Your Favorite Baseball Writer’s Favorite Baseball Writer: Roger Angell (1920-2022)

© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Judging by the tributes that poured forth on the occasion of his death at the grand age of 101 years old on Friday, there’s a solid chance that Roger Angell — a man who bore first-hand witness to Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, and Mike Trout — was your favorite baseball writer’s favorite baseball writer, even though he was never a full-time baseball scribe at all. Unburdened by the daily deadlines of the beat reporter, the competition for scoops among the national writers, or (to use his term) the weight of objectivity, Angell instead mused at length in the pages of the New Yorker in a capacity that served as a sidelight to his longtime role as a fiction writer and editor. Though his frame of reference stretched so far back that he spotted Ruth walking around Manhattan as a child, and spoke of Napoleon Lajoie with his father, he didn’t take up writing about baseball until age 40. He reported, but with a twist: “I’m reporting about myself, as a fan as well as a baseball writer,” as he told Salon’s Steve Kettman in 2000.

With the luxuries of looser deadlines, greater space, and the ability to depart from sportswriting conventions, Angell filed eloquent and erudite essays a handful of times every season, writing about the year’s winners and losers, its superstars and promising newcomers, its sunsetting old-timers, and its zeitgeist as experienced from his vantage as a privileged outsider. Over the course of six decades that took him from man-in-the-seats dispatches to deep explorations of the game’s intricacies with its master craftsmen, he assembled a body of work — primarily collected in The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988), and Game Time (2003) but continuing as late as his 2015 collection, This Old Man: All in Pieces — that is unrivaled, revered, and beloved.

“I wanted to concentrate not just on the events down on the field but on their reception and results,” wrote Angell in the introduction to The Summer Game. “I wanted to pick up the feel of the game as it happened to the people around me. Right from the start, I was terribly lucky, because my first year or two in the seats behind first or third coincided with the birth and grotesque early sufferings of the Mets, which turned out to be the greatest fan story of all.”

In December 2013, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America honored Angell with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the honor that confers recognition at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a precedent-breaking win, for Angell is to date the only winner of the award (renamed in 2021 to the BBWAA Career Excellence Award) to have never been a member of the organization.

Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, who served as the BBWAA’s first female president in 2012-13, nominated Angell for the award via the Bay Area chapter after years of unsuccessfully lobbying the New York chapter to do so. Once he finally reached the ballot, he was elected by the organization’s members with 10 years of consecutive service in a landslide.

“He is the best baseball writer in terms of talent, insights, the turning of a phrase, everything,” Slusser told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci for a 2014 profile occasioned by the award. “I felt very strongly that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”

Angell’s sheer talent for putting words on a page was recognized and admired throughout the industry, not least by its heavyweights.

“Roger Angell is one of the reasons I wanted to be a baseball writer,” said The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, the 2019 Spink winner, on MLB Network upon learning of Angell’s death. “Baseball writer doesn’t even really describe him. Baseball poet, baseball thinker, too… the way he thought about the sport was different from everybody else. And when you read Roger Angell, you learned something, and you got spellbound by the way he could write it, the way he could put the words together, and the thoughts together. [He was] a true legend.”

“Over the last half-century nobody has written baseball better,” wrote Verducci in the aforementioned profile. “What he does with words, even today at 93, is what Mays did in centerfield and what Koufax did on the mound. His superior elegance and skill are obvious even to the untrained eye.”

“I was intimidated by genius I could never hope to equal,” wrote The Athletic’s Peter Gammons in 2020. Gammons, the 2004 Spink winner, was describing a panel from a dozen years earlier at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, where he joined Angell and John Updike. An actor read Updike’s 1960 classic about Ted Williams‘ final game, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” a much-celebrated New Yorker piece that served as the template for what Angell — who edited Updike’s fiction at the magazine — would do. Angell read “Agincourt and After,” his account of the 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and Reds, a piece often cited as his best. Gammons described himself as “the 10th inning pinch runner for the event” and quipped that the program “could have been subtitled ‘Mays, Williams and Ryan Flaherty.'”

Long before the award, Angell’s acceptance within the industry was a game-changer for baseball writing, for he was an outsider who opened up the doors to other unconventional voices. He was proto-blogging long before the age of the internet, walking the tightrope between reporting and fandom with assurance. Eventually, he inspired others to do the same.

Angell “made me work hard to discover my own voice and write like myself,” wrote Alex Belth in 2014. Belth, who first encountered Angell while working as an intern on Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, began Bronx Banter in 2002, an expansive blog about being a Yankees fan, and a venue that veered into music, movies, and other aspects of popular culture. A student of sportswriting history, Belth now works as a preservationist, sharing long-lost magazine articles for audiences at Bronx Banter and later The Daily Beast, Deadspin, Esquire Classic, and his own The Stacks Reader. One such piece was a 1992 interview of Angell by Jared Haynes for Writing on the Edge. Belth cited this answer from Angell as a key to his own journey:

I don’t try to be a literate sportswriter; I try to be myself. It’s as simple as that. Everybody’s got to find what their voice is. You’ve got to end up sounding like yourself if you’re going to write in a way that’s going to reward you when you’re done. If you end up sounding like somebody else, you’re not going to be any good. You won’t get anywhere. Readers are smart. They will pick up whether the tone is genuine or not. Tone is the ultimate thing writers have to think about. You could write on a given subject — a ball game or a national crisis or a family crisis — in twenty or thirty different ways. You only have to pick what you want people to make of this.

“Without Roger Angell, you aren’t reading this,” wrote Jason Fry of the Met-themed Faith and Fear in Flushing blog, founded in 2005. Angell “perfected the formula for what we do, and he did it before we were born.”

Without Roger Angell, you aren’t reading this, either. Starting when I was nine or 10 years old, my grandfather sent me boxes of dog-eared sports paperbacks culled from flea markets and library sales. Among them were Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Angell’s The Summer Game, two books that pushed me beyond the likes of All-Pro Baseball Stars 1979 and the pallid biographies of stars available at the Wasatch Elementary School library. To turn from one of those to The Summer Game was to advance from riding my orange Schwinn around the cul de sac at the end of our block to operating a time machine set for 1970, 1962, 1933. Like my grandfather Bernard Jaffe, who was born in Brooklyn in 1908 and who spent a good chunk of the first half of his life in New York City, Angell could recount watching Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs, and recall the swing of Mel Ott, the batting average of Babe Herman, the brawn of Jimmie Foxx, and the rage of Leo Durocher. The two old New Yorkers — one by that point a transplant to Walla Walla, Washington — brought ancient baseball history to life for a 10-year-old.

They continued to do so for the next two decades, though Angell soon outpaced my grandfather, his powers of observation growing increasingly keen as his volume of work accumulated while my grandfather’s own recollections faded and faculties waned. Angell and I both found inspiration and malleability regarding our allegiances in watching the Joe Torre-led Yankees; the venerable author particularly admired the well-worn manager’s extraordinary calm and humility (he often reminded slumping hitters of the day he grounded into four double plays) while occupying what had once been dubbed “The Bronx Zoo.” Sparked by the success and the feel-good stories surrounding the 1998 Bronx Bombers (including some closure for the long-exiled Bouton), and my disintegrating copies of Ball Four and The Summer Game (the latter of which additionally serves as a repository for a last letter from my grandfather about witnessing Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a story unto itself), I took a continuing-education class at the New School in New York City in November 1998, and began documenting my own decades as a fan. The decision sent me on my own winding and unconventional road to becoming a baseball writer, first as a hobbyist at my Futility Infielder blog (est. 2001) and then, thanks to a little dumb luck as it pertained to Hall of Fame coverage, as a professional.

While I’ve tried Angell’s man-in-the-seats vantage on for size at various turns, I’m no more able to write like the man than I am to break off a Koufax curveball. “There are two things that you quickly learn when you become a baseball writer,” wrote The Athletic’s Joe Posnanski last year. “First is that, almost without exception, pitchers don’t talk on the day they pitch… The second thing you learn is that you can’t write like Roger Angell no matter how hard you try.”

Angell was born in Manhattan on September 19, 1920. His father, Ernest Angell, was a Harvard-educated lawyer and former semipro pitcher who in 1950 became the national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union. His mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell, was a writer and the fiction editor for the New Yorker from 1925 (six months after its founding) into the late ’50s (sources vary as to her retirement). In 1929, after 16 years of marriage, she divorced her husband and married E.B. “Andy” White, a writer whose stories she had commissioned for the New Yorker, and one who would go on to greater fame as an essayist, author of children’s books (notably Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little), and modernizer (after the late William Strunk Jr.) of The Elements of Style. The divorce, preceded by infidelities by both parents, was bitter, and Angell’s father won joint custody, “a big mistake for everybody,” he said in 2016. “A mistake for my mother, mistake for my father, mistake for the children that my father should be the main day-to-day place where we lived, but we made the best of it.”

Angell and his father — who was born in 1889 in Cleveland, Ohio, and who remained a lifelong Indians fan — connected through baseball, attending games at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, reading box scores and recaps in the four daily newspapers the elder Angell brought home, and listening to games on the radio. The younger Angell recalled rushing home from school to listen to the 1933 World Series between the Senators and Giants, keeping score on one of his father’s yellow legal pads and then breaking down the action for him once he got home from work.

Yet it was his stepfather who served Angell as a role model. “I was entranced by Andy White,” he recalled in 2010. “The whole New Yorker life represented something that was not the serious, sad life I was seeing my father living at the time, and it was literary and it was fun.”

Angell graduated from Harvard in 1942 with a degree in English. He wrote for the Harvard Crimson newspaper, and spent a chunk of World War II on the writing and editing staff of Brief, the Seventh Air Force GI magazine. His first piece of fiction appeared in the New Yorker in 1944, but it was not until 1956, after a 10-year stint at Holiday magazine, that he joined the staff as a fiction editor. By this point, his mother was more or less retired; he took over editing several of her writers, and later moved into her corner office.

“Angell’s life-long familiarity with the magazine didn’t guarantee a place at the table,” wrote Joe Bonomo, author of No Place I Would Rather Be, a chronicle of Angell’s career as a baseball writer. “But it bred in him a longstanding love and respect for the enterprise, a professional admiration which translated into fierce commitment and loyalty, and resulted in a long, generous, and influential run as editor and contributor.” As editor, Angell worked with writers he inherited from his mother such as Updike, James Thurber, and Vladimir Nabokov. He gained a reputation as a nurturing mentor as he introduced Donald Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Garrison Keillor, Bobbie Ann Mason and others to the New Yorker’s audience, many of them after years of rejections. As he wrote to Beattie, “[T]here is nothing that gives me more pleasure (well, almost nothing) than at last sending an enthusiastic yes to a writer who has persisted through as many rejections and rebuffs as you have.”

Wanting more sports in the magazine, in 1962 New Yorker editor William Shawn told Angell, “Go down to spring training and see what you find.” Angell eavesdropped on “The Old Folks Behind Home” (as his article was titled), and wrote of the past-prime players he saw, including a portly Duke Snider and a fading Herb Score. He watched the fledgling Mets, in their first year of existence, beat the Yankees, the reigning World Series winners, but conceded: “The team is both too old and too young for sensible hopes.”

Angell gravitated to the so-lovable underdogs, and in doing so found his muse. Attending a game at the Polo Grounds, hearing a man blow a foghorn as a rallying cry while the Mets trailed 9-1, and overhearing a couple of fans arguing about the team’s woeful lineup in tones that reflected the sense of entitlement that typified the era’s Yankees fans (the team had won 20 of the previous 30 AL pennants), he experienced a shock of recognition:

Suddenly the Mets fans made sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river. This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try — antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me.

Angell was off and running. The Summer Game collected his first decade’s worth of essays, spanning his journey from the grandstands to the press boxes and locker rooms. He was just getting started, as he wrote in its introduction:

“How could I have guessed then that baseball, of all the team sports anywhere, should turn out to be so complex, so rich and various in structure and aesthetics and emotion, as to convince me, after ten years as a writer and forty years as a fan, that I have not yet come close to its heart?”

Angell would find its heart, and those of his readers again and again. In favorites such as “The Interior Stadium” (Feb. 20, 1971) and “The Web of the Game” (July 20, 1981), he mused on memory and history, talking to his father and to 1912 World Series hero Smoky Joe Wood, the latter while taking in an epic pitching duel between future major leaguers (and future teammates) Ron Darling of Yale and Frank Viola of St. John’s. Darling pitched no-hit ball through 11 innings but faltered in the 12th and wound up on the short end of the 1-0 final.

“Agincourt and After” (Nov. 17, 1975) is, for my money, the pinnacle of Angell’s work. As he himself wrote of the seven-game Fall Classic between the Red Sox and Reds, which featured six come-from-behind victories, any recapitulation and reexamination of Angell’s work “suggests at the very least we may conclude that there never has been a better one.” “Agincourt” (whose title is a nod to a draining, decisive battle from the Hundred Years’ War, won by the British in 1415) has everything one would have come to expect from his end-of-season roundups, its hellos and farewells — including one to Casey Stengel, who died that summer at the age of 85, and one to the A’s dynasty, which could not produce a fourth straight championship. Its breakdown of the various deliveries of Boston ace Luis Tiant may be one of the funniest passages he ever wrote:

(1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.

(2) Out of the Woodshed: Just before releasing the ball he steps over a raised sill and simultaneously ducks his head to avoid conking it on the low doorframe.

(3) The Runaway Taxi: Before the pivot, he sees a vehicle bearing down on him at top speed, and pulls back his entire upper body just in time to avoid a nasty accident.

(4) Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.

(5) The Slipper-Kick: In the midpitch, he surprisingly decides to get rid of his left shoe.

(6) The Low-Flying Plane (a subtle development and amalgam of 1, 3, and 4 above): While he is pivoting, an F-I05 buzzes the ball park, passing over the infield from the third-base to the first-base side at a height of eight feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes.

It is Angell’s passage regarding the aftermath of Game 6, won in the 12th inning by Carlton Fisk’s willed-fair home run off Fenway Park’s left field foul pole, that sticks with me. As he imagined all of his “absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends” celebrating that night, he wrote of the way that baseball binds us together.

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. Naïveté — 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.

My wife (baseball-writer-turned-Athletic-enterprise-editor Emma Span) and I both love that selection so much that we had it read at our wedding on April 18, 2015. Let the record show that neither of us could recall either of the other two readings without consulting our programs.

“‘Agincourt and After’ is the best bit of sportswriting of all time. It’s miraculous,” Slusser told FanGraphs. “How did a person produce that level of brilliance? I’m astonished and actually angry about it, it’s so perfect. 😆”

Yes, there’s awe and a touch of envy from even the most accomplished scribes when reading Angell. But more than that, there is aspiration, and optimism. We should all be so lucky to find that the game continues to stimulate our curiosity, our creativity, and our passion into our advanced years, as it did for Angell.

As he wrote in “The Interior Stadium,” the final essay of The Summer Game, “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 101 years, Roger Angell did as well at succeeding utterly, defeating time, and remaining forever young as any of us might hope to do.

For a selection of links to favorite Angell works and passages from a handful of writers, please see “A Roger Angell Companion.”

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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6 months ago

One of the better write-ups I’ve read about Angell – I was unfortunately unfamiliar with him until his passing, and I will be seeking out The Summer Game ASAP. That last excerpt you referenced is probably the most perfect capture of what it’s like to be a baseball fan.

6 months ago
Reply to  upwithscoots

You will not be disappointed.