A writer who was around the game, and of the fans
By Tyler Kepner
Roger Angell helped me survive col-lege midterms. Late at night, study-ing in the library at Vanderbilt Uni-versity, 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 sea-son, and wait to savor it. He never let me down.
Reading the masters like Angell, who died Friday at age 101, made me want to be a baseball writer. He was a singular voice — curious, clever, cleareyed. Endur-ing, 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 New York Mets broadcaster and former pitcher, said in a phone inter-view 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 on-coming deadline, no laptop with endless distractions. He was always happy to chat, but always watching.
His notes, as I recall, would some-times be doodles of a player’s swing or pitching motion. He had a knack for de-scribing movement in colorful, relatable ways nobody else could conjure.
Here’s Angell in 1985 on Dan Quisen-berry, the right-handed relief ace of the Kansas City Royals, whose best pitch looked harmless: “His ball in flight sug-gests the kiddie-ride concession at a coun-try fairgrounds — all swoops and swerves but nothing there to make a mother ner-vous; if you’re standing close to it, your first response is a smile.”
And here he is, nearly a quarter-cen-tury 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 ATM 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 chron-icled, Angell did not receive the writers’ award at the Hall of Fame until 2014. The New York chapter of the writers’ associa-tion 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 sea-son.
It took Susan Slusser, a longtime writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, to cor-rect the oversight by nominating Angell through the Bay Area chapter. He sailed to an easy victory and got his day in Cooper-stown, New York.
“There’s nobody, in my mind, who’s ever challenged him as the greatest sports writer 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 be-yond 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 New York Yankees in the early 2000s, Joe Torre, the team’s manag-er, 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, Nebraska; 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 An-gell. “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 av-erage 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 Connecti-cut, 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 broad-casting duties took him to Yankee Stadi-um, 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 hap-pened to hold fascinating jobs.
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 men-tioned that his eyesight was failing but that he still tuned in daily to the games. One new wrinkle appalled him: the run-ner placed on second base to begin each extra inning.
“It violates everything in baseball,” Angell said. “You put a runner on sec-ond 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 base-ball history to never earn what he got.”
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 regu-lar writers, so he pushed himself to find different kinds of stories. His writing con-veyed 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 girl-friend 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 Ver-mont 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.