Roger Angell, Revered Baseball Essayist, Dies at 101

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Roger Angell, who turned a 1962 spring training assignment for The New Yorker into an elegant baseball writing career that landed him on the steps of Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame, died Friday. He was 101.

Angell died at his home in Manhattan, New Yorker editor David Remnick announced.

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In 1956, Angell essentially replaced his mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell, as a writer and editor for The New Yorker, where he contributed stories, movie reviews and an annual Christmas poem titled “Greetings, Friends!” As a fiction editor, he worked with a variety of noted writers that included Woody Allen and John Updike.

But it was a casual suggestion by editor-in-chief William Shawn that launched Angell’s career as the most distinguished baseball writer of his generation. When Shawn dispatched him to St. Petersburg, Florida, to chronicle the inaugural spring training camp of the New York Mets, Angell turned in “The Old Folks Behind Home,” a story that took the perspective of the elderly fans watching from the bleachers.

That article was the first in a steady stream of baseball stories Angell would contribute to The New Yorker each year, including a piece on a Mets game at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan in 1963.

“The Polo Grounds, which is in the last few months of its disreputable life, is a vast assemblage of front stoops and rusty fire escapes,” he wrote. “On a hot summer evening, everyone around here is touching someone else; there are no strangers, no one is private. The air is alive with shouts, gossip, flying rubbish.”

Whether he was writing about baseball in general or stars like Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax in particular, Angell’s prose was notable for its sophistication and wit. In 1972, the first 10 years of Angell’s baseball articles for the magazine were collected in The Summer Game, the first of several books published as compilations of his baseball works.

In reviewing The Summer Game, Ted Solotaroff of The New York Times Book Review wrote, “Page for page, The Summer Game contains not only the classiest but also the most resourceful baseball writing I have ever read.”

In 2001, at the age of 80, Angell authored A Pitcher’s Story, a profile of Cy Young Award winner David Cone and a probing examination of the art of pitching in the major leagues.

Angell’s observations on America’s pastime were prominently featured throughout Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary Baseball, and in 2011, he was the first recipient of the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing.

Two years later, he became the 64th writer — but the first non-newspaper scribe — to win the annual J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the journalistic equivalent of achieving a player’s plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

At his 2014 induction in Cooperstown, Angell thanked his editors at The New Yorker for giving him the time and freedom to avoid deadline pressure and delve more deeply and authoritatively into the game he cherished.

“I collected great minds and great baseball talkers,” Angell said. “Lifetime .300 talkers. Like a billionaire hunting down Cezannes and Matisses, I stalked these folks, would button them up and let them flow into my notebooks and out of my takes. And in rivers, into the magazine.”

One of his New Yorker articles served as the basis for Michael Ritchie’s The Scout (1994), starring Albert Brooks and Brendan Fraser.

Angell was born in New York on Sept. 19, 1920, the son of Ernest Angell, an attorney who became the leader of the American Civil Liberties Union. His mother, who left her husband for New Yorker colleague E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and co-author of The Elements of Style), was the magazine’s first fiction editor.

Angell grew up an avid fan of the New York Giants and Yankees while living with his father on the Upper East Side. He was a voracious reader who often escaped to the movie theater as a child.

“The movies taught me a great deal about storytelling and drama,” he told New York magazine in 2006. “I’m a big believer in popular culture. I know people who say they don’t have a television. You better belong to the times that you’re in.”

After graduating from Pomfret boarding school in Connecticut in 1938, Angell attended Harvard University and served in the Air Force during World War II. In 1948, he worked for Holiday magazine, which featured literary writers focusing on travel.

At the ballpark, Angell had a different agenda than other writers in the press box, those who were required to file quickly within strict length guidelines. He took pride in seeking out the hidden stories that were more complex and, ultimately, more rewarding.

“Writing is hard,” he told NPR in 2015. “Writing is hard for everybody, and I mistrust writers who find it easy.”

Angell became an avid sportsman in his adopted hometown of Brooklin, Maine, where he could often be found sailing his sloop off the coast. He had a plot in the Brooklin Cemetery, where his mother, stepfather and half-brother are buried.

Angell was married three times and has one surviving child, son John Henry Angell. Callie Angell, a daughter who was considered an authority on the films of Andy Warhol, committed suicide in 2010. Another daughter, Alice Angell, died of cancer in February 2019.

Angell said he was fascinated with the physical and emotional tolls baseball exacts on those who play it at the highest level. “Baseball is not a good guy,” he wrote. “Baseball is judgmental, a tough dad.”

In his 2015 book, This Old Man, he described the ravages of age.

“The lower-middle section of my spine twists and jobs like a Connecticut road, thanks to a herniated disc seven or eight years ago,” he wrote. “This has cost me two or three inches of height, transforming me from Gary Cooper to Geppetto.”

After the Kansas City Royals beat his beloved Mets in five games in the 2015 World Series, Angell confessed his love affair with the summer game.

“Baseball breaks your heart, as [former baseball commissioner] Bart Giamatti kept telling us,” he wrote in The New Yorker. “It breaks your heart, but it doesn’t tell you what to do with the pieces.”

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife, Peggy, whom he married in 2014; stepdaughter Emma; and a brother, sister and three granddaughters. His second wife, Carol, died in 2012; they had been married for 48 years.

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