Spink winner Angell covered baseball like no other
Writer for The New Yorker is first non-BBWAA member to win honor
COOPERSTOWN, NY -- Finally, the distinguished outsider has been affixed as part of baseball's firmament of stars. Roger Angell, graceful master of prose for The New Yorker for five decades and counting, was feted with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award "for meritorious contributions to baseball writing" on Saturday at Doubleday Field.
That honor -- the highest that can be bestowed upon a baseball writer -- was a triumph of ability and detached perspective over the unanimity of tradition. Angell is the first writer to win the Spink Award despite never having been a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, who vote on the award each year.
And if there's anybody that can appreciate that distinction, it's surely Angell, who spoke of his achievement at a media conference and again in a speech at the National Baseball Hall of Fame's award ceremony held at Doubleday Field. Angell said he felt "intense joy" to be in Cooperstown, and profoundly touched to be recognized by his peers.
Angell, writing later and longer than his peers, was free to take roundabout angles to the crux of his story, and he was able to give players a fuller voice to express themselves. But above all, Angell stood out for his reverence for the game and his simple, understated way with words.
His work came out in The New Yorker, a high-brow magazine that wasn't always interested in sports, and later found fuller life in books. Angell penned "The Summer Game," "Late Innings," "Once More Around the Park" and several other baseball tomes over the last 50 years.
Amazingly, Angell -- now 93 years old -- didn't start writing about baseball until he was 42. Angell's first baseball assignment came in 1962, from an editor who knew nothing about the game. Angell said that his editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn, didn't even know the definition of a simple term like double play, but his literary sensibility gave his writers ample room to find themselves.
"'We don't want to be sentimental, and we don't want tough-guy writing. It can be anything else,'" said Angell of Shawn's counsel. "'Whatever you want. Be yourself.' He knew enough to say that."
Angell took time to thank four of his editors at The New Yorker -- Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown and David Remnick -- for their patience and trust in the editorial process. Baseball was hardly a priority for the magazine, he said, but The New Yorker always gave him room to publish his best work.
"They gave me nothing but enormous amounts of space and time," said Angell of his editors at The New Yorker. "I remember Tina Brown, after her second or third year, she came to me one night and said, 'Oh Roger, I feel I understand your piece.' ... I said, 'No, you don't, Tina. But don't worry about it.'"
Angell, truth be told, was born for this role. His father, Ernest Angell, was an attorney, but his mother Katharine Sergeant Angell White, served as the first fiction editor at The New Yorker. His stepfather, E.B. White, is famous for authoring "Charlotte's Web" and co-authoring "The Elements of Style."
The scribe's writerly education, however, can be traced back largely to two men. Angell said that he read famed sports columnist Red Smith on a daily basis in his youth, and he was captivated by the way that Smith could both tell the story and also inject his own life and thoughts into the narrative.
Angell also gave special mention to noted American author John Updike, who penned one of the most famous baseball essays ever written. Updike's story, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," ran in The New Yorker in 1960 and provided an entry point for fans and non-fans alike to appreciate the game.
"The way he wrote that was about John Updike sitting in the stands at Fenway Park as a Red Sox fan watching Ted Williams' last home run," said Angell, simply describing the template for a revelatory form of narrative sportswriting. "In some way, I think that set the tone for what I did later on."
Angell's interview style won him admirers from all over the baseball world, including some of the game's most famously reticent players. Angell spoke Saturday about his relationship with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, which started out in a difficult place and slowly built to a touching friendship.
When he first went to Gibson's house for a story, said Angell, he was as frightened as he had ever been for any interview subject. But over a few days, Gibson opened up and entrusted Angell with the intimate details of his life, and time brought the two closer and closer together.
"Last night, at the second party, Bob Gibson was there," said Angell during his Hall of Fame press conference. "His wife Wendy came over and gave me a hug and said, 'God bless you.'"
Angell noted a few other remarkable stories in his career, citing the time he saw Frank Viola and Ron Darling face off against each other in an epic college game, and an article he wrote with Steve Blass after the pitcher had suddenly and mysteriously lost control of the strike zone.
But it was never just about the play on the field for Angell. Angell, free from the encumbrance of a nightly deadline, could dig deeper and explore the hidden sides of a player or a personality, and he could allow the athlete's unalloyed expressions of triumph and despair to speak for themselves.
Angell said that the beat writers in several cities were generally helpful to him, and they'd give him a Cliff's Notes version of which players had a good story and which players were a good quote. And over time, Angell developed a reputation as a man who could earn and reward a player's trust.
"I collected great minds and great baseball talkers," said Angell of his repertorial style. "Lifetime .300 talkers. Like a billionaire hunting down Cezannes and Matisses, I stalked these folks, would button them up and let them flow into my notebooks and out of my takes. And in rivers, into the magazine."
Angell, long one of the game's most eloquent fans and chroniclers, doesn't write as often as he used to in The New Yorker, but he's still full of inimitable observations about life and sports.
He recently penned a piece called "This Old Man," which discussed the mounting health problems of an aging man and his ruminations on his own mortality. Angell is still a master at analyzing the human condition, and he's thankful that baseball has given him a forum for his eloquence.
"My gratitude always goes back to baseball itself, which turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting," said Angell in a tribute to the game. "So easy-looking and so heatbreakingly difficult that it filled up my notebooks and the seasons in a rush. A pastime, indeed."