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M: Roger Angell, A Hall-of-Famer at 93

The veteran New Yorker writer saw Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium, but he never gushes about the game he loves.

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Menswear issue M Summer 2014

Roger Angell goes to work almost every day at The New Yorker, where he has been a writer and editor since 1956. Earlier this year, an essay he wrote for the magazine—a meditation on the gains and losses that come with age, titled “This Old Man”—managed to cut through the noise, becoming a subject of conversation at Manhattan cocktail parties and in Brooklyn bars while also generating thousands of tweets and more than 40,000 Facebook shares. “Check me out,” the story begins. “The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B.”


“That piece has had an amazing response,” the 93-year-old Angell says at The New Yorker’s offices on the twentieth floor of 4 Times Square in Manhattan. “I’ve had over a hundred handwritten letters and endless e-mails. Not just from old people, but from so many. Makes me very self-conscious. I don’t feel like a guru or anything, but it struck home for some reason.”


In his more than five decades at The New Yorker, Angell has edited fiction and nonfiction while also publishing his own light-verse poems, short stories, profiles, and other features in its pages (more than five hundred pieces total). But he is probably best known for his lively, precise baseball writing. “Which is the greater—Roger the writer or Roger the editor?” asks Charles McGrath, a writer and editor who worked at The New Yorker for twenty-three years. “It’s kind of a toss-up.”

Angell saw Babe Ruth in his prime, but he never writes sentimentally about baseball, a sport that has inspired many sports-writers to produce reams of awful, faux-poetic prose. His habit of telling it straight is what makes his nine books hold up and keeps him relevant today. “I don’t go for nostalgia,” he says. “I try not to. It’s so easy to sentimentalize the good old days, but I don’t ever do that. I’m aware that things have changed, but I try not to go there. It’s very easy, and you get sort of a mental diabetes. All that goo. I am a foe of goo, maybe too much so.”


He still goes to Yankee Stadium, taking a cab to the game and a hired car back to his Madison Avenue apartment, where he lives with his fox terrier, Andy. And still, today he is almost always writing, almost always working on something for the magazine or its Web site. The New Yorker is more or less a part of him: He knew it well even as a child, given that his mother, Katharine White, was its literary editor from its founding year of 1925 to 1960, and his stepfather, renowned essayist and Charlotte’s Web author E. B. White, joined its staff in 1927 and stayed on as a contributor into the early eighties.


Roger was raised mainly by his biological father, Ernest Angell, a World War One veteran who made his career as a Wall Street lawyer before serving as the national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It wasn’t like I was being ignored by a parent or yearning for something,” Angell says. “I wanted to see my mother more than I did. It’s a very strange arrangement, to be raised mostly by your father. I got used to it—kids do get used to things. My stepfather never tried to be a father to me, but he was a wonderful addition. He was younger than my mother and young in spirit, so it was like having a slightly older friend who knew a lot and was entertaining. And when I was with the Whites—on weekends, mostly, and summers in Maine—The New Yorker was a big part of this, because they were both deeply engaged. There were always proofs around, and my stepfather was writing. So here I am—6, 7, 8, 9 years old—taking this all in and reading the magazine the best I could. When I was about fourteen, we were up in Maine, and I said I could remember the caption of every cartoon The New Yorker had ever published. My parents didn’t believe this, so they went back through old copies, and I could remember every caption. This was food and drink for me. I wasn’t trying to be a New Yorker person, but it was natural.”


David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker since 1998, first met Angell in 1982. At the time, Remnick was a 23-year-old intern at The Washington Post, and Angell was a 61-year-old veteran writer on a tour to promote Late Innings: A Baseball Companion. In a dark corner of a Washington, D.C., restaurant, Remnick looked on as Angell used saltshakers and sugar packets to demonstrate how a baseball reacts to the oddities of Boston’s Fenway Park. Eighteen years later, during the 2000 World Series, the two sat together as colleagues during the decisive Game Five between the New York Yankees and New York Mets, at Shea Stadium. “It’s hard to think about what he hasn’t meant to the magazine,” Remnick says. “He’s one of the most influential fiction editors in the history of the country. He’s discovered writers. He’s the best baseball writer who ever lived, and, inside the magazine, he’s not somebody who fails to have his voice heard.”


Angell served in the air force during world war two, stationed in the Central Pacific, and was managing editor of a weekly enlisted-man’s publication, Air Inspector Briefs of Current Regulations and Directives (now a quarterly called TIG Brief). In 1944, he published his first New Yorker story, a reported article on an Iwo Jima bombing mission. Back home, he spent nine years as a senior editor at Holiday, a travel magazine. He was 36 when he arrived at The New Yorker.

 

He spent a great number of his childhood days at the magazine’s offices (then on West Forty-third Street), where he got to know its founding editor, the irascible Harold Ross. In 1956, Ross’ successor, William Shawn, gave Angell a staff position, only to ask him to take an editing test at the last minute. “I said, ‘No, I’m not going to take a test,’ ” Angell recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll start, and if it doesn’t work out, you can fire me.’ And it worked out.”


The writers he has edited include Woody Allen, John Updike, Donald Barthelme, Garrison Keillor, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Ann Beattie. Beattie loved working with Angell, although he rejected the first seventeen stories she sent his way. “I appreciated the fact that he was knowledgeable and calm and well-spoken,” she says by e-mail. “And I detected a sense of humor underneath that, too…. When he edited me, I sounded like a better me. He always had good reasons for things he wanted cut or moved. He’s a pro, simple as that.”


McGrath is good friends with Angell, but when he first encountered him, he saw a man with “steam coming out of his ears, who slammed a door harder than I’d ever heard in my life.” McGrath goes on: “He has definitely mellowed a lot. In the old days, he had a temper. He could be a fearsome figure, and young people were a little afraid of him.”


“Roger makes his feelings known,” Remnick says, “and he’s not shy about that. It’s all rooted in his passion for language and what he thinks is right, and he’s true to his principles and his sense of the magazine. He lets me know it, and I’m grateful for it.”


A skill quite different from navigating the hallways and egos of The New Yorker is the ability to get story subjects to open up about themselves. Ballplayers, especially, can be reticent and distrustful when they’re in the presence of a journalist they don’t know. Angell equates the process of reporting to “winning over your wife.” He and his subjects are not so much foes pitted against each other as they are collaborators—something close to coauthors of a given story.


This summer, Angell will receive the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, an honor given by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to distinguished baseball writers. It will be presented at the induction ceremony of the latest players and managers to be welcomed into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Library, in Cooperstown, New York. The honor had eluded him too long, probably because he never belonged to the Baseball Writers’ Association—and perhaps also because his fellow baseball writers, the majority of them beat reporters for daily newspapers, may regard him as a “poet laureate” of the game.


“I’m not some ‘poet laureate,’ ” Angell says. “I’m not writing poetry. That sounds as if I’m doing no reporting, and that’s not the truth. If you do enough reporting, then you don’t have to gush about the emerald field, the white streak of the ball, and that.”


Inside the cabinets above his desk, he has stored what may be his most valuable assets: stacks of the three-subject notebooks he uses while reporting. “Mead notebooks,” he says, “the best notebook in the world. David Remnick and I talk about how you can’t get anything to replace the Mead notebook, which is unavailable now. They take ink perfectly. There is a great flow. All the other notebooks are coated with something so your pen slides along.” In recent years, when he goes on reporting trips, he has resorted to making use of old Mead notebooks that still have blank pages.


He shows me one, and I glance at his quick sketches of onetime Chicago Cub Ron Santo. On other pages, I see observations from various ball games and notes he scribbled while listening to one of his favorite subjects, former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre. “I’ve done thousands and thousands of words from Joe Torre,” Angell says, “because he was a great talker and he would involve you in some way. I was always the oldest writer in the groups around him, and if he made a reference that was more than five years back, he would say, ‘As Roger can tell you.’ So complimentary. [Baseball reporter] Claire Smith and I once had a conversation about Joe Torre, and we agreed that of all the people in public life in New York, he was the best, in the sense of talking openly and thinking of the other person.”


Angell made terrific use of his skill as a perceptive, sympathetic reporter when he was spending time with Steve Blass, an ace Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who mysteriously lost the ability to throw strikes after the 1972 season. By the time Angell met with him for a 1975 profile, “Down the Drain,” Blass was out of the game entirely, four years removed from pitching the winning game of the 1971 World Series. Other writers had approached him, trying to crack the mystery of how he had suddenly lost it, but he understood that Angell would reach for more than a story about “a guy who could pitch and then suddenly couldn’t pitch.”


It took some thought and imagination for Angell to come up with an ending. There was still a pitcher in Blass, or a man who thought like a pitcher, he reasoned. And so, for the story’s final scene, in Blass’ living room, Angell asked him to “pitch” an imaginary inning against the mid-seventies Cincinnati Reds, the greatest-hitting team of its era. Blass described his thought process as he worked his way through the inning, batter by batter, and, with it, they had written the hardest part of the story—the ending—together.

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