Rooting Interests: A Roger Angell Appreciation

By George Yatchisin

I can be assured I’ve been reading Roger Angell for nearly 45 years, as my copy of his Five Seasons, is inscribed 1978 and “Merry Christmas” from family friends. Now the book’s dust cover is ragged and ripped, and when I open it, it seems the pages are about to let loose from their binding. But I had to turn to it again, as Angell passed away May 20 at the astounding age of 101.

I’m not alone in admitting that Angell is no doubt one of the reasons I became a writer—FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe insightfully titled his moving tribute to him “Your Favorite Baseball Writer’s Favorite Baseball Writer.” But what a wonderful door opening into a writer’s world Angell provided—the elegance of his prose, his adult wit, his gimlet-eyed observational skills. He could regularly attest, in long-form New Yorker journalism collected every five years into books, his abiding love for a game I also adored, but one that awkward and gawky me would never be much good at it, so I needed another way in. Words were that way.

It didn’t hurt that like me, Angell was a Mets fan. That meant plenty of focus on my favorite team, plus someone to delve into the peculiar masochism being a Mets fan most often is, the trademarked amazing glories of 1969 and 1986 notwithstanding. Or, as Angell put it in one of his first baseball articles: “This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.” As a New Jersey teenager in the 1970s, declaring yourself a Mets fan pretty much meant you were a Yankee-hater, and of course the Bronx Zoo won a bunch to give me plenty to despise. Angell helped me understand all of it, even the pain of Tom Seaver getting traded away. When I recently re-read his coverage of that dread event, I realized I almost knew its three packed pages by heart. Angell’s power as a writer is that his vision becomes your personal memory of how things went down.

Eager for at least some stumbling kind of semi-success as a writer, I read voraciously as a teen, and Angell was my way into the New Yorker, as he pretty much was the New Yorker—his mother was longtime fiction editor Katherine Sergeant Angell White and his stepdad none other than E.B. White. (His bio dad only wound up running the ACLU.) He reminiscences in his final book This Old Man (2015) about growing up and playing ping-pong with James Thurber—you know, a typical childhood. And then his main gig was editing fiction for most of the canon of the late 20th century, from Barthelme to Beattie.

But sometime around when I went off to college, like many late-teen boy-men, I became a jerk. Hoping the world might divide into easy dichotomies (a key definition of jerkdom), I decided you could either be a Village Voice reader (hip) or a New Yorker reader (fogey). This was 1980, and New York was still crawling out of its hellish 1970s pit, and I was just not quite old enough to get punk as it happened, but New Wave and college radio were enough to make me realize something earthshaking was happening, even in my safe suburban home, to jiggle The Clash to fit my middle-class circumstances.

And besides, the Voice then was clicking on all its lefty leaning artsy-fartsy cylinders, with Robert Christgau making my musical tastes odder and broader (and strengthening my affinity for dense writing), Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman awakening me to a world of film, etc. Plus, Lester.

I must admit to fudging my biographical timeline here a teensy bit, but as with many who wrote about music, I became enthralled by the brilliant excess of Lester Bangs. I would still make the argument that his wild man ways were more in his lifestyle—one reason he was dead at 33, like Jesus, you know—than his writing. As with Whitman’s poetry, lackadaisical people want to assume rule-breakers don’t know the rules. But in both cases a close examination of their crafted writing will prove otherwise mighty fast. The true power of the wild is to know just when to ease off the gas before the crash.

So what does all of this have to do with Angell, you might wonder? It’s important to note both writers had their heydays (I’d argue the 1970s and ’80s) in a pre-internet world. Back then you couldn’t have Siri instantly settle your bar bet or have YouTube take you to grainy clips of, it seems, every musicians’ gig ever. Downloadable wasn’t a word. But the tantalizing thick description by these writers brought our giants to life for us, whether that was Lou Brock or Lou Reed, the Cubs or the Clash.

For instance, I’d argue these passages are more similar than different. Here’s Angell, writing a deliciously precise description of submariner relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry in Season Ticket (1988), “His ball in flight suggests the kiddie-ride concession at a country fairgrounds—all swoops and swerves but nothing there to make a mother nervous; if you’re standing close to it, your first response is to smile. At other times, the trajectory of the pitch looks like an expert trout fisherman’s sidearm cast that is meant to slip the fly just under an overhanging clump of alders. The man himself—Quis in mid-delivery—brings visions of a Sunday-picnic hurler who has somehow stepped on his own shoelace while coming out of his windup, or perhaps an eager news photographer who has suddenly dropped to one knee to snap a celebrity debarking from a limousine.”

And here’s Bangs, writing about his hero Lou Reed’s near-unlistenable album Metal Machine Music in Creem, “Why do people go to see movies like Jaws, The Exorcist, or Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS? So they can be beaten over the head with baseball bats, have their nerves wrenched while electrodes are being stapled to their spines, and be generally brutalized every fifteen minutes or so (the time between the face falling out of the bottom of the sunk boat and the guy’s bit-off leg hitting the bottom of the ocean). This is what, today, is commonly understood as entertainment, as fun, as art, even! So they’ve got a lot of nerve landing on Lou for MMM. At least here’s there’s no fifteen minutes of bullshit padding between brutalizations.”

Both help us sense life in slo-mo. Or, as Angell himself put it in a memorial article (so much of This Old Man is keen if sad obituary) about his great friend: “Updike’s sentences are fresh-painted. In all his writing, critical or fictional or reportorial, he is a fabulous noticer and expander; he’s invented HD.”

And finally, both never fell into the fallacy that nonfiction, let alone the whoredom that is journalism, was a somehow lesser literary art. So they didn’t make shit up—that doesn’t make them any less creative. It’s way too facile to dismiss writing about things, as if that one remove lessens what one accomplishes. And it’s simply condescending to belittle someone writing about puny things like stoopid rock ’n’ roll or baseball, a game that kids play. Note both seem like jejune phases of life a self-respecting person would grow out of, or worse, have grown out of them—see a lumbering Albert Pujols throttled by some rookie’s high heat or whatever the heck Mick Jagger thinks he’s doing sticking his nearly 80-year old tongue out as a taunt still. (I must point out that despite living until he was 101, and writing about baseball for five decades, and having seen Babe Ruth play when he was a kid, Angell never became Old Man Simpson lamenting the better baseball of his youth.)

Jay Jaffe, in that FanGraphs article I referenced above, offered this quote from Angell’s beloved essay on the 1975 World Series (think Carlton Fisk willing his homerun fair), “Agincourt and After,” that makes the case, of course, much more eloquently than I could:

“What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about: this is what we come for. 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, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. 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. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

I was so taken with that passage I tried to read it aloud to my wife after Angell passed and broke down in the middle of it. The only thing more gorgeous than the writing (those sentence rhythms, those dashes and parentheses working a score like a conductor) is how he pulls off the emotional punch. Passion is no ordinary word. And of course, when I dug out my decades-old copy of Five Seasons, where the essay is reprinted, that page was earmarked from I have no idea how long a read ago.

Sure enough, Bangs concludes his classic essay “Where Were You When Elvis Died?”, originally in the Voice, with similar, if more darkly cast, sentiments:

“If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

Here’s hoping that baseball and rock ’n’ roll—and those perceptive enough to write about them brilliantly—can keep us helloing.