The far-too-distant past of the national pastime

I was really enjoying reading this recent post on A.V. Club about the “geekery” of baseball and literature, which — ahem — had been touching all the right bases in mentioning “The Natural,” “The Great American Novel” and “The Art of Fielding,” among others, as must reads.

Then Kevin McFarland stumbled badly and missed home plate entirely in dismissing “You Know Me Al,” an episolatory work by sports columnist Ring Lardner Sr. published in 1916, and as vital as any of the novels he mentions in understanding the literature of the game. The book, McFarland concluded:

” . . . represents a slice of baseball history that’s too far in the past to serve as an introduction.”

Picture 1Come again? Too far in the past? This is baseball, not jousting. A book that’s not quite 100 years old, and that sums up the then-brief history of the game, is regarded as ancient? If you sift through the comments you’ll see that quite a few of McFarland’s readers are well-versed in the literary — and real — history of the game, and shouldn’t find Lardner’s work too outdated.

Even more puzzling is McFarland’s inclusion of “Eight Men Out,” W.P. Kinsella’s account of the Black Sox scandal that took place only a few years after Lardner’s book was published. “Eight Men Out” also was the basis for a popular movie with the same name directed by John Sayles, who pulls off a very good rendering of Lardner, then a baseball writer in Chicago.

So where is the cutoff point between “too far in the past” and the modern present? Is the former reserved for books that aren’t made into films? We are never offered an explanation from McFarland, who appeared to be looking for a quick way to wrap up his post.

I realize A.V. Club is geared toward young men — McFarland is a contributing editor who graduated from Northwestern in 2011 — but to pan “You Know Me Al” this way is to disrespect the game’s past.

Lardner’s “busher” chronicles tell us much about the game before and through the turn of the 20th century, through the conceited, crass persona of Jack Keefe. This wasn’t romanticizing the “pastime,” but incisive satire that skewered the common mythology that had already grown around the sport.

The Brothers Judd show the proper appreciation for Lardner’s work. Before most anyone else, and not long before the throwing of the 1919 World Series threatened to bring down the sport, Lardner demolished the pastoral odes of baseball’s earliest poets.

Read this excerpt from “You Know Me Al” and tell me this particular letter from Keefe to “Al” isn’t prophetic about what was to come with the White Sox and their cheapskate owner, Charlie Comiskey:

“Speaking of money I won’t sign no contract unless I get the salary you and I talked of, three thousand dollars. You know what I was getting in Terre Haute, a hundred and fifty a month, and I know it’s going to cost me a lot more to live here. I made inquiries round here and find I can get board and room for eight dollars a week but I will be out of town half the time and will have to pay for my room when I am away or look up a new one when I come back. Then I will have to buy cloths to wear on the road in places like New York. When Comiskey comes back I will name him three thousand dollars as my lowest figure and I guess he will come through when he sees I am in ernest. I heard that Walsh was getting twice as much as that.

“The papers says Comiskey will be back here sometime to-morrow. He has been hunting with the president of the league so he ought to feel pretty good. But I don’t care how he feels. I am going to get a contract for three thousand and if he don’t want to give it to me he can do the other thing. You know me Al.”

It’s not graceful Kinsellian prose, but Lardner’s savagery of the Jack Keefe character and the Lords of Baseball — greed meeting greed — went to the heart of what the author thought ailed the game, and he would be proven horrifically right. Lardner’s own short life was troubled by alcoholism and ill health, and he died long before his son and namesake, Ring Lardner Jr., made the Hollywood blacklist.

“You Know Me Al” isn’t hard to find — it’s in print, and readily available. If you’ve got a dollar in your bank account, you can even buy an e-book version in a flash.

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