In August, when we often spend some time Downeast, one of my traditions is to write about talented writers who have a connection to this beautiful part of Maine. The great Roger Angell, who died in May at the age of 101, is the obvious choice this year. The longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker, he also was an essayist par excellence, especially on the topic of baseball. In 2014, he was awarded the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award, its highest honor for a baseball writer.
Roger Angell didn’t confine himself to the topic of baseball. He was a top-notch essayist, up there with his stepfather (another of my writing heroes, E.B. White). He wrote about everything from losing an engagement ring on a rural nine-hole golf course to balky automobiles he had driven to his experiences in the Air Force during WWII. His writing was so strong, so relatable, that in 2015, the year after his Spink Award, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
His essays about baseball stand out because they were insightful not only about the sport, but so much more. If you’ve not had the chance to read his work. a marvelous collection published in 1991, ONCE MORE AROUND THE PARK, A BASEBALL READER, is a deeply pleasurable read.
I have my own independent memories of some of the games he chronicles in that collection, essays with such poetic power they rouse again the emotions he captured on the page. Take this passage from his October, 1975 masterpiece, Agincourt and After, about the pivotal Game Six of that year’s World Series between the Sox and the Reds. I feel certain many readers of this blog will remember exactly where they were when this happened, including my wife Diane, who was a Cincinnati fan at the time, and my friends Dick Cass and Bill Carito, who, like me, are lifelong Red Sox fans:
. . . Carlton Fisk, leading off the bottom of the twelfth against Pat Darcy, the eighth Reds pitcher of the night – it was well into morning now, in fact – socked the second pitch up and out, farther and farther into the darkness above the lights, and when it came down at last, reilluminated, it struck the topmost, innermost edge of the screen inside the yellow left-field foul pole and glanced sharply down and bounced on the grass: a fair ball, fair all the way. I was watching the ball, of course, so I missed what everyone on television saw – Fisk waving wildly, weaving and writhing and gyrating along the first-base line, as he wished the ball fair, forced it fair with his entire body. He circled the bases in triumph, in sudden company with several hundred fans, and jumped on home plate with both feet, and John Kiley, the Fenway Park organist, played Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” fortissimo, and then followed with other appropriately exuberant classical selections, and for the second time that evening I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends (and all the other Red Sox fans, all over New England), and I thought of them – in Brookline, Mass., and Brooklin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damariscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont; in Wayland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all five Manchesters, and in Raymond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives), and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born), and I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway – jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, and in bars and trailers, and even in some boats here and there, I suppose, and on back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night), and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy – alight with it.
— Published in The New Yorker, November 17, 1975.
The beauty of Roger Angell’s work is that even if you weren’t watching, even if you weren’t then or aren’t now a Red Sox fan, this piece transports you to a that time and place, makes your heart sink and then explode with elation when the Red Sox wrestled it back in the twelfth inning with Fisk’s never-to-be-forgotten walk-off home run.
I had the good fortune to be in the presence of Roger Angell twice, both times in Brooklin, Maine, where he spent many summers from boyhood to 2021, and where I once lived and still visit often.
The first time was at a signing for his final collection of essays, THIS OLD MAN, during the summer of 2016. He was affable and curious about everyone who asked for his autograph that afternoon, and made me, at least, feel like a longtime pal.
The last time was at his 100th birthday celebration in 2020 in front of the Friend Memorial Library, when a crowd of townspeople and tourists (and Governor Mills) came to wish him well and serenade him with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday.
Again, he was cheerful and energetic, doffing his cap to the crowd after the song was over, like the gracious hero of the game, which is what he was.
Rest in peace, Roger Angell. Thank you for leaving us, in your writing, a treasure trove of happiness to re-experience when our days need a jolt of joy.
Brenda Buchanan brings years of experience as a journalist and a lawyer to her crime fiction. She has published three books featuring Joe Gale, a newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. She is now hard at work on new projects. FMI, go to http://brendabuchananwrites.com