Born September 19, 1920, in New York City, Roger Angell liked to say that between himself and his father, Ernest Angell, born in 1889, they had witnessed nearly the entire history of Major League Baseball, founded in 1876. Despite a lifelong love for the game, Angell did not begin writing about baseball until 1962, when The New Yorker sent him on assignment to Florida to cover spring training. His final piece on baseball was published on The New Yorker’s website in 2018; in total, his career as a late-starting baseball writer spanned 56 years.
Angell died Friday at the age of 101 of congestive heart failure, his wife Margaret Moorman confirmed to the New York Times.
His love of the game spanning nearly a century, Angell was, in a sense, a representation of baseball’s history and evolution. He was 42 years old when he wrote “The Old Folks Behind Home,” the piece he filed for The New Yorker in 1962. By then, he’d graduated from Harvard University, served in the Air Force during World War II (during which he’d worked as the managing editor at a military magazine), and had spent a decade working at a travel magazine called Holiday before following his mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell White, and stepfather, E. B. White, to The New Yorker.
When the National Baseball Hall of Fame recognized Angell as the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2014, he became the first baseball writer to receive the accolade despite never having held membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Angell’s baseball writing was curious, passionate, and often an eerily faithful reflection of how it feels to watch the game and the players that bring it to life. He was an outsider, never beholden to the structure and limits of a traditional newspaper writing job, able to watch the game from the press box as he would have from the stands, doodling in his notebook about catcher positioning and other subtle but intrinsic elements of the game.
In 1980, Angell wrote of pitcher Bob Gibson:
“(W)ith 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 maneuver, 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.”
The game of baseball changed drastically throughout the course of Angell’s life, so much so as to become nearly unrecognizable to the lifelong fan as he watched Jacob deGrom’s Gibson-like brilliance for the Mets in his later years. But Angell’s writing hardly strayed into the nostalgic or wistful for the version of the game that he loved as a child and in the prime of his writing career.
Angell could not recall the first time he attended a live baseball game, as he wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Let Me Finish.”
“My father began taking me and my four-years-older sister to games at some point in the latter twenties, but no first-ever view of Babe Ruth or of the green barn of the Polo Grounds remains in mind,” he wrote. “We must have attended with some regularity, because I’m sure I saw the Babe and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs on more than one occasion. Mel Ott’s stumpty, cow-tail swing is still before me, and so are Gehrig’s thick calves and Ruth’s debutante ankles.”
He recalled an instance of seeing Ruth on the street in Manhattan, after the Babe had retired, wearing a camel-hair coat.
“How it felt to be a young baseball fan in the thirties can be appreciated only if I can bring back this lighter and fresher atmosphere,” Angell wrote in “Let Me Finish.”
“Attending a game meant a lot, to adults as well as to a boy, because it was the only way you could encounter athletes and watch what they did. There was no television, no instant replay, no evening highlights.”
Angell’s fascination with the athletes — the ballplayers — was the foundation of his baseball writing career.
“I collected great lines and great baseball talkers — lifetime .300 talkers — like a billionaire hunting down Cézannes and Matisses,” Angell said in his Spink Award acceptance speech. “I stalked these guys and buttered them up and got their flow into my notebooks and onto my tapes, and, in rivers, into the magazine.”
Angell was more versatile than a single-minded ballwriter, spending much of his career as the fiction editor at The New Yorker and championing and editing writer John Updike. He eventually split his time between his home in Manhattan and a home in Brooklin, Maine, where his mother and stepfather had lived.
Throughout his career, Angell published a series of five baseball essay anthologies, starting with “The Summer Game” in 1972. He often documented the game he loved at its best: Full of brilliant, passionate, creative minds. He covered Steve Blass’s career-ending yips and Gibson’s intimidating yet anguished persona, and wrote a book with David Cone in the dark days of his career. He didn’t shy away from the toughest personalities in the game — finding common ground with Ted Williams due to both having sons named John Henry — while delighting in his relationship with Dan Quisenberry, one of the game’s quintessential quirky relievers.
“My gratitude always goes back to baseball itself, which turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting, so easy-looking and so heart-breakingly difficult that it filled up my notebooks and seasons in a rush,” Angell said during his Hall of Fame speech. “A pastime indeed.”
(Photo from 2014: Mike Groll / Associated Press)