Remembering Roger Angell: A tribute to a legend

Roger Angell went extra-innings. The famed essayist, novelist, editor and sportswriter passed away on 20 May at the age of 101 in New York. Doing the maths reveals some remarkable facts: Angell, a Manhattan native and later a graduate of Harvard and WW2 Air Force veteran, was (just) alive for the Babe Ruth sale to the Yankees. He was 27 years old when Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, and four years later, at 31 (my current age), Angell watched the “Shot Heard Round the World” on TV at his mother-in-law’s apartment in Boston. He lived long enough to watch the Babe and Shohei Ohtani, and often liked to state that between him and his father, who was born in 1889, they had watched almost the entirety of the history of major league baseball.

In looking back at his life, and the events which populated it, it is as if he lived multiple lives within one, and not just because of the longevity. He survived two wives, both of whom died from cancer, and a daughter through suicide, of which he described “the oceanic force and mystery of that event” and his struggle to comprehend that “a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life.”

His grandfather died when Angell was nine, in a marine accident near Sable Island. Personal tragedy is inevitable in life, and Roger, true to style, wrote thoughtfully and beautifully about that, too, “Memory is fiction—an anecdotal version of some scene or past event we need to store away for present or future use.”

Angell had come to writing about baseball by accident, which seems impossible in hindsight. In 1962 William Shawn, New Yorker editor, told him to “go down to spring training and see what you find.” Angell found his craft, and in a happy coincidence, his team – it was the first year of the Mets. “They were these terrific losers that New York took to its heart,” he later wrote.

His impact went beyond baseball – he wrote about football, tennis, horse racing, movies, among other things – but it was his writing on the great American pastime which made the most indelible impression on his readers, including myself. His unhurried, considerate style mirrored his own thoughts on the game, “if you think about it, both baseball and reading are occupations for people who are not afraid of being bored.”

Angell’s vivacious passion for the sport was legendary. He fully embraced the internet age, watching games late into the night on his TV, getting ever closer to the screen as his eyes slowly deteriorated, and penning blogs that those of us who aspire to sports writing could only dream of emulating, and all this long into his ninth decade.

Since his passing many have written more eloquently about Angell’s life, and works, than me – not least those who knew him personally and can recount stories that elucidate his reputation and reinforce the sense you have that Roger would have been a wonderful person to know. Angell – a writer from a continent away, without active social media and, therefore, in the old-school tradition of great writers everywhere, properly distant – nevertheless had a profound effect on my life.

For me discovering him was like discovering a veteran player. Say, Yadier Molina, still at the height of his powers, beloved by all, adapting to changes without complaint and hitting doubles and triples and homers at a ripe age with seeming ease. Such as it was with Angell, who took the myriad changes to the game of baseball – rules, money, scandals – in his stride. In discovering his work, you were opening a Pandora’s box of wonders over which you could pore for months on end, starting with his Sporting Scene pieces in the New Yorker and then moving on to his books, film reviews, and everything else. I find myself repeating this process again now. For nostalgia and inspiration, yes, but also sheer joy.

As Washington Post writer Tom Boswell wrote, “Conversation is the blood of baseball. It flows through the game, an invigorating system of anecdotes. Ballplayers are tale tellers who have polished their malarky and winnowed their wisdom… this passion for language and the telling detail is what makes baseball the writer’s game.” Angell was the master conversationalist, often recalling his own chats with ballplayers and writers and fans within his articles, spinning a wondrous web of stories and anecdotes from across the baseball landscape, all contributing to that ineffable feeling that you were there, too. And yet, given all that had changed in the sport since his childhood, his writing never strayed into pining for the nostalgia of the past, like that of so many others.

The first article I read of his was written in 2012. It described, in typically erudite Angellian fashion, how Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey had come to dominate the diamond for a fleeting, thrilling period, throwing two consecutive one-hitters, a feat not accomplished in the National League since the season before Angell first wrote for the New Yorker 68 years earlier. Dickey was magic in a bottle, and then, as quickly as he had come to dominate, he was gone. Thankfully Angell’s presence among the best of baseball writers didn’t mirror Dickey’s transience in the majors. I re-read the article over and over, trying to ascertain what encapsulated the style of writing and gave it such an ease of reading in spite of the complexities of what Angell was conferring. I still can’t, despite my best efforts today.

“Dickey, whose full beard and peaceable appearance suggest a retired up-country hunting dog, is thirty-seven years old, with ten years and three prior big-league teams behind him, and hard work has brought him to this Shangri-La, perhaps only briefly. Watching him, if you’ve ever played ball, you may find yourself remembering the exact moment in your early teens when you were first able to see a fraction of movement in a ball you’d flung, and sensed a magical kinship with the ball and what you’d just done together. This is where Dickey is right now, and for him the horrendous din of the game and its perpetual, distracting flow of replay and statistics and expertise and P.R. and money and expectation and fatigue have perhaps dimmed, leaving him still in touch with the elegant and, for now, perfectly recallable and repeatable movements of his body and shoulders and the feel of the thing on his fingertips.”

Watching the Mets face the Dodgers this evening, fussing over this piece, I am reminded of the terrific ways in which Angell communicated the fundamental subtleties of the game and somehow made one of the most difficult things in all of sports – hitting a baseball flung at 90mph+ from just 60 feet, 6 inches away – seem comprehensible to the reader. He had a delicate knack of breaking down baseball fundamentals to their essential, component movements, but in language that you or I would never have been able to dream up. He would dissect a swing into stages, then rebuild it in such a way that you, the reader, would inevitably recreate the steps at home, sans-bat, hoping to capture something of the essence of the major leagues in your living room.

His description of Bob Gibson’s mechanics, published in 1980, is as good an example as any of masterful descriptive prose:

“With Gibson pitching, you were always a little distracted from the plate and the batter, because his delivery continued so extravagantly after the ball was released that you almost felt that the pitch was incidental to the whole affair. The follow-through sometimes suggested a far-out basketball move — a fast downcourt feint. His right leg, which was up and twisted to the right in the air as the ball was let go (all normal enough for a right-handed pitcher), now continued forward in a sudden sidewise rush, crossing his planted left leg, actually stepping over it, and he finished with a full running step toward the right-field foul line, which wrenched his body in the same direction, so that he now had to follow the flight of the ball by peering over his right shoulder. Both his arms whirled in the air to help him keep his balance during this acrobatic manoeuvre, but the key to his overpowering speed and stuff was not the strength of his pitching arm — it was the powerful, driving thrust of his legs, culminating in that final extra step, which brought his right foot clomping down on the sloping left-hand side of the mound, with the full weight of his body slamming and twisting behind it.”

Angell’s expository abilities, and his skill in manipulating the reader’s imagination, puts me in mind of a pitcher’s ability to manipulate the baseball – a different grip, a quicker windup, a flick of the wrist – he would draw you in and tease you and then, most often finishing his pieces with a rip-roaring flourish, he’d strike you out with a fastball. And so I leave you with one of Angell’s more famous passages, the denouement of his 1975 piece on the Red Sox vs. the Reds:

“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, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look–I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost.

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. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté –the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the hazardous flight of a distant ball–seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

Right on, Roger.

Angell’s New Yorker archive can be found here

Featured image of Roger Angell by Al Tielemans /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Joshua Edwards is the London Series correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joshwa_1990

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