Roger Angell's memories of Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium are moving pictures in his head, deposited there when he was a boy absorbed by the pastime and the world around him. The Babe's big bat, his heavy flannel uniform, the men in fedoras watching him: You and I, way late to the party, have been fed these black-and-white snaps by PBS specials and Hall of Fame exhibits, but that's not the case for Angell. For him, they're in color. Angell is the grand master of the first-hand observation, which is why his baseball writing in The New Yorker is so original and lively and has been for 50 years.
They say if you watch baseball long enough you'll see something you've never seen before. Maybe that's what has kept Roger—he'd invite you to call him that—so young, the promise of what the next game might bring. Reading him, you'd never guess his age. He's 90.
Whatever he wrote in his New Yorker blog last week, you won't see anywhere else. His pieces get published, on the magazine's website and in its pages, with no predictable pattern, and every time you come across one, it's a delight. If you want a traditional ode to the new season, don't read Angell. Only once, in 1963, did he compare the return of newspaper box scores in April to spring flowers. Only once, in 1988, did he call Bart Giamatti, then the president of the National League, a "career .400 talker." Only once did Angell compare Tim Lincecum's stride to "a January commuter arching over six feet of slush." That was last year.
In his little 20th-floor office in the sleek Condé Nast building in Times Square, Angell—trim and fit in the tweedy uniform of the gentleman farmer—has a pile of Mead spiral-bound notebooks. In one he has made a primitive sketch of Lincecum. On the opposite page are notes about the unusual Giants righthander.
April 10, 2011
Angell's lucid, often amusing sentences bring to mind his own writing heroes, the columnist Red Smith and Angell's stepfather, the novelist and essayist E.B. White. One of his baseball heroes is David Cone, the retired pitcher and TV colorman. Angell and Cone hung together for a book project during the 2000 season, which turned out to be the worst of Cone's career. Angell said, "This might make the book better." Cone said, "If you say so, Rog." The combination was alchemy. The result, A Pitcher's Story, belongs on your baseball e-shelf.
Angell says—and you might not have expected this—that baseball coverage has never been more informative and accurate than it is today, with all the former players in broadcast booths and with the widespread use of sabermetrics. But he has limited interest in the modern press conference that turns ballplayers into draw-the-string puppets. Angell's goal has always been to see the players—and the managers, owners, coaches, scouts, executives, umpires and fans—as human beings.
He still goes to games and some clubhouses, watches a lot of baseball on TV and feasts on baseball-reference.com. Angell gets his baseball news as any reporter might, but he processes it differently, shaping it through the filter of 80 years, a thousand spent notebooks, ten thousand baseball friends.
"The nature of memory has changed," he said the other day, with the new season a calendar flip away. Old Yankee Stadium was shiny and new when he started watching games there in 1930 at age nine. Spring training was just catching on. "In those days, there was no television and there weren't many photos in the paper. You saw the ballplayers at the ballpark." They weren't larger than life. (Well, Ruth was.) They looked, Angell says, "like your older brother." Now the players look like giants. Angell's fine with it. They're better athletes, he says.
The obliteration of home run records in the Sosa-McGwire-Bonds era he pins not chiefly on chemical enhancement but on baseball's many new ballparks with Pony League dimensions. Anyway, the rhythm of a 4-6-3 double play is the same as it ever was. The first time Angell referred to a double play in a story, he had to explain the phrase to William Shawn, the legendary New Yorker editor. "He was tickled pink," Angell says. Shawn, like his baseball writer (who also became his fiction editor in 1956), found deep pleasure in learning something new.
In 1976, on a manual typewriter, Angell wrote about the joy of holding a baseball, "a perfect object for a man's hand." In his office the other day, Roger held a game ball from last season for a minute or two. Age has curved his fingers. Retired catchers have the same fingers, battered by foul tips and long swings. He gripped the ball's red laces and said, "Now I can throw the knuckler." His bent digits, or the many seasons they represent, have only helped his keyboard strikes.
For many fans and writers, baseball is about the familiar and the reliable. There's nothing wrong with that. But what draws Roger's interest is the unexpected. Willie McCovey, for instance, telling him, kindly, that fans are "helpless" in the face of their team's struggles. Who knew the great slugger was paying attention to the loge level? Angell's notebooks are filled with insight and surprise. And that has made all the difference—for Roger, writing and, for us, reading.
Angell, who as a boy SAW BABE RUTH PLAY, still goes to games and clubhouses.