Legendary sportswriter Roger Angell in his office at The New Yorker in 2006

Roger Angell in his office at The New Yorker magazine in 2006. Angell,, in New York. Angell, a legendary sportswriter, died last month at age 101.

For all my life, I’ve been a baseball agnostic. The thing I like most about baseball  is that, by and large, it is played outside in the summertime, generally in the cool of the evening. Johnny Sain, an old pitching coach from back in the day, used to use that phrase to describe the feeling of satisfaction that came from a successful day on the mound. More than once, talking to gatherings of journos from near and far, I have borrowed it to describe what it feels like to finish a long writing project. The cool of the evening.

Anyway, during my days as a sportswriter, I covered my share of baseball and, by and large, I enjoyed the experience. What I never got was the quasi-mystical attraction that drew so many otherwise rational humans toward a private nirvana. I was deaf to its poetry. I was blind to its seemingly endless reservoir of metaphors about the passage of time, America, and fathers and sons. I felt as though everyone else was grooving to music I couldn’t hear. But summer evenings were pretty much all I needed.

I thought of this when I read the news that Roger Angell had died. He was 101.

If there is such a thing as a legend in sportswriting, Angell was it. He did other things, too — wrote books and essays and edited fiction at The New Yorker. He came by the work honestly; his mother was hired as the fiction editor at The New Yorker in its early days; his stepfather was the no less legendary E.B. White. Angell joined The New Yorker staff in 1956, nurtured and edited other famed writers, and for many years wrote the magazine’s annual Christmas poem. Through it all, he loved and wrote about baseball.

I met him once, at Red Sox spring training in Winter Haven, Florida, the Designer Mudflap Capital of the Western World. Baja Alabama —  there never was a worse place for spring training. He was having a grand old time. I asked him which of Winter Haven’s approximately 398 fast-food outlets he would be patronizing for dinner that night, He laughed a deep, resounding laugh. He was having a time. For a brief moment, I got a glimpse at what I was missing.

See, the funny thing about agnostics is that we can enjoy the art of the things we can’t understand. We can read the Beatitudes and decide that, even if we don’t. Buy the whole loaves and fishes thing, they constitute a pretty fine plan for an honest life. We can read Revelations and recognize that, while it might be the half-mad pattering of some guy dying of thirst on the island of Patmos, it’s some of the best writing in all the Bible, and a ripping sci-fi yarn on top of it. I may not have understood what Roger Angell saw in baseball, but I came to him first as a writer  of clean, complex sentences developed within a very interesting mind. For example, this passage from his first collection, “The Summer Game:”

The box score, being modestly arcane, is a matter of intense indifference, if not irritation, to the non-fan. To the baseball-bitten, it is not only informative, pictorial, and gossipy but lovely in aesthetic structure. It represents happenstance and physical flight exactly translated into figures and history. Its totals – batters’ credit vs. pitchers’ debit – balance as exactly as those in an accountant’s ledger. And a box score is more than a capsule archive. It is a precisely etched miniature of the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoor sports. Every player in every game is subjected to a cold and ceaseless accounting; no ball is thrown and no base is gained without an instant responding judgement – ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay – and an ensuing statistic. This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory, to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that pickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of Don Giovanni and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins.”

I’m not sure I see the connection between Mike Trout and Mozart there. And I know even less about opera than I do about baseball. But I rode those sentences, one after another, each clause a gentle curve and each comma a delicate twist, until I arrived precisely where the writer wanted me to go. Speaking for myself, when a writer reads, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.

… when a writer reads, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.

Take, for example, one of his most famous New Yorker pieces — a profile of Pittsburgh Pirates’ star pitcher Steve Blass, who suddenly, mysteriously, and incomprehensibly lost his ability to find the catcher with the baseball. Blass had been the hero of Pittsburgh’s 1971 World Series victory. Angell describes what happened only two years later.

… the roof fell in. The team was still in Atlanta, and Virdon called Blass into the game in the fifth inning, with the Pirates trailing by 8–3. Blass walked the first two men he faced, and gave up a stolen base and a wild pitch and a run-scoring single before retiring the side. In the sixth, Blass walked Darrell Evans. He walked Mike Lum, throwing one pitch behind him in the process, which allowed Evans to move down to second. Dusty Baker singled, driving in a run. Ralph Garr grounded out. Davey Johnson singled, scoring another run. Marty Perez walked. Pitcher Ron Reed singled, driving in two more runs, and was wild-pitched to second. Johnny Oates walked. Frank Tepedino singled, driving in two runs, and Steve Blass was finally relieved. His totals for the one and one-third innings were seven runs, five hits, six bases on balls, and three wild pitches.

“It was the worst experience of my baseball life,” Blass told me. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I was embarrassed and disgusted. I was totally unnerved. You can’t imagine the feeling that you suddenly have no idea what you’re doing out there. You have no business being there, performing that way as a major-league pitcher. It was kind of scary.”

Angell takes us through the inexorable slide out of baseball that an increasingly desperate Blass tries anything and everything to arrest. This included transcendental meditation, which Angell shrewdly observes, helped Blass relax, but, “did not seem to have much application to his pitching.” Throughout the piece, however, Angell never lets go of the mystery at the heart of Blass’ decline and, ultimately, he decides that whatever happened to Blass is unknowable at its source.

And there Roger Angell stops, and waits for the rest of us to catch up in the cool of the evening.


Charles P. Pierce is a politics writer for Esquire and the author of four books on sports, politics and American culture.

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