AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS FAME IN THE 1920s, humorist and short-storywriter Ring Lardner was listed among the 10 best-known people in America. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, short stories for mass-circulation magazines, skits and songs for the Ziegfeld Follies, and the text of a daily comic strip. To the bulk of his readers, Lardner was the regular guy who had made it, the man who golfed with the president but was still friends with the train conductors. The only writer in the country who could get away with the salutation, "Well, friends," he addressed the average American, the man he repeatedly called "Joe," and he did this in a natural, unassuming style--a veritable idiom nicknamed "Lardner Ringlish'--removed from the formal conventions of correct prose.
But earlier in his career, Lardner was best known as a baseball writer, and much of his enduring reputation is tied to the national pastime. He covered baseball in what's been called the Silver Age of the game--from 1900 to 1919--an era that ended with the infamous Black Sox scandal, ushering in, as irony would have it, the Golden Age of baseball. Lardner's infatuation and eventual disillusionment with baseball offer a number of lessons about how we should think about the scandals in today's game, and his writing illuminates our own love-hate relationship with baseball.
Hugh Fullerton, a dean of Chicago sportswriters, noticed Lardner's talent in 1905, when Lardner was covering a minor league team for the South Bend Times and writing with uncommon precision and style. Fullerton got him a job at the Chicago Inter-Ocean, personally introducing a nervous, choked-up 20-year-old to some of his boyhood heroes. For the next five Rice, years, Lardner covered major league baseball from spring training to the World Series, and a Chicago readership had a front-row seat in the laboratory of one of sports writing's great craftsmen, masterly at framing a story:
In the extreme left hand corner of Mr. Comiskey's new ball park stands a gate, whose pickets are far enough apart to allow a regulation baseball, weighing not less than five nor more than five and a quarter ounces avoirdupois , and measuring not less than nine nor more than nine and one quarter inches in circumference, to roll between any twain of them and into the great beyond. Citizens who had gone sight seeing around the park were aware of the presence of this gate, but none but the contractors and workmen who had constructed it knew just how far were those pickets apart. Lee Tannehill learned their approximate distance from each other yesterday afternoon by driving a regulation baseball between two of them. It looked like a most fortunate discovery for the White Sox at the time, for there were three other Chicago ball players on bases ... when Lee made it and the four runs that resulted left the score of the ball game between the Sox and Detroit even, at five runs apiece. [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
When a fan offered Heinie Zimmerman, the Cubs' foulmouthed third baseman, $100 if he could refrain from insulting an umpire for two weeks, Lardner channeled Hamlet:
The C or not the C, that is the question-- Whether it is nobler for the dough to suffer Mistakes and errors of outrageous umpires, Or to cut loose against a band of robbers, And, by protesting, lose it? To kick--to beef To beef, perchance to scream--Yes, I'll keep still ... Thus money does make cowards of us all; And thus the native Bronix disposition Is stifled by a bunch of filthy luc; And ravings of my own fantastic sort Are all unheard, tho my long silence does Disgrace the name of Heinie. Lardner traveled in the same Pullman cars as the players, ate with them, and stayed in the same hotels. As a journalist he was witty and fun, but also concise and direct, willing to use his column inches to state, good or bad, exactly what he thought of his team's play. Curiously, this never seemed to disturb the players. Even Fullerton wondered how "he could almost insult them in print and they would laugh as they read while other [writers], who used gentle language, were threatened with a punch on the nose."
The players may have sensed, beneath Lardner's criticism, an appreciation of them as people-and maybe beyond that, as literary characters. In "Here's Real Yarn on Bodie's Lapse--Mr. Wake Gives Details as to Cause of Ping's Misjudgement of Fly Ball," Lardner portrays White Sox manager Bill "Kid" Gleason and Ping Bodie, king of the alibi, in rare form:
GLEASON: What was the matter?
GLEASON: You know what I mean the matter.
GLEASON: What was the matter with that fly bail?
GLEASON: Yes, Archer's fly bail.
GLEASON: Yes, what about it?
GLEASON: Why didn't you get it?
GLEASON: Why didn't you see it?
GLEASON: Why couldn't you see it?
GLEASON: Grandstand's fault, was it?
GLEASON: Don't pull that on me. Now, what was the trouble?
GLEASON: The sun?
PING: What d'ya mean the matter?
PING: What d'ya mean?
PING: Archer's fly ball?
PING: What about it?
PING: Well, I didn't get it
PING: I didn't see it.
PING: I couldn't see it.
PING: The grandstand's too high.
PING: The sun was in my eyes.
PING: Yes, the sun.
GLEASON: You sure it was the sun?
GLEASON: Oh it was the wind was it?
GLEASON: What was the matter?
GLEASON: Too dark, is it?
GLEASON: Get in on the bench you You misjudged that bail, didn't you?
GLEASON: All right: you misjudged it.
PING: The wind blew it over my head.
PING: Yes, the wind.
PING: Honest, Bill it's awful dark out there.
PING: Yah, too dark.
PING: Yes, I guess I misjudged it.
Lardner's literary experimentation culminated in a series of "busher letters" he sold to The Saturday Evening Post in 1914, later published under the title You Know Me Al. The letters featured Jack Keefe, a fictitious rookie pitcher on the Chicago White Sox, writing home to his buddy Al Blanchard in Bedford, Illinois. The stories Jack relates to A1, of the greenhorn from the small Midwestern town thrown into the world of major league baseball, bore some resemblance to Lardner's own initiation into sportswriting.
Jack Keefe soon became one of the most popular characters of his day, and You Know Me Al was dubbed an instant folk classic. H. L. Mencken marveled at Lardner's linguistic precision and command of irony, comparing him to Mark Twain. Keefe's limitations as a narrator take nothing away from the reader's view of what's happening:
FRIEND AL: Coming out of Amarillo last night I and Lord and Weaver was sitting at a table in the dining car with a old lady. None of us was talking to her but she looked me over pretty careful and seemed to kind of like my looks. Finally she says Are you boys with some football club? Lord nor Weaver didn't say nothing so I thought it was up to me and I says No mare this is the Chicago White Sox Bail Club. She says I knew you were athaletes. I says Yes I guess you could spot us for athaietes. She says Yes indeed and specially you. You certainly look healthy. I says You ought to see me stripped. I didn't see nothing funny about that but I thought Lord and Weaver would die laughing. Lord had to get up and leave the table and he told everybody what I said. Keefe displays potential as "a athalete," but fails to improve because of his major-league ego. He undermines his effectiveness with his refusal to hold runners on base, his inability to field his position, and his unwillingness to use any pitch other than a fastbail. On a day opponents tagged him for 16 runs, his letter to Al is full of excuses: bad coaching, no support from teammates, a stubbed toe, incompetent groundskeeping, the opponents' luck (usually a lefty is involved here), and a sore arm.
Along with the laughs, Lardner was beginning to dispense moral instruction to his readers, something he would build on in a series of baseball articles...