Roger Angell

There is an article of clothing I always associate with the great writer and editor Roger Angell, who died last Friday, at the age of 101. (Just writing about him made me stick in that last, ultra-New Yorker comma.) That article is the sport coat.

Kind of like the one he is wearing on the cover of Joe Bonomo’s 2019 biography, which I have yet to read but definitely will. I met Angell (pronounced like the heavenly being) on seven or eight occasions, the first in 1978 and the last in 2012, and in my recollection, each time he was wearing a well-tailored coat, with a crisp pastel button-down shirt, solid or striped, and a nicely-matched tie.

Clothes don’t really make the man (in my experience), but in Angell’s case, the jacket was fitting, in both senses of the word. Together with his firm handshake and upright posture, it bespoke a generational sense of, I don’t know, propriety and duty and respect.

As I say, I met Angell in 1978 but encountered him long before, in the pages of the New Yorker. For a kid who liked baseball and (I was slowly coming to realize) good writing, how amazing was it to find someone who combined both! Along with those of Calvin Trillin and Pauline Kael and, later, Woody Allen, John McPhee and Ian Frazier, his pieces gave me a literary model. It’s not that I imagined ever being as good as those writers. It was more like a basketball-loving kid digging on Michael Jordan. The sense of possibility is salutary.

Incidentally, Dwight Garner’sTimes obituary quotes Angell as saying that his baseball reportage started when New Yorker editor William Shawn told him to “go down to spring training” in 1962. When I interviewed Angell for About Town, my 2000 history of the magazine, he told me that he made the pitch, and Shawn — a great editor but not a sports fan — said: “What’s spring training?”

The obit and an appreciation by Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner have some quotes that give the flavor of Angell’s writing:

  • The Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk came out of his crouch like “an aluminum extension ladder stretching for the house eaves.” The Baltimore Oriole relief pitcher Dick Hall pitched “with an awkward, sidewise motion that suggests a man feeling under his bed for a lost collar stud.” Mr. Angell … described Willie Mays chasing down a ball hit to deep center field as “running so hard and so far that the ball itself seems to stop in the air and wait for him.”
  • On relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry: “His ball in flight suggests the kiddie-ride concession at a country fairgrounds — all swoops and swerves but nothing there to make a mother nervous; if you’re standing close to it, your first response is a smile.”
  • On Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley: “Utley, who has slicked-back, Jake Gittes hair, possesses a quick bat and a very short home-run stroke; he looks like a man in an A.T.M. reaching for his cash.” (That was written in 2009, when Angell was 88.)

But the essential Angell passage, to my mind, is the one he wrote about Fisk’s home run in game six of the 1975 World Series for the Boston Red Sox. The broadcaster and jazz writer Tom Reney posted it on Facebook, and I was so happy to be reminded of it:

Fisk, leading off the bottom of the twelfth against Pat Darcy, the eighth Reds pitcher of the night – it was well into morning now, in fact – socked the second pitch up and out, farther and farther into the darkness above the lights, and when it came down at last, reilluminated, it struck the topmost, innermost edge of the screen inside the yellow left-field foul pole and glanced sharply down and bounced on the grass: a fair ball, fair all the way. I was watching the ball, of course, so I missed what everyone on television saw – Fisk waving wildly, weaving and writhing and gyrating along the first-base line, as he wished the ball fair, forced it fair with his entire body. He circled the bases in triumph, in sudden company with several hundred fans, and jumped on home plate with both feet, and John Kiley, the Fenway Park organist, played Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” fortissimo, and then followed with other appropriately exuberant classical selections, and for the second time that evening I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends (and all the other Red Sox fans, all over New England), and I thought of them – in Brookline, Mass., and Brooklin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damariscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont; in Wayland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all five Manchesters, and in Raymond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives), and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born), and I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway – jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens, and in bars and trailers, and even in some boats here and there, I suppose, and on back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night), and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy – alight with it.

I’m not sure what powers of persuasion were necessary to convince Shawn to allow that final 237-word sentence in the New Yorker, but I’m glad they worked (and no matter that the Sox lost game seven). That first time I met Angell was just three years later. His wife, Carol, was a copy editor at Horizon magazine, where I was doing freelance work, and at a magazine holiday party, there he was, my hero. I walked up to him and gushed about the passage. I don’t remember what exactly he said, only his model of graciousness and (unfeigned) modesty in the face of fanboy fawning.

Angell was and is most famous for his baseball writing, but he had been a fiction editor at the New Yorker since the ’50s. That in itself was remarkable, given that the two most important figures in the magazine’s history (other than Shawn and the founding editor, Harold Ross) were probably Angell’s mother, Katharine White, and his stepfather, E.B. White. Katharine White joined the staff in 1925, just months after its founding, and was a fiction editor until 1960. E.B. White contributed more than 1800 pieces, mostly essays, from 1925 until 1976, and did more than anyone else to establish the magazine’s sensibility and style. So the White-Angell line at the magazine runs from 1925 till 2022.

Taking advantage of our cocktail-party acquaintance, I started sending Angell submissions: not proper short stories, but (supposed) humor pieces. None were accepted, but each time Angell responded sympathetically, with specific and smart comments and suggestions.

The impetus for About Town was a short article in the Times in 1993 noting that the New Yorker was moving its offices to a block away in midtown Manhattan, and in the move was donating a large chunk of its editorial archives to the New York Public Library. I showed up at the NYPL just weeks after the material was opened up to researchers, and was asked to choose which of the 300-some boxes I wanted to look at. Tough call! In the finding aid, I happened to come across the name of the short story writer Ann Beattie, a favorite of mine, and asked to see her file. When I got it, I saw that her first submission was a story called “Blue Eggs,” in 1972. Note that Beattie was an unknown, unpublished college English instructor, and her story came in over the slush pile. A first reader must have been impressed with it, and sent it to Angell. I read the carbon copy (look that up, young ‘uns) of his letter to her:

“These little slices and moments are often surprisingly effective, but the story itself seems to get away from you as it goes along. It seems possible that there is more form than substance her, but perhaps that is unfair. What I most admire is your wit and quickness and self-assurance. I hope you will let me see more of your work,and that you will address your future submissions directly to me.”

Angell rejected thirteen more of Beattie’s stories over the next twenty-two months. Then, in November 1973, she submitted a story called “A Platonic Relationship.” Sitting in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, reading Angell’s reply, I found myself getting choked up. He wrote:

Oh, joy …

Yes, we are taking A PLATONIC RELATIONSHIP, and I think this is the best news of the year. Maybe it isn’t the best news for you, but there is nothing that gives me more pleasure … than at last sending an enthusiastic yes to a writer who has persisted through as many rejections and rebuffs as you have. It’s a fine story, I think — original, strong, and true.

At that moment, I knew I would write a book about the New Yorker, and even what type of book it would be. Roger Angell was one of the first people I approached for an interview, and I fruitfully spoke with him two or three times, at length. I am only now surmising that he may have had a hand in something that was crucially important for the book: the blanket permission I got from the magazine to quote not only from its contents but from the correspondence from its staff members — including Ross, Shawn, Mrs. White, William Maxwell, and many more. It was a huge deal, and without those quotes the book would have been immeasurably poorer. I’m guessing that Angell liked the cut of my jib, and helped, with his estimable institutional standing, to get me the okay.

All my other encounters with Angell over the years — in person, over email, or on a stage at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where I interviewed him at a public event in 2006 — were positive as well. The best one of all came in 1993. In 1932, the humor writer Frank Sullivan began publishing an annual poem in the New Yorker‘s Christmas issue called “Greetings, Friends”; it sent holiday greetings, with maximal elegant variation in the phrasing, to as many celebrities and noteworthy as could be squeezed in. Sullivan died in the ’70s and Angell took it over. (Ian Frazier took it over from him in 2000.)

What I found when I opened the December 27, 1993, is something so great that I still have to pinch myself to believe it’s true. Yes — there I was in “Greetings, Friends.” Roger Angell, thanks for that and so much else.