Sunday, March 28, 2021

Baseball as the Bleachers Like It

Charles E. Van Loan (1876–1919)
From Baseball: A Literary Anthology

“Baseball Fans,” cover artwork by American illustrator Robert Robinson (1886–1952) for the September 30, 1911, issue of The Saturday Evening>
In the autobiographical essay “How I Broke into the Magazines,” written months before his death at the age of 42, Charles E. Van Loan described his transformation from sportswriter to best-selling author. Prompted by “the friend of a friend of Jack London,” he had written his first short story years earlier, when he was a cub reporter in Los Angeles. “There were three murders in that story, and one suicide. The most that I can say for those murders is that they were thorough. . . . I polished the seventeen pages till I could polish them no more, and then boiled them down to twenty-three or four.”

In 1909, after two years at The Denver Post, Van Loan nabbed a decent-paying, high-profile stint at the Hearst paper New York American and moved to Brooklyn with “one wife, two children, one job, and three manuscripts,” including a much-thumbed copy of that first story. “I suppose that every newspaper man who lays siege to the Big Town carries a cargo of fiction manuscripts in the top tray of his trunk.” He also carried with him letters of introduction to one Robert H. Davis, the influential fiction editor for the Munsey magazine empire. It was during this period that he wrote the essay “Baseball as the Bleachers Like It” for The Outing Magazine—an irreverent yet genuine attempt to answer the evergreen question, “What is the attraction in baseball?”

One of Van Loan’s first assignments at the American was to cover the Stanley Ketchel–Jack O’Brien rematch in Philadelphia on June 9, 1909. He arrived and sat quietly in the seats next to a “staid business man,” who began mimicking Ketchel’s every move as soon as the bell rang. The man “sat perched on the edge of his chair, his shoulders hunched to protect his ears from wild swings, his fists in constant motion, his tongue ditto—waiting for one thing and one thing only, the sudden crushing triumph of the affirmative. . . . Then it happened.” His neighbor, imitating Ketchel’s “deadly left swing” that ended the fight, knocked Van Loan into the aisle, flat on the ground.

That slug was his first contact with Robert H. Davis. The two men took the train back to New York together and Davis told Van Loan to come see him about the magazine business when he had a chance. Confirming the gist of Van Loan’s much-embellished magazine article, Davis recalled that the very next morning his boxing casualty presented himself in the offices of Muncey’s Magazine, bearing a manuscript and those three letters of recommendation. Van Loan, six-foot-two with an athletic build, was an imposing figure; as Davis remembered it, “When he sat down at my desk, he completely surrounded it.” Davis told him to keep the letters and leave the manuscript, but Van Loan insisted that the editor read his story on the spot.

Within a week, Davis helped the would-be author place a tale about horse racing, “The Drugstore Derby,” in The All-Story, one of the pulp monthlies published under the Muncey umbrella. Davis himself took the author’s first baseball story, “The Golden Ball of Argonauts,” for the flagship magazine. And that story with three murders and a suicide? Before the year was out it appeared, much revised and edited down to size, as “The Street of the Whispering Shadows” in Munsey’s The Scrap Book. Two years later, at Davis’s urging, Van Loan quit his sports writing job at the American and turned his full attention to writing fiction, publishing nearly two hundred stories over a ten-year period. He became a regular contributor to The Popular Magazine with his comic pieces set in the world of sports, particularly baseball, racing, boxing, and golf. After 1913, as his stories began to appear in such publications as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, his humorous tales were populated by a broader spectrum of Americans, including politicians, filmmakers, circus performers, college students, newspaper reporters, and sightseers.

Van Loan’s successful metamorphosis convinced fellow sportswriters Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon that they too could write fiction for magazines and books. He helped bring Lardner’s first “busher” stories to the attention of editors, although Lardner later complained that Van Loan’s role had been overstated. The young Runyon, when drunk (which was often), would confess to his colleagues that his not-so-secret desire was to become a poet. He once tried—unsuccessfully—to pay for a drink with one of his poems after reading an anecdote about children’s author Eugene Field, who used to trade handwritten copies of verse for shots of whiskey. Runyon followed Van Loan from Denver to New York, moving in with the journalist and his wife and driving them both crazy with his erratic behavior. Van Loan quickly found him a job at the American so their boarder could afford to move into his own place. Within a year, with the help of the Van Loans, Runyon sobered up for good, solidified his position on the newspaper staff, and convinced Ellen Egan, the woman he had left behind in Colorado, to marry him. (Gertrude Van Loan wrote to her to vouch for the improvement in his behavior.) He later claimed that he had helped Charles Van Loan come up with the plots for some of his short stories.

The last five years of Van Loan’s life were a disheartening combination of misfortune and productivity. In late 1914, a few months after moving back to Los Angeles with his family, he was returning from a hunting trip in the mountains near San Bernardino and lost control of the car. He was thrown down a steep embankment, and the vehicle rolled over him as he lay unconscious on the ground, fracturing his skull and crushing his torso. The friend traveling with him miraculously escaped with a few bruises. Van Loan never fully recovered from his injuries (he lost use of his left arm) and his remaining years were a series of operations and therapy, complicated by chronic nephritis. Yet he remained extraordinarily active and many of his colleagues were unaware of how much pain he was in. His contributions to The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines increased; he wrote the stories for Little Sunset, the first feature film about baseball, and for more than a dozen other movies, one of which he directed; he published five books, including Buck Purvin and the Movies, based on his popular film series set in Hollywood; he taught himself how to play golf one-handed, achieving scores in the low 80s on eighteen-hole courses; and he played a prominent role in the campaign to save the Grand Canyon from developers and turn it into a national park. In November 1918 he accepted a promotion to associate editor at the Post and moved his family back east to Philadelphia. In February of the following year, he suffered a hemorrhage and died on March 2. Back in Los Angeles, his 71-year-old father died, apparently of a heart attack, minutes after being informed of his son’s death.

“During the years between 1909 and 1919,” wrote Davis in an obituary, “he made himself the poet laureate of the golf-course, the prize-ring, the diamond, and the race-track. No writer before Van Loan was more familiar with the characteristics, foibles, strength, and adorable weaknesses of those about whom he wrote.”
Note: Van Loan refers to “the gentle art of the lamented Queensberry,” meaning boxing. The Queensberry rules for boxing were written by British athlete John Graham Chambers and published in 1867 under the name of John Sholto Douglas, ninth marquess of Queensberry.

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The man in the box office, whose swift, money-changing fingers play on the pulse of the amusement-loving public, will tell you that a baseball franchise in a large city is a “mint.” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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