I would like to think that if Roger Angell were a guitar player with a teen daughter, he would wear an earring. He definitely combined worlds. As a word-by-word best-in-class editor whose mother married E.B. White (and didn’t tell him), Angell could have written anything, and he chose to focus on a game. Baseball.
Roger Angell died at 101 this past weekend. Angell has both real estate in the Baseball Hall Of Fame and The American Academy Of Arts And Letters. He worked at The New Yorker for 70 years as a writer and editor. He graduated Harvard, as did his father. He became the fiction editor of The New Yorker, as had his mother. Angell served in the military (World War II) and blogged. He was in therapy almost his entire adult life, he grew authors like John Updike and Garrison Keillor, and he carried a Mead composition notebook to every game.
Baseball is a hobby, a sport. A game. It is neither necessary or mandatory. On the face of it, baseball may not be important. Even Angell acknowledged this surface glance.
“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team,” he wrote in his book “Five Seasons” (1977). “What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.”
There. There it is. That was the genius of Roger Angell. Looking deep enough.
Of Ron Darling, he once wrote, “the best right-handed part-Chinese Yale history major among the Mets starters.” And of life he once wrote, ““Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. 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.”
What I admired most about Mr. Angell’s career was his unapologetic stance. I can only imagine that an Editor of The New Yorker must have had to attend his fair share of cocktail parties on the East Side in apartments overlooking the river. From all accounts, he never once slumped his shoulders at the category of sports writer at them. Instead he held up the game of baseball and humbly said, there are life lessons here, too.
By not apologizing, he elevated. There is a compass there for anyone curbing parts of themselves so that the world understands them better. You don’t compromise, you elevate.
There are other secrets of life to learn from Roger Angell. He was married to his first wife, Carol, for 48 years, who told him while she was dying that he had a year to find someone new, or she would come back and haunt him. He hailed. And at age 93, began another life with Peggy Moorman. In love, as in work, he never stopped. And thusly went into extra innings.
Writers, in exchange for the blood on the page (screen) are granted this Faustian bargain whereby when we are gone, if you want to know what we were thinking (and thus who we were), you can read us. It would be impossible to render an impression of Roger Angell better than the one he rendered. I encourage you to read him. As an essayist his dexterity was more pianist than relief pitcher.
What is possible, though, is to call out a lesson from his life that I am not sure he even knew he was teaching. That one’s joy in something is reason enough. That it is the quality of the mind and not the perceived importance of the endeavor. That reducing one person’s passion is to admit your own short-sightedness, and that even a two hour game can be cast in dignity when the lighting operator is willing to think on it right.
“It’s just clothes,” is an AWFUL lot like “It’s just baseball.”