The great New Yorker essayist and baseball companion has passed at 101. The Elysian Fields gains an incomparable baseball companion but the works he left for us continue to instruct, delight, resonate, and embrace. I can do no better now than to re-publish the tribute I wrote upon his centenary in September 2020.
“Since baseball time is measured only in outs,” Roger Angell once wrote, “all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Perhaps a man whose last known published anthology is called This Old Man can’t be called forever young.
At age one hundred as of today, Angell himself can be called forever. Six anthologies of his singular New Yorker baseball writings, plus his unlikely election to the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, places him there.
“Unlikely?” you say. It was, until Susan Slusser—the San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, when she was president of the Baseball Writers Association of America—made it her personal mission to get Angell elected despite the fact that he’d never held down a daily baseball beat in any newspaper and was never a BBWAA member. “I felt very strongly,” Slusser once said, “that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”
Angell was inducted the same year as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas among players; Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre among managers; and, the Texas Rangers’s Eric Nadel as the Ford C. Frick Award-winning baseball broadcaster. “J.G. Taylor Spink,” Angell said, beginning his induction speech, “this was one of that early fun of tingling baseball names that rushed over me when I was a boy and first began reading about and hearing about baseball.”
As I wrote elsewhere last February, Slusser knew the often-forgotten parallel between baseball and its writing: a winning team must have at least one man who hits for distance. Angell’s distance hitting since 1962 has been as instructive and as much fun as this year’s Slam Diego Padres have been hitting for distance with the pillows occupied.
This son of Katherine Sergeant Angell—New Yorker fiction editor, who birthed her son nine days before Eddie Cicotte broke the Black Sox silence with his grand jury confession, and nine years before she would re-marry to New Yorker literary legend E.B. White—even hit for distance describing hits for distance. He hit a hefty belt of his own in 1975 when describing the first spring training encounter between a freshly-minted Met outfielder named Dave Kingman and a freshly-minted Yankee pitcher named Catfish Hunter.
Now, with one out in the top of the second, Dave Kingman stood in for the Mets, occasioning a small hum of interest because of his height, which is six feet six inches, and his batting style, which is righthanded, tilted, and uppercutting. The hum was replaced by an explosion of sustained shouting as Kingman came around on a high Hunter changeup, caught all of the ball—every inch and ounce of it—with his bat, and drove it out of the park and out of the lights in a gigantic parabola, whose second, descendant half was not yet perceptible when the ball flew into the darkness, departing the premises about five feet inside the left field foul line and about three palm trees high. I have never seen a longer home run anywhere.
. . . The Yankees were still talking about the home run the next day, when Hunter told Ron Blomberg he hoped he hadn’t hurt his neck out there in left field watching the ball depart. Others took it up, rookies and writers and regulars, redescribing and amplifying it, already making it a legend, and it occurred to me that the real effect of the blast, except for the memory and the joy of it, might be to speed Catfish Hunter’s acceptance by his new teammates. There is nothing like a little public humiliation to make a three-and-a-half-million-dollar executive lovable.
The Mets inadvertently launched Angell’s baseball odyssey in the spring of their birth. New Yorker editor William Shawn—in what was surely the single most unlikely but unimpeachable moment of American inspiration since Benjamin Franklin took whomever up on the admonishment to go fly a kite—sent Angell to spring training to see what he might find. The man who succeeded his mother as the magazine’s fiction editor assented.
“[I]t was clear to me,” he wrote introducing his first anthology, The Summer Game, “that the doings of big-league baseball . . . were so enormously reported in the newspapers that I would have to find some other aspect of the game to study.”
I decided to sit in the stands . . . and watch the baseball from there . . . 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.
The odyssey since has seen Angell ease naturally, intelligently, and empathetically, from merely a fan among fans with a notebook and pen in his hand to an observer of particularly acute insight, especially when it came to reminding his readers that, when all is said and perhaps too much done, the men who play the game are only too human, just publicly so. Few essays published in my lifetime remind you so humanely as “Gone for Good,” his June 1975 observation (including time spent with the man) of pitcher Steve Blass’s unexpected and un-repairable collapse.
Like anyone in hard straits, he was deluged with unsolicited therapies, overnight cures, natruopathies, exorcisms, theologies, and amulets, many of which arrived by mail. Blass refuses to make jokes about these nostrums. “Anyone who takes the trouble to write a man who is suffering deserves to be thanked,” he told me . . .
“There’s one possibility nobody has brought up,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever said that maybe I just lost my control. Maybe your control is something that can just go. It’s no big thing, but suddenly it’s gone.” He paused, and then he laughed in a self-deprecating way. “Maybe that’s what I’d like to believe,” he said.
Angell never had to come right out and say that Joe and Jane Fan, huffing, puffing, and threatening to blow down the house of a player who’s just failed dramatically, don’t get it. He’s never forgotten that even the greatest of the greats have their moments of mere humanity on the field, that the one thing a multi-millionaire player has in common with the guy just up from the minors is that, at any moment, he can look anywhere from silly to incompetent no matter what he’s done before or might do after.
Or, if a manager, he’ll stop thinking, perhaps allow sentiment and affection to supercede baseball’s immediate or coming need, and have to live with the disaster thus inflicted upon him. You may demur from the late John McNamara’s keeping creaky Bill Buckner at first base, instead of sending normal late replacement Dave Stapleton out, for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 World Series. But McNamara’s widow is also right to insist his entire baseball life shouldn’t be judged by one lapse in baseball judgment. (“We lost Game Six,” McNamara has also said, “but [the Mets] won Game Seven.”)
Angell empathised with those such as the Mets who were born in purgatory and fought their way to the Promised Land in eight years; with craftsmen such as Bob Gibson, artists such as Sandy Koufax, and such little engines that could as the 1985 Royals, the 1990 Reds, and the 2002 Angels; and, with a breed gradually more rare as time and the professional game went forward—an owner who genuinely loved the game, longtime Giants owner Horace Stoneham:
He is shy, self-effacing, and apparently incapable of public attitudinising. He attends every home game but is seldom recognised, even by the hoariest Giants fans. His decisions are arrived at after due consideration, and the most common criticism levelled at him is that he often sticks with a losing manager or an elder player long after his usefulness to the club has been exhausted . . .
. . . [W]hen I read that the San Francisco Giants were up for sale, it suddenly came to me that the baseball magnate I really wanted to spend an afternoon with was Horace Stoneham. I got on the telephone to some friends of mine and his (I had never met him) and explained that I did not want to discuss attendance figures or sales prices with him but just wanted to talk baseball. Stoneham called me back in less than an hour. “Come on out,” he said in a cheerfully, gravelly, Polo Grounds sort of voice. “Come out, and we’ll go to the game together.”
“Baseball is mostly about losing,” Angell said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “These fabled winners here in the Hall are proud men. Pride is what drives every player, but every one of them knows or knew the pain of loss, the days and weeks when you’re beat up and worn down, and another season is about to slip away.” When Angell laboured to profile Gibson himself (“Distance,” republished in Late Innings), a pitcher whose pride was second to almost none, Angel would remember to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, near his Hall induction, that he was terrified.
Gibby brings me to his house and he gives me a swimsuit, and we’re sitting by the side of his pool, and for three or four days I’m with him all the time. And he’s telling me every single thing I want to know. When the piece was finished, he sent me a picture of himself and wrote, ‘The world needs more people like you’.”
Angell wanted and got to spend an afternoon talking baseball with Horace Stoneham? I’d still like to spend an afternoon or evening talking baseball with Angell. With a promise not to call him baseball’s prose poet laureate (a description he’s known to despise), with the quiet prayer that Angell would answer mere me as Stoneham once answered him. The coronavirus world tour makes that impossible for now.
At least his baseball anthologies—The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, and Game Time—continue living up to their customary subtitles: A Baseball Companion. He’s been that, in the permanence of print and the timelessness of lyric prose, at minimum. They’re the next best thing to sharing a seat at the ballpark with him.
Like the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, Angell grew up in New York as a Giants fan. Maybe there was something to those Giants, after all, beyond the sixteen pennants and five World Series championships they won while playing in northern Manhattan. Their old rooters included baseball’s future Cicero and Homer. Except that we know better: Cicero was ancient Rome’s Vin Scully, and—I say once more, with no apology, in wishing him a very happy centenary—Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell.