A Writer Who Was Around the Game, and of the Fans
Roger Angell helped me survive college midterms. Late at night, studying in the library at Vanderbilt University, I’d make a deal with myself: When these are over, when you’re settled into your seat for the flight home, Roger will take you back in time. I would find The New Yorker archives, photocopy his year-end essay from a favorite childhood season, and wait to savor it. He never let me down.
Reading the masters like Angell, who died on Friday at age 101, made me want to be a baseball writer. He was a singular voice — curious, clever, cleareyed. Enduring, too: He was older than Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote, Stan Musial and Gil Hodges. There was comfort in knowing that Roger was still here.
“More sad than I thought I’d be,” Ron Darling, the Mets broadcaster and former pitcher, said in a phone interview on Saturday. “He was 101 years old, but I don’t know — you feel like baseball lost its Hemingway. That’s how it feels.”
I knew Angell from his visits to Yankee Stadium, new and old, in this century. He would sit on the dugout bench or in the press box, taking it all in calmly, no oncoming deadline, no laptop with endless distractions. He was always happy to chat, but always watching.
His notes, as I recall, would sometimes be doodles of a player’s swing or pitching motion. He had a knack for describing movement in colorful, relatable ways nobody else could conjure.
Here’s Angell in 1985 on Dan Quisenberry, the right-handed relief ace of the Kansas City Royals, whose best pitch looked harmless: “His ball in flight suggests the kiddie-ride concession at a country fairgrounds — all swoops and swerves but nothing there to make a mother nervous; if you’re standing close to it, your first response is a smile.”
And here he is, nearly a quarter-century later, on Chase Utley, a Philadelphia Phillies second baseman with surprising power from the left side: “Utley, who has slicked-back, Jake Gittes hair, possesses a quick bat and a very short home-run stroke; he looks like a man in an A.T.M. reaching for his cash.”
That was in Angell’s dispatch in 2009 from that year’s World Series, an event he first attended in 1941 as a student at Harvard. He had gone to Philadelphia with friends for the Harvard/Penn football game, he told me, and stopped at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn on the way back.
For all the history he saw and chronicled, Angell did not receive the writers’ award at the Hall of Fame until 2014. The New York chapter of the writers’ association had never nominated him — Angell was a magazine guy, the thinking went, so he had not earned it by slogging his way through the daily grind, season after season.
It took Susan Slusser, a longtime writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, to correct the oversight by nominating Angell through the Bay Area chapter. He sailed to an easy victory and got his day in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“There’s nobody, in my mind, who’s ever challenged him as the greatest sportswriter of all time, and in fact one of the greatest writers of all time,” Slusser said over the weekend. “He wrote plenty of things that weren’t sports that were equally elegant and perfect. It actually makes me angry sometimes: His writing was so beautiful and precise and evocative that you think, how does a human have this kind of ability? But you can’t be jealous of Beethoven or Shakespeare. It’s just beyond what most people are capable of.”
Angell’s writing skill could carry any piece, but he was also an extraordinary interviewer — which, of course, made his writing that much more powerful. When Angell visited the Yankees in the early 2000s, Joe Torre, the team’s manager, would remind the beat writers of why he respected Angell so deeply. Nobody, Torre said, had captured the essence of his proud but wary friend, Bob Gibson, the way Angell did in a 1980 profile.
Angell visited Gibson at his home in Omaha; they swam in his pool, admired Gibson’s model train collection, talked about baseball and race and life. Gibson, retired only five years, seemed to Angell to be searching for a purpose. He seemed sad.
“No, I’m not sad,” Gibson told Angell. “I just think I’ve been spoiled. When you’ve been an athlete, there’s no place for you to go. You’re much harder to please. But where I am right now is where the average person has been all along. I’m like millions of others now, and I’m finding out what that’s like. I don’t think the ordinary person ever gets to do anything they enjoy nearly as much as I enjoyed playing ball.”
Angell’s famous 1981 essay, “The Web of the Game,” embodied the old Branch Rickey line about luck being the residue of design. Angell took Smoky Joe Wood, then 91 years old and living in Connecticut, to a nearby college game between Yale and St. John’s. It turned out to be a classic; Darling, pitching for Yale against another future star, Frank Viola, took a no-hitter into the 12th inning and lost, 1-0.
Darling treasured the connection and became friends with Angell. If his broadcasting duties took him to Yankee Stadium, Darling would drive to Angell’s home at 90th and Madison and bring him along. Angell shared something powerful with baseball lifers like Darling: a reverence for the game as it is, without some kind of mystical, deeper meaning. He understood that players were grown-ups who just happened to hold fascinating jobs.
“He reminded me of Bartlett Giamatti, just the purest form of fandom — loved the game, loved players,” Darling said, referring to the former Major League Baseball commissioner and Yale president. “Very few people are like that. They might like the game, but they’ll criticize it. They may like the players, but they rip them for how much they’re making. There’s a lot of different ways of being a fan, and he and Bartlett were fans of the aesthetic and beauty of what baseball is at its best, at its core.”
Angell was not a gauzy romantic — he hated “Field of Dreams” — but he saw enough baseball to know when something seemed off. The last time I spoke with him, on the phone last spring, he mentioned that his eyesight was failing but that he still tuned in daily to the games. One new wrinkle appalled him: the runner placed on second base to begin each extra inning.
“It violates everything in baseball,” Angell said. “You put a runner on second who hasn’t earned it, you’re trying to shorten the game. Every effort now is to shorten the game instead of letting it go on. The man on second is the first in baseball history to never earn what he got.”
In baseball, I agreed, there should always be a how and a why.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “There’s an accounting for every space. It balances, as we know. That’s one of the fascinating, great things about the game. It balances so evenly and has so many astounding events in the middle of it.”
Yet beyond all the games, Angell held a special fondness for his essays on fans. He told me that he always thought he knew less about baseball than the regular writers, so he pushed himself to find different kinds of stories. His writing conveyed both intimacy with the sport and detachment from its conventions.
His favorite piece, I thought, was telling.
“I think the story I loved most was the one about a semipro pitcher and his girlfriend in Vermont, called ‘In The Country,’ in 1981 — Ron Goble and his girlfriend who was a poet,” Angell said. “She wrote to me when they were out in Montana playing ball; I went to see them in Vermont and spent a lot of time in Burlington and different places, watching these weird games during the baseball strike when the players had local businesses’ names on their back on their uniforms.”
Roger Angell was around the game, around the press box, and we were all better for it. But he was always of the fans.