Angell was not so much born with a silver spoon in his mouth as silver words in his ears. His father was Ernest Angell, a Harvard Law grad and World War I veteran who went on to a career in law in New York. His mother was Katharine Sergeant Angell, whom Harold Ross hired at the New Yorker in 1925, where she was to continue working until she was 68. She was later head of fiction for the magazine, and edited famous writers of her time such as Mary McCarthy, John O’Hara, Alexander Woollcott and Vladimir Nabokov.
Her marriage to Ernest Angell ended and, in 1929, Katharine Angell married E.B. White, the great essayist and children’s-book author, whom she had met at the New Yorker. Roger Angell’s regard for White came through in a recent introduction he wrote for the classic “One Man’s Meat,” first published in 1942 after the small family had left Manhattan in 1938 for a saltwater farm in Maine. “He had grown up (he turns 40 in midbook), and he was too busy around the place to be a full-time stylist,” he wrote. “I think that ‘One Man’s Meat’ was the making of him as a writer. Freed of the weekly deadlines and the quaintsy first-person plural form of The New Yorker’s ‘Notes and Comments’ page, which he had written for more than a decade, he discovered his subject (it was himself) and a voice that spoke softly but rang true … ‘Stuart Little,’ ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ and 10 other books and collections were still ahead, but the author had found his feet.”
It was almost natural for Angell to make his mark at the magazine, starting with his first piece the year after he graduated from Harvard in 1942. He was in the Army Air Force at the time. “I was just out of college and I wrote a little casual,” he told me. “They used to have back-of-the-book, short fiction pieces. And it was bought. It meant a lot to me. In 1956, I guess, my mother had retired and [William] Shawn asked me to come to work. Shawn wanted more sports in the magazine and I think I’d already written a hockey piece on the Rangers. In 1962 he said, ‘Go down to spring training and see what you find.’
“That was just like him, not to plan what the story was and see how it would develop. I went on with it because I enjoyed it so much and I seemed to find a way of writing about baseball that was easy for me, kind of like myself. You know, that’s a key thing for a writer, to be yourself. It was the first year of the Mets, and that was very lucky for me when I thought it out. It occurred to me fairly early on that nobody was writing about the fans. I was a fan, and I felt more like a fan than a sportswriter. I spent a lot of time in the stands, and I was sort of nervous in the clubhouse or the press box. And that was a great fan story, the first year of the Mets. They were these terrific losers that New York took to its heart.”
If Angell’s baseball writings have almost always been a pleasure to read in the magazine, they also age well. He had room to sound like himself, as he puts it. The self that comes through sounds old New Yorker at times, but never really dated. His was always the voice of the smart fan talking for all of us, living with the same sort of anxieties we all face.
Angell worked closely with Shawn, and his mother worked closely with the rough-hewn [Harold] Ross, but he’s not one to idealize the past. He even smiles when he talks about the controversial Tina Brown. “Tina was great to me,” he said. “She encouraged me and published baseball without knowing anything about it. She let me go on. I remember once after a World Series piece, she said, ‘Wonderful piece. I really understood it.’ “And I said, ‘No you didn’t.’
“She was very compelling to work for, very seductive. You really wanted to write for her. There was this aura of hers to bring writers out and make you want to do more … Every writer needs a good editor. All of them, even the best. It’s interesting that the older and best-known and most professional writers are the ones who really appreciate an editor. Young writers are terrified. They think, ‘What I’ve done should not be touched.’”
Angell has always shown the working stiffs of the press box the outsize admiration of someone who came to baseball a different way. “I’ve never been a beat writer or a daily writer,” he told me. “I don’t know if I could do that.” This respectful attitude, expressed so many times in his writing, took on a new meaning for me in 1994 when the San Francisco Chronicle sports editor wanted to move me from hockey to baseball. He wanted me to replace the longtime A’s beat writer whom Angell had so often mentioned in his writings. A piece in 1987, for example, looked back on spring training this way: “A friend of mine, a beat man with the San Francisco Chronicle, came along and fell into step beside me. Smiling a little behind his shades, he nodded toward the field and the players and the filling-up stands and murmured: ‘You know, it’s a shame to have to mess all this up with a regular season.’”
I spent more than four years covering baseball for the Chronicle, and fittingly, the glimpses of Angell I recall most vividly were all from spring training. Some young Oakland A’s player would ask me, “Who’s that?” as Angell huddled in a corner, talking at length to a coach or an established player. Great reporters, like great point guards in basketball, usually have a relaxed alertness as they look ahead, making eye contact, yes, but always half-thinking about — whoosh — where they might be headed next. Angell always had that look when he was deep in conversation, but he balanced it with a warmth and modesty everyone could feel, a sense of being glad to be just where he was.
“What you notice about modern-day ballplayers is they don’t talk baseball very much,” Angell told me. “They don’t pay that much attention. They pay attention to the game when it’s being played. But the moment the game is over, they don’t talk baseball and they don’t think baseball. As recently as 10 years ago, some of the older players were noticing this, the older ones noticing the younger ones aren’t hanging around to learn about baseball. Tom Seaver told me that when he was just starting up, he spent as much time as possible in the clubhouse because he’d learn something about baseball just by talking. I don’t think that that’s still there.
“It’s a different time. I don’t want this to sound sort of dreamy. I don’t sit around mourning this loss. But our attention span generally is much shorter than it used to be. We all move from subject to subject basically because of television. The biggest change in my lifetime by far has been television. That has been a much bigger change than the computer. It’s changed the way we see things. It’s brought a complete change, I think, in our demand for new material. It’s very hard to remember things because we expect a replay, and I mean in baseball but really in every other area. We look for the replay. That’s how we remember.
“One of the great lines about this from a ballplayer’s point of view came from Carlton Fisk. I asked him if he had any personal memory of that home run in the ’75 World Series, that famous, famous home run and the gesturing, and he said, ‘It’s very interesting you asked that because, you know, I’ve only seen that shot four or five times in my life. Every time it comes on my television set, I turn it off or leave the room because I’m trying to keep a crystal memory of what that was like.’”
Several hallmarks of Angell’s style deserve mention. One, he never seems to write backward from an observation, filling in the blanks to get himself where he wants to end up. Two, he usually finds a way to balance his seeing-by-feeling perceptions with cool, hard-won analysis. Three, he loves language and will sometimes play just to play. Writing in the New Yorker on the explosion of home runs, for example, he eases up on his usual control to note, with uncanny accuracy, that baseballs’ “garish red stitches, which since childhood have reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein’s handiwork, are flattened now, like the seam on a model’s torso after repairs in a chic Vegas clinic.” And four, he has indeed earned real insight into the game of baseball.
Angell’s naturally good eye has been helped by decades of digesting each season in his New Yorker pieces and learning a little more. This puts him in a much different category than some other established writers who have taken a crack at baseball. “People would drop in and write a book,” he told me. “There was a sort of intellectualization of baseball and where it fits in the American scene, which was probably overdone, and probably some unduly flowery and poetic or romantic writing about the game. I hope I wasn’t contributing to that.”
He wasn’t. His writing is too rooted in the particular for that. Angell may at times be profligate with his emotions, but he turns this into one of his central themes, pored over at length — and often with self-mocking humor. “I’ve noticed that almost all baseball writers are fans in the end,” he told me. “If they think their team is in it, they get as excited as anybody. I think they may be acting a little more cynical and hardened about the whole thing than they are. If there’s anything different about what I’ve done, it’s that I have been able to write in the first person and to switch over and to become a fan right in the middle of a piece. I’ve never had to put that on, because if I watch any team for three or four games in a row, I begin to think about this team kind of like a fan.
“The widening gap between players and beat writers must be a hard thing to accept. I’m 79 and I go to talk to ballplayers and they call me ‘Sir,’ and I start with a huge handicap. Once they call you ‘Sir,’ you’re in big trouble. I remember when Bob Boone was playing late in his career as a catcher, he was talking about what it’s like to be an older player. He said, ‘The main thing for me is to have a bad day and not to say ‘I’m getting old,’ because I had a lot of bad days when I wasn’t old. They’re going to tell me when I’m too old to play. If I have a slump, I have to tell myself it’s just a slump.’
“And I said, ‘What else are the problems?’
“He said, ‘It’s so lonely. All my friends have left. All my teammates have disappeared. No one else in this clubhouse is the same age. They’re the same age as my son. I won’t go drinking with my son.’ I feel a lot of that, too. I’m at an age where a lot of my closest and dearest friends have died. It happens a lot. It’s a very strange feeling.”
One place Angell always feels comfortable, and connected to baseball, is at the legendary Pink Pony steakhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Pony is no longer the hot spring-training hangout it once was. Gone are the days when five Hall of Famers would be waiting for tables and trades would be inked on a napkin in a corner booth. But the place is still a baseball shrine. It’s where Angell heads every spring and where he was in March for the 85th birthday of his longtime friend Charlie Briley, who took over the place 50 years ago. “My wife, Gwen, and I have been with Johnny McNamara twice on nights when he was fired, once by the Angels, another time by the Padres,” Briley once told me.
Behind the bar framed caricatures run nearly the length of the wall. Some are of Scottsdale locals, but most are of baseball people: Billy Martin and Bill Rigney; Angell, looking very blue-eyed, peers out from a spot next to Kenny (Downtown) Brown, the bartender. Heading the other way are Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter David Bush and Mickey Morabito, the Oakland A’s legendary traveling secretary. Against the wall, behind the big jar of pickled onions, is a pile of old Baseball Encyclopedias.
Like Angell, the place is serious but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Like Angell, it lives and breathes close contact with something private and incommunicable about the game, something in danger of being lost. Like Angell, it just keeps going, year after year after year. And like Angell, it lives up to our memories of it at its best. “Sometimes I think baseball preserves its memories too much and is unwilling to change,” Angell told me. “I think we all cling to the Pony because we had such a good time there. You always wondered if it would be as good as it was. Surprisingly, it often was.”