I was in a creative writing class in college when one of my fellow students asked the professor if it was acceptable for him to write his stories about sports. When the professor was reluctant to agree, my classmate added that his desire was to write a series of loosely interconnected stories about baseball. As I recall it, the professor settled immediately in the affirmative given the additional information. Baseball, he said, was the one sport that actually merited literary attention.
If I weren’t already inclined in that direction, I’d have to accede the point every time I read one of Roger Angell’s essays on the Grand Old Game. Now in his nineties, Angell is five years older than the magazine that has practically been his lifelong home. His mother, Katherine Sergeant Angell White, was the first fiction editor for The New Yorker, a position she held for thirty-five years. Angell himself first wrote for the publication in 1944. His true path was set in 1962, when legendary editor dispatched him to Florida to write about spring training. Angell says says he was a hockey fan prior to that (he occasionally wrote about that sport, too), but something about the National Pastime clearly engaged him. Though Angell might have a certain amount of reluctance about it–with good reason, as he’s written on a multitude of topics over the years–he is as entwined with baseball as any other observer of the past half century. Reading his collected works might not thoroughly cover the history, but it certainly captures the character of the sport, including the way it’s shifted over the decades.
Angell captures the character of the sport precisely because he doesn’t fall into the all too common trap of romanticizing it. He does see the romance that is inherently nestled within it, and taps into it better than most, but he also sees the foolishness, the humor, the weariness (it is a long season), and the mundane, workmanlike quality of it, all of it encapsulated in precise, elegant prose and conveyed with the eye of a born pragmatist. When he wrote about, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks upsetting the hometown Yankees in the 2001 World Series, Angell was able to make me see games that I had watched intently in a new way. He does what all good writers do: he illuminates the familiar with creative insights stated so clearly and plainly that it’s immediately remarkable that they weren’t a completely obvious foregone conclusion. To read Angell on baseball is to see anew a game that is stitched into the fabric of the nation.
Angell still writes for The New Yorker, one the enduring figures on the masthead. Most recently, he turned his attention to the process of aging, elaborating on his deteriorating physicality and spiritual wanderings with clarity and honesty. It wasn’t maudlin, nor wistful. It was simply reporting, just like his recounts of favorite ballgames or even his own past. It was also piercing like few other things I’ve ever read. Best of all, it offered the promise, perhaps somewhat misleading, the born storytellers never lose their capacity to formulate ideas, to capture emotions, to relate tales.