Roger Angell: Baseball's reluctant poet laureate dies at 101

By Robert Plummer
BBC News

Published
Roger AngellImage source, Getty Images

Influential US sportswriter and reporter Roger Angell, often described as the poet laureate of baseball, has died at the age of 101.

As a journalist for the New Yorker over six decades, he covered the game in a fresh and innovative way that inspired generations of writers.

But he disliked the poetic accolade, saying that he was a reporter who wrote from a fan's perspective.

His peers hailed him for making the connection between sport and society.

Whether it was describing a particular team as "a troupe of gazelles depicted by a Balkan corps de ballet" or referring to the "habitual aura of glowering intensity" of a favourite pitcher, Roger Angell's colourful language brought his reports to life, especially in his regular end-of-season essays.

"I think the real fans are the fans of terrible teams, because they know what good baseball is and they know how far their own players fall short," he said in an interview in 1982.

"The rallying cry that has always struck me as so poignant and beautiful is, 'Come on, you bum!' which means, 'We know you're no good but we want to win.'"

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Pitcher Bob Gibson was described by Roger Angell as having a "habitual aura of glowering intensity"

Angell was born into a literary family in New York in September 1920 and began his lengthy association with the New Yorker in 1944, when the magazine published a short story of his.

He joined the staff full-time in 1956, but his main job was as a fiction editor. He did not start writing about baseball until 1962, when editor William Shawn decided he wanted more sports in the magazine.

He was still contributing to the magazine when he reached his centenary.

London-based journalist and writer Michael Goldfarb told the BBC that Angell was to baseball what writers CLR James and John Arlott were to cricket.

"You couldn't help but be a little jealous of his ability to insert some highbrow literary metaphor into a description of, basically, a game," he said.

"The guy was genuinely productive for a very long time, and longevity confers mystique."

Although he was a privileged part of an "extraordinary New York intellectual milieu that no longer exists in quite the same way", he never lost sight of baseball's place in American society, Michael Goldfarb said.

"He didn't layer sociology on it, but there was always a broad social context," he added.

Another veteran US journalist, Paris-based Bill Hinchberger, agrees, saying that Angell explored "the relationship between the society and the game".

He told the BBC that when Angell started writing, baseball was seen as America's national pastime, a status that has since been eroded by the rise of American football and basketball.

"The way I learned to start using language was reading people like Angell," Mr Hinchberger said. "I was already interested in the subject matter, but it's a whole different level of engagement when the writing is that good."

Angell belonged to a 20th Century US literary tradition in which writers such as Norman Mailer, Damon Runyon and Hunter S Thompson wrote about sports in addition to their fiction and other journalism.

"There were a lot of colourful writers who wrote about baseball or boxing," Mr Hinchberger said. "I think today, people are more specialised. I couldn't think of a literary figure right now who does that."