A Baseball Writer’s Day Job: 50 Years at The New Yorker

052206 article hughes A  Baseball Writer’s Day Job:  50 Years at The New YorkerWhen I met him at the Times Square offices of The New Yorker, Roger Angell—who’s just published a new book of autobiographical essays, Let Me Finish—seemed slightly out of place, though he’s been showing up for work at the magazine for 50 years. A spry and healthy 85, he may have looked the part, dressed for the office in an oxford shirt and tie, khakis and penny loafers. But there was something too grand and genteel about him to be toiling as an editor under the fluorescent bulbs. With his glasses and well-groomed partial head of hair, and his slight hunch at the waist, he seemed better suited to a book-lined, well-upholstered living room. (It should be said, however, that the offices have first-rate views—from the 20th floor—and first-rate office furniture. “Pretty shabby digs,” said Mr. Angell, dryly, as he led me through them.) You might expect him to have moved into the comfort of a writing career, working for himself from home in New York and from Maine in the summers. But here he is, 20 years past retirement age, with no plans to leave.

By nearly universal agreement, Roger Angell is the most eloquent and elegant of baseball writers. The poet Donald Hall, a New Hampshire Luddite who nonetheless owned, at one point, a giant satellite dish just to watch the Red Sox, declared Mr. Angell the greatest in the game, adding that on this point there could be no room for dissent. To many, as one devotee recently told me, the season isn’t really over until Mr. Angell has put the period on it, just so, with his yearly wrap-up.

His baseball writing is passed around, kept for years on shelves in battered paperbacks. These books—among them The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988) and Once More Around the Park (1991)—remain fresh, though they’re only bound collections of old journalism, often reporting on players long since exited stage right. Among his most famous passages is a bravura discussion of the star Red Sox pitcher of the 70’s, Luis Tiant, and his bizarre, herky-jerky pitching motion. The several pages consist of closely observed, metaphorical descriptions that have Tiant, for example, stepping over a raised sill and simultaneously ducking his head to avoid banging it on a low doorframe, in a move dubbed “Out of the Woodshed.”

For Mr. Angell, baseball repays our close attention, several times over. “That’s what’s so great about writing about baseball,” he told me. “When you get down to the game, there’s always something happening that’s … electric.”

In his hands, baseball is less a sport governed by statistics, strategy and interchangeable talents than a game played by men who found joy in its small charms as boys and could never give it up. Mr. Angell has repeatedly remarked that fans now feel more remote than ever from the powerful and almost grotesquely shaped players, and yet he always finds a way to turn his central characters into people. In this way, he ensnares those who didn’t know they were fans.

Writing on the mythic Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when the Boston Red Sox snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Mr. Angell turned his attention from the details to the long view:

“Friends of mine said later that they had been riveted by a postgame television close-up of Wade Boggs, sitting alone in the dugout with tears streaming down his face …. I suppose we should all try to find something better or worse to shed tears for than a game, no matter how hard it has been played, but perhaps it is not such a bad thing to see that men can cry at all.” The reliance on common words, most of them one syllable, is classic Angell. The artistry is hidden.

What many of Roger Angell’s readers don’t know, though publishing insiders do, is that he’s not only a sportswriter but also a fiction editor: New Yorker colleagues say he’s still very much involved in selecting stories and excerpts from novels, and in working with writers to prune their work into shape for the magazine.

Mr. Angell told me about one short-story writer, an Irish schoolteacher, whom the magazine began to publish in 1959. One day Mr. Angell got a letter from him, announcing that he was leaving his job to write full time. “I was horrified,” Mr. Angell said. “His agent called and had received the same letter. So we called and begged him not to quit. Well, I just went to opening night of his play Faith Healer. Brian Friel is probably the best playwright in the English language now that Arthur Miller is gone. And he is certainly the No. 1 Irish man of letters.”

Mr. Angell is uniquely positioned to comment on the history of The New Yorker, and not only because of his long tenure. His mother, Katharine White, was also an editor there, of fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Mr. Angell occupied her old office for a time, when the magazine was located on West 43rd Street. Katharine left his father and “immediately after,” as Mr. Angell puts it, married the legendary E.B. White, who wrote regular columns and commentaries for the magazine.

White also wrote, of course, two of the most widely read and loved children’s books of all time, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and was the co-author of The Elements of Style, the frequently consulted and dog-eared guide for writers often referred to simply as “Strunk and White.” Many of his magazine pieces, written from the saltwater farm in North Brooklin, Me., that he shared with Katharine, were later published in his famous collection One Man’s Meat. (Mr. Angell contributed a foreword to the 1997 edition.)

Mr. Angell says that there was much resistance at The New Yorker to his hiring, in 1956, when he was in his mid-30’s. He’d contributed stories to the magazine and had been an editor at a G.I. paper during his time in the military during World War II and then at Holiday magazine. Even now, he seems keen to defend the decision. “The staff just felt they’d had enough of the Whites …. But [William] Shawn came to me and made me an offer. And it was a natural thing, because I was a good editor by that time and I knew the magazine.”

Let Me Finish, Mr. Angell’s new book, could have been another in a long line of buzz-generating New Yorker memoirs—by Renata Adler, Brendan Gill, Ved Mehta, Lillian Ross and others. It is not. Asked about the New Yorker editors in chief he has worked for, he declined to offer comparisons, making mildly approving comments about each, though he skipped Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown’s predecessor. (He did say Tina Brown was “probably a needed change.”)

In fact, Mr. Angell said he sees the book in opposition to the prevailing trends in what The New Yorker calls “Personal History.” As in his baseball writing, restraint and careful, telling portraiture are hallmarks. When he began writing the pieces in this book a few years ago, he said, “There were a lot of get-even memoirs—people writing about their parents and the terrible things that had happened to them. And showing up their parents. There was a tell-all atmosphere, a look-at-this kind of tone.”

It never occurred to him to write about his famous family, he told me, until Tina Brown suggested it. Sounding very much of his generation, he said, “I thought, ‘This is private stuff—you don’t write about your family.’ But she’s the one who got me thinking about my father.

“I’ve suppressed some things,” he added candidly. “There are a lot of things I thought of writing and started to put in there, and then I took them out. Some private things about my mother and father that I thought would be very interesting, but then I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to do that, because I really felt they wouldn’t like it …. So why put that out there? I don’t feel we have to tell everything.”

How does he treat his parents and stepfather in the book, then? On the whole, warmly, with some exceptional moments. A piece about his father, Ernest Angell—not a man of letters—reflects the sort of sympathy that comes with age and perspective. Mr. Angell said, when pressed, that it wasn’t well received by his sister, who didn’t share his generosity, when it was published in The New Yorker. “She was older and had gone off to school, and she had an even graver view of the divorce than I did. She didn’t see this side of Father.”

The chapter about E.B. White (titled “Andy,” after his nickname) is a kind of centerpiece of the book, at least for Mr. Angell, because, he said, “there was so much to tell. Terrific stories. But I had to wait—with each of these pieces, I had to wait until the tone suggested itself. Sometimes a couple years.” Tone, he said, is probably the most difficult and essential aspect of writing, because it determines the reader’s experience.

In this chapter, which also appeared in a different form in The New Yorker, there’s a wonderful passage in which Mr. Angell quotes a paragraph of his stepfather’s and tries to explain what makes it great. “I realized I had to do a little lit crit in the middle of this,” said Mr. Angell, “because not everybody remembered how good a writer he was.”

Here, you’re able to see not only White’s gifts, but also Mr. Angell’s own writing mind at work. What he feels reading White’s passage, which describes a highway drive in Maine, is “a sense of trust,” he writes. “He has looked at the roadside grunge and granite with the same eyes I do, and he does not labor for reference or add a chunk of scholarship to give them meaning; he waits for the connection.” Mr. Angell pays attention to content, to style, even to sound, and he describes an effect his own writing so often achieves: the feeling that a thought or phrase has somehow been shared between the author and us, the readers—that somehow we have participated. Mr. Angell writes that White’s New Yorker editor, William Shawn, called him “the most companionable of writers.”

A number of writers are doing their own lit crit on Roger Angell right now, as his new book receives media coverage. There can be no mistaking that Mr. Angell was displeased by the James Campbell review that recently appeared in The New York Times Book Review. “I think he’s got this whole thing wrong. He says these pieces are full of bonhomie and nostalgia. I don’t think there’s either of that in these pieces …. I’m not trying to play mood music here.”

There seemed to be something about the word “bonhomie” that particularly irked Mr. Angell. And then it came out: “You know what that [review] is about? I got a call from Chip McGrath [an ex–New Yorker editor and later the editor of The Times Book Review]. He said, ‘You know, I’ve figured it out. This guy is a Brit’”—meaning Mr. Campbell.

I laughed. “No, really,” Mr. Angell said, “this is class stuff. He is offended by my sailing.” He repeated himself slowly: “He doesn’t like that I sail. And I want to tell him that I don’t have any income aside from what I earn working.” Later in the interview, when I asked him about sailing, he said he belongs to a yacht club in Maine, but he made sure to add that “it’s very informal, and inexpensive.”

I asked him about Mr. Campbell’s remark that in Let Me Finish, there’s “no ethnic friction” and “no poverty, no crime and next to no politics.” Mr. Angell pointed out that the book discusses political debates at the home of his father, who was active in the ACLU—beyond that, he didn’t answer the charge.

Mr. Angell’s mother is far less present in the pages of the new book than are the men in his life, to the point that one begins to wonder how much his portrait of her has left out. He gives her view, in brief, of her divorce and remarriage to E.B. White, and his own account is just as curt: “She always insisted that there was no connection between her divorce and their marriage …. Whatever. What can be said for sure is that each of my parents grew up with a critically missing parent … [and] it sometimes pissed you off or broke your heart (choose one) to watch them.”

I asked him about the word “whatever,” which seemed out of place in Mr. Angell’s writing. He replied quickly, “I’m being hard on her.” This may seem to our ears a very restrained way of being hard on someone, but it’s typical of his reticence.

Here he is on the currently ascendant mode of first-person writing: “We are wary of sentiment and obsessively knowing, and we feel obliged to put a spin of psychology or economic determinism or bored contempt on all clear-color memories.” I told him I found his new book free of the armor of irony and understatement. He said, “Well, thank you,” and looked genuinely pleased, casting his eyes to the side and smiling shyly, but added that he didn’t write a certain way to counter another sort of style.

I pointed out, too, that the title Let Me Finish has a morbid ring to it, and asked if it would upset him if this were his last book.

“Sure!” And then he added, with a smile so as not to sound offended, “What are you trying to say here?” He said, as he does in the book, that the title isn’t meant that way.

“When I wrote Late Innings, people thought it would be the last,” he said. “There were a lot of books after that.

“I think Let Me Finish is a nice title to catch your attention,” he continued. “Think of it this way: I’ve got these stories saved up, and let me finish. Let me tell another story.”

Evan Hughes is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.