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Roger Angell Was Across the Game and of the Fans


Roger Angell helped me survive college midterms. Late at night, studying within the library at Vanderbilt University, I’d make a take care of myself: When these are over, if you’re settled into your seat for the flight home, Roger will take you back in time. I’d find The Recent Yorker archives, photocopy his year-end essay from a favourite childhood season, and wait to savor it. He never let me down.

Reading the masters like Angell, who died on Friday at age 101, made me wish to be a baseball author. He was a singular voice — curious, clever, cleareyed. Enduring, too: He was older than Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote, Stan Musial and Gil Hodges. There was comfort in knowing that Roger was still here.

“More sad than I believed I’d be,” Ron Darling, the Mets broadcaster and former pitcher, said in a phone interview on Saturday. “He was 101 years old, but I don’t know — you are feeling like baseball lost its Hemingway. That’s the way it feels.”

I knew Angell from his visits to Yankee Stadium, recent and old, on this century. He would sit on the dugout bench or within the press box, taking all of it in calmly, no oncoming deadline, no laptop with countless distractions. He was all the time pleased to speak, but all the time watching.

His notes, as I recall, would sometimes be doodles of a player’s swing or pitching motion. He had a knack for describing movement in colourful, relatable ways no person else could conjure.

Here’s Angell in 1985 on Dan Quisenberry, the right-handed relief ace of the Kansas City Royals, whose best pitch looked harmless: “His ball in flight suggests the kiddie-ride concession at a rustic fairgrounds — all swoops and swerves but nothing there to make a mother nervous; in the event you’re standing near it, your first response is a smile.”

And here he’s, nearly a quarter-century later, on Chase Utley, a Philadelphia Phillies second baseman with surprising power from the left side: “Utley, who has slicked-back, Jake Gittes hair, possesses a fast bat and a really short home-run stroke; he looks like a person in an A.T.M. reaching for his money.”

That was in Angell’s dispatch in 2009 from that yr’s World Series, an event he first attended in 1941 as a student at Harvard. He had gone to Philadelphia with friends for the Harvard/Penn football game, he told me, and stopped at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn on the way in which back.

For all of the history he saw and chronicled, Angell didn’t receive the writers’ award on the Hall of Fame until 2014. The Recent York chapter of the writers’ association had never nominated him — Angell was a magazine guy, the considering went, so he had not earned it by slogging his way through the every day grind, season after season.

It took Susan Slusser, a longtime author for the San Francisco Chronicle, to correct the oversight by nominating Angell through the Bay Area chapter. He sailed to a straightforward victory and got his day in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“There’s no person, in my mind, who’s ever challenged him as the best sportswriter of all time, and actually one among the best writers of all time,” Slusser said over the weekend. “He wrote loads of things that weren’t sports that were equally elegant and excellent. It actually makes me indignant sometimes: His writing was so beautiful and precise and evocative that you’re thinking that, how does a human have this type of ability? But you may’t be jealous of Beethoven or Shakespeare. It’s just beyond what most persons are able to.”

Angell’s writing skill could carry any piece, but he was also a unprecedented interviewer — which, in fact, made his writing that far more powerful. When Angell visited the Yankees within the early 2000s, Joe Torre, the team’s manager, would remind the beat writers of why he respected Angell so deeply. No one, Torre said, had captured the essence of his proud but wary friend, Bob Gibson, the way in which Angell did in a 1980 profile.

Angell visited Gibson at his home in Omaha; they swam in his pool, admired Gibson’s model train collection, talked about baseball and race and life. Gibson, retired only five years, looked as if it would Angell to be trying to find a purpose. He seemed sad.

“No, I’m not sad,” Gibson told Angell. “I just think I’ve been spoiled. While you’ve been an athlete, there’s no place so that you can go. You’re much harder to please. But where I’m immediately is where the common person has been all along. I’m like thousands and thousands of others now, and I’m checking out what that’s like. I don’t think the bizarre person ever gets to do anything they enjoy nearly as much as I enjoyed playing ball.”

Angell’s famous 1981 essay, “The Web of the Game,” embodied the old Branch Rickey line about luck being the residue of design. Angell took Smoky Joe Wood, then 91 years old and living in Connecticut, to a close-by college game between Yale and St. John’s. It turned out to be a classic; Darling, pitching for Yale against one other future star, Frank Viola, took a no-hitter into the twelfth inning and lost, 1-0.

Darling treasured the connection and have become friends with Angell. If his broadcasting duties took him to Yankee Stadium, Darling would drive to Angell’s home at ninetieth and Madison and produce him along. Angell shared something powerful with baseball lifers like Darling: a reverence for the sport because it is, without some form of mystical, deeper meaning. He understood that players were grown-ups who just happened to carry fascinating jobs.

“He jogged my memory of Bartlett Giamatti, just the purest type of fandom — loved the sport, loved players,” Darling said, referring to the previous Major League Baseball commissioner and Yale president. “Only a few persons are like that. They may just like the game, but they’ll criticize it. They might just like the players, but they rip them for a way much they’re making. There’s plenty of other ways of being a fan, and he and Bartlett were fans of the aesthetic and fantastic thing about what baseball is at its best, at its core.”

Angell was not a gauzy romantic — he hated “Field of Dreams” — but he saw enough baseball to know when something seemed off. The last time I spoke with him, on the phone last spring, he mentioned that his eyesight was failing but that he still tuned in every day to the games. One recent wrinkle appalled him: the runner placed on second base to start each extra inning.

“It violates every thing in baseball,” Angell said. “You place a runner on second who hasn’t earned it, you’re attempting to shorten the sport. Every effort now could be to shorten the sport as a substitute of letting it go on. The person on second is the primary in baseball history to never earn what he got.”

In baseball, I agreed, there should all the time be a how and a why.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “There’s an accounting for each space. It balances, as we all know. That’s one among the fascinating, great things in regards to the game. It balances so evenly and has so many astounding events in the midst of it.”

Yet beyond all of the games, Angell held a special fondness for his essays on fans. He told me that he all the time thought he knew less about baseball than the regular writers, so he pushed himself to seek out different sorts of stories. His writing conveyed each intimacy with the game and detachment from its conventions.

His favorite piece, I believed, was telling.

“I feel the story I loved most was the one a couple of semipro pitcher and his girlfriend in Vermont, called ‘In The Country,’ in 1981 — Ron Goble and his girlfriend who was a poet,” Angell said. “She wrote to me once they were out in Montana playing ball; I went to see them in Vermont and spent plenty of time in Burlington and different places, watching these weird games in the course of the baseball strike when the players had local businesses’ names on their back on their uniforms.”

Roger Angell was across the game, across the press box, and we were all higher for it. But he was all the time of the fans.

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