Recalling Angell's empathy with teenage fan
Spink winner encouraged aspiring baseball writer when Giants planned to move in '70s
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Tuesday was a day of celebration for Roger Angell's legion of fans. A fiction editor for The New Yorker magazine who gained popularity by writing superbly and beautifully about baseball across six decades, Angell was named the 2014 recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, giving him a place in the writer's wing of the Hall of Fame.
I've been privileged to know Roger for almost 40 years, through exchanging letters and occasionally crossing paths. I'm overjoyed by his triumph, though our association was forged at a point when I felt anything but triumphant.
I was a dismayed 16-year-old convinced that nobody would understand my misery. The usual sources of teenage male angst -- academics, athletics, girls, how to part your hair -- didn't haunt me.
Instead, I was agonizing over the San Francisco Giants.
My favorite team since boyhood was sold in January 1976 to a Canadian syndicate that intended to move the Giants to Toronto. The Giants' woeful turnouts at Candlestick Park, where they averaged 628,609 per season in home attendance between 1972-75, precipitated their apparent impending departure. I stuck with them before and after a nightmarish two-year stretch, during which they traded (in order) future Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal -- all while the crosstown Oakland A's won three consecutive World Series from 1972-74. With the Giants' relocation, my unswerving loyalty to the team would become a hollow memory.
I felt unable to confide in any of my friends. They thought the Giants were a joke, especially when compared with the A's. As always, my parents meant well, but I perceived that they would have reacted to my laments with some well-timed nods and a few sympathetic murmurs before advising me to finish studying.
I should have been concentrating on my next European Literature in Translation assignment, maintaining my tenuous status as a starter on the varsity basketball team and anticipating who I would take to the junior prom. But I needed to relieve my Giants-induced anxiety. I sought the lone outlet that seemed available.
I found a crisp, clean sheet of paper and wrote to a man named Roger Angell.
A couple of years earlier I had read "The Summer Game," Angell's first collection of baseball features, observations and ruminations. I was enthralled by his mixture of humor, insight, honest emotion, and of course, soaring prose. This man wrote about baseball the way my English teachers urged us to write essays about Shakespeare and Hemingway. For me, he eclipsed Shakespeare and Hemingway themselves. Moreover, he rooted for the Giants before they fled New York for San Francisco. Mr. Angell, I was convinced, could identify with me on more than one level.
Roger proved me correct when I received his response dated and postmarked Feb. 2 on "New Yorker" stationery. Though Roger surely had distinguished himself among New York's literati by then, I sense that he hadn't yet become the definitive and distinctive voice for the discerning baseball fan. Otherwise, he would have been deluged with correspondence and might have lacked the time to empathize with me as he did. His letter began,
"Dear Chris Haft:
Thanks for your fine letter. I have been thinking about you these past two or three weeks, while the fate of your Giants is being resolved -- probably by people who don't care nearly as much about the team as you do."
My God, he really did understand!
He continued: "It still looks like Toronto, but I have not yet given up hope."
Thus, I didn't, either, especially when Roger pointed out that former Giants executive Chub Feeney was the National League president. Feeney, Roger surmised, would do all he could to keep the Giants in San Francisco.
My letter to Roger included my somewhat bitter, spiteful insistence that I would abandon baseball if the Giants abandoned San Francisco. His reaction conveyed sensitivity and wisdom.
"If it's any consolation to you, I don't believe you will lose all interest in baseball if your Giants are suddenly snatched away to Canada. You sound like a true fan to me -- deep team loyalty is an invariable symptom -- and I imagine you will find a way to follow and suffer with your team even if they are half a continent away. Many baseball fans do this; my father left his home town of Cleveland in 1919 and continued to follow the Indians every day of every season until he died in 1973. Hang in there. I think the Giants may have a fine team this summer, no matter where they are playing."
Obviously, much has happened since then. San Francisco mayor George Moscone, who was senselessly gunned down along with city supervisor Harvey Milk 35 years ago, led a concerted effort to block the club's move to Toronto. The Giants have evolved into an enviable franchise, selling out their last 246 regular-season home games and winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012. Now Roger, too, can be recognized as a champion in his craft, though many of us knew long ago that he ranked among the finest writers ever to grace a press box with his presence.
As for me, I no longer must search desperately for a kindred spirit if I need to express myself about the Giants. Their fans are everywhere. Of course, occupational protocol demands that I refrain from overly partisan gushing. That's OK. I'm incredibly fortunate to have this job. Indeed, remaining a sportswriter through my entire professional life comes with Roger's blessing. I'll forever treasure his conclusion of that first letter from him:
"You also sound like a writer to me. I mean, you write like a writer ... Thanks for your kind and friendly words."
Thank you, Roger, for your enduring inspiration.