Renowned writer Roger Angell turns 100

September 19th, 2020

Roger Angell had to play catch-up with an essential vital statistic.

“I counted birthdays up until 80 because that would be the turn of the century,” he said. “That seemed very old to me -- and that went by.”

Now’s a fitting time to resume the arithmetic. Angell, whose writing remains hugely popular, turned 100 on Saturday. He’ll celebrate in the manner that has become necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve got a couple of big Zooms coming up,” he said.

His wife, Peggy, will bake him a cake. “She does everything for me,” an appreciative Angell said. “No, I don’t,” Peggy said in the background with feigned annoyance.

Without prompting, baseball’s main man of letters dispensed his advice for longevity, as centenarians inevitably are asked to do.

“This is not something I aimed for; it just happened,” he said in an interview with earlier this week. “It’s just pure luck. Just take your meds and brush your teeth and do your stretching and get a whole lot of luck. That’s the way you do it.”

Among the pantheon of baseball writers, nobody has done it like Angell. In 2014, he won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, joining the ranks of accomplished writers who are honored at the Hall of Fame every year during induction weekend. He’s the only honoree who did not come from the ranks of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, since he never covered a baseball beat, worked as a featured columnist or functioned as a sports editor at a daily newspaper.

Growing up in New York City steeped Angell in the metropolis’ rich baseball culture. That background prepared him for the grand opportunity that arose in 1962. William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker magazine, approached Angell, his chief fiction editor, and assigned him to write feature stories about Spring Training in Florida. This coincided with the birth of the Mets, whose Everyman’s appeal negated their woeful performance.

As fiction editor, Angell worked with literary titans such as John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov and James Thurber. Angell eventually developed his own following with his Spring Training journals, postseason summaries and occasional in-depth features. He captured readers with his empathy (“There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us,” he famously wrote), his penchant for identifying with largely unapproachable athletes (two of his most remarkable pieces remain his profiles of the remote Bob Gibson and the mystifying Steve Blass) and his sheer enthusiasm (other story topics have ranged from the ball -- “Pick it up and it instantly suggests its purpose …” -- to the Hall, commonly known as the game’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where those enshrined “prove and sustain the elegance of our baseball dreams.”)

Angell’s baseball stories, most of which initially ran in The New Yorker, appear in six anthologies. That does not include his 2015 book “This Old Man,” which features a widely acclaimed eponymous piece on aging.

“I was just pursuing it on my own and trying to find out what was going on,” Angell said, describing his foray into baseball writing. “I got great pleasure out of the writing and I got great pleasure out of the games themselves. I was given this amazing amount of space in the magazine, a huge amount of wordage, which is long gone now. Nobody can do that. I was the luckiest guy in the world and I said it then -- and again and again -- it all happened at the right time for me. And players were not articulating things for themselves in their own blogs. They actually would talk if you could get them to talk. They were dying to talk if they trusted you.”

Angell continues to follow baseball on television. “I’ve been watching the Mets, which is not really very enjoyable,” he said dryly. He emphasized deep appreciation for the Mets’ broadcasting trio of Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. “They’re by far the best anywhere,” Angell said. “I enjoy their company.”

Angell’s views about the current state of baseball are mixed. He compared the populous Wild Card postseason round to “a lottery,” though he added, “I might get involved if a team I like gets into the World Series.”

Though Angell said, “I’m not a numbers guy,” he tried to sound diplomatic regarding the fresh wave of modern statistics. “Baseball is so hard, and the players are so great and so distant from us that this is a way to shorten the distance and to say, ‘We really know what’s going on,’” he said. “It may have its uses. It doesn’t appeal to me very much.”