Roger Angell: This Old Man at 100

Some programmes for the 1966 Henley Royal Regatta.

19 September 2020

Neither of the two Roger Angell’s articles in The New Yorker, which Göran R Buckhorn brings up in this article, were illustrated. These illustrations have been chosen by Göran.

By Göran R Buckhorn

Today, Roger Angell is turning 100 years. Though mostly famous for his writing on baseball, Angell has also dipped his pen in the River Thames at Henley and the water at Long Beach, California, for the 1968 Olympic Rowing Trials.

The first book that the then Miss T. (later to be Mrs B.) gave me was One Man’s Meat, a collection of essays by E. B. White. For those who don’t know E. B. ‘Andy’ White, he was a writer and contributing editor to The New Yorker, a magazine founded in 1925 by Harold Ross. The same year, White began submitting articles and stories to The New Yorker. The literary editor, who received his stories, was Katharine Angell, who persuaded editor Ross to hire White full time. In 1929, Katharine Angell divorced her husband, Ernest Angell, and married Andy White. Their son Joel White was born the following year. From her marriage with Angell, Katharine had a son, Roger, who was born on 19 September 1920.

Roger Angell has by now been a contributor to The New Yorker for an incredible 76 years (his first article appeared in the magazine in March 1944; he became full time in 1956). For many years he was the magazine’s senior fiction editor, but he also wrote about sports, mainly baseball pieces. He is one of, if not the, most famous writer on baseball in the USA.

Since reading One Man’s Meat some 20 odd years ago, I have been a big fan of the writings of the Whites, including Roger Angell. Several books by or about Andy White, Katharine White and Roger Angell on the Buckhorn family’s bookshelves bear witness of this. The two Buckhorn children have been brought up listening to Andy White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Andy White’s The Elements of Style (together with William Strunk, Jr.) is never far away while I’m writing. And for more or less 20 years, we have been subscribers to The New Yorker.

The article about the 100-year-old Roger Angell by Mark Singer.

In the 14 September 2020 issue of The New Yorker, Mark Singer has a marvellous celebratory centennial piece on Roger Angell, who lives in New York City and is a ‘New Yorker through and through’. Though he is a happy summer resident of Brooklin, Maine, and has lived there part-time since 1933, when his mother and step-father bought an 18th-century farmhouse in North Brooklin.

Roger Angell

While it can seem to be enough to turn 100 to get a mention on HTBS, there is a rowing link or two to today’s birthday boy. I must be honest to say that it was my HTBS colleague Chris Dodd who pointed me in the direction of two rowing articles by Angell, published in The New Yorker in the 1960s. I started to look in Angell’s brilliant Let Me Finish (2006) and This Old Man (2015) with essays and stories, but these books contain shorter pieces and none about rowing. But no problems, I thought, as a subscriber I have access to the magazine’s digital archives. And yes, there they were, both articles published in the section The Sporting Scene, in the 27 August 1966 issue called “About One Mile Five Hundred And Fifty Yards” and the 10 August 1968 issue called “0:00.05”.

Roger Angell’s 1966 article is about Henley Royal Regatta, during which he attended all regatta days at the end of June/beginning of July. Being the mid-1960s, the East Germans almost cleaned house, taking nearly all the regatta trophies. Angell wrote: “A list of the major winners and losers at last month’s renewal of the ancient British water festival can suggest only that Henley in 1966 was a large triumph for the East Germans and an even larger disappointment for English rowing.”

Further on in the article, he wrote:

[The Englishmen] faced the near certitude of watching four successive championship races won by East Germans, followed by a Danish win, and then one and perhaps two American victories. I remember my secret, embarrassed relief when I looked at my program and discovered that the last two events of the day, although both somewhat minor, four-oar events, promised some joy for our hosts; one race was closed for foreign crews, and, somehow, no outlanders had gained the finals of the other.

Roger Angell showed that he is a man for details. Here is something he saw on the towpath:

One of the last shells of the day, a schoolboy eight, came up the river, pursued along the towpath by a coach on an ancient bicycle. He was a sturdy, white-haired vicar wearing bicycle clips, a turnabout collar, and a small, flat rowing cap. There were two stopwatches slung about his neck, and he carried a dented megaphone in one hand. He came wobbling through the scattered babies and beagles, trying to call instructions to his boys. “Now, take it up! Take it up, there!” he shouted. “I want ten power strokes and—Oh, I beg your pardon, Madam. Frightfully sorry… In the water, in the water! Don’t slap it!—Oops, look out! Your dog, Miss. Sorry..” Then he was gone.

As anyone who has visited Henley Royal for the first time, Angell was fascinated by the colourful blazers, or how he described them, ‘the variously blazing vermillion glaucous, carroty, cerulean, and brindled blazers’. As a first-timer, it was impossible for him to identify the clubs from the coloured stripes on ties and blazers. However, after a couple of days, Angell recognised a few:

The most magisterial Henley getup consists of the navy-blue Leander blazer with gold “L.C.” buttons, worn with white ice-cream pants, white shoes, and flamingo socks and tie, the whole topped off with a dark-blue striped Oxford cap or a boater encircled by the pale-turquoise Cambridge band, and frequently garnished with a rich bouquet of mustache.

The two first minutes in this newsreel is about the 1966 Henley Regatta (no, unfortunately, Roger Angell cannot be seen in the film):

Roger Angell also told stories of rowing heroes, past and 1966 present, G. O. Nickalls, his father Guy Nickalls and his uncle, Vivian, Jack Beresford (who was umpiring in the Enchantrees at the 1966 regatta) and ‘Alan Burrough (who lost a leg in North Africa, and came back to compete formidably in the Silver Goblets in 1947).’

Being an American, Angell can’t help himself bringing up the old (yes, it was old already in 1966) story about the rivalry between Beresford and John B. Kelly; how the American was refused to compete in the Diamonds at the 1920 regatta but then beat the winner, Beresford, in the Olympic final of the single sculls in Antwerp. However, Angell had the facts wrong when he wrote ‘[Kelly] beat Beresford by one length in the Olympics’. It was not by one length; it was by one second (I forgive Angell).

The New Yorker writer continued to pen about the well-known rowing dynasty from Philadelphia, that Kelly Senior’s son Jack won the Diamonds in 1947 and 1949, and that Jack Kelly was at the 1966 regatta as the manager of Vesper BC’s eight, competing in the Grand – no, they didn’t win, as Bill Lanouette wrote in a HTBS article in July this summer; it was the East Germans who took the cup. Of course, as always, the Kelly family can’t be mentioned, then and now, without mentioning the family film star, Grace.

While Roger Angell was on the subject of Americans, he also mentioned the Harvard event  at Henley in 1964 – he is a 1942 Harvard graduate – when the 1914 Grand winning Crimson eight, now 50 years older, made a row-past, ‘a triumphant voyage up and down the course,’ he wrote, with Senator Leverett Saltonstall at bow. About F. Wadsworth Busk, the Harvard spare man, Angell wrote that he ‘made a fruitless trip to Henley in 1964, just as he did in 1914, and is still waiting for the first vacancy in the boat.’

Rowers of other nationalities than Brits and Americans in Angell’s article are the Argentine sculler Alberto Demiddi, and Diamond finalists Achim Hill, of East Germany, and Jan Wienese, of the Netherlands. The East German won, of course.

Another American at Henley Regatta in 1966 who Angell mentioned, was Charles Butt, coach for the Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, whose son, Charley Butt, is now the men’s heavyweight coach at Harvard, a post he inherited from legendary Harry Parker in August 2013. The Washington-Lee High School won the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup in 1964 and was at Henley in 1966 to have another go at the cup. So was Emanuel School from London, whose soft-spoken coach Derek Drury told Angell that “‘We want to win the Princess Elizabeth’, […] He was smiling, as if to apologize for his seriousness.” And so, they did win the cup – one of the few British crews who were victorious at Henley that year. Angell wrote about Emanuel’s race against Halcyon Boat Club (St. Paul’s School, USA):

By Fawley, they were two lengths up, and at the mile, when it was clear that they were not catchable, the race announcer lost his imperturbability and cried, “This is a beautiful crew, lifting right out of the water!” Someone on the bank broke out a large Union Jack, and Emanuel came champing towards us like some great threshing machine, accompanied by a wave of happy noise, and Henley was all right in the end, after all.

The 1966 Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup winners from Emanuel School, London. Photo: Emanuel School website.

What coaches Butt and Drury didn’t know at that time was that their crews were going to race each other in the final of Princess Elizabeth, in 1969, with the American boys from Washington-Lee winning the cup.

After Roger Angell watched the last crew passing over the finish line, he stayed for the prize ceremony. He wrapped up his beautiful piece with the Princess Elizabeth winners, ‘Emanuel giants turned out to be schoolboys, pink and serious as they came down from the platform through clamorous applause.’ He continued:

Then we cried three cheers for the rowers and stood up for “God Save the Queen”. Everybody in the punts and canoes stood up, too, and, being members of a nation of water people, got through the anthem without falling into the Thames.

After probably having read hundreds and hundreds of articles about Henley Royal Regatta through the years, I cannot remember reading a more entertaining piece about what Angell called ‘the ancient British water festival’.

The second of Roger Angell’s rowing articles, in the 10 August 1968 issue of The New Yorker, is called “0:00.05”. For the rowing trials for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Angell went to Long Beach in California in early July. There he followed the eights to see which crew was going to represent the USA on Lake Xochimilco.

As the style of West German coach Karl Adam’s Ratzeburgers made its mark during the 1960s and beyond, Angell started his article by writing that the Russians, East Germans and the Americans had taken up ‘the radical stroking and training techniques first introduced by the Ratzeburg Rowing Club’. Now the question was which American crew was going to defend its country’s colours? The four top crews were Harvard, Penn, Vesper and Washington.

Dietrich Rose, the coach for Vesper BC and who had once rowed for Ratzeburg RC, pointed out to Angell that ‘this is the first time that four American crews who have all done better than six minutes for the two thousand metres have ever faced each other. It will be a race to remember!’

While both Washington and Vesper had represented the U.S. at the Olympics – and the Philadelphia club had come home from the previous Games in Tokyo with a gold medal in the eights – Harvard and Penn had never had the honour. About Penn’s coach, the legendary Joe Burk, Angell wrote:

Joe Burk

Burk enjoyed a Poseidon-like eminence at the Trials, for in addition to the Penn eight he had one time or another coached five of the single-scullers, the Vesper stroke, and Harry Parker, who is a Penn graduate. Burk is lanky, remarkably affable man, with the weathered look of a Maine lobsterman. He twice won the Diamond Sculls at Henley, and he was a much decorated PT-boat skipper in the Pacific. His stakes at Long Beach were just as high as Parker’s, for Penn, too, had never gone to the Olympics.

Talking to the different oarsmen, Angell came to recognise that the greatest rivalry was between Harvard and Penn; they just didn’t understand each other and their approach to rowing and racing.

The evening before the Trial events began, Angell visited Harvard’s oarsmen to find out why these young men would give up ‘so much of their time to this cryptic, unpublic, and intensely demanding sport?’ He met a highly intelligent, but rather rambunctious bunch of oarsmen and cox: David Higgins, Cleve Livingston, Steve Brooks, Franklin Hobbs, Scott Steketee, Andy Larkin, Curtis Canning, Arthur Evans and Paul Hoffman (cox).

Angell entered the room of Larkin, Steketee and Evans, who were ‘lounging on unmade beds in a wonderfully littered dormitory room’ were the other oarsmen came wandering in and out. Angell wrote:

No matter how many of them were there, the room seemed crowded, for they were large, thickly muscled young men, averaging two hundred pounds. The room also seemed to be stuffed with hair. None of the them, apparently, had wasted any time at the barber’s in the previous months. They resembled athletes  from another age—a band of Ralph Henry Barbour heroes.

A book about rowing heroes?

When The New Yorker writer asked the Harvard oarsmen what it was that kept them at ‘their painful and seemingly monotonous work almost every afternoon of the year,’ all the nine men gave him different answers, not being able to settle for a common reason. One thing they all agreed on was the greatness of Harry Parker as a person and coach – ‘He’s deadly honest,’ Curtis Canning said.

This is how Angell described the Harvard coach: ‘Parker, a strong-jawed young man with thinning blond hair and a cheerful smile, is looked on with awe on the banks of the Charles—or as close to awe as Harvard undergraduates permit themselves to come.’

A young Harry Parker and his Harvard crew graced the cover of the “Sport Illustrated”, 28 June 1965.

The Harvard men also briefly talked to Angell about the so-called Olympic Project for Human Rights, OPHR, ‘the group of black athletes that may undertake a boycott or some form of protest at the Games as a means of dramatizing American racial inequalities,’ he wrote. Some of the Harvard rowers had circulated a letter among the white athletes in the U.S. Olympic team appealing for their support of OPHR. This was not viewed favourably by the U.S. Olympic Committee, and both Harry Parker and the crew ended up in hot water. (To read more about OPHR, see Greg Denieffe’s brilliant article on HTBS in October 2016. For those who are interested in Harry Parker’s eight who went the Olympics in 1968 and OPHR, I would strongly recommend Andrew ‘Andy’ Larkin’s rowing biography My Life in Boats, Fast and Slow (2018), reviewed on HTBS on 17 April 2019 by rowing historian Bill Miller. See here.)

How did it go in the Eight Trials? It became a fight between two crews.

The four eights were well together the first 100 metres. At the 500-metre mark, Penn was in the lead by one second of number two, Vesper, and one and a half second to third-placed Harvard. Half down the course Vesper faltered, and it became a two-boat race between the Philadelphia and Cambridge crews, with Penn still in the lead by a couple of seats. “The shells surged towards us up the bright water, quicker and larger, bending and reaching together, and we were all on our feet and shouting,” Angell wrote.

Harvard was getting closer to Penn, and both crews crossed the finish line together, ‘…and there was no way—absolutely no way—to tell which [crew] had won,’ Angell wrote. After a seven-minute wait, the photo-finish showed Harvard were first over the line. The winning margin was four inches, the time difference was five one-hundredth of a second, or 0:00.05, which is the title of Angell’s article.

The U.S. 1968 Olympic eight, from the bow: David Higgins, Cleve Livingston, Steve Brooks, Franklin Hobbs, Scott Steketee, Andy Larkin, Curtis Canning, Arthur Evans (stoke), Paul Hoffman (cox). Photo provided by Andy Larkin.

So, the Harvard crew went to Mexico to race in the eights. Via a repechage heat, the crew came to the final. How did it go? Read more here.

Again, we see there was a professional sportswriter at play for this article in The New Yorker, just like the 1966 piece about Henley Royal Regatta. Roger Angell might be one hell of a baseball writer, but his writing on rowing is also spot on. I’m sure he would have been one of the greatest American rowing writers if he had kept on writing about the sport of rowing. Alas, he didn’t, but I’m extremely happy about the couple he wrote.

So, I end this article by saying a wholehearted:

Happy Birthday, Mr Angell!

One comment

  1. Just finished your interesting article I stumbled upon at predawn.
    Not knowing much about rowing but instead more of a baseball gal by marriage and a dental hygienist by trade, I must say that I not only learned a lot about the subject and history but about the man, Roger Angell.
    Thanks for the new interest tweaked and Happy birthday Roger Angell.
    Caroline

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.