Roger Angell, the American essayist who wrote about baseball with insight, compassion and penetrating humor, died Friday at his Manhattan home. He was 101 years old.
He was one of my childhood heroes. I always dreamed of writing like him.
My father, Dusty Saunders, the longtime Rocky Mountain News reporter, who is 90, introduced me to Angell’s writing when I was a teenager. Over the years he gave me a number of Angell books. On Christmas morning 1988, her gift was Angell’s collection of essays, “Season Ticket”. My dad inscribed it with the words: “Love on Christmas, 1988. To my favorite sportswriter – Pops.”
I met Angell many years ago at Scottsdale Stadium before a Cactus League game between the Rockies and Giants. With his baseball cap, white mustache and round-rimmed glasses, I recognized him quickly. I introduced myself as a fellow baseball writer and tried to impress him with my memory of his words.
“I loved ‘The Summer Game,’ especially your 1962 Mets chapters,” I told him. “I still remember your line about Choo Choo Coleman, how he caught curve balls like a bee fighting man.”
He smiled at me, and at my effort, then corrected me. A little harshly.
“I believe I wrote that he handles curveballs like a bee-fighting man,” he said. “But thank you for reading my book.”
He was right, of course. I went back and looked at:
“The Mets capture is embarrassing. Choo Choo Coleman and Norm Sherry, the two receivers, bat .215 and .119 respectively. Neither can throw and Coleman, who is impatient and combative, handles a curveball like a bee-fighting man.
“He’s quick on the basics, but that’s an attribute that’s about as essential for catchers as neat handwriting.”
Angell once described Willie Mays chasing a ball hit deep center as “running so hard and so far that the ball itself seems to stop in the air and wait for him”.
One of my favorite players growing up was Bob Gibson, the fierce Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cardinals. In an essay that appeared in The New Yorker, he wrote an intimate sketch of Gibson’s character.
Gibson recalled how he was knocked down by a pitch from Tom Seaver, who was hitting back for Gibson throwing at John Milner during a spring training game.
Angell wrote, “Gibson looked almost like a veteran samurai warrior recalling an ancient code of pain and honor.”
We live in the age of Twitter where so much content is mean, rude, a mile wide and an inch deep. We don’t have time, or so we think, for reflection and appreciation of well-crafted stories.
Angell was a man and a writer from another era. Angell, like my father, helped me fall in love with baseball.
Angell, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Writers Wing in 2014, wrote eloquently about what it meant to be a fan.
“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with something so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitable as a professional sports team,” he wrote in his book “Five Seasons.” “What remains outside of this calculation, it seems to me, is the concern to care – to care deeply and passionately, really to care – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost disappeared from our lives.”
In 1962, Angell fell hard for the Mets, that infamous team that lost 120 games. He took his 14-year-old daughter to a Dodgers-Mets game at the Polo Grounds to soak up New York’s crazy love affair with his new team.
In the ‘Summer Game’ he wrote: ‘I was counting the score and after noting down the symbols for their seven singles, two doubles, one triple, three homers, three walks and two stolen bases… half of the Dodgers my dashboard looked like it was covered in a cloud of gnats. I was pained for the Mets and embarrassed as a fan.
“Baseball isn’t usually like that,” I explained to my daughter.
“Sometimes it is,” she says. “It’s like fifth grade versus sixth grade at school.”
In the beautiful New York Times obituary on Angell, he is quoted as saying, “Baseball is a great game for writers because it’s just the right beat. You can watch the game and keep score and look around and take notes. Once in a while you even have time for an idea.
Angell also said he loves how “baseball sticks to you; it means breaking your heart.