It is the birthday of essayist and editor Roger Angell (books by this author), born in New York City in 1920. His parents — Katharine Sergeant and Ernest Angell — were two very strong personalities, and their marriage was doomed from its early days. Angell later wrote, “What a marriage that must have been, stuffed with sex and brilliance and psychic murder, and imparting a lasting unease.”
He grew up with The New Yorker: when he was five years old, his mother became the magazine’s very first fiction editor, and when she eventually left her husband and children a few years later, it was to marry the magazine’s now legendary essayist, E. B. White.
Angell stayed with his father, Ernest, a lawyer who later became head of the American Civil Liberties Union, but the boy followed the literary, rather than the legal, path. At the age of 12 or 13, he had memorized every cartoon caption The New Yorker had published to date: eight years’ worth. He published some stories and some personal narrative essays, and went to work for The New Yorker himself: first as a contributing writer in 1944 and later as fiction editor (1956). He’s still a senior editor at the magazine, and over the course of his career, he has edited the stories of John Updike, Donald Barthelme, and Vladimir Nabokov. He also contributes essays from time to time.
In 1962, he told editor William Shawn about baseball spring training; Shawn had never heard of it. He sent Angell to Florida on assignment, and Angell wrote about the young players on the field and the old folks in the stands. He said, “I wasn’t sure enough of myself to go into the press box or talk to the players.” It was the first time Angell wrote about baseball in a professional capacity, and it was the start of a lifelong association with the sport. “Sports writers weren’t supposed to be fans,” Angell later said. “I would write in the first person, about my own emotions, which you were not supposed to do.” But that suited Shawn just fine. Angell told New York Magazine: “People used to laugh at me because my World Series pieces came so late, sometimes after Thanksgiving. Shawn didn’t have a sense of deadline … Shawn thought, Everybody knows what the news is; now tell us something else about it.”
He loves the sport, but he’s not idealistic or sentimental about it. “I’ve been accused once in a while of being a poet laureate [of baseball], which has always sort of pissed me off,” Angell told Salon in 2000. “That’s not what I was trying to do. I think people who said that really haven’t read me, because what I’ve been doing a lot of times is reporting. It’s not exactly like everybody else’s reporting. I’m reporting about myself, as a fan as well as a baseball writer.
“And I am a baseball writer now. I really have learned a lot about the game after all this time. I don’t know everything. But I know a few things. I know what to look for. It’s a great game for writers because it’s just the right pace. You can watch the game and keep score and look around and take notes. Now and then you even have time to have an idea, which in many sports you don’t have room for.”