Born September 19, 1920 in New York City, Roger Angell liked to say that between him and his father, Ernest Angell, born in 1889, they witnessed almost the entire history of Major League Baseball, founded in 1876. Despite A lifelong love for the game, Angell didn’t begin writing about baseball until 1962, when the New Yorker sent him on a mission to Florida to cover spring training. His final play on baseball was published on the New Yorker website in 2018; in total, his late-starting baseball writing career spanned 56 years.
Angell died Friday at the age of 101 from congestive heart failure, his wife Margaret Moorman confirmed to The New York Times.
His love of the game spanning almost a century, Angell was, in a sense, a representation of the history and evolution of baseball. He was 42 when he wrote “The old people behind the house“, the article he filed for The New Yorker in 1962. By then he was a graduate of Harvard University, had served in the Air Force during World War II (in during which he had worked as the editor of a military magazine), and had spent a decade working at a travel magazine called Holiday before following his mother, Sergeant Katharine Angell White, and stepfather, EB White, to the New Yorker.
When the National Baseball Hall of Fame recognized Angell as the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2014, he became the first baseball writer to receive this honor despite never having been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Angell’s writing about baseball was curious, passionate, and often an eerily faithful reflection of what it feels like to watch the game and the players who bring it to life. He was an outsider, never beholden to the structure and limitations of a traditional newspaper writing job, able to watch the game from the press box as he would have from the stands, scribbling in his notebook on receiver positioning and other subtle but intrinsic elements of the game.
In 1980, Angell wrote of pitcher Bob Gibson:
“(With Gibson throwing, you were always a bit distracted from home plate and the batter, because his delivery continued so wildly after the ball was released that you almost felt the pitch was incidental to the whole thing. Tracking sometimes suggested a far basketball move – a quick downward feint. His right leg, which was lifted and twisted to the right in the air when the ball was dropped (everything is pretty normal for a right-handed pitcher), now continued forward in a sudden lateral run, crossing his planted left leg, stepping over it, and he finished with a full running step towards the right field foul line, which twisted his body in the same direction so that he now had to follow the flight of the ball by looking over his right shoulder.Both of his arms were spinning in the air to help him keep his balance during this aerobatic manoeuvre, May s key to his crushing speed and stuff wasn’t the strength of his pitching arm – it was the powerful, driving thrust of his legs, culminating in that final extra step, which brought his right foot onto the sloping left side of the mound, with all the weight of his body slamming and writhing behind him.
The game of baseball changed dramatically during Angell’s lifetime, to the point of becoming almost unrecognizable to the lifelong fan as they watched Jacob deGrom’s brilliance for the Mets in his later years. But Angell’s writing hardly strayed into nostalgia or nostalgia for the version of the game he loved as a child and in the prime of his writing career.
Angell couldn’t remember the first time he saw a live baseball game, as he wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Let Me Finish.”
“My dad started taking my four-year-old sister to games at some point in the past twenty years, but no first sight of Babe Ruth or the green barn at the Polo Grounds sticks in my mind.” , he wrote. “We must have attended with some regularity, as I’m sure I’ve seen Babe and Lou Gehrig do back-to-back homers on more than one occasion. Mel Ott’s chunky cowtail swing is always in front of me, all like Gehrig’s thick calves and Ruth’s debutante ankles.
He recalled one instance when he saw Ruth on the street in Manhattan, after the baby had retired, wearing a camel hair coat.
“What it was like to be a young baseball fan in the thirties can only be appreciated if I can bring back that lighter, fresher vibe,” Angell wrote in “Let Me Finish.”
“Watching a game meant a lot to both adults and boys because it was the only way to meet athletes and see what they were doing. There was no television, no instant replays, no highlights of the evening.
Angell’s fascination with athletes – ballplayers – was the foundation of his career as a baseball writer.
“I collected great lines and great baseball speakers – .300 lifetime speakers – like a billionaire stalking Cezannes and Matisses,” Angell said in his Spink Award acceptance speech. “I tracked down these guys and buttered them up and put their feed in my notebooks and on my tapes, and, in the rivers, in the magazine.”
Angell was more versatile than a determined bullet-writer, spending much of his career as a fiction editor at The New Yorker and championing and editing writer John Updike. He eventually split his time between his home in Manhattan and a house in Brooklyn, Maine, where his mother and stepfather had lived.
Throughout his career, Angell published a series of five anthologies of baseball essays, beginning with “The Summer Game” in 1972. He often documented the game he loved best: full of wits. bright, passionate and creative. He covered the career-ending yelps of Steve Blass and the intimidating but angsty character of Gibson, and wrote a book with David Cone in the dark days of his career. He wasn’t shy about taking on the game’s toughest personalities – finding common ground with Ted Williams because the two had sons named John Henry – while reveling in his relationship with Dan Quisenberry, one quintessential eccentric relievers in the game.
“My gratitude always goes to baseball itself, which has proven so familiar and so surprising, so spacious and demanding, so easy to watch and so hard to break my heart that it has filled my notebooks and my seasons with looking forward,” Angell said during her Hall of Fame speech. “A hobby indeed.”
(2014 photo: Mike Groll/Associated Press)