Roger Angell is the greatest living baseball writer. He’s written about the game for The New Yorker since 1962, the year he visited the fledgling New York Mets at Spring Training in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was forty-one years old, dispatched there by his editor William Shawn, who was hopeful for more sports writing in the magazine. Though a novice reporter, Angell was eager to sit in the warm stands, find his voice, and report on what he saw and felt as a fan, filtering the action on the field and around him in the park through a knowledgeable yet skeptical, unabashed yet anti-sentimental love of the game he’s followed since he was a teenager.
Angell’s through-line in baseball astonishes. He watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig belt home runs in Yankee Stadium, and he blogged the 2017 Postseason. In his hometown, he’s seen his beloved New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers depart, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field razed and paved for apartment complexes, old Yankee Stadium spiffed up, torn down, and then erected again, the New York Mets arrive, state-of-the-art Shea Stadium built, age, leveled, and replaced. He saw Joe DiMaggio stride the outfield, Barry Bonds launch epic homers. He’s bathed in daylight watching Mel Ott, and blinked at thousands of phones capturing a late-night October blast by Daniel Murphy, who was born nearly forty years after Ott retired. Angell recalls hearing about players boarding rickety Pullman cars that during a season stayed east of the Mississippi, and has watched teams flying first-class, equipment-laden jets en route from Miami to Seattle, and Los Angeles and San Diego and Montreal and Toronto.
All the while, Angell has kept score religiously, from 1933—the first postseason he avidly followed, a 13-year old scribbling the action on his father’s yellow legal pads—through to the most recent season, along the way learning of a game’s heart-stopping or trifling events through late-afternoon and early-evening newspapers, then a radio crackling in a cab or a bodega doorway, then on bright, heralding, saturating television, and finally streaming online in an avalanche of accumulating 1’s and 0’s.
No other living baseball writer has seen and heard as much as Roger Angell has over so long a period. No other writer has written about the game as elegantly, artfully, thoughtfully, and memorably, and it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see a baseball writer like him again. He wrote in an era when high-circulation magazines were bursting with lengthy articles and essays for an audience which gave itself over to long stays with the writing. Thick weeklies such as The New Yorker were as yet uncrowded by the high-decibel-level noise of the Internet, which encourages both a flood of writers and a diminution in size of what they write. His affectionate, knowledgeable, and wryly skeptical baseball writing allows us to slow time, dive deep, and appreciate baseball and the eras in which it was played in ways that few writers attempt now. At a time when many fans, and Major League Baseball itself, are concerned about the game’s languorous and antiquated pace of play in a rapidly accelerated, diverting era of entertainment options, Angell’s lengthy, patient baseball essays might feel like relics. They might best be viewed as tonics.
Joe Bonomo’s book, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell, a Writer’s Life in Baseball will be published in Spring 2019 with University of Nebraska Press. He will join us at the AWM this Tuesday, April 17 along with other writers to discuss baseball, books, and writing. Event details here.