Roger Angell, baseball writer, 1920-2022
Roger Angell, who died at 101, was not only baseball’s greatest and most lucid writer; a distinction for which there has long been fierce competition. He was also the personification of New Yorker magazine: literate, witty, and eccentric. He adorned its pages with his words and as an editor for almost 80 years, from his first short story, published in 1944, to his last essays on the life of old people.
He was born at the New York mansion. His mother was its first editor after he was born in 1925, a position he inherited 30 years later, working from the same office. Her stepfather was EB White, already a noted essayist on the publication. As a child, he memorized the captions of each cartoon.
Writing about baseball came later at the suggestion of William Shawn, the editor, who knew nothing about the game but understood its place in American life and its appeal to top American writers, like John Updike for begin. Much like cricket, it’s a contemplative sport, with long stretches of apparent inaction, though the wheels are still turning, until all hell breaks loose.
It suited Angell’s style. He liked to sit in the stands, with the paying public, rather than in the press box with his constant chatter. He also spoke endlessly with players and managers to better understand all the nuances.
His late-season essays became required reading, as did his acting profiles, like the intimidating St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson of the 1960s and 1970s. Angell made him admit in retirement that, yes, he pitched at batters, but only if they dared to lean into the plate. “The outside corner is mine and don’t forget it,” growled Gibson.
He painted exquisite verbal images of players in action. He compared the unique high kick delivery of another great pitcher, Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants, to “a huge and very dangerous farm tool.” But the balls Marichal threw, as Henry Aaron and Pete Rose told him, were the epitome of perfect control.
Angell was born September 19, 1920 in Manhattan to Ernest Angell, a lawyer, and Katharine Sergeant. After their divorce and marriage to White, he lived most of the time with his father, went to Harvard, like his father, and during World War II joined the army, where he was a magazine editor. Her first New York short story, “Three Ladies in the Morning”, was signed by Cpl Roger Angell.
He joined the magazine in the 1950s as a fiction editor, taking over his mother’s client list, which included Updike, James Thurber and Vladimir Nabokov, before developing his own; notably Ann Beattie, whom he encouraged, even sending her rejection letters for two years.
David Remnick, the current editor of The New Yorker, describe his editing style as “dedicated, open-minded and sometimes badass”. Angell himself said he was more of an “outside taker” than an “inside keeper”.
He also wrote for the gosippy Talk of the Town section and produced comedy pieces. Her spirit appeared in her annual internal holiday poems. One from 2008 was typically eclectic: “Through the winter lawn we’ll dance till dawn / With Sheryl Crow and Wally Shawn / J.Lo, Mo (the valiant Yankee) / Beyoncé and Ben Bernanke .
At the age of 93, he wrote an essay for The New Yorker, “This Old Man”, which became one of the most widely read articles in the magazine’s history. He was talking about macular degeneration, arterial stents and gnarled hands from arthritis, but he wasn’t desperate: “I think everyone wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the gentle warmth of a hip or a foot or a stretch of bare shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, no matter how old we are, never lose the desire.
Just before his second wife, Carol Rogge, died in 2012 after 48 years of marriage, she told him that “if you haven’t found someone else a year after I’m gone, I’ll come back to haunt you” . Two years later he married Margaret Moorman, who survived him with her adopted son John Henry from his second marriage.
I never met Angell but we shared a coincidence. In 1962, Shawn asked him what a double play was in baseball. Pleased with the response, he suggested Angell write about sports. Four years later, Gordon Newton, the editor of the FT, posed the same question to a young candidate for a junior overseas office job. He liked the answer and hired me. Thank you, Roger Angell.