Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer
In the course of a well-lived century, he established himself as the most exacting of editors, the most agile of stylists, a mentor to generations of writers, and baseball’s finest, fondest chronicler.
In recent years, as his odometer headed toward triple digits, Roger Angell became known around our office for the way his cheerful longevity complemented his talent. He was not only the greatest of baseball writers; he had also lived long enough to see Babe Ruth, of the Yankees, at one end of his life and Shohei Ohtani, of the Angels, at the other. Age conferred authority. When Roger covered the Yanks in their late-nineties heyday, Joe Torre, the team’s heavy-lidded chief, would sometimes interrupt one of his avuncular soliloquies to a clutch of young reporters and look to him for affirmation: “Roger, am I getting that right?” Sitting in his office, Roger, much like Torre, held court, telling stories about playing Ping-Pong with James Thurber, editing William Trevor and Donald Barthelme, and watching ballgames with the Romanian-born artist Saul Steinberg, who would put on a flannel Milwaukee Braves uniform before sitting down in front of the TV. I once came to him complaining about how hard it was to find writing that was truly funny, and Roger, as if recalling a recent Tuesday, replied, “Harold Ross said the same thing.”
And yet Roger was hardly stuck in the past. When the Internet came along and climbing stadium steps no longer held much allure, he watched games late into the night and filed twenty-four-karat blog posts. Although he was insistently modern, he knew what some were thinking when they dropped by his office to see him, natty as always in crisp khakis, a blue Oxford shirt, and a Paul Stuart blazer: Holy shit—he’s still vertical! When at ninety-five he published a collection of personal essays and other writing for this magazine, he gave it a characteristically wry and self-knowing title, “This Old Man: All in Pieces.”
No one lives forever, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that Roger had a good shot at it. Like the rest of us, he suffered pain and loss and doubt, but he usually kept the blues at bay, always looking forward; he kept writing, reading, memorizing new poems, forming new relationships. When another versatile, sports-minded writer, Budd Schulberg, reached his nineties, he gave away his star-studded address book to a younger writer. He had no use for it: “Everyone in it is dead!” Roger kept replenishing his address book, and his life, with new and younger friends. He went to spring training in Arizona and Florida, full of hope, always on the trail of new prospects. His thirst for the sensation of being alive survived the worst. Roger was married for forty-eight years to Carol Rogge Angell, but when she was dying she told him, “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.” After Carol died, Roger followed her instructions, and his heart. He began a long and wonderful love affair with Peggy Moorman, whom he married in 2014, and who was by his side until the end.
“Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love,” he wrote in “This Old Man.” “I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach.”
Roger died on Friday. He was a hundred and one. But longevity was actually quite low on his list of accomplishments. He did as much to distinguish The New Yorker as anyone in the magazine’s nearly century-long history. His prose and his editorial judgment left an imprint that’s hard to overstate. Like Ruth and Ohtani, he was a freakishly talented double threat, a superb writer and an invaluable counsel to countless masters of the short story. He won a place in both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in the Baseball Hall of Fame—a unique distinction. The crowd of friends from the magazine who drove four hours north to watch him receive the J. G. Taylor Spink Award at Doubleday Field, in Cooperstown, wore custom jerseys declaring themselves Roger’s “Angells.”
Roger was born to a very particular sliver of twentieth-century American society. His father, Ernest Angell, was a Harvard-trained lawyer who went on to lead the American Civil Liberties Union. His mother, born Katharine Sergeant, was educated at Bryn Mawr and became this magazine’s first fiction editor, a close editorial partner to Harold Ross. After divorcing Ernest Angell, she married another founding eminence at the magazine, E. B. White. Mrs. White, as she was known at the office, neglected to tell Roger the news of her wedding; Roger, who was nine at the time, heard about it only a couple of days later, through a relative who had read about it in Walter Winchell’s newspaper column. In a marvellous portrait of Mrs. White by Nancy Franklin, called “Lady with a Pencil,” Roger made it plain that, though both mother and son felt the pain and the disruption of the divorce, he relished the hours he spent listening to her talk about the office in midtown and witnessing her limitless devotion to language and to her writers: “It was the main event of her life—The New Yorker, and New Yorker writers, and what was in the magazine. It wasn’t a matter of power. It was about what was on the page or what could be on the page if something worked out.” Roger followed suit. As a kid, he read endlessly and developed a mean party trick, memorizing the caption of every cartoon published in the history of the magazine.
After graduating from Harvard, Roger served in the Army Air Corps. He spent much of the Second World War stationed in the Central Pacific, where he was the managing editor of a G.I. magazine. He also found time to write fiction. In March, 1944, The New Yorker published a very short story called “Three Ladies in the Morning.” The author’s byline, which came at the end of the piece, was “Cpl. Roger Angell.” After returning home, he spent a long apprenticeship at Holiday, a distinguished travel magazine of the mid-century, and finally came to The New Yorker as an editor in 1956, after the Whites had moved to Maine. Eventually, Roger led the fiction department; he was, as he often said, “doing my mother’s job in my mother’s office.” Some of the writers Mrs. White had brought to the magazine—Thurber, Nabokov, Updike—eventually became her son’s writers. Roger, who may have carried on one of the longest engagements with psychotherapists in the city’s history, once said that a shrink told him his inheritance was “the greatest piece of active sublimation in my experience.”
As an editor, Roger was devoted, open-minded, and sometimes hard-knuckled. He did not just ladle out the superlatives. His proofs were littered with ziggy cross-outs, querulous question marks, aggressive arrows, and the occasional hard-won “Yes!” As a writer he was a “taker-outer,” not a “keeper-inner,” as he said, and that urge carried over to his editing. Clarity above all. Nothing thrilled him more than to bring in someone fresh and promising. In the early seventies, he knew to be patient when the work of a young graduate student named Ann Beattie was plucked from the “slush pile.” Even as he rejected story after story over nearly two years, he kept writing her encouraging, sometimes instructive, letters. He kept Beattie in the game. Then came this:
Angell was also writing for the magazine: humor pieces, Talk of the Town stories, and the annual holiday poem, “Greetings, Friends!” In 1962, he and the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, discussed the idea of his writing about baseball. Mr. Shawn was no baseball maven, but he was always curious. When Roger described to him the intricacies of the double play, his cheeks, Roger recalled, “grew pink with delight.” Thus encouraged, Roger set off to Florida for spring training, and began writing the pieces that would form his first baseball book, “The Summer Game.”
In the office and elsewhere, Roger was a complex character. The weather of his moods varied. He was funny, encouraging, vulnerable, but he was not without pride or temper. In his prime, he walked the halls jingling the change in his pockets like Molly Bloom’s lover, Blazes Boylan. Was he steamed or jolly? Not always easy to know. Put it this way: you didn’t want to disappoint him. He always had our affection and our respect.
On the page, Roger created—he threw—a voice that was utterly joyful, as buoyant as a lottery winner. He hated the poetical and the hard-bitten. The Roger Angell of the baseball pieces was a man at liberty, delighted to be in the stands on a long-shadowed afternoon, part of a vast community of fans. The sentences were ebullient but never decorous. An ur-Wasp, he was tickled to learn the Yiddish word for “over the top”: ungapatchka. He took it as an immense compliment when a friend told him that he admired the “un-ungapatchka-ness” of his work. Roger’s best baseball prose—his early piece on the struggles of the fledgling Mets, “The Old Folks Behind Home”; his profiles of the fearsome Bob Gibson, the vanquished Steve Blass, the submariner Dan Quisenberry; his chronicle of the epochal Boston-Cincinnati World Series of 1975, “Agincourt and After”—radiated a sense of wonder at the complexities of the game and those who play it. His enthusiasm for baseball was so immense that it could not be confined to a singular loyalty. In a given season, he was capable of giving his heart to anyone. He was a Mets fan, a Yankees fan, and a Red Sox fan. In anyone else, this would have been unforgivable.
I had the privilege of witnessing Roger’s joy in the game more than once, but never more so than in October, 2000, when we went together to Shea Stadium to watch the fifth and final game of the World Series, a Subway Series dominated by Torre’s Yankees. Sitting in the left-field stands, Roger held forth on everything from Torre’s understated generalship to the “premature decrepitude” of Shea to the best kind of notebook. (Mead notebooks: “They take ink perfectly.”) He recited a Homeric catalogue of his favorite baseball names: Hack Wilson, Napoleon Lajoie, Mookie Wilson. They spanned the age—the age of Angell. I could have sat in the stands listening to Roger (and, incidentally, watching the Yanks and the Mets) forever. But there would be no extra innings that night. Mike Piazza’s towering attempt to tie things in the ninth fell short and into the glove of Bernie Williams.
“That’s it,” Roger said, and led the way to the Yankees clubhouse. The Bombers were winners again. Roger entered the room under great arcs of foamy champagne. Happily soaked, he made his way to Torre, and listened in on yet another soliloquy to the young scribes. On some point of historical interest, Torre paused, and looked Roger’s way for confirmation. Roger, sagely, nodded assent.
After a while, Roger said, “We should check in on the losers. The story’s in there, too.” We hustled over to the home-team clubhouse, where the Mets picked gloomily at a sad array of snacks and made the customary remarks about next year. Roger wrote that down, as well.
His Mead notebook now sufficiently inked, he led the way past the revellers and the mourners along the ramps and made it out to the parking lot. We found his Volvo station wagon and climbed in. Another gaudy night in Queens. Roger got behind the wheel and, driving alarmingly fast on the Grand Central Parkway, he talked about next year. Spring training was four months off.
David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”