Midweek books: The essential Ring Lardner collection

Last week the Library of America released its long-awaited “Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings,” and I’m hopeful this may spur a revival about a writer who’s been dead for 80 years.

LardnerLOAThis volume — edited by Ian Frazier, writer, humorist and contributor to The New Yorker — comes in at a whopping 974 pages, and there’s enough Lardner here to suit anyone’s taste, his sportswriting and beyond.

The collection draws on some of Lardner’s best-known work: “You Know Me Al,” “The Real Dope,” “The Young Immigrunts,” “The Big Town,” plus many humor pieces, lyrics and playlets and letters.

Allen Barra, writing for The Daily Beast, calls this “the best Lardner collection ever assembled:”

Lardner went from journalism to short fiction without missing a beat, recreating the ballplayers, most of them Midwestern or southern farm boys, in their own distinct language. Baseball writers in Ring’s day traveled with the teams by train and learned their idioms over card games, dinner, and booze. He was the first sportswriter to make American athletes sound American and not as if they were being written about by a Victorian sporting journalist, and he never made the mistake of piling more literary language on his subjects than they could support.

Alex Belth has done more than anyone to honor the work of the likes of Lardner and present them to today’s readers, and last week he celebrated the new arrival with several posts on The Stacks. Lardner’s son John (a celebrated sports columnist in mid-century) penned this introduction of “You Know Me Al,” a collection of fictitious letters involving the iconic figure of Jack Keefe:

Gilbert Seldes, in discussing what he felt was the iconoclastic effect of Al, wrote that “baseball has never recovered” from what my father did to its heroes. I think it’s true that there was an element ofyouknowmeal shock in the author’s treatment of Keefe and one or two other non-historical characters. . . Baseball did not have to recover from You Know Me Al, because its hard assets had not been disturbed. The book did make an important change in a state of mind which Mr. Seldes, writing in the early 1920s, could recall vividly. Since then, there have been other changes in player attitudes and in fan habits with which the Keefe letters had nothing to do. It’s noteworthy that Al has survived change as easily as it has created it. Everything that is inherently sound in our national diversion, and everything that is characteristically silly, are fixed for all time in this story.

Also last week, anticipating the new book, The Atlantic‘s Colin Fleming proclaimed “You Know Me Al” as the best baseball novel ever written (even though it’s not really a novel).

Clearly, Lardner has plenty of admirers and those closely scrutinizing his work in our midst.

For example, noted baseball historian John Thorn recently dug out a 1916 Lardner column in the Chicago Tribune he called an “obituary” of Christy Mathewson, published nine years before the pitcher’s actual death. Thorn called the piece “eerie,” but it reads as a sardonic take on a playing legend who joined the managerial ranks and was afflicted with the “golf bacillus:”

Mathewson is the seventh prominent baseballist to succumb to this disease in a space of twelve years.

It is the opinion of prominent physicians that “Matty,” as he was fondly known, hastened his own end by taking up golf, which undermines the intellect and, thereby, the general health. Those who were closest to him say that he has never been the same since he first sliced off the tee.

(Mathewson died in 1925 from tuberculosis caused by gas poisoning during World War I.)

In a review of the Library of America collection for The Wall Street Journal, Edward Kosner thinks Lardner’s best pieces were non-sports arcticles in The Saturday Evening Post:


Lardner’s stories resurrect the America of nearly a century ago, when every dime was squeezed for all it was worth—about two bucks in today’s money. Young couples lived in rented flats furnished from shops around the corner. Married women stayed home raising the kids. Couples entertained themselves by going to the movies or invited others over to dance to the Victrola or play rummy or bridge. At snooty resorts on Long Island or in Florida—reached by endless, rattling train rides—bored people sat on long porches fanning themselves, filled the card rooms, took every American Plan meal in the dining room and danced to the house band.

Here’s another review from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Despite the accolades for Lardner and the Library of America collection, I do wonder whether interest in his work will spread beyond the diehards, and the legacy he left behind in his own family (In addition to John Lardner, who like his father died before the age of 50, his son Ring Lardner Jr. rose to fame as a screenwriter but was later blacklisted as a part of the Hollywood Ten.).

The character of Lardner Sr. was a prominent one in the 1988 film about the Chicago Black Sox, “Eight Men Out.” Director John Sayles was a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Lardner, whose disillusion over the throwing of the 1919 World Series pushed him away from baseball.

But I’m still flabbergasted by a piece I read last year claiming that ” ‘You Know Me Al’ . . . represents a slice of baseball history that’s too far in the past to serve as an introduction” to baseball and literature. I blogged a response, but I suspect what few in a current generation of young men (mostly) interested in the literary connections to the game aren’t any more inclined to go back more than a few decades.

It’s hard to fathom now, with a myopic sports media establishment fixated on most everything but the games, that there was a time when literary sportswriting enjoyed mainstream status.

Below are Groucho Marx and Truman Capote discussing Lardner on the Dick Cavett show. Aside from the bizarre exchange when Marx suggests Capote get married to help with a tax problem, this is a glimpse from a long-gone time when writers, and writing, were discussed on a popular TV program.

And no, I have no idea what the hell kind of cap Groucho was wearing either.

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