The Baseball Fiction Trailblazer. . .
. . .You’ve Perhaps Not Heard About
Quick quiz. Name the guy who was said to be one of the ten most popular Americans in 1926, was close friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, had his name used as a pen name by Ernest Hemingway, was mentioned by J. D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye, had a namesake acting and screenwriting son who was blacklisted by Hollywood during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s, and, in more recent times, was credited as a major influence by no less prominent an author than Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale). Oh, one more little thing. He’s considered by many to be the father of baseball fiction.
Give up? Well, you’re in good company. If I mention Ring Lardner (great name, isn’t it?), I get blank stares and a “Who’s he?” in return. Lardner’s lack of fame today is particularly puzzling, considering that he not only wrote prose fiction, he also composed music lyrics, crafted screenplays, and worked as a sports columnist. His sports reporting proved to be a key factor in the investigation of the famous Black Sox scandal of 1919, where eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing that year’s World Series. Lardner was portrayed in Eight Men Out, a 1988 movie about the scandal.
Lardner’s first novel, You Know Me Al, first appeared in six separate installments in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The novel was written as a series of letters from Jack Keefe, a bush-league baseball player, to a friend back home. The letters, written in Keefe’s own uneducated vernacular, offer an effective satirical comment on the rose-colored lenses through which Americans view their sports heroes.
Lardner didn’t think much of his own fiction. In fact, to get You Know Me Al published in book form he had to ask The Saturday Evening Post for copies; he hadn’t saved any himself. However, he did receive some initial critical acclaim. Later, however, perhaps as a result of the disdain held for baseball after the Black Sox scandal, he and other creators of baseball fiction were not highly regarded. Even his good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald said Lardner’s work was hampered because he “moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boys game.”
However, in the book Dreaming of Heroes, where I found the above Fitzgerald quote, Michael Oriard writes “The weaknesses Fitzgerald cites are, in fact, Lardner’s strengths, as they are the strengths of the sports fiction genre. The fact that sports heroes often are ‘illiterates’ makes them appropriate as representative figures—the interest in the story is often not in the character but in the character’s interaction with society. The irony of men playing a boy’s game provides the writer of sports fiction with an opportunity for examining the most fundamental issues in American life. Such contradictory values as simplicity and complexity, idealism and cynicism, lyricism and violence, freedom and responsibility, spontaneity and regimentation, playfulness and commercialism are implicit in this essential paradox in American sport. . . Fitzgerald was wrong to claim that Lardner’s subject matter necessarily limited his scope as an artist. Lardner did not go on to write another Huck Finn, and as a result he is sadly neglected today, but what Lardner did he did exceptionally well.”
The following excerpts offer a taste of Lardner’s style. They are taken from On The Diamond: A Treasury of Baseball Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg.
From “One Hit, One Error, One Left”
“Dear Jessie well kid here it is the 3 of march and I am still in the big league but kidding on the square things is beggin to look pretty rosy as mgr Carey has not got Casey Stengel rooming with me and I guest I all ready told you about Stengel he is a kin of asst mgr and coach of the club and kind of took me in toe the 1st day we beggin to work out and now mgr Carey has got him rooming with me so it looks like there takeing a special interest in how I get a long as Stengel sets and talks to me by the hr about the fine points and gives me pointers about the fine points of the game that comes up durn practice. I guest that sounds pretty good hay kid on account of the promise I give you the day I left home so you better get ready to pack up the old bag and all a board for Brooklyn or maybe you better wait a wile as maybe I will run a cross some kid I like better. No danger hay kid.”
This story is told in an exchange of letters between pro ballplayer Danny Warner and Jessie, his girl back home in Centralia, IL. The above-mentioned promise provides the story’s central theme, and the changes in how the two correspondents view said promise offer a healthy dollop of humor.
From “Alibi Ike”
” ‘What do you think of Alibi Ike?’ ast Carey.
‘Who’s that?’ I says.
‘This here Farrell in the outfield,’ says Carey.
‘He looks lik he could hit,’ I says.
‘Yes,’ says Carey, ‘but he can’t hit near as good as he can apologize.’
Then Carey went on to tell me what Ike had been pullin’ out there. He’d dropped the first fly ball that was hit to him and told Carey his glove wasn’t broke in good yet, and Carey says the glove could easy of been Kid Gleason’s gran’father. He made a whale of a catch out o’ the next one and Carey says ‘Nice work!’ or somethin’ like that, but Ike says he could of caught the ball with his back turned only he slipped when he started after it and, besides that, the air currents fooled him.
‘I thought you done well to get to the ball,’ says Carey
‘I ought to been settin’ under it,’ says Ike.
‘What did you hit last year?’ Carey ast him.
‘I had malaria most o’ the season,’ says Ike. ‘I wound up with .356.’
‘Where would I have to go to get malaria?’ says Carey, but Ike didn’t wise up.”
Alibi Ike’s incessant apologizing ends up interfering with his romantic pursuits, a conflict which turns out to carry ramifications for the whole team.
Lardner saw, as Oriard states in Dreaming of Heroes, that “Baseball during the 1910s and 1920s is thus one of the best possible metaphors for focusing on the problems of the age. Baseball underwent in miniature the same convulsions that shook the larger society.” No less a writer than Virginia Woolf said this in her essay on “American Fiction” (quoted from Oriard’s book): “It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner’s stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner’s interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brother.” I don’t believe I can offer Lardner a better compliment. And if authors of sports fiction are to gain a higher level of respect in the halls of literature today, I believe they must, like Lardner, touch on those themes from the sports world that offer us new perspectives on the weightier issues of life itself.