time. “I was just out of college and I wrote a little casual,” he told me. “They used to have back-of-the-book, short fiction pieces. And it was bought. It meant a lot to me. In 1956, I guess, my mother had retired and [William] Shawn asked me to come to work. Shawn wanted more sports in the magazine and I think I’d already written a hockey piece on the Rangers. In 1962 he said, ‘Go down to spring training and see what you find.’
“That was just like him, not to plan what the story was and see how it would develop. I went on with it because I enjoyed it so much and I seemed to find a way of writing about baseball that was easy for me, kind of like myself. You know, that’s a key thing for a writer, to be yourself. It was the first year of the Mets, and that was very lucky for me when I thought it out. It occurred to me fairly early on that nobody was writing about the fans. I was a fan, and I felt more like a fan than a sportswriter. I spent a lot of time in the stands, and I was sort of nervous in the clubhouse or the press box. And that was a great fan story, the first year of the Mets. They were these terrific losers that New York took to its heart.”
If Angell’s baseball writings have almost always been a pleasure to read in the magazine, they also age well. He had room to sound like himself, as he puts it. The self that comes through sounds old New Yorker at times, but never really dated. His was always the voice of the smart fan talking for all of us, living with the same sort of anxieties we all face.
Angell worked closely with Shawn, and his mother worked closely with the rough-hewn [Harold] Ross, but he’s not one to idealize the past. He even smiles when he talks about the controversial Tina Brown. “Tina was great to me,” he said. “She encouraged me and published baseball without knowing anything about it. She let me go on. I remember once after a World Series piece, she said, ‘Wonderful piece. I really understood it.’ “And I said, ‘No you didn’t.’
“She was very compelling to work for, very seductive. You really wanted to write for her. There was this aura of hers to bring writers out and make you want to do more … Every writer needs a good editor. All of them, even the best. It’s interesting that the older and best-known and most professional writers are the ones who really appreciate an editor. Young writers are terrified. They think, ‘What I’ve done should not be touched.’”
Angell has always shown the working stiffs of the press box the outsize admiration of someone who came to baseball a different way. “I’ve never been a beat writer or a daily writer,” he told me. “I don’t know if I could do that.” This respectful attitude, expressed so many times in his writing, took on a new meaning for me in 1994 when the San Francisco Chronicle sports editor wanted to move me from hockey to baseball. He wanted me to replace the longtime A’s beat writer whom Angell had so often mentioned in his writings. A piece in 1987, for example, looked back on spring training this way: “A friend of mine, a beat man with the San Francisco Chronicle, came along and fell into step beside me. Smiling a little behind his shades, he nodded toward the field and the players and the filling-up stands and murmured: ‘You know, it’s a shame to have to mess all this up with a regular season.’”
I spent more than four years covering baseball for the Chronicle, and fittingly, the glimpses of Angell I recall most vividly were all from spring training. Some young Oakland A’s player would ask me, “Who’s that?” as Angell huddled in a corner, talking at length to a coach or an established player. Great reporters, like great point guards in basketball, usually have a relaxed alertness as they look ahead, making eye contact, yes, but always half-thinking about — whoosh — where they might be headed next. Angell always had that look when he was deep in conversation, but he balanced it with a warmth and modesty everyone could feel, a sense of being glad to be just where he was.
“What you notice about modern-day ballplayers is they don’t talk baseball very much,” Angell told me. “They don’t pay that much attention. They pay attention to the game when it’s being played. But the moment the game is over, they don’t talk baseball and they don’t think baseball. As recently as 10 years ago, some of the older players were noticing this, the older ones noticing the younger ones aren’t hanging around to learn about baseball. Tom Seaver told me that when he was just starting up, he spent as much time as possible in the clubhouse because he’d learn something about baseball just by talking. I don’t think that that’s still there.
“It’s a different time. I don’t want this to sound sort of dreamy. I don’t sit around mourning this loss. But our attention span generally is much shorter than it used to be. We all move from subject to subject basically because of television. The biggest change in my lifetime by far has been television. That has been a much bigger change than the computer. It’s changed the way we see things. It’s brought a complete change, I think, in our demand for new material. It’s very hard to remember things because we expect a replay, and I mean in baseball but really in every other area. We look for the replay. That’s how we remember.
“One of the great lines about this from a ballplayer’s point of view came from Carlton Fisk. I asked him if he had any personal memory of that home run in the ’75 World Series, that famous, famous home run and the gesturing, and he said, ‘It’s very interesting you asked that because, you know, I’ve only seen that shot four or five times in my life. Every time it comes on my television set, I turn it off or leave the room because I’m trying to keep a crystal memory of what that was like.’”
Several hallmarks of Angell’s style deserve mention. One, he never seems to write backward from an observation, filling in the blanks to get himself where he wants to end up. Two, he usually finds a way to balance his seeing-by-feeling perceptions with cool, hard-won analysis. Three, he loves language and will sometimes play just to play. Writing in the New Yorker on the explosion of home runs, for example, he eases up on his usual control to note, with uncanny accuracy, that baseballs’ “garish red stitches, which since childhood have reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein’s handiwork, are flattened now, like the seam on a model’s torso after repairs in a chic Vegas clinic.” And four, he has indeed earned real insight into the game of baseball.
Angell’s naturally good eye has been helped by decades of digesting each season in his New Yorker pieces and learning a little more. This puts him in a much different category than some other established writers who have taken a crack at baseball. “People would drop in and write a book,” he told me. “There was a sort of intellectualization of baseball and where it fits in the American scene, which was probably overdone, and probably some unduly flowery and poetic or romantic writing about the game. I hope I wasn’t contributing to that.”
He wasn’t. His writing is too rooted in the particular for that. Angell may at times be profligate with his emotions, but he turns this into one of his central themes, pored over at length — and often with self-mocking humor. “I’ve noticed that almost all baseball writers are fans in the end,” he told me. “If they think their team is in it, they get as excited as anybody. I think they may be acting a little more cynical and hardened about the whole thing than they are. If there’s anything different about what I’ve done, it’s that I have been able to write in the first person and to switch over and to become a fan right in the middle of a piece. I’ve never had to put that on, because if I watch any team for three or four games in a row, I begin to think about this team kind of like a fan.
“The widening gap between players and beat writers must be a hard thing to accept. I’m 79 and I go to talk to ballplayers and they call me ‘Sir,’ and I start with a huge handicap. Once they call you ‘Sir,’ you’re in big trouble. I remember when Bob Boone was playing late in his career as a catcher, he was talking about what it’s like to be an older player. He said, ‘The main thing for me is to have a bad day and not to say ‘I’m getting old,’ because I had a lot of bad days when I wasn’t old. They’re going to tell me when I’m too old to play. If I have a slump, I have to tell myself it’s just a slump.’
“And I said, ‘What else are the problems?’
“He said, ‘It’s so lonely. All my friends have left. All my teammates have disappeared. No one else in this clubhouse is the same age. They’re the same age as my son. I won’t go drinking with my son.’ I feel a lot of that, too. I’m at an age where a lot of my closest and dearest friends have died. It happens a lot. It’s a very strange feeling.”
One place Angell always feels comfortable, and connected to baseball, is at the legendary Pink Pony steakhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Pony is no longer the hot spring-training hangout it once was. Gone are the days when five Hall of Famers would be waiting for tables and trades would be inked on a napkin in a corner booth. But the place is still a baseball shrine. It’s where Angell heads every spring and where he was in March for the 85th birthday of his longtime friend Charlie Briley, who took over the place 50 years ago. “My wife, Gwen, and I have been with Johnny McNamara twice on nights when he was fired, once by the Angels, another time by the Padres,” Briley once told me.
Behind the bar framed caricatures run nearly the length of the wall. Some are of Scottsdale locals, but most are of baseball people: Billy Martin and Bill Rigney; Angell, looking very blue-eyed, peers out from a spot next to Kenny (Downtown) Brown, the bartender. Heading the other way are Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter David Bush and Mickey Morabito, the Oakland A’s legendary traveling secretary. Against the wall, behind the big jar of pickled onions, is a pile of old Baseball Encyclopedias.
Like Angell, the place is serious but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Like Angell, it lives and breathes close contact with something private and incommunicable about the game, something in danger of being lost. Like Angell, it just keeps going, year after year after year. And like Angell, it lives up to our memories of it at its best. “Sometimes I think baseball preserves its memories too much and is unwilling to change,” Angell told me. “I think we all cling to the Pony because we had such a good time there. You always wondered if it would be as good as it was. Surprisingly, it often was.”
Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."More Steve Kettmann.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)