Roger Angell helped me survive college. Late at night, studying at the Vanderbilt University library, I was making a deal with myself: once 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 of a favorite childhood season, 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. It was a singular voice, curious, intelligent, lucid. Enduring too: he was older than Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote, Stan Musial and Gil Hodges. It was comforting to know that Roger was still there.
“Sadder than I thought,” Mets broadcaster and former pitcher Ron Darling said in a phone interview Saturday. “He was 101, but I don’t know – you feel like baseball has 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 sidelines or in the press box, taking it all calmly, with no looming deadline, no laptop with endless distractions. He was always happy to chat, but always watching.
His notes, if I remember correctly, were sometimes doodles of a player’s swing or throwing motion. He had a knack for depicting movement in a colorful and relatable way that no one else could conjure up.
Here’s Angell in 1985 on Dan Quisenberry, the Kansas City Royals’ right-handed prospect ace, whose best pitch seemed innocuous: “His ball in flight suggests the kids’ concession of a country fairground — all the swoops and deviations but nothing there to make a mother nervous; if you stand close to him, your first response is a smile.
And here it is, almost a quarter century later, on Chase Utley, a Philadelphia Phillies second baseman with surprising power on the left side: “Utley, who has the hair slicked back, Jake Gittes, owns a quick bat and a very short home run; he looks like a man in an ATM looking for his money.
It was in Angell’s 2009 dispatch of 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.
Despite all the history he’s seen and told, Angell didn’t receive the Hall of Fame Writers Award until 2014. The New York chapter of the writers association had never nominated him – Angell was a magazine guy, the thought went, so he hadn’t earned it as he fought 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 naming Angell through the Bay Area chapter. He sailed to an easy win and had his day in Cooperstown, NY
“There is no one, in my mind, who has ever challenged him as the greatest sportswriter of all time, and in fact one of the greatest sportswriters of all time,” Slusser told the weekend course. “He wrote a lot of things that weren’t sports, that were just as elegant and perfect. In fact, it sometimes angers me: his writing was so beautiful, precise and evocative that you think, how a human can Does he have that 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 skills could carry any tune, but he was also an amazing interviewer — which, of course, made his writing all the more powerful. When Angell visited the Yankees in the early 2000s, Joe Torre, the team’s manager, reminded beat writers why he respected Angell so deeply. No one, Torre said, had captured the essence of his proud but wary friend, Bob Gibson, like 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, racing and life. Gibson, retired for only five years, seemed to Angell looking for a goal. He looked sad.
“No, I’m not sad,” Gibson told Angell. “I just think I was spoiled. When you’ve been an athlete, you have nowhere to go. You are much harder to please. But where I am right now is where the average person has always been. I’m like millions of others now, and I’m finding out what it is. I don’t think an ordinary person can ever do something they love as much as I enjoyed playing ball.
Angell’s famous 1981 essay, “The Web of the Game”, embodied Branch Rickey’s old line that luck was the residue of design. Angell took Smoky Joe Wood, then 91 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 in the 12th inning and lost, 1-0.
Darling cherished the connection and became friends with Angell. If his broadcast duties took him to Yankee Stadium, Darling would go to Angell’s house at 90th and Madison and take him there. Angell shared something powerful with lifers like Darling: a reverence for the game as it is, without some sort of mystical, deeper meaning. He understood that the players were adults who had fascinating jobs.
“He reminded me of Bartlett Giamatti, just the purest form of fandom — loved the game, loved the 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 will criticize it. They might like the players, but they tear them apart for what they earn. There are a lot of different ways to be a fan , and he and Bartlett were fans of the aesthetics and beauty of what baseball is at its best, at its core.
Angell wasn’t a wispy romantic — he hated “Field of Dreams” — but he’d seen enough baseball to know when something seemed wrong. When I last spoke to him, on the phone last spring, he mentioned that his eyesight was failing, but he still listens to the games every day. A new wrinkle dismayed him: the runner placed at second base to start each extra inning.
“It violates everything in baseball,” Angell said. “You put a second runner who hasn’t deserved it, you’re trying to shorten the game. All efforts now are to shorten the game instead of letting it continue. The second man is the first in the game. history of baseball never getting what it got.
In baseball, I agreed, there should always be a how and a why.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “There is accounting for each space. It balances out, we know that. This is one of the fascinating and awesome things about the game. It balances so evenly and has so many amazing events in the middle of it.
Yet, beyond all of the matches, Angell had a particular fondness for his fan essays. He told me he always thought he knew less about baseball than the usual writers, so he pushed himself to come up with different types of stories. His writing expresses both intimacy with the sport and detachment from its conventions.
His favorite track, I thought, was revealing.
“I think the story I liked the most was about a semi-professional pitcher and his girlfriend in Vermont, called ‘In The Country’, in 1981 – Ron Goble and his girlfriend who was poet,” Angell said. “She wrote to me when they were 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 business names on the backs of their uniforms.
Roger Angell was approximately the game, approximately the press box, and we were all better for it. But he was always of the fans.