Nothing inspires me quite like great writing. Which makes Roger Angell my greatest inspiration.
Angell was a baseball fan who wrote brilliantly about the game he loved. The long-time editor and writer at The New Yorker died last Friday at the age of 101.
David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor since 1998, wrote, “No one lives forever, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that Roger had a good shot at it. Like the rest of us, he suffered pain and loss and doubt, but he usually kept the blues at bay, always looking forward; he kept writing, reading, memorizing new poems, forming new relationships.”
Mr. Angell was born early enough to see Babe Ruth play, and then see him walking around Manhattan “always wearing a camel coat.”
He also saw Shohei Ohtani, whose current prowess at the plate and on the mound evokes memories of Ruth. And he’s seen everything, and heard every baseball story, in between.
Mr. Angell grew up in a wonderfully intelligent and literary environment. His father, Ernest Angell, received a law degree from Harvard and eventually headed up the ACLU. His mother, a Bryn Mawr graduate, became The New Yorker’s first fiction editor. After divorcing Ernest, she married E. B. White, another founding contributor to the magazine. White also wrote “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.”
Mr. Angell joined The New Yorker staff in 1956, eventually heading up the fiction department. Or, as he used to say, “doing my mother’s job in my mother’s office.”
His career became so distinguished that he is the only person who has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2014, he received the Baseball Writers Association of America’s career excellence award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.
His baseball musings originally appeared as essays in The New Yorker and were later compiled into some of the best baseball books ever written. Sometimes considered baseball’s poet laureate, Mr. Angell instead considered himself a reporter. “The only thing different in my writing is that, almost from the beginning, I’ve been able to write about myself as well.”
A classic example is “The Web of the Game.” It’s the story of Mr. Angell attending a college baseball game during the 1981 major league baseball strike. Yale’s pitcher, future big-leaguer Ron Darling, pitched no-hit ball for 11 innings. His St. John’s counterpart, future big-leaguer Frank Viola, won the 1-0 game in 12 innings. But the beautiful twist is the 92-year-old gentleman sitting next to Mr. Angell: none other that the star of the 1912 World Series, Smoky Joe Wood. I’ve savored this piece each of the dozens of times I’ve read it.
Mr. Angell vividly described Willie Mays on the basepaths: “Seeing him drift across a base and then sink into full speed, I noticed all at once how much he resembles a marvelous skier in midturn down a steep pitch of fast powder. Nobody like him.”
Mr. Angell eloquently described the baseball itself: “Pick it up, and it instantly suggests its purpose; it is meant to be thrown a considerable distance — thrown hard and with precision…Feel the ball, turn it over in your hand; hold it across the seam or the other way, with the seam just to the side of your middle finger. Speculation stirs. You want to go outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody or, at the very least, watch somebody else throw it. The game has begun.”
He keenly observed the opening act of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, one of the best Series ever played: “Lonnie Smith, stepping into the lead-off at bat of the final game, leaned over and shook hands with the catcher, Brian Harper. Nobody had ever seen such a thing, but its meaning was eloquent: This has been something, hasn’t it?”
Perhaps the only World Series that topped 1991 was 1975. In his wonderful piece “Agincourt and After,” Mr. Angell chose to capture the true meaning of being a fan: “I am not enough of a social geographer to know if the faith of the Red Sox fan is deeper or hardier that that of a Reds rooter [although I secretly believe that it may be, because of his longer and more bitter disappointments down the years].
“What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about; this is what we come for. 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.
“Naivete — 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 haphazard flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”