The joys of great baseball writing — especially Roger Angell’s

I love baseball. I learned the game by reading about it, as much as by watching it. So I have a special place in my heart for great baseball writing.

Roger Angell, creator great baseball writing. Maybe even the best.
Roger Angell in 2015; photo by Karen Green, Flickr user klg19 – Flickr Creative Commons

I still remember the moment I fell in love with Roger Angell—the man Sports Illustrated calls “the best baseball writer in America.” It was early in the 1986 season and our New York Mets (Angell shares my love for the team) were making their scrappy climb “from worst to first,” as the cliché goes. That season saw more than one bench-clearing brawl—the boys had each others’ backs—and, writing in The New Yorker, Angell described it as “their own personal Thermopylae” (or something like that). Regular readers may remember that I love mixing pop culture references into higher-minded pieces; I love the reverse just as much. Maybe even more, because it so seldom works. But Angell makes it work.

Look, I’m going to be honest here: I don’t care if you’ve never seen a baseball game; I don’t care if you hate all sports with a passion. If you love great writing, you must sample great baseball writing. And if you want great baseball writing, you must read Roger Angell. His 2004 collection Game Time is as good a place as any to start.

His baseball essays in The New Yorker have gotten shorter and less frequent over the years, but he’s still with us, and still writing. The man is much closer to 100 now than to 90 and if you send him a fan letter (as I did a couple of years ago), you’ll get a hand-written thank-you note in return. So he’s not just a great sports writer; he’s a gentleman, too.

Great baseball writing is more than writing about baseball

“Writing well is hard. It requires constant thinking. The gears, flywheels and levers of the mind click and clatter nonstop. Writing is flying an airplane without instruments, almost always through the dark storms of doubt. It is new every time.”

That’s Tom Verducci, waxing eloquent in his 2014 Sports Illustrated tribute to Angell, “The Passion of Roger Angell: The best baseball writer in America is also a fan.” He continues:

“Over the last half-century nobody has written baseball better than Roger Angell of The New Yorker. What he does with words, even today at 93, is what Mays did in centerfield and what Koufax did on the mound. His superior elegance and skill are obvious even to the untrained eye.”

Susan Slusser, who covers the Oakland A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle, nominated Angell for the award that brought him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the summer of 2014. Why? “He is the best baseball writer in terms of talent, insights, the turning of a phrase, everything.”

Everything.

Slusser added, “I felt very strongly that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”

Angell has been a baseball writer as long as the Mets have been a team. William Shawn—it’s obligatory to describe him as the “legendary” editor of The New Yorker—assigned him the baseball beat, saying “We don’t want it to be sentimental, and we don’t want it to be tough.”

Roger Angell, neither sentimental nor tough

At this point I should probably let you read some Roger Angell for yourself, so you can see what “great baseball writing” truly is. Here’s a passage Verducci quoted in the Sports Illustrated tribute. It’s from Angell’s 1975 piece “Agincourt and After” (and behold! another reference to an historical battle):

“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.”

“Dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball.” The beauty of that sentence just about brings me to tears. Both as a writer and as a baseball fan.

Your own personal Thermopylae

Mere mortals can’t often write with such style—I can’t imagine any of my corporate clients pulling it off, that’s for sure. But tell me it’s not great baseball writing and you’re in for your own personal Thermopylae, buddy. I’ll have Roger Angell’s back any day, anywhere.


Confused to find a column about baseball in the midst of winter? The Mets play their first spring training game tomorrow. Normally I don’t pay much attention to spring training, but this year I’m grabbing joy wherever I can find it.

Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

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