Roger Angell, editor, baseball writer at the New Yorker, dies at 101

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Roger Angell practically grew up in the halls of the New Yorker, where his mother, Katharine S. White, was the longtime fiction editor. His stepfather was E.B. White, the renowned essayist whose supple, self-effacing prose became the hallmark of the magazine’s style and whose literary legacy included “Charlotte’s Web.”

Mr. Angell (pronounced “Angel”), who was five years older than the magazine itself, began contributing to the New Yorker in 1944, and he joined the staff in 1956 as an editor of fiction. Over the decades, he helped mold the stories of generations of writers, including John Updike, Vladi­mir Nabokov, William Trevor, Ann Beattie and Bobbie Ann Mason.

He also wrote fiction, reviews, poems and miscellaneous pieces for the magazine, including revelatory essays about growing old. “Here in my tenth decade,” he wrote at 93, “I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.”

Mr. Angell, who was 101, died May 20 at his home in Manhattan, said his wife, Margaret Moorman. The cause was congestive heart failure.

Among Mr. Angell’s most memorable stories in the New Yorker were his idiosyncratic first-person essays about baseball, which led to his enshrinement in the writers’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.

In his youth, Mr. Angell watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play at Yankee Stadium. He witnessed Joe DiMaggio’s rookie season in 1936 and vividly recalled, in a memoir written 70 years after the fact, the pitching motion of New York Giants left-hander Carl Hubbell, “gravely bowing twice from the waist before each delivery.”

New Yorker editor William Shawn knew of Mr. Angell’s interest in baseball and invited him to cover the sport in a leisurely, personal way that was different from the approach of most magazines and newspapers.

His first essays on baseball appeared in 1962, during the debut season of the New York Mets, whose daily misfortunes were in contrast to the crosstown preeminence of the New York Yankees. Yet the hapless Mets developed a loyal following, which Mr. Angell chronicled from the bleachers, rather than the lofty perch of the press box.

“These exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves,” he wrote, “and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.”

Mr. Angell’s writing about baseball proved to be original, spellbinding and impossible to imitate. He collected his essays in a series of best-selling books, beginning in 1972 with “The Summer Game.”

“The elegance of his prose aside, the man deals in information, lots of it,” Sports Illustrated reporter Ron Fimrite wrote in 1991. “It is, in fact, his power of observation, his eye for the minutest detail, that sets him apart not only from most baseball writers but also from most writers, period.”

Mr. Angell understood, in a way that few baseball writers before him had expressed, that the game was not the possession of the millionaires who owned the teams, or even of the players on the field. Baseball belongs to the fans, who follow the game with its mingled sense of hope, joy and sorrow, tracing each season’s path through the daily log of the newspaper box score.

“It represents happenstance and physical flight exactly translated into figures and history,” he wrote. “This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory, to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that prickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of ‘Don Giovanni’ and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins.”

At the end of each season, Mr. Angell prepared an annual summary roundup, and he wrote in-depth pieces on other aspects of the game. One of his more acclaimed New Yorker stories, from 1975, examined the psychic struggles of pitcher Steve Blass, a onetime World Series hero of the Pittsburgh Pirates who suddenly lost his ability to throw strikes.

“[I]t is a fact that a professional athlete — and most especially a baseball player — faces a much more difficult task in attempting to regain lost form than an ailing businessman, say, or even a troubled artist,” Mr. Angell wrote. “All that matters is his performance, which will be measured, with utter coldness, by the stats. This is one reason that athletes are paid so well, and one reason that fear of failure — the unspeakable ‘choking’ — is their deepest and most private anxiety.”

He shaped his sentences until they were solid and sleek, breezing along like a sailboat skipping across the whitecaps, gathering speed with each phrase. Some of his stories revealed themselves to be about subjects deeper than baseball itself.

Being a fan was really about “caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives,” Mr. Angell wrote in an essay ostensibly about the 1975 World Series. “And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved.”

Mr. Angell was a commentator for Ken Burns’s nine-part PBS documentary “Baseball,” shown on PBS in 1994. In addition to six collections of baseball essays, he published “A Pitcher’s Story” (2001), about David Cone in the twilight of his career.

In 2014, Mr. Angell received the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor for a baseball writer. The next year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the only person with both honors.

“Over the last half-century, nobody has written baseball better than Roger Angell of The New Yorker,” journalist Tom Verducci wrote in Sports Illustrated in 2014. “What he does with words, even today at 93, is what Mays did in center field and what Koufax did on the mound … He is the curator of our baseball souls.”

Roger Angell was born Sept. 19, 1920, in New York City. His father, Ernest, was a corporation lawyer who later became national board chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union. He also passed on a love a baseball to his son.

The marriage of Ernest Angell and the former Katharine Sergeant began to fall apart after his return from military duty in France during World War I. Roger later wrote that his father “adopted a Gallic view of marriage and was repeatedly unfaithful to my mother after he came home.”

They divorced in 1929, and his mother married White, her New Yorker colleague, without telling her son of their plans. Mr. Angell and an older sister lived primarily with their father and spent weekends with their mother and stepfather, often in Maine. He agreed with an assessment of his mother by the New Yorker writer Nancy Franklin: “As an editor she was maternal but as a mother she was editorial.”

He attended the private Pomfret School in Connecticut and graduated from Harvard in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He served in the Army Air Forces throughout World War II, first as a stateside gunnery instructor and later as a military journalist. He was an editor at Holiday, a travel and culture magazine, from 1947 to 1956, before joining the New Yorker.

Mr. Angell’s mother began working at the New Yorker in 1925, the year it was founded. Decades later, after he took over her old office as the chief fiction editor, he found a mirror and makeup that she had left behind.

As an editor, Mr. Angell was a tweedy, unhurried presence known for his ability to identify new talent and to sharpen the prose of established writers. He encouraged authors to strive for simplicity, clarity and a distinctive voice — and to keep the reader in mind.

“He is a gentle editor and a master of psychology,” short-story writer Beattie told The Washington Post in 1982. “He knows just how to handle individual writers and goes over everything, word by word, really line-editing the story into being.”

Mr. Angell continued writing about baseball and other subjects into his 90s, collecting his autobiographical essays in two volumes, “Let Me Finish” (2006) and “This Old Man: All In Pieces” (2015).

From 1976 to 1998, one of Mr. Angell’s jobs at the New Yorker was to compose an end-of-year poem called “Greetings, Friends!” in which he romped through the previous 12 months, producing a bubbly verse in which pop culture, world affairs and inside jokes took flight.

After a 10-year absence, Mr. Angell resumed his annual rhyming jeu d’esprit in 2008:

By wintry lawn we’ll dance till dawn

With Sheryl Crow and Wally Shawn,

J. Lo, Mo (the doughty Yankee),

Beyoncé, and Ben Bernanke

“Let’s see T.S. Eliot try that,” New Yorker editor David Remnick quipped in 2014.

Mr. Angell’s first marriage, to the former Evelyn Baker, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Carol Rogge, died in 2012 after 48 years of marriage. Two daughters from his first marriage predeceased him: Callie Angell in 2010 and Alice Angell in 2019.

Mr. Angell wrote that when his second wife was on her deathbed, she told him, “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone, I’ll come back and haunt you.”

In 2014, he married Moorman, who survives him, along with a son from his second marriage, John Henry Angell; a stepdaughter, Emma Quaytman; a half brother; a half sister; three granddaughters; and two great-granddaughters.

When Mr. Angell was 93, he published an autobiographical essay, “This Old Man,” which won a National Magazine Award and was one of the most widely read pieces in the New Yorker’s history. He wrote that he had macular degeneration, arterial stents and nerve damage from shingles. His hands were gnarled from arthritis. Yet, despite the infirmities of age and the loss of those dear to him, Mr. Angell retained a sense of vigor.

“I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight,” he wrote, “together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces.”

Carried along by his cane, Mr. Angell continued to report to his office at the New Yorker deep into his 90s, reading short-story submissions and, adapting to the times, writing a blog about baseball.

In 2014, he wrote about the death of the redoubtable Don Zimmer, who put on a baseball uniform for 66 years as a player, manager and coach and who, like Mr. Angell, seemed an ageless symbol of all the accumulated knowledge, experience and humor of his craft:

“He was a baseball figure from an earlier time: enchantingly familiar, tough and enduring, stuffed with plays and at-bats and statistics and anecdotes and wisdom accrued from tens of thousands of innings. Baseball stays on and on, unchanged, or so we used to think as kids, and Zimmer, sitting there, seemed to be telling us yes, you’re right, and see you tomorrow.”



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