Roger Angell, who wrote about baseball with eloquence and insight for more than a half-century, died on Friday of congestive heart failure, his wife Margaret Moorman told the New York Times. He was 101.
Like the great players he lionized, from Willie Mays to Derek Jeter, Angell was truly singular. In 2014, he became the first recipient of what is now known as the BBWAA Career Excellence Award who never covered a beat or wrote columns full-time for a daily newspaper. The honor "for meritorious contributions to baseball writing" is presented each year during the Hall of Fame induction weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., and recipients become part of the "Scribes & Mikemen" exhibit in the Hall's library.
Angell possessed astonishing mental acuity. At age 93, he wrote "This Old Man," a reflection on life after age 90 that was by turns amusing and sobering, sensitive and sensible. It won a prize for Essays and Criticism awarded by the American Society of Magazine Editors and became the title piece of his final book.
Angell's timing was perfect. Writing with a fan's passion and Shakespearean splendor, he achieved literary prominence in the 1970s, when Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine clubs and the intensifying of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry helped elevate the game's overall quality. Angell’s long-form pieces captured fans who appreciated deftly crafted, cliché-free perspectives of the game.
Most of Angell’s stories originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine, to which he first contributed in 1944 and where he became a fiction editor in 1956. He later rose to the title of chief fiction editor, working with the likes of John Updike and Garrison Keillor.
Angell simultaneously broadened his baseball audience. He published 11 books, including five anthologies of his works, between 1972-91: The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket and Once More Around the Park. Two of those books reached The New York Times' best-seller list: The Summer Game (1972) and Late Innings ('82).
Angell’s elevated prose prompted many well-intentioned book reviewers and literary critics to cite him as baseball’s “poet laureate” who wrote “essays” about the sport. He loathed both terms. Angell didn't sit in a Manhattan ivory tower, delivering grand pronouncements about baseball that were punctuated by the rap of a bat-shaped gavel. Like many baseball writers, Angell searched for fresh story angles at Spring Training, competed for (and often won) access to a particularly intriguing ballplayer, and placed the season in perspective following the World Series.
Two of Angell's finest compositions were revealing profiles of pitchers who led extremely private lives: Steve Blass and Bob Gibson. Employing his reporting and interviewing skills, Angell coaxed Blass into discussing the mystifying disappearance of his ability to throw strikes; Gibson, widely regarded as curt throughout his Hall of Fame career, invited the writer into his Omaha, Neb., home and spoke frankly about himself and the game he once dominated.
Angell earned an indelible stamp of approval in December 2013, when he won the Career Excellence Award election in voting among members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “I’m very, very happy,” Angell said. “I’m stunned. Very touched. Very grateful.”
Born in New York on Sept. 19, 1920, Roger Sergeant Angell had his intellectual curiosity nurtured by parents. Angell's father, Ernest, was president of the American Civil Liberties Union for 19 years. His mother, Katharine, joined The New Yorker’s staff in August 1925, six months after the magazine was founded. She became the magazine's first fiction editor. His stepfather was E.B. White, who authored “Charlotte's Web,” penned many unsigned "Notes and Comment" pieces for The New Yorker and edited "The Elements of Style," widely regarded as the bible of grammar and prose.
In an autobiographical chapter of "Birth of a Fan," Angell wrote, "In my early teens, I knew the Detroit Tigers' batting order and FDR's first cabinet, both by heart."
Angell served in the U.S. Army and worked at Holiday Magazine before migrating to The New Yorker. He began writing actively about baseball in 1962, when his first Spring Training feature, “The Old Folks behind Home,” appeared in The New Yorker. William Shawn, the magazine's editor at the time, wanted more sports-related content to complement the short stories, poetry, analysis pieces and movie reviews that typically filled the magazine. Angell, who grew up in New York and started following the Yankees and Giants during the 1930s, was happy to comply.
Angell demonstrated his perceptivity immediately. Explaining why the New York Mets, who compiled an abysmal 40-120 record in their inaugural 1962 season, prompted rabid fan enthusiasm that the perennial champion Yankees rarely inspired, he wrote, “There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.”
In his most famous passage, from his signature piece, "The Interior Stadium," Angell presented an impossible yet intoxicating notion: "Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young."
In his review of the 1975 World Series, Angell defended the loyalty of fans everywhere:
"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. ... 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 haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift."
Angell described great ballplayers in terms everyone could understand. For example, he relished Mays' baserunning: "... 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."
Sandy Koufax's pitching astounded Angell as much as the hitters the left-hander bedeviled. "...[T]he fastball, appearing suddenly in the strike zone, sometimes jumps up so immoderately that his catcher has to take it with his glove shooting upward, like an infielder stabbing at a bad-hop grounder. I remember some batter taking a strike like that and then stepping out of the box and staring back at the pitcher with a look of utter incredulity -- as if Koufax had just thrown an Easter egg past him."
Angell even profiled the ball itself to explain the game's appeal: "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 get outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody or, at the very least, watch somebody else throw it. The game has begun."
Angell summoned his powers of description to detail Jeter’s mannerisms as he settled into the batter’s box: “The between-pitches bat tucked up in his armpit. The fingertip helmet-twiddle. The left front foot wide open, out of the box until the last moment, and the cop-at-a-crossing right hand ritually lifted astern until the foot swings shut.”
Ever the fan’s voice, Angell didn't hide his sentiment if he favored a particular team. An example of this accented his coverage of the classic Red Sox-Yankees tiebreaker game for the 1978 AL East title, which New York captured, 5-4. The Red Sox had the potential tying run on third base when Carl Yastrzemski, Boston's hero of heroes, popped out to end the game. Angell's bitter conclusion read, "I think God was shelling a peanut."
Angell remained current with changing trends in writing, filing blog posts for The New Yorker into his final years. He is survived by his third wife, Margaret, and a son, John Henry.