The Similarity Between Reading and Baseball

I have written exactly one piece of fan mail in my life, to the baseball writer, Roger Angell. I’m sorry, that tag does him a disservice; Angell is a writer, period, a great one, a crafter of sublime sentences, a keen observer, a man who feels things and captures living moments. His writing goes deep into baseball and beyond it. Angell’s more than a great writer; I suspect he’s a great man.

I had written Six Innings and wanted him, an important stranger, to have a copy of my book. I wanted him to love it, of course, to recognize me as a fellow traveler, but writers don’t have much say over how the world responds. You release the work into the wild and hope it finds food, shelter, a home, and thrives. Six Innings went on to earn an ALA Notable. And almost as good, Mr. Angell wrote a kind, handwritten letter in return.

Lately I had been thinking about “the ideal reader,” and decided, perhaps cleverly, that my ideal reader would be someone who wasn’t afraid of being bored. That’s been my concern of late, because so many children’s books these days are high concept and plot-driven, because we hear over and over again that boys don’t read, and if they do open a book they will sit still only for wall-to-wall action. And I guess I sometimes fret that I don’t deliver that kind of pleasure. In truth, I only infrequently read that kind of book. So, yes, please, if I may order one to go, I’d like a reader who will hang with me during the slow parts.

And I heard in that wish an echo. And realized, once again, that the notion was not entirely my own. Authentic, yes; original, not exactly.

I remembered something I heard Mr. Angell say at a public reading on March 1, 1989, at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, dedicated to great writing about baseball, created by Roger Angell along with his friend, A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I remember the reading vividly. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and now revisit selections each Spring. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”

I recalled, most especially, the night’s opening remarks made by Angell. So I got out the CD, listened and listened again while scribbling on a yellow legal pad, until I could transcribe the brief exchange I’d remembered. As far as I know, there isn’t a transcription available on the net, so here you have one brief moment — an exchange that struck me, and has stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Angell makes a simple comparision, doesn’t extend it much, doesn’t labor over it, gets in and out, yet it made me laugh and it still gets me thinking today.

For here we are: Baseball season, pitchers and Molinas, is almost upon us. The massive spectacle of the Super Bowl has come and gone. It’s time for quieter pleasures. During my workday this past week, I arranged indoor practices for my 12-year-old Travel Team. Sent out emails, talked to the uniform guy about new jerseys. And today in my capacity as a Board Member for my local Little League, I ordered more than $4,000 worth of baseballs and assorted equipment.

All I really want to do is get out that old glove one more time. That simplest pleasure of all, a game of catch.

Well, here’s Angell and Giamatti, as they set the stage back in 1989:

A. Bartlett Giamatti:

“Why does baseball appeal to writers so much?”

Roger Angell:

The similarities between reading and baseball are evident to all of us, and may account for the enormous flood of baseball writing that goes on and on, and so much of it very high quality.

Baseball after all is a linear game. It’s the only one that is linear in the sense that one thing happens, and something else happens, and there’s a pause, and there’s a time for writers to think about it, and keep score, and take notes.

A Bartlett Giamatti:

It’s always occurred to me that intellectuals like baseball because it goes slowly enough so they can understand it.

Roger Angell:

Well, certainly I would hate to try to write intensely moving paragraphs about basketball, which is a swirling and beautiful sport of an entirely different nature, with a different feel to it. But one of the things about baseball which is like reading, in addition to the obvious things like chapters and, ah, is that if you think about both baseball and reading, they are occupations for people who are not afraid of being bored. But — you can laugh, but — also it really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game. Not dissimilar.

2 comments

  1. Jewel Heldman says:

    Oddly, I was just listening to the NPR baseball stories in my car, now that pitchers and catchers have reported, and was struck by the same exchange between Roger Angell and Bart Giamatti, and lo – you have transcribed it.

    How cool is that.

    Thanks!

  2. jimmy says:

    If I was a faster typist, I’d transcribe the whole introduction, Jewel.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Play ball!

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