Baseball legend who hits home runs on the page
‘New Yorker’ writer Roger Angell is the game’s undisputed poet laureate
‘New Yorker’ baseball writer Roger Angell (left) with retired baseball player George Brett during a reception in Angell’s honour in Cooperstown, New York, at which he received the JG Taylor Spink Award, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s writing honour. Photograph: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times
Roger Angell takes off his brown J Press sports coat and blue cap, yanks out his hearing aids, stashes his cane and sits down for a shave and haircut at Delta barber shop at 72nd and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, the same spot he has patronised for 40 years. “I don’t see Henry Kissinger doing any interviews in a barber shop,” he says dryly.
The 93-year-old New Yorker writer has come down from his house in Maine to get spruced up for the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony. The old man who has lovingly described so many young men playing the game is getting the sport’s highest writing honour, the JG Taylor Spink Award, unprecedented recognition for “a drop-in writer”, as he calls himself, whose leisurely deadlines prevented him from becoming a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
In 1962, he says, he took the advice of New Yorker editor William Shawn to try writing about something exotic, such as baseball, describing Shawn’s red-cheeked excitement when Angell explained to him what a double play was.
Baseball writing was a part-time gig for Angell, who served for many years as the magazine’s fiction editor, following in the footsteps of his mother, Katharine Angell White, who left his father to marry her colleague EB White. When Angell moved into his mother’s old New Yorker office, he chuckles, his shrink called it the “biggest single act of sublimation in my experience”.
The lover of books and words – who else would use “venery” in a story and write the world’s longest palindrome? – crisply shepherded John Updike, Donald Barthelme and William Trevor, as he himself became so luminous that Sports Illustrated compared him to Willie Mays, the player Angell calls so thrilling he “took your breath away”. It’s refreshing that a sport that has become tarnished by the desire to amp itself up – on steroids, merchandise and video – should honour someone so unamped.
In person, the writer is less “Angellic” – the adjective coined to describe his beguiling writing – than astringent. He has spent most of a century, from Ruth to Jeter, passionately tracking the sport as a fan, but he also proclaims himself a “foe of goo”.
He much prefers the sexy Bull Durham to the sentimental Field of Dreams. He sniffs at being called “the poet laureate of baseball” and winces at a recent reverential Sports Illustrated profile. “It made me sound like the Dalai Lama,” he says. “My God, I’m just a guy who happened to live on for a long time. I’d rather be younger and writing than all this stuff.”
When I ask him if the Jacques Barzun quote “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” was outmoded, he scoffs: “I didn’t write about baseball because I was looking for the heart and soul of America. I don’t care if baseball is the national pastime or not. The thing about baseball is it’s probably the hardest game to play. The greatest hitters are only succeeding a third of the time. If you take a great athlete who’s never played baseball and put him in the infield, he’s lost.”
Many in our attention- deficit-disorder nation may find baseball soporific now, but not Angell.
“Baseball is linear – it’s like writing,” he says. “In other sports there’s a lot going on at the same time. You can’t quite take it all in.”
Could soccer ever take over as the national pastime? “I don’t know,” he says. “I felt I was being waterboarded by the New York Times with the World Cup.”
Could have been me
Do American men focus as much on baseball? “Baseball used to be really attractive for men because the guys that played it were normal size, they had winter jobs as truck drivers or beer salesmen,” he says
. “So it was easy to think with a little bit of luck that could have been me. Now the athletes are clearly so much bigger and stronger and vastly more talented.”
Should steroid-tainted players be in the Hall of Fame?
“Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame,” he said, expressing sympathy for players who get worn down playing every day. “There’s been a lot of cheating, if you want to call it that, particularly about home runs,” he says. “If Ted Williams had had a short right field in Fenway Park he would have been much better than Babe Ruth, probably.”
We drop by a Ralph Lauren store. He wants to buy a cotton sweater for Cooperstown but doesn’t see anything he likes. “It’s hard to be old and shop,” he says. “The sales staff is probably terrified that I’m changing the age demographic. And I’m no longer sure what I want.”
He said the instructions for Cooperstown were “like D-Day,” but noted mordantly: “Anything I do is okay because they’ll say: ‘He’s old. What do you expect? He’s 93. He’s hopeless.’”
He wrote a swell New Yorker story about the vicissitudes of old age, talking about how he memorises poems and writes blogs to stay sharp. Most surprising, the widower – his beloved wife, Carol, died two years ago – extolled the virtues of sunset sexuality, ratifying Laurence Olivier’s line: “Inside, we’re all 17, with red lips.”
He asked me to mention his “fiancée and closest companion, Peggy Moorman”, adding: “Everybody has been so weepy about me and Carol, but Peggy looks after me and is the centre of my life.” As he wrote in This Old Man: “I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach.”
At least somebody around here knows how to play this game.