From Baseball: A Literary Anthology
One hundred years ago this week (on March 15, 1912, to be exact), before the beginning of the new season, Cy Young announced his retirement from baseball, having chalked up a total of 511 wins—a record he still holds—over the course of twenty-two years. The end of one incomparable career marked the beginning of another. Only weeks before, a recently married and debt-laden 27-year-old named Ring Lardner got a break when his former employer, the Chicago Examiner, hired him back to write as a sportswriter under his own byline during the upcoming season.
Within a year, the rival Chicago Tribune lured him away to replace Hugh E. Keogh, who died after a career of thirty-one years and whose “In the Wake of the News” sports column had a loyal national following. It was an impossible task, noted The New York Times two decades later in Lardner’s obituary; “at first twenty letters a day to The Tribune told him how he failed.” Making things even more difficult was the mediocrity of the Chicago teams: the glory of the Cubs dynasty was a thing of the past and the White Sox were struggling to repeat the miracle of their 1906 World Series victory. And so (as biographer Jonathan Yardley puts it) Lardner was “faced with the responsibility of provoking readers’ interest in an essentially uninteresting situation.” He began focusing less on the game and more on the players, spicing up his columns with the vernacular and jocularity he heard on and off the field.
His journalism began to resemble short stories, and in 1914 Lardner submitted to the Saturday Evening Post an actual piece of fiction—the first of the series that would make up his 1916 book You Know Me Al—and it was promptly accepted. His stories proved immensely popular: he was inundated with requests from national magazines (although he favored the Post, which published nine stories in 1914 alone), his fee would increase from $250 to $1,500, and a decade later his baseball fiction would earn an appreciative review from, of all people, Virginia Woolf:
Mr. Lardner does not waste a moment when he writes in thinking whether he is using American slang or Shakespeare's English—whether he is proud of being American or ashamed of not being Japanese; all his mind is on the story. Hence, incidentally, he writes the best prose that has come our way. . . . It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner's stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner's interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brotherIn the introduction to The American Language, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan offered this assessment: “In his grotesque tales of baseball players, so immediately and so deservedly successful, Lardner reports the common speech not only with humor but with the utmost accuracy.” One of the earliest stories distinguished by its use of such “common speech,” “Where Do You Get that Noise?” portrays a young player whose new teammates at first provoke and then can barely stomach his penchant for spouting tall tales and know-it-all nonsense.
Notes: : The “Federals” (page 87) refers to the Federal League, a doomed attempt to start up a third major league that lasted from 1914 to 1915; one of the eight teams in 1915 was the Newark Peppers. The first World Series was in 1903, belying Hawley’s remarks on page 88 about a World Series in 1896, when there was only one major league. Willis Hawley (page 89) was a representative—not a senator—from Oregon. Ring Lardner often scattered joking references to real-life players in his baseball stories. Among those mentioned here are (on page 93) Henry "Heinie" Groh, Fritz Mollwitz, Fritz Von Kolnitz, Joseph Wagner, Peer Schneider, Charles “Buck” Herzog—all players for the Cincinnati Reds in 1915; the team’s president, August Garry Herrmann; and (on page 98) George Cutshaw and Zack Wheat—of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The trade was pulled wile the Phillies was here first trip. Without knockin’ nobody, the two fellas we give was worth about as much as a front foot on Main Street, Belgium. And the fella we got had went better this spring than any time since he broke in. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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