Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ring Lardner—The Bard of Baseball

Ring Lardner, the quintessential sports writer at work.
The most surprising thing about Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, who was born on this date in 1885 in Niles, Michigan, is that he came from a family of considerable wealth and social standing.  If you read the stuff he churned out later in life as Ring Lardner, you would assume he was one of those scruffy up-from-the-bottom whiskey drinking newspaper men who with a minimum of education muscled their way out of industrial serfdom or barefoot rural poverty to become an ink stained wretch. 
He was the youngest of nine children of a distinguished family who held high hopes for him.  His name was chosen at the suggestion of his uncle, Rear Admiral James L. Lardner in honor on an Annapolis classmate, Rear Admiral Cadwalader Ringgold.  The boy, naturally, hated both the moniker and all of the expectations of achievement and glory that went with it.  He settled on going by Ring, which he admitted didn’t make any sense.  He struggled indifferently through high school, more interested in sports and carousing with friends than academics. 
His parents, having given up on the idea of him getting a top flight education at a service academy, an Ivy League college, or the University of Michigan, shipped him off to study engineering at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, which they considered little better than a trade school.  Young Larder could not, or would not, even hack it there.  He dropped out before completing his first semester.
Lardner almost seems to have stumbled into journalism for want of anything better to do.  He began covering sports for the South Bend Tribune in Indiana shortly after his escape from academia and while still a teenager.  It turned out to be a good match from the beginning.  He had a casual, easy way with words and a knack for telling stories from a just off-center perspective that made him stand out from the beginning from others on the sports beat. 
On a personal level, the life of a sports writer had great appeal—he was by necessity out of the office and the constricting supervision of bosses for much of the day.  Moreover it was his job to hang out with athletes, attend games, and generally carouse and hobnob with the colorful characters that hung around ball parks, race tracks, and boxing arenas.  He loved hotel lobbies, drafty railroad coaches, and saloons—the camaraderie of men in straw boaters and loud suits chomping cigars, swilling whiskey, and telling lies.
It did not take long for Lardner’s talent to get noticed—or for him to take advantage of it.  He began a period of frequently changing jobs, each time hopping to a better paying and more prestigious newspapers.  After six months at the Tribune, he skipped to its competitor the South Bend Times. By 1907 he was in the big town, Chicago where he worked in rapid succession for the lowly Inter-Ocean then moved up to William Randolph Heart’s Chicago Examiner, and then to the prestigious Chicago Tribune.
By 1900 Lardner was in St. Louis where the Taylor Spink of the nationally circulated Sporting News let the writer go beyond reporting on games—by this time he was writing almost exclusively about baseball—and gave him a humor column Pullman Pastimes based on the off the field conversations and high jinx of players.  Beginning to write in the semi-literate vernacular of the players, Lardner was finding his voice.  He continued to contribute to the Sporting News even after moving on to another big city daily, the Boston American.
Sometime in the midst of this game of musical desk chairs, Lardner wooed and won Ellis Abbott of Goshen, Indiana, a town not far from where he started his career in South Bend.  The couple would wed in 1911 and Ellis gave him four sons and stuck by him even as the normal heavy drinking of a newspaper man became more and more serious.
Perhaps a new wife and family were enough to end his vagabond ways,  In 1913 Lardner returned to Chicago and the Tribune where he took over the paper’s flagship sports column In the Wake of the after the death of its originator Hugh Keough.  He would remain with the paper and the column through 1919 and help make the column a nationwide success syndicated in over 100 newspapers.
It was during this period that Lardner became exceptionally close to the players on the Chicago White Sox, the dominant team of the American League.  He began to draw on some of the players for inspiration for a new series of short stories, six of which ran in the Saturday Evening Post.  The stories were framed as letters home to a pal by bush league player Jack Keefe who was barely literate about his life in baseball and his rise and travails as a member of the White Sox.  The letters were written not only in vernacular but riddled with spelling and grammar errors, just the way such a rube ballplayer would write.  They were also funny as hell, as well as occasionally insightful and even touching.
George H. Doran Co., then the nation’s most prestigious publisher with authors like P. G. Wodehouse, Arnold J. Toynbee, Theodore Roosevelt, Arthur Conan Doyle, O. Henry, Virginia Woolf, Frank Harris, H.G. Wells, W. Somerset Maugham, Sinclair Lewis, and H.L. Mencken under contract, was convinced the Post stories could be made into an epistolary novel.  Lardner did not believe that they were anything special.  He regarded them as ephemera no more enduring than a daily sports column.  In order to create a cohesive manuscript, Lardner had to beg the Post to return his original stories to him—he had not bothered to keep copies. 
The original George  H. Doran Co. edition of You Know Me Al later re-issued and re-packaged as serious litterature by Scribners.
When You Know Me Al was first published, it was not a huge immediate success, despite the continuing popularity of the Keefe stories in the Post.  But a lot of very serious writers from Virginia Woolf to a youthful Ernest Hemingway would take notice of the book and admire it for both its style and its human depth.  The opening of the first story famously set the table to hear the tale told in Keefe’s voice:
Friend Al: Just a line to let you know I am still on earth. My arm feels pretty good again and I guess maybe I will work in Detroit. Violet writes that she can’t hardly wait to see me. Looks like I got a regular girl now Al. We go up there the twenty-ninth and maybe I won’t be glad to see her. I hope she will be out to the game the day I pitch. I will pitch the way I want to next time and them Tigers won’t have such a picnic.
I suppose you seen what the Chicago reporters said about that game. I will punch a couple of their jaws when I see them.
Your pal, Jack
Despite the moderate success of the first printing of You Now Me Al, the character and the series remained popular for a long string of more stories in the Post and more collections which were steadily gaining loyal fans.  More than one compared his gifts of observation, satire, and the deft use of first person dialect to Mark Twain.
As both a sports writer and an almost-against-his-will literary figure, Lardner’s work contrasted with others who tried to bridge those worlds.  Colorado raised Damon Runyon came of age as a newspaperman on the virtual frontier amid colorful sporting men—gamblers, touts, and pimps. When he came to New York City his mentor was an old friend from out West, the gunman and sometime lawman Bat Masterson, who taught him about fixing fights and horse races and introduced him to underworld gangs and gamblers who inhabited the edge of sports.  Grantland Rice, on the other hand, was a son of the Southern aristocracy and a college man.  His passions were for intercollegiate athletics, especially football and the gentlemanly game of golf.  He saw athletics as a noble contest and athletes as classic heroes embodying the best in civilization.  He wrote elegantly, even floridly to lift up his flawless heroes.
Lardner was somewhere in the middle.  His game was baseball, a professional sport for decades already played mostly by young men from hardscrabble backgrounds who were in it as much to escape a life of drudgery as for glory.  He liked those men.  He felt, despite his own privileged background to be one of them.  He always knew there were fixers on the edge, but believed that, on the whole the spitting, cussing, scratching, and brawling boys of the bench shared a certain code of the game that usually put them out of the reach of the worst connivers
Two things changed Lardner’s perspective.  The first was first hand exposure to the horrors of World War I.  Collier’s Magazine sent Lardner to France to cover the war.  He was not a front line correspondent, but he saw enough and talked to enough Doughboysyoung soldiers who often resembled his beloved ball players—to be wised up to some brutal truths.  Out of this experience Lardner mined a personal memoir, My Four Weeks in France.  But he also let Jack Keefe get drafted and shipped off to the trenches which was chronicled by the unfortunate pitcher in more letters to Al in Treat ‘em Rough.
Ring Lardner's role in exposing the  1919 Black Sox scandal was central to the film Eight Men Out.  Lardner was portrayed by a virtual doppleganger--screen writer and director John Sales.  Seen here with Studs Terkel as a Tribune sports writer and John Mahoney as Sox manager Kid Gleason.
The second thing was the Black Sox Scandal.  Lardner had been covering and traveling with the Chicago White Sox for years.  Many of White Sox figures, from shrewd and cheap old Charles Comiskey, coach Kid Gleason, were used by name in You Know Me Al and others were only thinly disguised.  Lardner became suspicious that something was afoot during the 1919 World Series Games against Cincinnati.   There was an inexplicable lack of sharpness, particularly on crucial defensive plays and certain pitchers seemed to be offering up batting practice pitches.  Some say that Kid Gleason, who had been elevated to manager that year, tipped Lardner off that the series was fixed.  Lardner covered the whole unraveling scandal, including the exile from baseball of players he had considered close friends.  He felt betrayed.  Ever after his baseball writing, while still rife with humor, took on a darker world view, almost an assumption that on some level the fix was always in.
Lardner was also broadening out from writing just baseball stories.  He began contributing other satirical tales to the Post and other magazines which were collected and published to acclaim including Gulible’s Travels in 1917, Own Your Own Home in 1919, The Young Immigrunts in 1920, and The Big Town in 1921.

You Know Me Al became a popular newspaper comic strip in the 1920's and  Lardner picked up extra income not only for the rights to his stories, but for penning the scripts.

Own Your Own Home represented a big change for Lardner.  After the Black Sox scandal, he left Chicago to relocate his family in the leafy and tony Hamptons on Long Island.  He dropped his daily column but kept up his popular weekly syndicated pieces which he could write from anywhere.  The move made possible by the very comfortable living his work was now providing him.
But it was motivated by a long cherished dream of writing plays to be produced on Broadway.  He had mounted an original play back home in Niles, Michigan while still a teenager.  Despite his success as a writer, Lardner found producers immune from the charms of his scripts, which were chockfull of nonsense and whimsy and included music and lyrics by the playwright.  Some of his sketches and songs were used in various productions of the Ziegfeld Follies including one baseball sketch featuring Will Rogers.  

At the White House on the way to a Senators game with President Warren G. Harding, a nother hard drinking former newspaper man.
In 1928 George M. Cohan produced his baseball comedy Elmer the Great starring Walter Huston, but it was unsuccessful.  But it was made into a 1933 Joe E. Brown film that was a hit.  Finally, in 1930 Lardner had a hit, June Moon written in collaboration with George S. Kauffman for which he also wrote the songs.
Although not succesful on Broadway in a George M. Cohan production starring Walter Huston, Elmer the Great became a big hit in 1933 for Joe E. Brown, a physical comic who had played baseball.
During his residency in the Hamptons, Lardner spent many evenings in New York City and with the introduction of Prohibition partied hard.  He enjoyed the Jazz Age.  Young F. Scott Fitzgerald came under his wing and guidance.  Lardner was asked to proof drafts of The Great Gatsby in which a character was based on him.  In his last novel Tender is the Night, Lardner was depicted as the drunken Abe North at a fatal party.
In the mid-Twenties Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s legendary editor at a Scribner’s became convinced that Lardner should be re-packaged as a writer from comic relief to a serious, if humorous short story writer.  Scribner’s obtained rights to Lardner’s earlier books, and re-issued them in a uniform series to highlight their importance.  That included a new edition of You Can Call Me Al which had inexplicably gone out of print. 
Now presented as literary fiction, it found new and appreciative audiences.  Perkins helped guide the story collections of the late Twenties that included many of Lardner’s most admired.  The wry title of the first of these collections How to Write Short Stories was suggested by Fitzgerald who knew that Lardner still harbored a lingering suspicion he was a fraud as far as a literary figure goes.  But stories like the gripping, tragic Haircut from his 1926 collection The Love Nest and Other Stories showed that Lardner was indeed the master of the short story, a literary form that flourished for a time in this country.

Lardner continued to write successfully.  In addition to his general interest short stories, he wrote a satirical autobiography The Return of Wonderman in 1927 returned to baseball in 1933 with Lose With a Smile. 

But years of heavy drinking and carousing were taking a toll on his health.  At home his wife tried to care for him and he did pay attentions to his four sons, all of whom he made sure had had the best educations—the kind he had purposefully escaped from—at prestigious Ivy League schools.

Drinking affected his heart and he suffered at least one heart attack.  He was sent to a sanitarium in Arizona to dry out and also recover from symptoms of Tuberculosis in 1931 and sought similar treatment in California two years later.  When it became apparent he did not have long to live, he returned to his home in the Hamptons where he died in his sleep surrounded by his wife and two of his sons on September 23, 1933 at the age of 48.

His heritage as a newspaper man and writer, as well as someone with a deep sense of the injustices of the world, was carried on by his four sons.  The eldest John Lardner, born in 1912 became a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune in Paris before returning to the States to become a sports columnist for Newsweek and a World War II war correspondent.

James Lardner was also an accomplished journalist who gave it up to enlist in the International Brigades fighting fascists during the Spanish Civil War.  He was killed in Spain.

Ring Lardner, Jr., an Oscar winning screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, in his prison I.D. photo after being convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee

The most famous of the brothers, Ring Lardner, Jr. was a leading Hollywood screen writer whose work included Woman of the Year, a film that won him an Academy Award for Original Screenplay in 1942, Laura in 1944, Brotherhood of Man in 1946, Forever Amber in 1947.  Later in ’47 he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for supposed Communist connection but refused to name names.  He became one of the famous Hollywood 10 and spent a year in prison.  Blacklisted in Hollywood he moved to England where he worked under a variety of pseudonyms.  When the Blacklist was finally broken he worked on such classic films as The Cincinnati Kid and M*A*S*H, for which he won a second Oscar.  He died in New York City in 2000, the last surviving member of the Hollywood 10.

The youngest son, David Lardner worked for The New Yorker as a general reporter and war correspondent before he was killed by a landmine near Aachen, Germany in October 1944, less than one month after his arrival in Europe.

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