Roger Angell, who wrote eloquently and insightfully about baseball for more than half a century, died Friday of congestive heart failure, his wife Margaret Moorman told The New York Times. He was 101 years old.
Like the great players he adored, from Willie Mays to Derek Jeter, Angell was truly singular. In 2014, he became the first recipient of what is now known as the BBWAA Career Excellence Award who has never covered a beat or written full-time columns for a daily newspaper. The honor “for Meritorious Contributions to Baseball Writing” is awarded annually at the Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in Cooperstown, NY, and recipients are part of the “Scribes & Mikemen” exhibit. ” in the library of the Hall.
Angell possessed amazing mental acuity. At 93, he wrote “This Old Man”, a reflection on life after 90, by turns amusing and sobering, sensitive and sensible. It won an award for essays and criticism from the American Society of Magazine Editors and became the title of his latest book.
Angel’s timing was perfect. Writing with a fan’s passion and Shakespearean splendour, he rose to literary prominence in the 1970s, when Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine clubs and the escalating Yankees-Red Sox rivalry helped elevate the overall quality of the game. Angell’s long-running plays captivated fans who appreciated the game’s skillfully crafted, cliché-free outlook.
Most of Angell’s stories originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine, to which he first contributed in 1944 and became a fiction editor in 1956. He later rose to the title of editor fiction, working with the likes of John Updike and Garrison Keillor. .
Angell simultaneously expanded his baseball following. He published 11 books, including five anthologies of his works, between 1972 and 1991: The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket and Once More Around the Park. Two of these books reached the New York Times bestseller list: The Summer Game (1972) and Late Innings (’82).
Angell’s elevated prose has prompted many well-meaning book reviewers and literary critics to cite him as baseball’s “poet laureate” who wrote “essays” on the sport. He hated both terms. Angell didn’t sit in a Manhattan ivory tower, uttering grand pronouncements about baseball punctuated by the thump of a bat-shaped hammer. Like many baseball writers, Angell researched new story angles in Spring Training, competed (and often won) access to a particularly intriguing baseball player, and put the season into perspective after the World Series.
Two of Angell’s finest compositions revealed profiles of pitchers who led extremely private lives: Steve Blass and Bob Gibson. Using his reporting and interviewing skills, Angell persuaded Blass to discuss the mystifying disappearance of his ability to throw strikes; Gibson, widely considered dry throughout his Hall of Fame career, invited the writer to his home in Omaha, Neb., and spoke candidly about himself and the game he once dominated.
Angell got an indelible stamp of approval in December 2013, when he won the Career Achievement Award election by voting among members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “I’m very, very happy,” Angell said. “I’m amazed. Very moved. Very grateful.”
Born in New York on September 19, 1920, Sergeant Roger Angell had his intellectual curiosity nurtured by his parents. Angell’s father, Ernest, served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union for 19 years. His mother, Katharine, joined The New Yorker staff in August 1925, six months after the magazine was founded. She became the magazine’s first fiction editor. Her father-in-law was EB White, who wrote “Charlotte’s Web”, wrote numerous unsigned “Notes and Comments” for The New Yorker, and edited “The Elements of Style”, widely regarded as the bible of grammar and from prose.
In an autobiographical chapter of “Birth of a Fan”, Angell wrote, “In my early teens, I knew the Detroit Tigers’ batting order and FDR’s first cabinet by heart.”
Angell served in the US Army and worked for Holiday Magazine before migrating to The New Yorker. He began actively writing about baseball in 1962, when his first spring training feature, “The Old Folks behind Home,” appeared in The New Yorker. William Shawn, the magazine’s editor at the time, wanted more sports-related content to supplement the news, poetry, analysis, and film reviews that typically filled the magazine. Angell, who grew up in New York and started following the Yankees and Giants in the 1930s, was happy to comply.
Angell immediately demonstrated his insight. Explaining why the New York Mets, who compiled an abysmal 40-120 record in their inaugural season in 1962, generated rabid fan enthusiasm that the perennial champion Yankees has rarely inspired, he wrote: “He There’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.”
In his most famous passage, from his seminal work, “The Interior Stadium”, Angell presented an impossible but intoxicating notion: “Since baseball time is only measured in outs, all you have to do is to succeed completely; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have conquered time. You remain forever young.
In his review of the 1975 World Series, Angell defended the loyalty of fans around the world:
“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with something so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitable as a professional sports team. … What is excluded from this calculation, it seems to me -it is the business of caring – deep, passionate caring, really caring – which is an ability or an emotion that has almost disappeared from our lives. And so it seems possible that we are arrived at a time when no matter how much attention is paid to the fragility or stupidity of the object of this concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved Naivety – the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a man or a grown woman to dance and scream for joy in the middle of the night on the disorderly flight of a distant ball – seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”
Angell described great ballplayers in terms anyone could understand. For example, he relished Mays’ baserunning: “…Watching him drift off a base and then sink at full speed, I immediately noticed how much he looked like a wonderful skier in the middle of a turn on a steep slope of fast powder. No one like him.”
Sandy Koufax’s pitch stunned Angell as much as the hitters the southpaw tormented. “…[T]The fastball, suddenly appearing in the strike zone, sometimes jumps so wildly that its receiver has to catch it with his glove by pulling upwards, like an infielder stabbing a bad-hop player. I remember a batter taking a strike like that, then coming out of the box and staring at the pitcher with a look of utter disbelief – as if Koufax had just thrown an Easter egg in front of him.”
Angell even described the ball itself to explain the appeal of the game: “Pick it up and it instantly suggests its purpose; it is meant to be thrown a considerable distance – thrown hard and with precision. … Feel the ball, turn it over in your hand; hold it across the seam or the other way around, with the seam right next to your middle finger. Speculation stirs. You want to go out and throw that spare, sensual object at someone or, at the very least, watch someone else throw it. The game has started.
Angell called upon his powers of description to detail Jeter’s mannerisms as he settled into the batter’s box: “The bat between pitches tucked into his armpit. The helmet at your fingertips. The front left foot wide open, out of the box until the last moment, and the cop’s right hand at a crossover ritually lifted back until the foot closes.
Always the voice of the fans, Angell made no secret of his feelings if he favored a particular team. An example of this accentuated his coverage of the classic Red Sox-Yankees tiebreaker game for the 1978 AL East title, which New York won, 5-4. The Red Sox had the potential tie at third base when Boston hero Carl Yastrzemski came out to end the game. Angell’s bitter conclusion read, “I think God was shelling a peanut.”
Angell stayed abreast of changing writing trends, posting blog posts for The New Yorker in his later years. He is survived by his third wife, Margaret, and one son, John Henry.