Roger Angell at 100: “What’s maybe surprising about that piece is that it’s full of jokes. I love jokes.”

From a Jason Gay interview of writer Roger Angell in the Wall Street Journal:

When I was young, and starting to obsessively read books about sports, my father gave me two paperbacks: Roger Angell’s “The Summer Game” and “Five Seasons.” I had no idea it was possible to write about sports like Angell could: at great length, in sublime detail, as focused on the humans under the uniforms as it was on the stats and scores.

Angell turns 100 years old on Sept. 19. The legendary New Yorker writer and fiction editor spoke to me this week via telephone from his home in Manhattan, where he’d recently returned after spending the summer in Maine.

If you were given a time machine, and you could go back and watch any baseball player of any era, who would you choose?

Well, the people I’ve seen. I guess I would start with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Willie Mays, most of all. To me, Mays is the greatest player ever, but who knows. All the athletes today are so great. It’s really hard to compare with players of a different era, but Mays is still No. 1 to me. I would want to see Carl Hubbell. Jim Palmer, Seaver. A whole number of people, I have a lot [of names]. Pedro Martinez. I would bring back Ted Williams in a minute. Willie McCovey. Dan Quisenberry—

Regarding writing: there’s always anxiety about the future of publishing, but good writing endures. Why do you think that is?

My real profession was as a fiction editor, and I was always concerned with the quality of writing and I thought about it a great deal. As an editor, I was a “taker-outer” rather than a “keeper-inner.” But structure in writing, and good writing, moves me as it does anybody, it moves me to extreme.

I’ve memorized quite a lot of poetry, which is very useful now that my eyesight is declining so rapidly. I have about 30-odd poems and stretches of plays from Shakespeare and John Donne to Ogden Nash. And these sustain me. When I go to sleep, I’ll say some of these poems to myself.

I never thought I would lose my eyesight. The biggest thing that has happened with my rapidly declining eyesight from macular degeneration is that I’m beginning to lose movies. I’ve been a big movie buff and watched movies over the years, with great happiness. But I can’t quite see the actors anymore.

Baseball, I can still follow because it’s more expansive. Individuals are spread out. I know who is where and what position. I can follow a game pretty well. I can’t see the break on the ball, but they’ll tell what the break is. And I can watch the batter’s reaction. I can follow the great Mets [broadcast] trio of Keith [Hernandez] and Ron [Darling] and Gary Cohen—they’re the best announcers in baseball, and great company over a span of two to three hours. Now the Mets are getting a new owner and I’m terrified that some way they will be thrown out. I hope not. I know Keith, I know Ron. I saw Ron pitch that great college playoff game—

This 100th birthday, what does that number mean to you? Is it a milestone or merely a number?

I’ve been immensely lucky. I began writing in a time when you could talk to players on their own, and if you worked at it, you would get a few players who really were wonderful talkers. Plus, I had almost endless space in the New Yorker, and editors—William Shawn, Bob Gottlieb, Tina Brown, David Remnick—who gave me all this space and freedom and encouragement. I’m enormously grateful to them. I could write an 8,000 or 10,000 word piece if it commanded it. Those days have long gone by.

Your celebrated 2014 New Yorker essay “This Old Man,” dealt with aging and loss—it’s also very funny. People must ask you to impart wisdom like an oracle.

Well, I don’t want to be an oracle. I don’t want to be a sainted figure and I don’t want to be a model for anything.

What’s maybe surprising about that piece is that it’s full of jokes. I love jokes. I love short jokes. [That piece] might have my favorite short joke, about a beat-up workman, who has been on some hard piece of work all day, comes into a diner and he says: ”Give me a cup of coffee, a piece of pie and a few kind words.” And the waitress comes and puts down the pie. And he says, “Hey! Hey! Where are the kind words?” And she leans over and says: “Don’t eat the pie.”

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