Roger Angell: Elegant and Thoughtful Baseball Writer Widely Considered Among the Best

From a New York Times obit by Dwight Garner headlined “Roger Angell, Who Wrote About Baseball With Passion, Dies at 101”:

Roger Angell, the elegant and thoughtful baseball writer who was widely considered among the best America has produced, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan….

Mr. Angell’s voice was original because he wrote more like a fan than a sports journalist, loading his articles with inventive imagery.

The Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk came out of his crouch, Mr. Angell wrote, like “an aluminum extension ladder stretching for the house eaves.” The Baltimore Oriole relief pitcher Dick Hall pitched “with an awkward, sidewise motion that suggests a man feeling under his bed for a lost collar stud.” Mr. Angell described Willie Mays chasing down a ball hit to deep center field as “running so hard and so far that the ball itself seems to stop in the air and wait for him.”

The baseball season didn’t seem complete until, as he did late each fall, Mr. Angell wrapped up its multiple meanings in a long New Yorker article. Many of his pieces were collected in books, among them “Late Innings” (1982) and “Once More Around the Park” (1991).

But he wrote not just about teams and the games they played. He also considered what it meant to be a fan.

“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team,” he wrote in his book “Five Seasons” (1977). “What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.”

For Mr. Angell, The New Yorker was, to some degree, the family shop. His mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell White, was among the magazine’s first editors hired by Harold Ross in 1925. His stepfather, the essayist E.B. White, was a frequent contributor. Mr. Angell published his first piece in the magazine, a short story, in 1944 and went to work there in 1956.

Like his mother, Mr. Angell became a New Yorker fiction editor, discovering and nurturing writers, including Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason and Garrison Keillor. For a while he occupied his mother’s old office — an experience, he told an interviewer, that was “the weirdest thing in the world.” He also worked closely with writers like Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Donald Barthelme, Ruth Jhabvala and V.S. Pritchett.

Mr. Angell was known, too, for his annual page-long holiday poem, titled “Greetings, Friends!” The poem, a New Yorker tradition, began in 1932 and was originally written by Frank Sullivan. Mr. Angell wrote “Greetings, Friends!” from 1976 until 1998, when it went on hiatus, and restarted it in 2008. In recent years, the poem has been written by Ian Frazier.

In his holiday poems, Mr. Angell mixed the boldface names, from high culture and low, that had filtered through that year. Here is a snippet from 1992:

Here’s where hearts grow rife or rifer,
Near Donna Tartt and Michelle Pfeiffer,
With B.B. King and his Lucille,
And Dee Dee Myers and Brian Friel!

Some of his rhymes could be read mischievously. “Yo! Santa man, grab some sky,” he wrote in 1992, “And drop a sock on Robert Bly.”

“I’m not sure there’s ever been a writer so strong, and an editor so important, all at once, at a magazine since the days of H.L. Mencken running The American Mercury,” David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor, said. “Roger was a vigorous editor, and an intellect with broad tastes.”

Mr. Angell became a baseball writer by accident. He was already a fan in 1962 when he was asked by William Shawn, the magazine’s editor, to “go down to spring training and see what you find.”

It was an auspicious year to be a young baseball writer: the first season of the New York Mets. “They were these terrific losers that New York took to its heart,” Mr. Angell said.

The tone of his baseball writing, he once said, was inspired by a now canonical John Updike article, written in 1960, about Ted Williams’s final game at Fenway Park in Boston. “My own baseball writing was still two years away when I first read ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,’” Mr. Angell wrote, “and though it took me a while to become aware of it, John had already supplied my tone, while also seeming to invite me to try for a good sentence now and then, down the line.”

Mr. Angell was sometimes referred to as baseball’s poet laureate, a title he rejected. He called himself a reporter. “The only thing different in my writing,” he said, “is that, almost from the beginning, I’ve been able to write about myself as well.”

He disliked sentimentality about sports. “The stuff about the connection between baseball and American life, the ‘Field of Dreams’ thing, gives me a pain,” he once said. “I hated that movie.”

He was alert, however, to what he called the “substrata of nuance and lesson and accumulated experience” beneath baseball’s surface. And his humor flashed above all this.

He once referred to Ron Darling as “the best right-handed part-Chinese Yale history major among the Mets starters.” He wrote that Carl Yastrzemski, “like so many great hitters, has oddly protuberant eyes.” And he noted, about a skinny Houston Astros team, that “they sometimes suggest a troupe of gazelles depicted by a Balkan corps de ballet.”

He was born in Manhattan. His father, Ernest Angell, was a graduate of Harvard Law School, a World War I veteran and a former semipro pitcher who in 1950 became the national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union….

He graduated from Harvard in 1942 and then worked as a magazine editor for the Army Air Forces. After his discharge he was a writer for Holiday magazine and wrote frequently for The New Yorker before being hired.

Some at the magazine resisted his hiring. “The staff just felt they’d had enough of the Whites,” he said. “But Shawn came to me and made me an offer.”

Much of his early writing for the magazine was fiction. A collection of his short stories, “The Stone Arbor,” was published in 1960.

In The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, Mr. Keillor noted that Mr. Angell was an “old-fashioned seigneur of an editor,” the sort “who was terribly generous with his praise and apologetic for his criticism and who, if a month passed without submissions from me, would write the most wonderful encouraging letters.”

Ben Yagoda’s history of The New Yorker, “About Town” (2000), reprinted an extended series of rejection letters from Mr. Angell to Ms. Beattie over 22 months in the early 1970s. He turned down story after story, with advice and encouragement, until she submitted one titled “A Platonic Relationship” in 1974. Mr. Angell responded by writing, “Oh joy.”

Mr. Angell had his critics, some of whom felt that The New Yorker’s fiction under his watch was insular. Reviewing Mr. Angell’s memoir“Let Me Finish” in The New York Times Book Review in 2006, the British critic James Campbell wrote: “There is no ethnic friction in Angell’s America (which the outsider might imagine ranging from the Upper East Side to the Hamptons), no poverty, no crime and next to no politics. But there is wit and charm and sometimes wisdom.”

Like his stepfather, E.B. White, Mr. Angell spent a good deal of time in coastal Maine, where he owned a home….Also like his stepfather, Mr. Angell was an enthusiastic consumer of martinis. He composed an essay, “Dry Martini,” that some consider the best on the subject. In it, he admitted that he ultimately moved to vodka from gin because vodka was “less argumentative.”

He loved wire-haired fox terriers and owned several over the years. One of his great pleasures was to walk his dog around the Madison Avenue neighborhood.

He wrote well into his 90s. In 2014 he was awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s honor for writers. In 2015, when he was 94, he published a collection of essays about aging entitled “This Old Man.”

“I’ve endured a few knocks but missed worse,” he wrote in that book. “I know how lucky I am, and secretly rap wood, greet the day, and grab a sneaky pleasure from my survival at long odds. The pains and insults are bearable.”

Until his final years, Mr. Angell attended as many as 40 baseball games a year, rooting for the Mets, the Giants, the Red Sox, the A’s and even sometimes the Yankees.

His first wife was Evelyn Baker, whom he divorced in 1963. The following year he married Carol Rogge, who taught reading at the private Brearley School in Manhattan and who died in 2012. In 2014, he married Ms. Moorman, a writer and retired teacher….

Baseball is “a great game for writers because it’s just the right pace,” Mr. Angell once said. “You can watch the game and keep score and look around and take notes. Now and then you even have time for an idea.”

And, he said, he loved the way “baseball will stick it to you; it means to break your heart.”

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His most recent book is “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany.”

Also see the Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Roger Angell, editor, baseball writer at the New Yorker, dies at 101.”: The opening grafs:

Roger Angell practically grew up in the halls of the New Yorker, where his mother, Katharine S. White, was the longtime fiction editor. His stepfather was E.B. White, the renowned essayist whose supple, self-effacing prose became the hallmark of the magazine’s style and whose literary legacy included “Charlotte’s Web.”

Mr. Angell, who was five years older than the magazine itself, began contributing to the New Yorker in 1944, and he joined the staff in 1956 as an editor of fiction. Over the decades, he helped mold the stories of generations of writers, including John Updike, Vladi­mir Nabokov, William Trevor, Ann Beattie and Bobbie Ann Mason.

He also wrote fiction, reviews, poems and miscellaneous pieces for the magazine, including revelatory essays about growing old. “Here in my tenth decade,” he wrote at 93, “I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.”…

Among Mr. Angell’s most memorable stories in the New Yorker were his idiosyncratic first-person essays about baseball, which led to his enshrinement in the writers’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.

In his youth, Mr. Angell watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play at Yankee Stadium. He witnessed Joe DiMaggio’s rookie season in 1936 and vividly recalled, in a memoir written 70 years after the fact, the pitching motion of New York Giants left-hander Carl Hubbell, “gravely bowing twice from the waist before each delivery.”

New Yorker editor William Shawn knew of Mr. Angell’s interest in baseball and invited him to cover the sport in a leisurely, personal way that was different from the approach of most magazines and newspapers….

Mr. Angell’s writing about baseball proved to be original, spellbinding and impossible to imitate. He collected his essays in a series of best-selling books, beginning in 1972 with “The Summer Game.”

“The elegance of his prose aside, the man deals in information, lots of it,” Sports Illustrated reporter Ron Fimrite wrote in 1991. “It is, in fact, his power of observation, his eye for the minutest detail, that sets him apart not only from most baseball writers but also from most writers, period.”…

Speak Your Mind

*