Ring Lardner · 1998
The wonder is not so much that Ring Lardner became a great baseball writer, the greatest, some would say. He loved the game, he understood it technically, he identified with its players, he had an ear for its speech and rhythms, he saw how it reflected America at the turn of the century.
The wonder is more that in his short 48 years he also led the league in the literary world of short stories and satire. He was, in biographer Donald Elder’s estimation, by age 41,the “most ferocious satirist since Swift” and one of “the ten most famous men in the United States, and the funniest.”
The wonder, too, is that Lardner wrote dozens of stage plays – to far less critical acclaim than his other writing – and, possessed of perfect pitch, composed a library of songs. “His love of music,” Elder writes, “was the deepest and most constant interest in his life. His greatest ambition was always to be a song writer, and he wanted most to write music for the theater.” Wondrous too were the luminaries who were his friends and colleagues: F. Scotland Zelda Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald modeled a character in “Tender is the Night” after Lardner); H. L. Mencken; W. C. Fields; Florenz Ziegfield (for whom Lardner wrote burlesque sketches, one of which included a character named Henry Witz, a typographical error); Hoosiers Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser and George Ade (whom Lardner called a better humorist than Mark Twain, and whom Lardner now joins in the Hall of Fame); Rube Goldberg; George M. Cohan; Virginia Woolf; George S. Kaufman; President Warren Harding (a golfing buddy); and writers Grantland Rice and Heywood Brown (who once said, “Dizzy Dean wasn’t born; Ring Lardner invented him.”).
And the sad wonder is that, despite all of those distinctions, when Lardner died in 1933, he went to his grave worrying that he could have been far better, never really convinced hewas worthy of all the accolades.
Ringgold Wilmer Lardner was born on March 6, 1885, in Niles, Mich. – Ring gold coming from the last name of a Lardner family friend, Adm. Cadwallader Ringgold, Wilmer from Ring’s father’s first cousin’s wife’s maiden name. Lardner shortened it to Ring and dropped the W., “thereby achieving,” Elder says, “without changing his name, the most distinctive nom de plume in American letters since Mark Twain.”
His youth was spent in Niles, being taught at home, playing baseball (despite a deformed foot that required a brace until he was 11), singing in the church choir (he was a natural baritone but sang bass because no one else could) and taking part in school plays. He graduated in1901 from Niles High School, where he wrote the class poem, reportedly his first published work.
After being “canned” (his word) from two office jobs and failing every class except rhetoric at Armour Institute in Chicago, Lardner rested for a year and then worked all of 1904 and part of 1905 as a bookkeeper for the Niles Gas Co.
In fall of 1905, Lardner became a newspaperman, by accident and based on a fib. The editor of the South Bend (Ind.) Times had come to Niles to find Ring’s brother, Rex, who was reporting for the Niles Daily Sun and doing correspondent work for the South Bend Tribune. Rex was away on vacation, so Ring struck up a conversation that is supposed to have gone something like this:
“I [Ring] asked how much salary he was willing to offer. He said twelve dollars a week.”
” ‘Why?’ the editor asked.”
” ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I thought I might tackle the job myself.’ ”
” ‘Have you ever done any newspaper work?’ ”
” ‘Yes, indeed,’ I said. ‘I often help my brother.’ This was far from the truth, but I was thinking of those rats [rats Lardner encountered under houses while taking gas meter readings].”
The next week, he reported for work at the Times, for a job he described as “society” reporter, court-house man, dramatic critic and sporting editor.” Lardner held that job until mid-1907, and it was there that he began to show the style of writing that, some say, set the standard for modern sports writing.
Elder says: “His writing for the Times was youthful, natural, and playful; he was not writing down to his readers, and he was certainly not consciously forging a style. He loved baseball with the same passion as the most enthusiastic of the fans, and he was having fun writing about it. Here is a passage from 1906:
“…Watson, appearing for the first time in the Evansville right field, was first up. He stayed until Moffitt hurled three missiles across the plate and then retired to the friendly bench. Lillian Sager elevated a fly to the right. R.V. Troutman glided to the south, balanced to the northeast and waited for the descent. When the ball finally reached the tall one’s hands it had turned into a 16 pound shot and was too heavy to hold. Young Fremer biffed to the left, advancing Lillian to second. ‘Nig’ Fuller … hammered a line to center, scoring Sager and sending Fremer to third. ‘Nig’ sped to the halfway house on the first pitch and a pair of runs counted when Walker’s hit fell safe behind second. Nye was madly cheered when he advanced to the plate, and he fulfilled expectations by fouling out.”
The next five years saw Lardner working for a series of papers: the Chicago Inter-Ocean, the Chicago Examiner (where he wrote under the alias James Clarkson), the Chicago Tribune, the St. Louis Sporting News (its managing editor for three months), the Boston American and the Chicago American.
In 1912, when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series over the New York Giants after an outfielder dropped a fly ball that allowed the tying and winning runs to score, he wrote this for the Chicago Examiner:
“BOSTON, Mass., Oct. 16-Just after Steve Yerkes had crossed the plate with the run that gave Boston’s Red Sox the world’s championship in the tenth inning of the deciding game of the greatest series ever played for the big title, while the thousands, made temporarily crazy by a triumph entirely unexpected, yelled, screamed, stamped their feet, smashed hats and hugged one another, there was seen one of the saddest sights in the history of a sport that is a strange and wonderful mixture of joy and gloom. It was the spectacle of a man, old as baseball players are reckoned, walking from the middle of the field to the New York players’ bench with bowed head and drooping shoulders, with tears streaming from his eyes, a man who would have proven his clear title to the trust reposed in him if his mates had stood by him in the supreme test. The man was Christy Mathew son.
“Beaten, 3 to 2, by a club he would have conquered if he had been given the support deserved by his wonderful pitching, Matty tonight is greater in the eyes of New York’s public than ever before. Even the joy-mad population of Boston confesses that his should have been the victory and his the praise….”
In 1913, Lardner rejoined the Chicago Tribune and took over an institution, the daily column called “In the Wake of the News,” which was not a column in the sense thought of today but instead a collection of, in Elder’s words, “poems, epigrams, portraits of sports figures, letters and verses from contributors.” Lardner also added new touches – contests, serials and parodies. Lardner continued to write the column, seven days a week, until 1919.
To expand his work and to thicken his pocketbook, Lardner began selling baseball stories to The Saturday Evening Post in 1914. This series of personal stories, written in the players’ semi-literate slang that Lardner had undoubtedly studied from his youth in Niles, was called “Busher’s Letters” – a reference to the so-called bush leagues in which players toiled on their way to the big leagues. A large set of those letters was collected as “You Know Me Al,” letters from fictional ballplayer Jack Keefe home to his friend Al in Bedford, Ind.
Here is one sample:
“FRIEND AL: Al some times I wish I was not married at all and if it was not for Florrie and little Al I would go a round the world on this here trip and I guess the boys in Bedford would not be jealous if I was to go a round the world and see every thing they is to be saw and some of the boys down home has not never been no further a way then Terre Haute and I don’t mean you Al but some of the other boys.”
About this style and approach, Elder writes: “He wrote all of his [busher] stories slowly and carefully in a single draft; then he changed nothing and stubbornly refused to allow any editorial intervention. He knew exactly what he was doing. When the Post set up the first story, a copy editor questioned what he thought to be an inconsistency in spelling: common, simple words were misspelled, but long and unfamiliar words and place names were correctly spelled. Ring pointed out that an uneducated ball player would assume that he knew how to spell such ordinary words as ‘series’ and ‘scheduled’ and so he would write them as he pronounced them, ‘serious’ and ‘schedule.’ But he would write ‘Philadelphia’ correctly because he could see it on hotel stationery; and if he had any doubt about an uncommon word, he would look it up or ask someone how to spell it. Ring had seen enough actual letters from ball players to know how they were written. “In 1919 – after the White Sox threw the World Series that year, perhaps forever dulling Lardner’s enthusiasm for baseball – Lardner resigned from the Tribune, began writing a weekly syndicated column and moved the family east to Greenwich, Conn. In early 1921, the family moved on to Great Neck, Long Island, where for a year and half the Lardners and the Fitzgeralds were neighbors.
Lardner’s first collection of short stories, “How To Write Short Stories,” was published in 1924. That was the first of nearly 20 short story collections he had published. In all he wrote 130 short stories, more than two-thirds of which were not about baseball.
By 1926, Elder says: “Ring was … at the peak of his fame as a columnist and short-story writer [and] he was tired of writing in character, and he got little pleasure out of writing short stories, whatever the praise he received. He still liked to write songs and plays, and he kept on trying, in a desperate effort to get some satisfaction from his work…. He decided to give up newspaper work entirely and devote himself as much as possible to music and the theater.”
It was also 1926 that Lardner discovered how serious his health problems were. He had TB, complicated by a heart condition and too much alcohol over the years.
Still, Lardner kept writing – especially music and plays. He wrote his last regular weekly column in early 1927, returning in late 1928 to do a column for the Morning Telegraph in New York, but just for two months. In 1929, he published “Round Up,” a collection of 35 short stories; had almost 30 magazine stories printed; and, with George S. Kaufman, wrote “June Moon,” his largest theatrical success.
In 1932, he began a new series of busher stories for The Saturday Evening Post, a series featuring a new ballplayer, Danny Warner of Centralia, Ill. That same year, after a visit to his hospital room from New Yorker editor Harold Ross, Lardner began writing about radio broadcasts for that magazine, speaking out against such offenses as sexually suggestive song lyrics and jokes. In spring of 1933, “Lose With a Smile,” another collection of new busher stories, was published.
On the morning of Sept. 25, 1933, after a night of playing bridge with family and friends, Lardner suffered a heart attack and fell into a coma. He died that evening without regaining consciousness.
“… Many people close to Ring,” Elder concludes in his biography of Lardner, “believe that long before he died [Lardner] had lost any will to live. Fitzgerald wrote in an obituary that a dozen years earlier Ring had become cynical about his work, had deliberately formed a habit of silence and repression; … he called Ring’s death a prolonged suicide. If so, it was a difficult one, in the face of a relentless drive to keep going that was sustained by his love of family, his sense of duty, the play that had absorbed him for so long, the few small diversions that still afforded him some pleasure even at the end of his life. But he had always needed escape, too, and the kinds of escape he could find had worn him out. Under the strain of that need, and of some remaining will to live that entailed too desperate a struggle, his health gave way.
“… The day after he died, his body was taken away and, according to his own wish, cremated without ceremony – as if the proud and solemn man who did not believe in the value of his own work and had remained silent about the things that concerned him most deeply had chosen to cover his tracks to the very last.”