Well, this was a treat. Surprisingly, the best baseball writing I have read all year comes in a book written about baseball writing. That new book is called “No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing” by Joe Bonomo. In it, Bonomo takes the reader on a scenic journey through the annals of Angell, baseball’s preeminent philosopher-scribe. Nearing a hundred years old, Angell no longer writes much, and “No Place I Would Rather Be” evokes more than a little sadness at the prolific insight we once had access to as fans of America’s pastime.
This book comes out at a time when there are high profile clamors (including from the commissioner himself) of a crisis in baseball. A view of baseball history through the lens of Angell, whose first encounters with the sport occurred when its headliners were Ruth and Gehrig, alleviates this concern. Baseball is always in flux, and if something is eternally in crisis mode then there is no crisis at all.
What we do have in today’s day and age is a crisis in baseball writing, a fact little acknowledged throughout the game. Perhaps it is unfair to compare modern sportswriters to Roger Angell, since he was always sui generis, but even if Angell does not like to be lumped into such a group, past generations also had talents such as Grantland Rice, David Halberstam and Roger Kahn. Today’s readers, on the other hand, get to read an army of bloggers whose greatest strength is missing the forest for the trees.
Modern baseball writers can be divided into two categories. On one hand, you have the statheads, supremely knowledgeable about the way baseball is now played and how rosters are currently constructed, conversant not just in the alphabet soup of WAR and wRC+ and xwOBA but also in more immediately useful information such as batted ball profile and swinging strike percentage. This faction, sometimes called “the nerds,” is obviously ascendant and clearly has useful information to impart. (Fangraphs writer to MLB front office is now a legitimate career path). Unfortunately, its practitioners too often rely on numbers to do the talking for them, occasionally aided by graphs and GIFs. In combing through troves of data to find topics to write about, these authors have a tendency to lose track of the sportswriter’s prime directive — craft a compelling narrative for the reader to follow.
On the other side of today’s chasm, you will find the traditionalists, the old school BBWAA members whose work has appeared on the back page of your local sports section for at least two decades. This type of baseball writer has no time for baseball’s analytical revolution. Yet, instead of sensing an opportunity when the big brains of the baseball writing corps had trouble converting numbers to text, these writers went the opposite direction, lowering their standard to appeal to the lowest common denominator of baseball fan. Apparently thinking that any knowledgeable fan was already lost to the statheads, these traditionalists began filing stories so banal it is a wonder they get paid to write them (usually quite a bit more than the nerds).
Getting to relive Roger Angell’s heyday through Joe Bonomo’s book is a reminder that baseball writing can be intellectual and accessible. But it is also a reminder that the combination is rare and that save for some propitious circumstances we might not have been blessed with it in the first place. Although “No Place I Would Rather Be” is not a biography, it succeeds in exploring the conditions that made Roger Angell Roger Angell.
The son of a union leader and the first fiction editor of the New Yorker magazine (and stepson of E. B. White), Angell was born and reared in an environment in which words mattered. He also grew up in a city that featured the two best baseball teams of the first quarter of the 20th century, the Giants and Yankees, whose domination in their respective leagues would be enough to catch the attention and devotion of the lonely child from a broken home.
Unlike most so-called journalists, Angell did not set out to be a sportswriter. In fact, he did not pen his first baseball piece for the New Yorker until 1962, when he was over 40 years old. When given his first assignment, he brought his background in fiction-writing to the task and the rest is history.
With Joe Bonomo, this history is in good hands. For the book, Bonomo drew both from the vast archive of Angell’s published work and from the writer’s copious notes. Putting the two together, he is able to add color to the sketch that Angell has provided himself through all these years of confessional baseball writing. An anecdote about the 1986 World Series and Angell’s conflicting allegiances is most revealing in this regard.
“No Place I Would Rather Be” is a great read for devoted fans of Roger Angell as for those who are only obliquely familiar with him. Either way, it will make you pine for his take on the game. The good news is that even if another Roger Angell is not likely to grace us with his presence anytime soon, he has given us thousands of pages to revisit whenever we have the need to reminisce.
Book Review: ‘Five Presidents’
“You couldn’t have gotten there. You don’t—surely you don’t—have a sense of guilt about that?”
The most gripping part about Clint Hill’s memoir “Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford” comes in one of the final chapters. After letting it simmer under the surface for most of the book, fallout from Hill’s role in the JFK assassination comes bursting out in an interview with Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes.” To anyone familiar with Hill, a 17-year Secret Service vet and bestselling author of two other books about the Kennedys (“Mrs. Kennedy and Me” and “Five Days in November“), this should come as no surprise. Hill was not merely serving on the Kennedy detail on November 23, 1963; he was the one who jumped on the back of the limousine in an attempt to block the shots. Since that date, Hill’s life and legacy have been inextricably tied to the American tragedy. And when Wallace asks him the above question, 12 years after the fact, he had never before discussed his part in it to another living soul. No wonder the dam burst.
Although his relationship with the Kennedy clan is the lifeblood of Hill’s recollections, that does not mean that his work for the other four titular presidents plays second fiddle. One of the best parts about a memoir like this, from someone who served administrations of both parties, is an evenhandedness of account that you don’t normally get from people with access to power at the highest level. With the exception of Richard Nixon, for whom Hill cannot manage to even thinly veil his contempt, the author is able to provide a compelling and vivid picture of real-life men who actually led the free world. It is easy to treat these dead mean as characters in a history book—as relatable in the present day as Alexander Hamilton or Ulysses Grant. But Hill is able to effectively show them occupying a world not that long lost.
Of course, one of the reasons many people pick up a Secret Service memoir in the first place is in search of scandal. (Who can forget the minor media squall when an author alleged female Secret Service agents were offended by now President-elect Joe Biden’s penchant for skinny dipping). This is not that book. Most of the things now generally known about past presidents’ private lives, such as JFK’s innumerable affairs, are not mentioned here. This is a credit to the author. Hill’s discreetness is likely just the kind of quality needed to survive nearly two decades in the White House.
Older readers will enjoy “Five Presidents” for its recounting of history, providing the ability to read along and reminisce about past events. Younger readers interested in world events will like to learn about facts not often taught in the history books. For example, Hill tells about Nixon fulfilled his promise to reduce the U.S. presence in Vietnam to nearly zero, something that apparently made him popular at the time but that no one remembers today.
Even though it was written after Hill’s other books, this might be the one to start with. As a survey of sorts, one can see if they like the style of Hill and frequent writing partner Lisa McCubbin. If so, Hill has made a font of knowledge available on the topic that most haunts him.
Book Review: The Catholic Church in America
In the coming weeks, President Trump likely to nominate a committed Catholic like Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. In anticipation of this, the attacks on Barrett’s faith have already begun. The implication is that in order to be a qualified public servant in this country, one has to be a committed atheist, or at the very least a Christian who regards his or her religion as simply a club or hobby rather than the truth about life itself.
All of this reminded me of a book I read this summer, titled “The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception” by Brandon McGinley. The book examines the role Catholicism has played in American culture throughout the years, going from something loathed to something that was actually celebrated in the mid-20th century. How has it come to be that such an institution came to be where it is now, with no discernible influence on even its professed members? McGinley tracks this movement, citing JFK as a turning point, when it became fashionable to call yourself a Catholic without believing in or acting out any of the Church’s dogma.
This is what scares the American secular elite about a potential Amy Coney Barrett nomination to the Supreme Court. As Senator Diane Feinstein famously said to her during her appointment to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, “the dogma lives loudly with you — and that’s a concern.” The ruling powers in America believe they have effectively eviscerated Catholicism in this country to the point that it doesn’t actually mean anything. Politicians these days can claim to be Catholic just as easily as they can claim to be feminists or democratic socialists, to give two examples of other labels that sound good to some people but lack any meaningful definitions. There is a great fear in this country that the ascendance of orthodox Catholics to prominence could undo a century’s work of secularization.
Regardless of what eventually happens with the Supreme Court vacancy, “The Prodigal Church” is insightful reading for anyone pondering if there is a role for Catholics to play in 21st century America. McGinley identifies several specific areas in which the Church has clearly abdicated its responsibilities, and he provides several prescriptions for how Catholics can once again build faith communities like the enclaves that existed before the siren song of the bourgeoisie gutted them in favor of suburbanization and atomization. Or, as McGinley so aptly puts it, before “The Church…acquiesced to the steamroller.”
Alexander de Tocqueville famously wrote about America, “Our descendants will tend more and more to divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely, others going into the Roman Church.” It goes without saying that the first part is alive and growing. As for the second part, it remains to be seen in the coming decades if there is a Roman Church robust enough to welcome newcomers. For this to happen, reading “The Prodigal Church” would be a good place to start.
New Book Gives Preview Of Our Brave New World
Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote that “God is dead” dates back to his 1882 book “The Gay Science.” The notion entered public consciousness with the provocative 1966 Time magazine cover, which asked, in large red type, “Is God dead?” It has been clear for a while now that, no matter how many holdouts there may be with regard to personal beliefs, the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions no longer lays claim to the cultural power He held from the reign of Constantine to the Protestant Reformation.
Until now, what comes next has remained an open question. The husk of institutional Christianity has limped along for the last hundred or so years, with Hollywood and the literati (and recently corporations as well) feeling little to no compunction about dancing on its grave. But if world history has shown us anything, it is that religiosity is a deeply human impulse, and one that will not so easily perish from this earth.
Tara Isabella Burton’s new book “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World” takes a look at the various ways religious tendencies are popping up in our post-modern, post-Christian culture. Describing members of upcoming generations as neither purely atheistic or purely Christian, Burton terms them “Religiously Remixed.” Just as the invention of the printing press spurred on humanistic transfigurations of the Church into dozens of branches of Protestantism, the rise of the Internet has allowed every Millennial and Zoomer to pick and choose doctrine to follow and idols to worship. These include major commercial properties like Harry Potter and Marvel, self-help and self-care mantras such as those prescribed by Gwyneth Paltrow for women and Jordan Peterson for men, and New Age mumbo-jumbo like horoscopes and tarot cards.
On the surface, these outlets all seem relatively harmless, things for us to do and to care about in an age in which we’ve been separated geographically from our families and told to put off starting our own. Burton’s read on the new normal get significantly bleaker toward the end of her book, as she gives her take on larger social movements she believes have the potential to become institutionalized as religious traditions. Her description of the “Gospel of Social Justice” in particular seems prophetic. Although eagle-eyed culture warriors foretold of the matriculation of “cancel culture” from college campuses to the country at large, even the most pessimistic Cassandras could hardly have predicted this level of unmitigated success. Wanting to tear down statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln is no longer a niche position, nor is the notion that it one is to disregard public health imperatives in the name of “anti-racism.”
Less prominent but perhaps no less terrifying is the other quasi-religious trend identified by Burton: transhumanism. Unrelated to the “trans” prefix obsessed over by the SJW movement, transhumanism is the desire that humanity should be transcended and our lives prolonged indefinitely. Not uncommon in Silicon Valley, transhumanists (or techno-utopians, as Burton calls them) believe in the power of technology to free us from the chains of flesh and blood. Whereas Gwyneth Paltrow’s readers pursue “anti-aging” to merely look young forever, Peter Thiel’s are trying to actually be young forever. One of the foremost goals of this movement is to be able to “upload” human consciousness so that one can continue to “live” after one’s body has withered away. If you think that such an insane idea lacks appeal, consider that the most popular episode of “Black Mirror,” a program typically pessimistic about the role of technology in society, is “San Junipero.” In that episode, deciding to be euthanized and “uploaded” to the simulation is considered a happy ending.
The best reason to read “Strange Rites” is to be prepared. The world is changing rapidly, and truths that were once held to be self-evident are now threatened. Even after Enlightenment thinking caused belief in a personal God to wane (remember, most of the Founding Fathers considered themselves Deists), Christianity remained a lingua franca. Today, few people have read the Bible, and if there is anything resembling a shared language, it is more likely to include Muggles and Dementors than angels and demons. In other words, the kids are not all right.
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