JUNE 23, 2019
IN ITS MAY 27, 1950 ISSUE, The New Yorker published Roger Angell’s short, whimsical piece about “the decline of privacy,” a development “speeded by electronics” that was subtly reshaping politics, relationships, and the national pastime. “At a recent ball game,” he reported, “a sensitive microphone at home plate picked up the rich comments of one of the team managers to the umpire and sent them winging to thousands of radio sets, instantly turning the listeners into involuntary eavesdroppers.”
This was among the first bits of baseball-related writing Angell did for the magazine. In the decades that followed, he would file dozens more pieces about the sport — a knowledgeable and oft-anthologized roster of player profiles, World Series wrap-ups, and state-of-the-game “summer essays.” His most recent baseball piece — a funny item about an angry Houston Astros pitcher who surrendered a 440-foot home run and proceeded to punch himself “in the chest and then in the jaw” — was posted on The New Yorker’s website on May 2, 2018.
At 98, Angell is a one-man archive of hardball history. “He watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig belt home runs in Yankee Stadium, and he blogged the 2017 postseason,” Joe Bonomo writes in No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing. His longevity is impressive, but as Bonomo demonstrates, it’s not the primary reason why many believe Angell is our greatest living baseball scribe. According to Bonomo, “[n]o other writer has written about the game as elegantly, artfully, thoughtfully, and memorably.”
The author of several books about rock music, Bonomo has written a well-sourced and intelligent portrait of the erudite but unpretentious Angell. Carefully assessing his subject’s copious output, Bonomo quotes his best pieces at length and draws on Angell’s archive of notes and early drafts for context. His analysis is bolstered by his interviews with Tina Brown, David Remnick, Janet Malcolm, and other boldface names who have worked alongside Angell. The result is a gratifying quasi-biography of a superb prose stylist who came of age in an era of thick, general-interest magazines, a successful writer of fiction who found, as the years passed, that he preferred to focus on baseball.
Almost 70 years ago, when Angell wrote that breezy piece about privacy, he wasn’t yet a New Yorker staffer. After a stint in the Army Air Force — during World War II, he wrote for a military publication in Hawaii — Angell spent most of the 1950s with Holiday, an urbane travel magazine that would publish John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, and William Faulkner. All the while, he was publishing short fiction in The New Yorker — more than 20 stories between the mid-1940s and 1960, Bonomo says. His writing helped earn him a staff spot; in 1956, he was hired as the magazine’s fiction editor, “but there were surely suspicions of nepotism among colleagues,” Bonomo notes. Angell’s mother, Katharine White, held the same job before him, and his stepfather, E. B. White, had written for The New Yorker for decades.
Nevertheless, the new hire seems to have settled in without many complications, and in the years that followed, “Angell would edit some of the great names in twentieth-century literature (John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Thurber, among others) and help discover new voices (Donald Barthelme and Ann Beattie, among them).” Remnick, the magazine’s current editor, believes that, in this stretch of his career, Angell became “one of the most influential fiction editors in the history of the country.” Meanwhile, in 1960, his “small, bemused, ironic, slice-of-life” works of fiction were collected in The Stone Arbor and Other Stories. The book garnered mostly positive reviews, but by then, Angell was basically done writing fiction. In a 2016 interview with Bonomo, Angell says that he knew he’d “never be a novelist. It just wasn’t in me. I was more and more involved as an editor,” a task that occupied most of his working hours.
In 1962, at the urging of William Shawn, The New Yorker’s top editor, Angell prepared to write the first of his long baseball pieces. “The assignment was vague and Angell admittedly apprehensive,” Bonomo says, “but the editors agreed that he’d head down to Florida,” where the New York Mets, readying for their inaugural season in the National League, had convened for spring training. Seated in the bleachers of ballparks in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Angell watched as hopeful rookies took batting practice and seasoned coaches offered tips.
One afternoon, amid “the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield,” Angell and a few paying fans looked on as a trio of pitchers shared a private joke. He was jealous, he admitted: “[W]e would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.” In an era of name-brand sports columnists like Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, some of whom were as famous as the athletes they covered, baseball writers weren’t supposed to acknowledge that they sometimes envied the men on the field. But Angell would “return to this idea of the immutable distance between players and fans again and again,” writes Bonomo.
Angell’s sensitivity to the average fan’s perspective was mirrored by his affection for unsung utility infielders, anonymous scouts, and players who enjoyed great success before flaming out in spectacular fashion. One of his finest pieces is a profile of Steve Blass, who pitched the Pittsburgh Pirates to victory in the 1971 World Series, then saw his career collapse when he could no longer throw the ball over the plate.
At Blass’s home, the pitcher and the writer “played an imaginary baseball game together,” Angell wrote in the June 15, 1975 New Yorker. Aware “that in spite of his enforced and now permanent exile from the game, he still possessed a rare body of precise and hard-won pitching information,” Angell asked Blass to envision himself on the mound, pitching to the mighty Cincinnati Reds. How would he approach each hitter? Well, Blass explained, he’d hope to retire Pete Rose on a slider out of the strike zone, and he’d see what Joe Morgan, the Reds’ hard-hitting second baseman, would make of his “medium-to-slow curveball”; he’d challenge Tony Perez with high heat. When he was throwing well, he didn’t overthink things: “It’s like being plugged into a computer. It’s, ‘Gimme the ball, boom!’” Enabling Blass to revisit this feeling, if just for a moment, was, Bonomo writes, “a large-hearted gesture on the part of Angell.” Angell himself would later describe the fantasy ballgame as “the best idea I ever had as a reporter.”
Inevitably, though, Angell’s most celebrated pieces deal with baseball’s top players and decisive games. His World Series wrap-ups, which would typically appear in the magazine weeks after the end of play, became one of The New Yorker’s beloved staples. His profile of Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson is a revelatory, low-key rebuttal to the simplistic way that the famously intense pitcher was often portrayed in the press. And his piece on a retired Willie Mays is surprisingly moving. Angell is happy to forget the “querulous” fortysomething Mays “who had so clearly stayed too long in the game,” concentrating instead on the graceful young player he once was.
The shift in my feelings was like the change that sometimes comes when we remember a close relative or a friend who has died in old age or after a long illness; suddenly one morning, our sad last view of that person fades away and we are left instead with an earlier and more vivid picture — the one that stay with us. It is a miracle of sorts.
As Bonomo helpfully points out, this piece was published two years after the death of Angell’s mother.
On several occasions, Bonomo isolates interesting threads that cropped up in Angell’s writing across the decades. He notes that Angell, “[a] lifelong amateur sailor off the coast of Maine,” used “maritime figurative language” from the 1970s through the 2010s. In Angell’s argot, a famed stadium is a “grassy old boathouse,” and a befuddled hitter leans “awkwardly to starboard.” Bonomo also keeps close track of Angell’s evolving feelings about night games, new billion-dollar stadiums, and television coverage. The man who once wrote that “the screen offers mostly a prolonged closeup of the home-plate umpire’s neck” would, by the 1990s, concede that the medium had expanded our understanding of the game: “Television has made scouts of us all.”
Meanwhile, Bonomo does a nice job of evoking the pre-internet days when print held sway, explaining how a career like Angell’s was shaped by “fortune and good timing.” Angell started “his career in an era in American history when high-circulation general-interest magazines thrived and the leisure time to read them increased,” Bonomo writes, noting that in Angell’s heyday, a typical New Yorker was 100-plus pages. “[Y]ou just wrote away,” Angell recalls. Today, the magazine’s page count is often in the 70s.
Angell began blogging for The New Yorker in 2008, and in subsequent years he’s won an American Society of Magazine Editors’ award; “This Old Man,” the prizewinning piece, is a beautiful essay about aging and the deaths of his wife and oldest daughter (published in a 2015 collection of his recent work, a nice addendum to his six book-length gatherings of baseball writing). In a 2014 ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame, he received the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the top honor for those who cover the sport. He might have won the award years earlier, but because he’s never been a beat reporter who followed a team from city to city, some members of the Baseball Writers’ Association “felt I wasn’t the real thing,” Angell says. This insightful book demonstrates how wrong they were.