The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Life was a ball with Roger Angell. How lucky we were to read about it.

Roger Angell carried himself like a tweedy Ivy League professor, genial, but with authority in reserve. Friendly meets deeply formidable. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

When Roger Angell was in his 80s, I was proud to be his human shield in a spitball assault in which Roger pummeled a pompous pundit with paper wads in a Yankee Stadium press box.

“Lean forward just a little so I can throw behind you. I think I can hit him in the head,” said Angell, the best baseball essayist ever, who died Friday at 101.

Roger’s target was a famous but obnoxious TV know-it-all — on both sports and politics — who was standing in the auxiliary press box aisle making loud comments to a pair of sycophants on all subjects, except the playoff game in progress.

“Pipe down!” Angell said in a fake voice, firing his salvo, then falling back behind me — seated face forward, just watching the game, the image of aged innocent itself. Who could be suspicious of such an elderly literary legend — the fiction editor at the New Yorker to John Updike and Ann Beattie and the stepson of author E.B. White? Hidden in plain sight was a third-grade saboteur on a mission.

“Missed,” Angell hissed. “Let’s try it again.”

Roger Angell, editor, baseball writer at the New Yorker, dies at 101

For a couple of innings, Angell continued his bombardment, accompanied by taunts of “Watch the game,” “Get lost” or variations on “Shut up,” though I doubt he used those two words. The dozen other writers in the press box played dumb.

The force field created by total self-absorption is its own black hole. Some of Angell’s folded-up wads struck home, but they might as well have been buzzing house flies. “He’s a goddamn force of nature!” Angell said, grudgingly, of The Celebrity.

Eventually, just as in Milton, the Angell won. The heathens left, looking perplexed, not sure what had happened — which delighted Roger. Perhaps the 21st century would be theirs, but a skirmish was ours.

In “Let Me Finish,” a book of autobiographical essays, Angell wrote, “Memory is fiction — an anecdotal version of some scene or past event we need to store away for present or future use.”

When my wife told me that Roger died, I remembered the spitballs first. Because even though, at that time, I had known him for 25 years, they were the part of him that I never anticipated, right up until the moment he went wonderfully rogue.

Angell was profoundly learned across all the arts, including classical music. He carried himself like a tweedy Ivy League professor, genial but with authority in reserve. Friendly meets deeply formidable. He had chosen a literary life that required commitment to psychological depth, to grasping and empathizing with the widest possible range of subjects and experiences. In that harsh highbrow league, there are flashes of provisional insight but seldom final truths.

And no chucking little paper wads at people’s heads in public.

This sense of playfulness, his attraction to every source of joy — with baseball just one example — made him a pleasure to be around. Throw in modesty and generosity, too.

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In one of his later essays, he wrote, “I’ve had a life sheltered by privilege and engrossing work, and shot through with good luck.”

But he also lived so long and stayed so actively engaged with all his lifelong interests that he inevitably saw generations of loved ones die before him. And old age, as he wrote about eloquently, was as unkind to him as to the rest.

Long ago, the Folger Shakespeare Library called me to ask whether I would join Roger in one of their programs: a two-person discussion on baseball. I said, “Thanks very much,” but it was probably not a good idea because, come on, we all have to know our place.

“You don’t get it,” I was told. “Roger won’t do it unless you come, too.”

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This was typical. Angell respected beat writers and columnists who covered sports daily because he knew us from countless batting cages, press boxes and clubhouses. He knew the hours we worked — the months’ worth of days a year on the road and, thus, the loss of “life.” And, true to baseball, he respected home turf — get the D.C. guy.

So we had a ball, riffing off each other, one anecdote or opinion igniting the next. Afterward, we went to lunch with my wife, Wendy, who doesn’t follow sports but has always loved the New Yorker and modern fiction. I barely got a word in edgewise.

My fantasy is that Roger’s constant smile, and his chuckling laugh, with a touch of devilishness at the edges, was because he had found an “ideal reader” — is it possible one still exists? — who already appreciated the writers, some obscure, that he had edited for decades. Thereafter, “How’s Wendy?” was Topic 1.

Years later, he sent a copy of his latest book, inscribed: “For Tom — Less baseball, more life! All best, as ever, Roger.”

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I appreciated his friendly scold about the imbalance that can be caused by the lure of a comfortable obsession. I read his words now, his point finally taken, with a retired smile: better late than never.

As all of us who can type concoct new ways to appreciate the lifetime gift that Angell has given baseball fans, I would add a large footnote. Writers want to be read. Roger’s work on baseball put him in the Hall of Fame. But his work, late in life, in two volumes of memoirs — “Let Me Finish” and “This Old Man: All in Pieces” — may please some readers just as much because they are about such a large subject: Roger’s own sweeping life.

Of Angell, it’s often noted that he saw Babe Ruth hit. We can say, lucky us, that we read Roger Angell.