The first time I heard Roger Angell speak was on a movie screen. I was working as an intern on Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary, sitting in a dark sound-mixing studio in the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. During his interviews with Burns, Angell sucked on a lozenge so the sound mixer had the painstaking task of removing all of the clicking sounds from the audio track.
One day, Angell stopped by the studio. He had on a V-neck sweater like he wore in the author photo from his books but he was not the curious and outgoing narrator that he was in print or on film. He sat by himself on a leather couch and didn’t engage anyone on the crew but Burns.
I called my father after work that day and told him that Angell was a disappointment. The Old Man was pleased to hear I’d met him. As a young man Dad had worked as a unit production manager on The Tonight Show and he never tired of talking about his encounters with actors, musicians, and writers. He reminded me to separate the artist from the person. “Some hacks are charming,” he said, “and some great artists are assholes. It’s nice when somebody you admire turns out to be a good man but the work on the page is what counts, not the personality.”
Almost a decade later, I’d left the film business, started writing, and interviewed Angell over the phone while he was promoting his latest book, Game Time, a compendium of baseball pieces. I’d done a few interviews and hadn’t yet learned the art of when to shut up. Halfway through our conversation, I told a rambling story.
Angell cut me off. “Can we get back to the interview?” he said. “Please ask me a question.”
I stammered and my face turned red but I managed to complete the interview.
Over the next few years, now in possession of press credentials, I went to Yankee Stadium and occasionally saw Angell in the dugout or the press box. He huddled with the columnists and chatted easily with some of the younger guys. I wished I were one of them. Other writers told me what a charming man Angell was, a true gentleman. But he brushed me off each time I approached him.
“Roger isn’t a mean guy,” said Ray Robinson, a magazine editor and author who has known Angell for fifty years. “He’s not warm but he’s a good man, don’t take it personally.” Robinson laughed. “Roger is just a WASP.”
The Old Man liked that line.
My father never went to the library but he supported the institution just like he championed public transportation though he preferred cabs, even when he couldn’t afford them. He could tell you all about the value of libraries, yet the man never borrowed a book. He said he bought them because, “they are something worth owning.” His custom bookplate was a sticker in the shape of a baseball card with his initials in the center and ex libris printed on the bottom of each. He had stickers made up for my twin sister, younger brother, and me. As kids, we pasted them in every book we had.
When my folks split up, Dad left our home in Westchester and moved back to Manhattan. His books went with him, boxes and boxes of them, fiction and non-fiction, hardcovers and paperbacks. He lived in a series of sublets and rented apartments before settling into a ground-floor unit on Ninetieth and Amsterdam. The place was dark and got only a trace of light through the back windows. Dad only cared that he could build bookshelves in the window casings. What little view he had was gone, forfeited for a book collection that said more about his inability to throw anything away than it did about his taste in literature. Few baseball books stood on Dad’s bookshelf. One was the 1969 edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia, published two years before I was born. Only a handful of the players I followed were in it, but the careers of the Old Man’s baseball heroes were detailed inside. Dad had become a Dodgers fan when he was ten years old, the year Jackie Robinson integrated the sport. A decade later the Dodgers left Brooklyn and he stopped following baseball. His remaining connection to the sport was the two Rogers, Roger Angell and Roger Kahn. They have been linked in my mind ever since.
Born in 1920, Angell was a longtime fiction editor at The New Yorker, and a baseball essayist on the side. Kahn, seven years younger, was a sportswriter who began his career at the New York Herald Tribune and made a name for himself as an editor and a writer of profiles at The Saturday Evening Post, Sport and Esquire. The Two Rogers.
The Summer Game and Five Seasons by Angell; The Boys of Summer and A Season in the Sun by Kahn. The titles were so similar that for the longest time I conflated the authors. But there was more than just a similarity of titles confusing me. Both Angell’s The Summer Game and Kahn’s The Boys of Summer were released in 1972 and were well received. The Boys of Summer was a bestseller and ranked umber two in a 2002 Sports Illustrated’s list “The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time” (behind A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science). The Summer Game placed eighteenth, the highest spot for a book of essays other than Liebling’s. In 1977, Angell published Five Seasons and Kahn published A Season in the Sun.
Dad didn’t subscribe to The New Yorker but admired Angell as a serious writer—he was the stepson of E.B. White, one of Dad’s favorite essayists. My grandfather had been a newspaperman for the Brooklyn Eagle and was the head of public relations for The Anti-Defamation League for twenty-five years. He was a bookworm and so were my father’s uncles. One of them, an academic, wrote a book called Learning How to Think. They were intellectuals and Dad was torn between impressing them and being himself—he read detective novels and liked musical theater, he didn’t read Joyce or attend the Opera.
Angell and E.B. White were writers my grandfather would have liked. Plus, Angell was from Manhattan and few things appealed more to the Old Man than the City of New York, which meant the island of Manhattan. Kahn, on the other hand, was from that faraway place called Brooklyn. In my twenties, my brother and I lived out there. The Old Man called it “The Ass-End of the Planet.” “You mean New York, right Dad?” said my brother. “It’s the same difference, Sweetie” said Dad. But he admired Kahn for writing so eloquently about the Dodgers; The Boys of Summer was one of Dad’s favorite books. When I asked him which author he liked better, Angell or Kahn, he said, “Why does one have to be better than the other? Why can’t they both be good?”
Angell’s sentences were longer and more daunting than any I’d ever read before. Working my way through those dense paragraphs gave me a feeling of accomplishment, even if I skimmed most of them.
When I was nine years old, Dad gave me the mass-market paperback of The Boys of Summer. I liked how it felt in my hands, easy to hold, and wanted nothing more than to love it. Dad said it was an important book because it wasn’t just about baseball. It was a story about social justice and about Jackie Robinson, and I knew that Dad claimed to be second-to-none as a Jackie fan. It was also about what happens when you are done playing a boy’s game, which is often sadder than you might expect. But I was still a boy and baseball didn’t make me sad. I didn’t make it far before I flipped through the pages to look at the photographs.
It wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen that I began to see reading as something other than punishment. I picked out a new book off of Dad’s bookshelf: Angell’s Season Ticket, the third collection of his New Yorker baseball essays. Here were the players I knew, guys like George Brett, Dave Winfield, Robin Yount, and my hero, Reggie Jackson.
Angell’s sentences were longer and more daunting than any I’d ever read before. Working my way through those dense paragraphs gave me a feeling of accomplishment, even if I skimmed most of them. One afternoon when I was struggling through Angell’s prose, Dad walked into the room. He saw the book and nodded. “That’s a grown-up writer you’re reading,” he said. Reading Angell, I felt like I was sitting at a game with him as he taught me the game’s rules and its history. Angell shared himself with me in a way that Dad never did. I went to a few ball games with the Old Man but he never enjoyed himself and always wanted to leave early to beat traffic. When we played catch I always got the feeling that he was annoyed at my taking him away from his chair, his vodka, and his New York Times. He threw the ball so hard that I’d walk away in tears, my left hand stinging, trying to figure out what I’d done to make him so angry.
Angell didn’t root for just one team. He was partial to the Giants, Mets, and Red Sox, but pulled for different ballclubs each year. He was drawn to specific players, to the mechanics of a swing, or how a certain pitch was thrown. If he was long-winded at times, that was okay; it was too much of a good thing, but still a good thing. The Old Man didn’t have the patience to read long, leisurely essays like the ones Angell wrote. He told me that no novel was worth its salt if it couldn’t be written in under four hundred pages. Of course he was long-winded too. He filled a space when he talked, his voice an instrument. During car rides he’d sing without inhibition. When he lectured his voice turned deep and resonant. When he got worked up about arrogant cops, Republicans, or alternate-side-of-the-street-parking regulations, it became high-pitched and shrill. Yet his voice was even and calm whenever someone was upset. We kids always went to Dad if we were distraught, never to Mom. No matter his mood, he could comfort us with his self-assured, commanding voice.
During the height of my father’s modest success as a TV producer, and after that success evaporated, he spent his time drinking and talking at The Ginger Man, a restaurant with a bar next to Lincoln Center. He had a phone installed at the bar where he took calls and played the part of a big shot. There, his conversation was invincible. He’d wrap his words around a listener, back the timid into a corner and hold them hostage, daring them to shut him up. It’s not just that he loved the sound of his own voice, it’s that when everything else had slipped through his fingers—career, marriage, family—talking gave him the impression that he was doing something.
He was never without a project, or as my mother called them, “one of his schemes.” The little money he had came from whatever his parents gave him when he wasn’t working. He talked about each new venture as if it were the one that would hit it big: designing bed frames (“The Gilded Frame”), producing educational films about proper grammar usage or the series of instructional videos on carving a chicken. And there was his magnum opus, Belth’s Guide to Hardware, a dictionary designed to help the layperson identify the right tool for every household problem.
He talked to us kids at length about every idea. At first I joined in his excitement but never knew what to say when his enthusiasm soured, which it invariably did. Secretly, I began to doubt him. It’s all bullshit, I thought. Nothing will ever get done. Not all his ideas were bad, but he was the kind of man who spent more time designing the business card than the business plan. The irony was, he was a natural problem solver, loved tools, knew how to use them, and got a lot of satisfaction out of being helpful. But owning a hardware store wouldn’t have been grand enough for him. More than being wealthy, he wanted to be recognized. He wanted to walk into a restaurant and have people whisper, “That’s Don Belth.”
Presentation was everything to the Old Man. A handshake could reveal someone’s confidence, eye contact was an indication of sincerity, and meticulous grooming and proper attire spoke to one’s taste (when I chewed my nails he’d threaten to paint them red). Yet few things mattered more to him than the ability to speak and write the English language with clarity if not panache. He encouraged us to write, not poetry or fiction, but essays. After my parents got divorced we visited Dad each weekend in Manhattan and he made us write him an essay to be turned in when we arrived. I always wrote mine in a hurry on the train, knowing full well I’d get a lecture. I don’t remember anything I wrote, but I can still see the view out of the Metro-North train as it passed through the bombed-out neighborhood just south of Yankee Stadium. Scrawled in graffiti on a tattered white billboard alongside the tracks were the words: Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.
The Old Man didn’t give us toys or video games as presents, he gave us books. In my case, he gave me baseball books, including several by Roger Kahn: A Season in the Sun, The Seventh Game, and Good Enough to Dream. Dad liked Kahn, he told me, because they both cared deeply about the English language and because Kahn wrote beautifully. I didn’t read any of them, though I opened Dad’s copy of The Boys of Summer once or twice as a teenager. It was a first edition, and on the inside flap there was a picture of Kahn, a bearded man walking along a beach. Below, Kahn was quoted: “There are a plethora of books on sports. This one is not on sports but on time and what time does to all of us. King Lear is on the same subject as The Boys of Summer, and my work differs from Lear in that it isn’t as good.”
Just the kind of thing Dad would say.
Writing about his own father in The Boys of Summer, Kahn said: “It was a point of dignity with him not to be caught rooting as ardently or for precisely the same things as I.” Just the kind of thing I felt yet didn’t know how to say. When I asked him if he liked an author or a book his stock reply was, “Why don’t you read it first and then we can discuss it.” So I sought out writers and artists and movie directors that he didn’t like.
When I was a junior in high school I saw the movie Field of Dreams with friends, all of us eager to love it. Our excitement withered as the movie trudged along, bottoming out at the end when Kevin Costner, choked up, asked the ghost of his father if he wanted to have a catch.
The Old Man cried when he saw that scene. I told him it was corny. He said that I’d understand it when I grew up and maybe then I’d appreciate that everything he was telling me was for my own good. Maybe one day I’d finally read Kahn, too.
I stayed away.
My father had a heart attack in his apartment on a Sunday night in January 2007, three months before I got married. He had just finished a plate of spaghetti with shrimp and was settling down to watch a DVD of Homicide, his favorite show, with his second wife, when he closed his eyes and fell forward.
The next day, he lay on a bed in the ICU at St. Luke’s on the Upper West Side, silent before his final audience. More than a dozen of us, his closest family and friends, even my mother and stepfather, stood over him. The doctors explained that his heart had stopped pumping blood long enough to leave him brain dead. By the end of the day he was gone at the age of sixty-nine.
Over the next few weeks, my brother, sister, and I went through his things. We found copies of forty-year-old bounced checks and dunning notices from Macy’s and Gimbels. My brother sorted through Dad’s extensive collection of tools—fifteen socket wrenches, twenty-one hammers, two arc-welders. My sister went through his photographs—family pictures and shots of his time in show business, on location in Japan, Florida, and Ethiopia, where he met Mom. And there were personal letters: carbon copies of the love letters he sent her, missives to us children signed “Your Ever Lovin’,” and letters of complaint to The New York Times, Con Ed, and the DMV.
I put myself in charge of the books. There were copies of Twain and Faulkner that he probably hadn’t read since before Lyndon Johnson was president. There were all sorts of bookmarks: a dry cleaning bill from the sixties, a 1978 voter registration card, a Chinese take-out menu. I felt strongly about giving each book a considered home, but in the end not many made it into mine.
Though I had my own editions of Angell’s books, I kept Dad’s copies, and Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, which I still hadn’t read, not knowing if I ever would. I’d already seen Field of Dreams again on TV. Friends had insisted that with my dad gone it would move me, the way people tell you that you’ll love salmon after you’ve told them you don’t like fish. I hated the movie more than ever and did not cry. Still, it occurred to me that he might not have looked at the movie as a father, but as a son who’d admired his father and yet never could secure his approval.
I thought about how much it had touched the Old Man and how sentimental his tastes were. De Gustibus, he used to tell us. It was his favorite saying. De Gustibus non est disputandum. He said it was Latin for “there’s no accounting for taste.” But his interpretation of the phrase didn’t mean live-and-let live; it meant he had taste and you did not. Watching Field of Dreams I smiled and thought about how much energy we had poured into our fights over matters of taste.
In the fall of 2010 I had the chance to speak to both Rogers for an article about the long-deceased writer John Lardner. Kahn invited me to have lunch with him near his home in upstate New York to talk about Lardner, who had been his friend and drinking companion. I’d heard that although Kahn was sometimes generous with his time, he could also be difficult. Several people told me I should call him before two in the afternoon. Though I continued to avoid The Boys of Summer, I had read his uneven memoir Into My Own and Beyond ‘The Boys of Summer’, a compilation of his magazine work. I liked his writing more than I’d expected. I took the bus from Manhattan to New Paltz where Kahn picked me up in an old, silver Mercedes. He was a short man, then eighty-three, but still vigorous. He wore a monogrammed blue-striped Oxford shirt and cream-colored slacks.
“We can go to this place, Barnaby’s,” he said. “I’ve got to have a scotch if we’re going to talk about John.”
Main Street in New Paltz was clogged with weekend traffic, so Kahn took back roads. As we approached a stop sign, he narrowed his eyes. “You see that?” he said. On the car ahead of us was a “Liver Recipient” bumper sticker. Kahn chuckled. “That’s a funny thing to see on our way to drink scotch, eh?”
Kahn didn’t order lunch (“I had a late breakfast”) but did have a double-scotch and a glass of water. On his way to Lardner, he talked about his career, from copyboy to featured writer at the New York Herald Tribune, Sports Illustrated and Newsweek. At every stop there were conflicts with editors who changed his prose. Kahn’s grudges had genuine staying power, but I still enjoyed hearing about the old days.
He asked if I’d be willing to chauffeur him home, his wife would drive me back into town later. I said yes and he ordered another double-scotch. It was on the drive to his house, over Mohonk Mountain, when I mentioned Angell.
“Total prick,” he said. “This should be on tape, you should get this down.”
Kahn launched into a story about how Angell and George Plimpton conspired to ruin The Boys of Summer because it would compete with The Summer Game. An advance ad for Kahn’s book included a picture of Roy Campanella with a quote from the book: “His spirit was a cathedral, his body a wreckage.” But the copy was transposed and called his spirit a wreckage and his body a cathedral.
Kahn explained: “Angell wrote to Plimpton and said, ‘This is going to be a deplorable book, let’s see what we can do to destroy it.’ Now, how do I know this? Because Plimpton had his secretary write back and say, ‘Yes, let’s do what we can to destroy this book.’ And Plimpton sent that letter to Mr. Roger Kahn at The New Yorker. It was given to E.J. Kahn. Ely Jacques Kahn, you know the name? He sent it to me and said, ‘Obviously, mis-addressed.’ So that’s how I know that Angell was going through all this stuff to have The Boys of Summer knocked.”
I asked Kahn if he still had the letter. He said he did not.
“I don’t forgive this kind of behavior,” Kahn said. “So I would like, before I go, to have Angell have his balls nailed to a cross.” Kahn recited some of the critical notices for The Boys of Summer, like Grace Lichtenstein’s, whose review in the Times began: “Any book about baseball that starts with a quote from Dylan Thomas can’t be all good.”
“The Times’s reviews were disgraceful,” Kahn said. The most common criticisms from others were that the book was “pretentious” and “sentimental.”
We sat quietly for a while as I drove along the winding roads. Kahn broke the silence. “His daughter committed suicide last year,” he said, referring to Callie Angell, an adjunct curator at the Whitney Museum who took her own life at the age of 62.
A few minutes later we drove across a small bridge that passed over a creek.
“My son Roger used to dive off that bridge,” Kahn said. “‘What are you doing?’ I would tell him. ‘You’ll get killed.’ I can’t pass that bridge without thinking of him. Or any other day of my life.”
It was the first time he’d mentioned his second son, Roger, who in 1987, at the age of twenty-three, sat in his parked car, attached a garden hose to the tail pipe and funneled carbon monoxide fumes inside. He died soon after.
Knowing Kahn had two other children, I asked him if he was close to them.
“No,” he said, then added that he didn’t think they liked him very much.
His house sat on a hilltop. Before it, the grass was fluorescent green, the leaves on the trees yellow, orange, and red. The front door of the house opened into the living room. Inside it was tidy, full of light but also stale, as if fresh air hadn’t come through in weeks. There was a small dining room on the left and a kitchen beyond. An open can of tomato soup sat next to a clean white bowl on the dining room table. Off the dining room was a smaller, more formal living room, lined with bookcases. On the mantle above the fireplace were copies of Kahn’s books, all propped open on their spines for display.
Above the fireplace was a painting. In the foreground of a field stood three boys dressed in T-shirts and shorts, each wearing mitts, waiting for someone to hit the ball. Behind them, some distance away, was a smaller boy. He wore a white shirt and pants, and stood in a ready position, his hands on his knees. The boy, Kahn said, was Roger Jr.
Kahn showed me book after book inscribed to him by poets, ballplayers, and fellow writers—Robert Frost, Jackie Robinson, Ring Lardner Jr. We walked into the kitchen where a stick of soft butter sat on the countertop. Next to it was a bottle of scotch, a can opener, a peeler, and a small glass bowl lined with the residue of tomato soup.
“During his first years without booze, I worried he wouldn’t make it.” Kahn showed me the garden. The pool was already closed for the coming winter. He tapped his foot against an inflatable dolphin. “It’s for grandchildren who never visit,” he said. Back inside, we went up to his blue-carpeted office on the second floor. The walls were covered with framed photographs: Kahn with Ronald Reagan, Kahn with George W. Bush (“To Roger Kahn, a fine author, baseball man and American”), a framed letter from Richard Nixon.
Kahn sat down at his desk and sipped a scotch on the rocks as I looked through his bookshelves. I thought about my father, who had his last drink in 1983 and spent the last twenty-four years of his life sober. During his first years without booze, I worried he wouldn’t make it. After a while, though, I took his sobriety for granted and went back to dwelling on his failures, as a father, as a professional. He died broke. The Old Man had great promise—everyone in the family said so—but even long after his last drink he couldn’t find his way back as a businessman.
“Your dad helped so many people. And even if he struggled in his own way, he never had a drink again. Do you appreciate what an accomplishment that is?”
At his memorial service, I spoke with people he’d known in recovery. They all told me how much he’d helped them. He was especially good with younger people. The Old Man held court after meetings at coffee shops and restaurants on the Upper West Side. He was reliable and possessed a solidity and consistency that many newly recovered addicts lacked. They knew where he’d be, at what time, and, like it or not, what he’d say.
One guy, now in his fifties, said, “If it wasn’t for your father, I’d be dead.” He told me how when he was first sober, Dad talked to him at any time of day or night. It was Dad’s soothing voice at 3:00 a.m., plus his absolute certainty in what it meant to be sober, that kept this guy alive. I knew that voice: it was one of my favorite memories of the Old Man.
I remembered this guy hanging around Dad for a few years but then disappearing. It was a common occurrence. Dad would befriend people for a time and then they were gone without explanation. I asked the guy what happened to their friendship and he said that after a time being around Dad wasn’t good for his sobriety because he romanticized his drinking days. He pasted New Yorker cartoons about drunks over his desk and boasted that he had been pound-for-pound the best drinker at The Ginger Man. He was still enamored with the image of himself, the TV producer, holding court all afternoon in a bar. The old friend grabbed my shoulder and looked at me. “Your dad helped so many people. And even if he struggled in his own way, he never had a drink again. Do you appreciate what an accomplishment that is?”
Sitting with Roger Kahn in his office with the electric blue carpet, I wondered if Dad would have traded places with him. Would great professional success trump the success of his sobriety? I’m sure Dad would have said no, that he’d rather be sober. But if pressed, I didn’t know what the truth was.
A week later, I spoke with the other Roger on the phone. He was friendlier than he had been either at the mixing studio with Ken Burns or the ball park. Here was the courteous fellow people had told me about. Angell recited the opening to one of John Lardner’s boxing pieces. We didn’t talk long, maybe twenty minutes, but we finally got around to his first book, and before I could say Roger Kahn or The Boys of Summer, he laughed.
“Roger Kahn was beside himself,” he said. “He thought I’d changed my name to Roger to be confused with him. He was so paranoid. The word “‘summer’ was in both. I didn’t know he was doing The Boys of Summer, he didn’t know I was doing The Summer Game. It was absolutely a coincidence.”
Angell laughed again when I mentioned the Angell-Plimpton conspiracy theory and denied that such a letter ever existed.
“His book was a huge best-seller and mine got some good reviews,” Angell said. “Eventually, I said to him, ‘Look, Roger, here’s the deal: You can have my reviews and I’ll take your royalties.’ He did not laugh, he did not smile. I hadn’t known his work before but The Boys of Summer is a really good book. I admire it. Of course we were constantly being confused which I found irritating and he found infuriating.”
Kahn’s dislike for Angell did not mellow with time. Later, he told me via e-mail that George Plimpton eventually apologized to him while Angell, “a quietly arrogant self-promoter, never did.” He dismissed Angell as “a magazine writer.” When I asked him for details of the Plimpton story as well as the conversation that Angell described to me about exchanging reviews for royalties, he wrote: “It is beneath my eminence to go on with this garbage.”
After speaking to the Rogers I took Dad’s copy of The Boys of Summer off the shelf. It was, in part, about a father and son connecting through baseball, a connection my dad never had with my grandfather. It was about Kahn’s ambition to make a success of himself as a writer.
“It was the difference, in the end, between what we want to be and who we are.” I imagined Dad reading the book when it was published forty years ago. He was married to a beautiful woman and his career in TV was flourishing, his fantasies being realized. I understood how he could have seen himself in Kahn. But he didn’t have Kahn’s drive or professional discipline. Yet if the Old Man never achieved the professional success he craved, if sobriety was not the perfect tool to repair his own spiritual wreckage, and if he wasn’t always the father I needed him to be, he was not a failure. He taught me about generosity and compassion, to value hard work and effort, and above all, how to appreciate a good story.
It was the difference, in the end, between what we want to be and who we are.
As I read The Boys of Summer, I heard Kahn’s words in Dad’s dependable and irrefutable voice, the same voice he had used during those fleeting moments of support and calm when he could be himself. I liked the book, but the voice had more value than the stories. The Boys of Summer was Dad’s book. The Dodgers were his team and the stories were all familiar. I’d heard them all before. Of course I had. Kahn might have articulated Dad’s feelings, or the Old Man may just have co-opted the stories as his own.
I couldn’t tell the difference anymore, but it doesn’t matter.
[Photo Credit: AB]