It was a testament to Roger Angell’s deft writing versatility that he was the only member ever selected for both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The former is a shrine to Major League Baseball; the latter is described as an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers and writers.
As David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, the publication most closely associated with Angell, said it is a “unique distinction.” The HOF is strictly about the love of baseball. The Academy of Arts encompasses an expansive spectrum of achievement where Angell’s fellow members include Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Angell’s right where he belongs in both organizations.
When he died at the age of 101 in his Manhattan home on May 20, 2022, Angell left behind a legacy of stellar writing about both baseball and deeply personal life experiences which have nothing to do with the diamond.
Tom Verducci, a friend of Angell’s, wrote in Sports Illustrated, this appreciation: “Like Vivaldi, the works of Roger Angell endure but also grow in their majesty because time is the ally of genius.”
In the introduction to Angell’s Game Time, Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ford wrote, “There’s no writer I know whose writing on sports, and particularly baseball, is as anticipated, as often reread and passed from hand to hand by knowledgeable baseball enthusiasts as Angell’s is, or whose work is more routinely and delightedly read by those who really aren’t enthusiasts. Among the thirty selections in this volume are several individual essays…which can be counted in that extremely small group of sports articles that people talk over and quote for decades, and which have managed to make a lasting contribution to the larger body of American writing.”
Born September 19, 1920, Angell grew up in an elite literary environment. His mother, Katharine, was the first fiction editor of The New Yorker, and she brought her work home with her. Angell remembered her endlessly proofing copy — the magazine was “the main event of her life,” he said.
His father, Ernest, was a Wall Street lawyer who served as longtime President of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The marriage did not last: the two split up when Angell was eight.
Enter the second person of letters into Angell’s life. E. B. White, a frequent New Yorker contributor and author of classics like Charlotte’s Web, married Katharine immediately after her divorce.
White was a powerful influence, personally and professionally, on his new stepson. Angell learned the rudiments of writing from a real master.
In Let Me Finish, his jewel of a memoir, Angell had this to say about White’s writing habits: “Each Tuesday morning, he disappeared into his study after breakfast to write…a slow process, with many pauses between the brief thrashings of his Underwood. He was silent at lunch and quickly went back to his room to finish the piece before it went off to New York in the afternoon mailbag…’It’s no good,’ he often said morosely afterward. But when the issue turned up the next week the piece was good — unstrained and joyful, a snap to read. Writing almost killed you, and the hard part was making it look easy.”
After graduating from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in English and a stint in the Air Force, Angell eventually became employed as an editor at The New Yorker in 1956. Ironically, his office previously belonged to his mother. “It is the weirdest thing,” Angell remarked, “here I am doing my mother’s job in my mother’s office.”
Baseball writing landed in his lap in 1962 when he had a conversation with the magazine’s chief editor William Shawn about the components of a double play.
Angell had long been an ardent fan and had been on hand for some classic games by the local teams, the Yankees and Giants. Shawn suggested he head to Florida to discover if there was anything worth covering. It was like handing Napoleon a sword.
With no formal baseball writing experience, Angell set off for his first spring training. “Enthusiasm and interest took me out to the ballpark,” Angell wrote. “I never went out of a sense of duty or history. I was, in short, a fan. Unaffected by daily deadlines or the weight of objectivity, I have been free to write about whatever I found in the game that excited or absorbed or dismayed me….”
It turned out that thousands of readers were excited and absorbed by Angell’s baseball dispatches. He vividly brought the remarkable game and its participants alive: “The Mets’ catching is embarrassing. Choo Choo Coleman and Norm Sherry, the two receivers, are batting .215 and .119 respectively. Neither can throw, and Coleman, who is eager and combative, handles outside curve balls like a man fighting bees. He is quick on the base paths, but this is an attribute that is about as essential for catchers as neat handwriting.”
In 1972, these pieces were collected and published as The Summer Game. It was hailed as groundbreaking. Respected critics like Jonathan Yardley and Larry Merchant absolutely swooned: Merchant called it “one of those rare books that start being a lifelong friend immediately.”
Six more baseball books followed, all of equally high caliber. Then, in the last years of his life (Angell wrote until he was well into his 90s without discernible diminishment), he published two personal accounts, Let Me Finish and This Old Man, All in Pieces.
Both are 24-karat gold. Neither shy away from the infirmities of great age — as always, Angell wrote poetically, but not sentimentally.
Angell passed away peacefully in his New York residence, apparently with baseball still on his mind.
According to Tom Verducci, the last words Angell spoke were perfectly appropriate. As he was fading, he asked his wife about the Mets/Cardinals game that had been playing on their television. “Score. Check the score” were those words. Within 36 hours, he was gone.
Just as a reminder about the voice that has now been silenced, here’s what Angell wrote about the epic 1975 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox: “Tarry, delight so seldom met…. The games have ended, the heroes are dispersed, and another summer has died late in Boston, but still one yearns for them and wishes them back, so great was their pleasure. The adventures and discoveries and reversals of last month’s World Series, which was ultimately won by the Cincinnati Reds in the final inning of the seventh and final game, were of such brilliance and unlikelihood that, even as they happened, those of us who were there in the stands and those who were there on the field were driven again and again not just to cries of excitement but to exclamations of wonder about what we were watching and sharing.”