By Marty Appel
I was thinking about Ring Lardner when the Mets sent Ike Davis to the minor leagues in June. And we’ll get to that in a moment.
One thing I really like about Ring’s life, a century after his fame started to take hold, is that he was really just one of us – a sportswriter!
And he wound up being spoken of in the same breath with F. Scott Fitzgerald – a great man of letters, an American original.
It was largely because he had the gift of imagination, and the sense to listen when someone was telling a good story.
I would have rather known Ring Lardner than F. Scott Fitzgerald because he created Alibi Ike and Jack Keefe who were, in their own way, greater American characters than Jay Gatsby. And they were baseball guys.
Another very cool thing about Ring’s life is that ever so briefly – we’re talking about three months in 1910-1911 – he was talked into becoming the editor of The Sporting News. He moved from Chicago to St. Louis and also wrote a column there called Pullman Pastimes. This was when Charles Spink and his son J. G. Taylor Spink ran the baseball weekly, and Ring knew at once he had made a big mistake. He hated everything about the Spinks, and he couldn’t quit fast enough. It was one of the worst stops of his career.
So now we fast forward, and we’re in 1963, it’s 30 years after his death, and the Baseball Writer’s Association honors one of their own with a lifetime achievement award in Cooperstown on Induction Weekend. They call it the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Yup, same guy. (Taylor Spink, the year before, is the first recipient.)
And the second winner is….. Ring Lardner! Lardner wins the Spink Award. Talk about having the last laugh!
I wish we had Lardner in baseball for the full span of his all-too-short life, which covered only 45 years. He had a gift for seeing the great characters in the game, or just making them up, whichever wrote better. He made up a character he called “Alibi Ike” in 1915, 98 years before the Mets had to send Ike Davis to the minors for seasoning. During his 2012 struggles, Davis had attributed some of his failing to Valley fever. No journalists thought to make the connection, although a few headline writers jumped on it.
Where was Ring when we needed him!?
He was born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, on March 6, 1885 in Niles, Michigan, 10 miles north of Notre Dame. He was the youngest of nine, and he became Ring while still a tot. As we approach the centennial of his gifts to baseball literature, it is a good time to recall a man who lived a nomadic, sportswriter life, drank too much, but didn’t let that get in the way of his ability to turn out fabulous prose.
He did not attend college, but instead worked a series of odd jobs until focusing on a career as a newspapermen. The family needed his income, so he turned down his one scholarship offer.
With so many newspapers in business a century ago, it was not uncommon for journalists to hop from one to another with great frequency. So we have Ring beginning his career at the South Bend Tribune, followed quickly by the South Bend Times. At 22, he was off to Chicago, joining the staff of the Inter-Ocean, then quickly moving to the Examiner and then the Tribune. When his Sporting News experiment failed, it was off to Boston to work for the American, but by 1913 he was back in Chicago at the Trib.
He may have been the only one to have been in Boston for the opening of Fenway Park and in Chicago for the opening of Wrigley Field, (then called Weeghman Field). We can’t be sure if he was actually present, but he loved baseball and certainly may have been.
Newspapers used to include in their pages poetry and serialized short stories. These were wonderful opportunities for Ring’s strengths, such as the poem he wrote lamenting the departure of the West Side Grounds in favor of Weeghman. He wrote this poem in 1916, the first years in which the Cubs played in the new park, and called it “Elegy in a West Side Ball Park”
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight.
Save for the chatter of the laboring folk
Returning to their hovels for the night,
All is still at Taylor, Lincoln, Wood and Polk.
Beneath this aged roof, this grandstand’s shade,
Where peanut shucks lie in a mold’ring heap,
Where show the stains of pop and lemonade,
The Cub bugs used to cheer and groan and weep.
Ring’s first year covering baseball was 1908, and the Cubs would win the World Series that year (and none since). He loved the train travel with the team, and while on the road he learned the dialogue of ballplayers, the cadence of their stories, the amusing accents and use of profanity. He estimated that he spent “ninety nights per annum in lower berths.” He was a “beat reporter” from 1908-1913, but continued to be a regular presence in the baseball press boxes into the mid 1920s while becoming more of a general columnist.
His observations, even in letters, were revealing of the game’s progress. In 1911, while in Boston, he wrote to his fiancé, “They are using a new ball this year. It’s livelier and that means more hitting, and more hitting means longer games, and that’s the devil. It appears to be impossible to finish a game in less than two hours. It’s bad enough now, but it’s going to drive me crazy when it keeps me away from my own home.”
Establishing his credibility as a man knowledgeable about baseball was accomplished when he was in his early twenties. He’d played the game as a youngster, and enjoyed the company of players and owners. Now, before he turned 30, he was about to become a figure of national prominence through the characters he would create in Jack Keefe and Alibi Ike.
And we will cover that in Part II.
Ring Lardner Part II by Marty Appel
Ring Lardner was 29 when the Sunday editor of the Chicago Tribune asked him to write a baseball feature. The readers of the Trib never saw what Ring hammered out on his typewriter – fictitious letters home from one Jack Keefe, a cocky baseball prospect writing to his friend Al in Bedford, Indiana. The editor decided it just didn’t work for his section.
And so Ring sent it off to the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, an important national magazine, and it ran in the issue dated March 7, 1914. Readers of the magazine loved it, the editors asked for more, and by year’s end, six submissions had been published and “A Busher’s Letters Home” was a national sensation. Everyone, so it seemed, anxiously awaited the next edition.
The series would take the name “You Know Me Al,” when published collectively in 1916. “You Know Me Al” was a phrase Keefe used often in his chatty, conversational letters to Al.
Jack Keefe, as immortalized in the “You Know Me Al” series, was more than just a fictional baseball player. As Ring Lardner’s biographer Jonathan Yardley wrote 36 years ago, “It was the first book to treat baseball and the men who played it as the subjects of literate fiction, and ever since it has suffered under the handicap of being considered a ‘baseball novel.’ It is much more: Jack Keefe is one of the great ‘originals’ in American fiction, and the language with which he writes his friend is an expression of the vernacular that has had a lasting effect on the way American writers describe American talk. It was immediately recognized as an authentic American voice, a faithful rendition of the way a person of the time with only rudimentary education would be likely to write in his letters to his best friend.”
It is hard to choose one sample to demonstrate this, but the fact that he blends real names into a work of fiction keeps this a delight all these years later. Here’s one:
“Well Al if I had of had any work and my regular control I guess I would of pitching a 0 hit game because the only time they could touch me was when I had to ease up to get them over. Cobb was out of the game and they told me he was sick but I guess the truth is that he knowed I was going to pitch. Crawford got a couple of lucky scratch hits off of me because I got in the hole to him and had to let up. But the way that lucky left handed Hill got by was something awful and if I was as lucky as him I would quit pitching and shoot craps or something.
“Our club can’t hit nothing anyway. But batting against this bird was just like hitting fungos. His curve ball broke about ½ an inch and you could of wrote your name and address on his fast one while it was comeing up there. He had good control but who would not when they put nothing on the ball?”
The “busher series” went on to cover three volumes, continued to enjoy great popularity, and made Jack Keefe a well-known fictional character in America. There were three volumes – plus a number of short stories that stood on their own. The best loved of the three volumes, “You Know Me Al,” continues to be reprinted with some regularity, although the further removed we are from the real names (like Kid Gleason and Charles Comiskey), I suppose the more difficult it is for a modern audience to get the full flavor. But in the end, it’s the writing that wins the day. It certainly evokes a simpler time in America and for American baseball.
Ring was 30, and now enjoying a national reputation when he came up with the idea for “Alibi Ike.” “Alibi Ike” was produced 98 years ago, but it still reads comfortably today, and it evokes the more modern work of Christopher Guest, Steve Martin or the Monty Python bunch.
Again, this man of great literary skills was magnificent in capturing the voice of a semi-literate baseball player and making a folk hero of him.
Written as a short story, it was published in the Saturday Evening Post of July 31, 1915 and made for fine summertime reading. Just under 6,800 words, it was divided into six short chapters. The character never appeared again (unlike Jack Keefe), but he took his place among beloved baseball literature.
“I’ve read just about everything Ring wrote and my absolute favorite was Alibi Ike,” says Rex Lardner, a grand nephew of Ring’s who is managing editor of American Football Monthly and Gridiron Strategies. “The first two sentences are classic – “His right name was Frank X. Farrell, and I guess the X stood for ‘Excuse Me,’ because he never pulled a play good or bad, on or off the field, without apologizin’ for it.”
You immediately knew all you had to know about Frank X. Farrell to sit back and enjoy the tale.
(Rex also reports that “Once in high school, I had to do a paper on Ring’s short story “Haircut.” You can imagine the primary sources I had in writing it, but still got a C+. A friend said, ‘It looks like the writing gene skipped a generation.'”)
By now, a visit by Ring Lardner to the press box at any park in the land found sports reporters rising to shake his hand and welcome his presence. He was now first among equals, and although no longer a beat reporter or a regular presence, he did cover every World Series from 1908-1927 save for two. One he didn’t miss was the 1919 Series in Chicago and Cincinnati. His Tribune career had ended in June of 1919 but now he was writing nationally for the Bell Syndicate and making $30,000 a year.
The 1919 World Series was of course, the Black Sox World Series, and in the film Eight Men Out, writer-director John Sayles played Ring (there is a remarkable resemblance), and a famous scene shows him fearlessly walking through the train singing, “I’m forever blowing ball games,” to the astonishment – and anger – of the Chicago players. According to Lardner himself, he did indeed sing that song, but in a roadhouse in Bellevue, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.
Ring eventually moved to New York, where he did indeed hang out with the literary folks on the Hamptons and near his homes in Great Neck, New York and then New Milford, Connecticut. In 1922 he agreed to write a You Know Me Al comic strip (illustrated by others), and he did 3,744 of them over three years.
Ring and his wife had four sons – John became sports editor of Newsweek, James was killed in the Spanish Civil War fighting with the international Brigades, David was a war correspondent killed in Germany by a landmine in 1944, and Ring Jr., became famous as an Academy Award winning screenwriter, blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Never really free of the temptation of alcohol, Ring died largely from its effects (officially from tuberculosis) in 1933 in East Hampton.