Ever since Roger Angell passed last week, friends have been e-mailing about how great he was, and asking how well I knew him.
Let me say, he was grand company in a pressbox watching a game. I always thought he seemed liberated by his mid-life discovery, his strange hobby, writing about baseball.
It began as his left-brain, right-brain activity, when he wasn’t editing temperamental fiction writers or conducting in-house business at the New Yorker or dealing with the vicissitudes of life. He enjoyed the hell out of this other world, and it showed.
He also loved paddling his kayak or sailing along the Maine coast when he wasn’t writing about Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson or the baseball denizens of the Pink Poodle, his hangout in Arizona during spring training, or editing what any sportswriter would respectfully call “real writers.”
Now and then, he would pop into Yankee Stadium or the Mets’ ballpark, without the weary pack-mule trudge of the beat writer or old-fashioned sports columnist (been there, done that) lugging a laptop, expected to produce profundity on deadline, halfway through the season, 81 up, 81 to go, plus the endless autumn trek.
As we all said in our alibis for why we were not Roger Angell: we had deadlines.
While we were pecking away, he could hang back and chat up a ball player who grasped that this older guy knew the game and was not looking for a few quick quotes. I admired the working friendship he developed with, let’s say, Dan Quisenberry, a submarine-style relief pitcher with the Kansas City Royals, who was cool enough to explain his technique.
Roger also took seriously the first female writers in the press box and – gasp – the locker room, who were professionals, just like men, if you can imagine.
So, how well did I know him? I got off to a dumb-ass start. It must have been 1968 when I sat next to a guy near 50 and we introduced ourselves and he said something about “New York” and I thought he meant the new weekly magazine so I wished him luck with the new publication. To his credit, he did not correct me, nor did he back away from this dolt.
Later I deduced that he wrote for the New Yorker and began subscribing, not just for his occasional baseball pieces but for the great eclectic literacy of the magazine. I still subscribe to the New Yorker in the age of Editor David Remnick – a great guy who started as a daily sportswriter, for goodness’ sakes. The arrival of the New Yorker—the print version – is a highlight of this pensioner’s life.
Did I learn anything from Roger Angell? The best part was the way he thought independently and observed the sub-marginal things and had the time and space and license to elaborate. Plus, he had talent -- could play with themes and details, knowing exactly what he was doing.
He was a model, but then again, in our collective world, no journalist should lack for models. My parents were journalists and I came along in the pioneer Newsday sports department in the 60s, with crusty old editors and the new breed of chattering younger types, known as Chipmunks.
And then there were books that made me want to write longer and better. In the early 60s, I sought out “Bull Fever” by Kenneth Tynan, a London drama critic who roamed to the corridas of Spain, or “Cars at Speed,” by Robert Daley (son of the noted Times columnist, Arthur Daley), who had bolted to Europe to write about the Grand Prix – and life in the old world – and ignited my wanderlust.
In the same period, I read “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” by Harry Caudill, a lawyer from an old Kentucky family, whose lament for the defaced mountains made me want to go to Appalachia and see what was left.
So many great writers, out and about, dealing with current issues, from their heart, from their eyes, from their brains, writing at entertaining length.
Over the decades, I was always happy to spot Roger Angell in the press box. I cannot remember what we talked about, but it was fun.
When I retired at the end of 2011, I kept up by phone when I particularly loved something he had written, and I called when he had a death in the family.
When my wife and I started visiting her elderly uncle in coastal Maine, I called to tell Roger how much we loved his other world. My wife says I should have told him that some Angells popped up in her sprawling family tree from New England in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Finally, a confession: Every year, readers would look for Roger’s annual Christmas poem, hailing and pairing people with exotic and yet topical names.
For decades, every December, I scanned the poem for my name, but it never appeared. I never told him how sad I was.
Other than that, Roger Angell was, just as you imagined, great company as well as great reading.
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In case you missed:
Obit by Dwight Garner:
Tyler Kepner’s appreciation:
And a labor-of-love sampling of Roger’s work, from Lonnie Shalton, lawyer in Kansas City and a true lover of baseball:
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.