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Paying Tribute To Roger Angell, A True Baseball Legend

Karen Green

By Russ Walsh

Roger Angell, the Hall of Fame writer who many consider the best of all baseball essayists, died on May 20 at the age of 101. As a boy, Angell was in the stands at Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth hit. As a writer, Angell was there for shortstop Derek Jeter’s final game. Angell’s longevity with the game, his passion for the game, and his elegant, witty chronicling of the game are simply without peer.

For me, no baseball season was complete until I read Angell’s long recap of the season in The New Yorker each fall. Angell’s secret, besides the fact that he was a very elegant writer, was, I think, that he did not approach his work as if he were a sportswriter, but more as if he were a fan sharing his observations. This may be because he was a fan for 30 years before he ever started writing about baseball in 1962. 

Before and after that time, he was a fiction editor for The New Yorker, shepherding the work of writers like Garrison Keillor, Ann Beattie, and Donald Barthelme. Angell also wrote short stories and New Yorker pieces on a wide range of topics, but it is for his baseball writing he will be best remembered.

A lifelong New Yorker, Angell grew up a New York Giants fan. He once described the great Giants center fielder Willie Mays as “running so hard and so far, that the ball itself seems to stop in the air and wait for him.” 

When the Giants left town for San Francisco in 1958, Angell switched allegiance to the New York Yankees and later the New York Mets. His first baseball assignment was to cover the Mets’ very first Spring Training in 1962. Angell fell in love with the hapless Mets. He took his 14-year-old daughter to a Dodgers/Mets game at the Polo Grounds that season.

I was keeping score and after I jotted down the symbols for their seven singles, two doubles, one triple, three home runs, three bases on balls and two stolen bases … the Dodgers half of my scorecard looked as if a cloud of gnats had settled on it. I was pained for the Mets and embarrassed as a fan.”
“Baseball isn’t usually like this,” I explained to my daughter.
“Sometimes it is,” she replied. “This is like the sixth grade versus the fifth grade at school.”

Covering the Mets in those days required a great sense of humor, of course, and Angell had an abundance of wit. Here he is describing the 1962 Mets’ catchers.

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 a curveball like a man fighting bees. He is quick on the basepaths, but that is an attribute that is about as essential for catchers as neat handwriting.

If writing is like painting pictures with words, no one ever did it better than Angell. Here he is describing the pitching motion of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee during the 2009 World Series.

He throws with an elegant flail, hiding the ball behind his hip or knee and producing it from behind his left shoulder, already in full delivery. His finish brings his left leg up astern like a semaphore, while his arm swings back across his waist. This columnar closing posture -- he’s not twisted off to one side, like other pitchers, but driving forward, with the back leg still aloft, as his eyes follow the pitch -- is classic and reminded me strongly of some fabled pitcher from my boyhood.

Here is Angell’s take on the swing of the Phillies’ Chase Utley, who in 2009 had become the first left-handed hitter since Babe Ruth to hit two home runs off a left-handed pitcher (CC Sabathia) in a World Series game.

Utley, who has slicked-back, Jake Gittes hair, possesses a quick bat and a very short home-run stroke; he looks like a man in an A.T.M. reaching for his cash.

For all his longevity as both a fan and a writer about the game, Angell was not a sentimentalist. 

“The stuff about the connection between baseball and American life, the ‘Field of Dreams’ thing, gives me a pain,” he once said. 

He was open to change in the game, realizing the game needed to evolve as the times changed. In the preface to his 2002 book Game Time, Angell wrote, “When I was covering this long run of memorable or trifling moments and innings, it never occurred to me that I was putting down history or looking for something to say about the American psyche. It was about the games and the players and how I felt, watching.”

I mentioned Angell’s book Game Time above. His other collections of essays about baseball I would recommend include The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, and Season Ticket. For a great example of the Angell style, I would recommend his New Yorker profile of former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, Bob Gibson, which can be found here.

In The Summer Game, Angell summed up baseball’s appeal this way.

Baseball's clock ticks inwardly and silently, and a man absorbed in a ball game is caught in a slow, green place of removal and concentration and in a tension that is screwed up slowly and ever more tightly with each pitcher's windup and with the almost imperceptible forward lean and little half-step with which the fielders accompany each pitch. Whatever the pace of the particular baseball game we are watching, whatever its outcome, it holds us in its own continuum and mercifully releases us from our own.

The game of baseball, more than any other sport, has long attracted great writing and great writers. Roger Angell was, perhaps, the best of them all.

Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, diehard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1.

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