Joe Bonomo teaches in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Field Recordings from the Inside: Essays; Conversations with Greil Marcus; Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band; Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found; and No Place I would Rather Be (Nebraska, 2019).
One of Roger Angell’s favorite words was “startled.” It was present in the first baseball essay he wrote for the New Yorker in 1962, and appeared countless times afterward, up to his 2014 speech accepting the J. G. Taylor Spink Award at the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown. When I interviewed him for No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball, the word popped up in our conversations, not unexpectedly. Roger never lost the capacity to be surprised by baseball. If I was startled to hear of his death last weekend, it was because he’d been living his life so fully that the prospect of its ending had seemed remote, even as he lived beyond his 100th year.
Born in 1920, Roger became an avid baseball fan by his teen years, falling in love with the New York Giants in the ballgames he and his father took in at the Polo Grounds. When he began writing about the game at the New Yorker, he’d been a fiction editor there for several years already, and was in his early 40s. He came later to his most authentic voice. In the stands, in the press box, on the page, Roger was casually erudite, fanly, alert always to the significant narrative detail, small or profound, and above all open to the larger story that a ballgame was playing. No one described a plate appearance like Roger.
“Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up,” he wrote in 1987.
It’s probably a good idea to keep the two sorted out, but old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June; the grinding, serious, unending (surely) business of midsummer; the September settling of accounts, when hopes must be traded in for philosophies or brave smiles; and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for—almost demand—a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain.
Roger’s baseball writing for the New Yorker followed a pattern, as well. Annually from the 1960s onward he wrote a Spring Training piece, a mid-summer check-in, and an Autumn recap of the postseason playoffs. Over the years he’d also write lengthy profiles of players, and sometimes of fans and others attached to baseball, and essays in which he indulged his ever-increasing appetite to learn more about the game—its pitching, swinging, and fielding; its managers, announcers, and owners—that he loved so much and that renewed itself endlessly.
Roger was a tireless writer; he worked steadily for more than half a century, a cultural barometer for so long that his experience with and knowledge of baseball became a kind of gauge on which one could read the sport’s evolving, complex, multi-decades relationship with popular culture itself. When the game moved from the radio to television and then online, he (sometimes skeptically) went along; when baseball coverage in the New Yorker moved over from thick weeklies to blogging, he kept pace; when baseball parks metamorphosed from rickety, funkily-designed city joints to enormous domes in the far suburbs and then back again in a retro-leaning style, he sat in as many of them as he could, taking in a game that stayed as constant as it at times recklessly changed.
Last week I watched the Chicago White Sox host the Boston Red Sox. Boston’s starter, the veteran Rich Hill, pitched well but ran into some difficulties in the middle innings. The Chicago announcer commented that Hill looked unhappy on the mound, and I instantly wondered—as I have countless times—what Roger would’ve made of the now aggrieved Hill’s face as he stared down potential trouble. It just as swiftly occurred to me, with a pang, that we’ll never again enjoy a new observation—a new sentence—from Roger. What turned out to be his final baseball blog post at the New Yorker four years ago was brief—blogging allowed Roger to weigh in on a moment or three in the games he chose to enjoy—and Angellian: an amused take on Houston Astros’ pitcher Ken Giles’s exit from an inessential May game after being shelled by the Yankees. Giles lost his temper on the way to the dugout. “What followed was transfixing, another Never Before,” Roger wrote nearly half a century after his first New Yorker piece, “as the stalking-off Giles began punching himself, first in the chest and then in the jaw. The instant image was of a newborn flailing in his crib, and an adult baby,” adding that the next night, “Part of the fun will be watching Giles on the bench and looking for bruises.”
I excerpted generously from Roger’s decades-worth of New Yorker pieces in writing No Place I Would Rather Be, but the best way to appreciate his writing is to read his books, two of the best of which, The Summer Game and Five Seasons, have been reissued by the University of Nebraska Press. We will never see a Roger Angell again; his immense observational and writing gifts aside, there doesn’t seem to be room anymore for long, languid, patient takes on baseball, where knowledge, amusement, curiosity, and skepticism blend, where the writing seems as boundless as the game itself. The great themes in Roger’s baseball writing—the desire for community and attachment, the capacity of caring, the vagaries of luck—are eternal, and, though Roger is gone, his writing lives on.