Meet Roger Angell
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
I never knew who Roger Angell was until I read his obituary. Turns out Angell, who died, May 20, 2022 at the age of 101 had a “dual” career. For many years by day, he was the chief fiction editor for The New Yorker, but by night he was a most celebrated baseball sportswriter, a role he came to in his 40s.
While most major news organization have published stories of Angell’s career, I thought the The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay did a particularly good job depicting Angell’s life.
Roger Angell was a Diamond
By Jason Gay
Wall Street Journal
May 20, 2022
He was as good as anyone’s ever been at it—actually better, if we’re being honest. Roger Angell, who died on Friday at age 101, came to baseball writing late; in his 40s, amid an already eventful reporting and editing career.
When he first started showing up at the ballpark, he felt out of place among the Underwood-thumpers in the press box. Instead, he sat with the crowd, because that’s what John Updike did when writing “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” and he set out on one of the great side acts in publishing history—the literary editor who moonlit as America’s best baseball writer.
I knew none of this growing up. I was in junior high school when my father handed me a paperback copy of Angell’s “The Summer Game” with a decree: This is how it’s done. It was, I quickly discovered—only Angell could make a ballgame that finished two months ago feel like the bullpen was still thick with action. It wasn’t until much later that I learned Angell, the stepson of E.B. White, was also in charge of the New Yorker’s celebrated fiction section. I was flabbergasted. Roger Angell—the baseball guy?
He was that, and then some. Angell’s baseball stories doubled as cultural renderings, detail-rich snapshots of time and place. His 1981 masterpiece about the famous Yale-St. John’s pitching duel between Ron Darling and Frank Viola, in which Angell lured a 91-year-old Smoky Joe Wood to come watch the game with him, is a remarkable melding of baseball’s past and future. His account of the 1986 Mets World Series reads like a frantic taxi ride around New York City, a noisy town that could still fall hush for tense innings.
I worry the paragraph above makes Angell’s baseball writing sound pretentious. It was anything but. Into his 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond, Angell wrote with joy and enthusiasm—and never sentimentality, which editor William Shawn warned him about all those years ago. Angell asked questions others were too proud to ask— a tip he picked up from John McPhee. Whether he was talking to Casey Stengel or Dan Quisenberry he stayed curious and made us see what he saw. Do you remember getting an issue of the New Yorker and discovering an Angell baseball piece inside? It was like finding a Wonka ticket.
I interviewed Angell for the first time a year and a half ago, shortly before he turned 100. It is generally wise advice to never meet your idols, or even interview them on the phone, but Angell lived up to every hope: feisty, funny, full of long-paragraphed observations about the game he still adored. His vision was in steep decline, but he continued to follow on TV, his preferred soundtrack the Mets announcing trio of Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Darling, the Yale ace he’d chronicled decades ago. “The best in baseball,” Angell called Gary, Keith & Ron. “And great company.”
A 100th birthday tends to bequeath its recipient with a magical aura, but Angell was having none of it. “I don’t want to be an oracle,” he told me. In his 90s, he’d written another masterpiece, This Old Man, a ruthless account of his own aging (The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B.) which read like a 105-mph heater on the outside corner. He preferred to stay clear-headed, and humble about his legacy.
After we hung up, Angell called back a short while later to make sure he credited every editor he’d ever had, going all the way back to the 1940s because he was grateful they’d given him a chance—and so much space! — to write about what he loved. My father had been right. Roger Angell was how it was done.