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Roger Angell, editor, author and poet laureate of baseball, dies at 101

(Associated Press)

Roger Angell, a guiding hand to many of the New Yorker magazine’s most distinguished contributors for more than half a century and a widely admired writer in his own right, primarily for his eloquent, insightful essays on baseball, has died. He was 101.

Among the most admired and thoughtful baseball writers of his time, Angell died Friday at his home in Manhattan. His wife, Margaret Moorman, told the New York Times that the cause was congestive heart failure.

Angell’s first story in the New Yorker was published in 1944. He was hired as a fiction editor there in 1956 and never left, continuing into his 90s as a senior editor and staff writer.

As a fiction editor, a position his mother, Katharine Sergeant White, held at the magazine for more than 35 years, Angell worked with writers as diverse as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike and Woody Allen. His own essays resulted in a number of acclaimed books, including the best-selling 1977 baseball anthology “Five Seasons.”

“He is New Yorker royalty, of course, but also embodies the classic sense of the New Yorker writer: wry, tasteful, effortlessly expert, confident, with interests that range high and low and wide, but are always threaded together with a deep intelligence,” author Susan Orlean told the Times.

Angell once likened his long association with the magazine to being “attached to the family firm.” His mother joined the New Yorker within months of its founding in 1925. She divorced his father, a lawyer, to marry E.B. White, whose humor stories she had commissioned in her role as editor. White went on to write the children’s classics “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

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A fateful moment in Angell’s literary life occurred in 1962 when editor William Shawn assigned him to travel to Florida for a story on baseball’s spring training. It resulted in many articles and several compendiums by Angell on that subject, making him, to some, the greatest baseball writer of his time, even though that was not his profession.

Angell brought a patrician’s gentility to the sport and, unlike a beat writer on deadline, he would seize on the advantage of time and distance to compose thoughtful, considered examinations of recent events, delivered with a grace uncommon to the average sports page.

Last fall, when the Oakland A’s flattened the Boston Red Sox in the American League playoffs, most baseball writers rounded up the usual suspects--balls, bats and outs--to describe Beantown’s stunning collapse.

After the 1975 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox, which some argue is the greatest of all time, Angell wrote: “There is no answer to these barroom syllogisms, of course, but any recapitulation and reexamination of the 1975 Series suggests that at the very least we may conclude that there has never been a better one.”

Angell was born Sept. 19, 1920, in New York. His father, Ernest Angell, was a Harvard-educated lawyer who became the American Civil Liberties Union’s longtime chairman. On July 4, 1898, the French luxury liner La Bourgogne sank after colliding with a British merchant vessel near Nova Scotia, resulting in 549 deaths including that of Ernest’s father, attorney Elgin Adelbert Angell.

In a 2000 magazine essay, Roger Angell recounted how his father, 9 at the time, was to have been aboard the doomed ship but came down with chickenpox and couldn’t go. The essay, titled “The King of the Forest,” which was a family nickname for his father, described an adventurous soul who routinely tried mountain climbing, cliff diving, even an expedition to hunt polar bears. “Bravura came naturally to him,” Angell wrote.

Bitterness came to him as well after the divorce from Katharine, to whom he was wed in 1913. Ernest was furious about his wife leaving him. He fought for joint custody of their two children and won. Angell took many long road trips with his father, who had served abroad as a U.S. intelligence officer during World War I, and also met the many colorful and worldly acquaintances of his mother and stepdad, socializing with Somerset Maugham and S.J. Perelman, among others.

Of his parents, Angell said vividly in a Sports Illustrated interview, “What a marriage that must have been, stuffed with sex and brilliance and psychic murder and imparting a lasting unease.”

A boyhood interest in becoming a naturalist was indulged by his father, who permitted Roger to keep a menagerie of reptiles, amphibians and birds in their Manhattan apartment. A voracious reader, he soon turned to writing, interviewing New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for his high school newspaper.

After attending the Lincoln School of Teachers College, he was stationed in the Pacific during World War II and became editor of the Army Air Force’s weekly newspaper for enlisted men. “Three Ladies in the Morning,” a fictional short story in 1944, was the first Angell piece to appear in the New Yorker, while another early submission was about a bombing mission to Iwo Jima.

He was a senior editor of Holiday magazine from 1947 to 1956, when he was hired by the New Yorker as a fiction editor, occupying his mother’s former office. There he developed a reputation for nurturing and counseling writers, some with encouragement, others with tough love.

“Once he accepts you, he’s friendly, funny and absolutely open,” Orlean said. “He always took younger writers under his wing once they passed muster, that is. He edited a piece of mine and his little touches — turns of phrase, a certain majestic tone, a kind of relaxed pace that he does better than anyone — transformed it.”

In a 2006 memoir, “Let Me Finish,” Angell reflected on the “pals and paladins” he had encountered professionally during his tens of thousands of days at the magazine, including James Thurber, Ogden Nash, John O’Hara and many more. He starkly described an attempt to publish and revive the career of a writer named John E. “Jake” Murray, a tortured soul who “went into the river,” taking his own life.

Angell’s own writing took on many forms in his 50-plus years on staff. As recently as 2012, his contributions to a New Yorker blog included essays on the New York Giants’ victory in the Super Bowl and on the Encyclopedia Britannica’s announcement that it was eliminating its print edition for good.

Baseball, though, became his signature subject. Angell’s anthologies were critically praised for his astute observations on the game, not only on those who played it but those who devoted their lives to it.

In 2014 the Baseball Hall of Fame honored him with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for writing.

Downey is a former Times columnist.


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