Roger Angell, pitch-perfect prose about the game and meaning of baseball

May 27, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: baseball, journalism, reporters, reporting, writers, writing.

When Roger Angell wrote about baseball, which he did frequently but not often enough, he could put you in the seat next to him in the ballpark. It would be a good seat, not in the press box with all of the sportswriting swells and television hotshots, but right down there in the stands among the people who had paid good money to see a baseball game.

What you could see, from that seat, was the way that that particular game was being played. But what you could hear from Roger Angell was a funny, interesting, well-informed, and deeply-thoughtful commentary on the game of baseball itself.

You and Angell might watch a pitcher hang a curveball, and Angell the reporter would start in on how he had discussed with the team’s pitching coach that pitcher’s curveball and its lack of bite only last week. They were trying different things, he would quote the coach, and the important point was that the pitcher was open to suggestions. Some pitchers are like that, he would say. Others want to do everything themselves.

Angell cared about the game. He wrote with the assumption that you the reader cared about it too. After all, why would you be sitting there in the stands if you didn’t care about it. For Angell, baseball was not just another pastime. It was a way of examining the human condition without getting too pompous about it.

Angell never had an ax to grind, although he certainly had his opinions. Those opinions were most often presented in a humorous or self-deprecating form. You might disagree, but a disagreement never seemed like an argument. In fact, Angell was so well-informed that your humility, if it existed at all, would make you give way to what he had said.

His articles about baseball and other matters appeared in the New Yorker magazine where he had worked for several decades as an editor. To read his prose about baseball, it would not surprise you to learn that he was an editor of the first order who had mentored many of the best writers of his time. They testified that his criticisms were never pointed or harsh and were always formed to help writers improve their work.

For the rest of us who were never under his editorship, his best writing lessons are to be found in the prose that he’s so carefully composed. Even if you were not a baseball fan, you could read his articles and find how to write with care, precision, and empathy.

Angell was born in 1920, the son of Ernest Angell and Katharine Sergeant. His father was a World War I veteran, a graduate of Harvard law school, and eventually the head of the American Civil Liberties Union. His mother was the first female editor hired by the New Yorker magazine.

His parents were divorced, and he lived mostly with his father. He graduated from Harvard University in 1942, after which he joined the army and worked as a magazine editor for the remainder of the war.

He became a writer for Holiday magazine and also submitted pieces frequently to the New Yorker. Eventually the New Yorker asked him to join the staff as an editor. His first baseball articles appeared in 1962 when the editor of the magazine told him to go to Florida for spring training to see what he could find. That assignment began a series of essays that would continue over the next six decades. Many of those articles were collected into books, the first of which was titled The Summer Game and published in 1972. The book remains a standard volume of any baseball fan’s shelf.

Here’s an example of Angell’s writing, his description of a box score:

The box score, being modestly arcane, is a matter of intense indifference, if not irritation, to the non-fan. To the baseball-bitten, it is not only informative, pictorial, and gossipy but lovely in aesthetic structure. It represents happenstance and physical flight exactly translated into figures and history. Its totals—batters’ credit vs. pitchers’ debit—balance as exactly as those in an accountant’s ledger. And a box score is more than a capsule archive. It is a precisely etched miniature of the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoor sports. Every player in every game is subjected to a cold and ceaseless accounting; no ball is thrown and no base is gained without an instant responding judgment—ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay—and an ensuing statistic.

If you grew up reading box scores, this writing is pitch-perfect—and typical of Angell. Angell’s work eventually landed him a spot in the writers section of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Angell died last week, May 20, 2022, at his home in Manhattan. He was 101 years old.

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