Ring Lardner: when baseball no longer seemed like baseball

The story is that Ring Lardner was finished with baseball after news of the 1919 Black Sox scandal came out.

Lardner had spent much of his journalism career covering baseball, first for the South Bend Times in 1905 and eventually for the Chicago Tribune in 1913. He knew the Chicago White Sox well. He had traveled with them, played poker with them, and written about them. When eight of their players colluded with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, Lardner’s lover for the game diminished, and he stopped writing about it.

That’s the story, and it’s a good one. But Ring Lardner Jr. doesn’t buy it.

Lardner Jr., Ring’s third son and a two-time Oscar-winning scriptwriter, put it this way in The Lardners: My Family Remembered:

His disenchantment with baseball clearly began with the “Black Sox” Series of 1919, but I feel the extent of it has been exaggerated, along with the idea he came to hate the whole human race. (p. 146)

Lardner Sr., born in 1885, grew up in an America that had fallen in love with baseball. Lardner had no particular ambition to become a writer and was working as a meter reader for a gas company when he was offered a job covering baseball. He was good at it and grew to love the game and his players — but not so much that he revered either. 

While he was covering the Cubs and the White Sox, Lardner began writing a series of columns about Jack Keefe, a gullible ball player much taken with himself, who is trying to make it to the major leagues. Keefe writes a series of letters to his friend back home, Al, boasting about his exploits and never catching on that people are taking advantage of him. Those columns were eventually gathered together in a book, You Know Me Al, which was published in 1916.

The book did not sell especially well when it was first published, but later, when Lardner had achieved some fame for his other writing, particularly his magazine pieces, they were recognized for the fine satires they were.

According to Ring Jr., his father never fell out of love with baseball. He took his sons to big league baseball games and followed the pennant races closely. He even placed bets on the game, something he had done for most of his adult life. It wasn’t the Black Sox that caused his disenchantment.

There was something else that had happened that changed his attitude toward baseball, and that was the introduction of the “crazy” or livelier ball, which made it a hitter’s instead of a pitcher’s game and which he maintained had been done deliberately to make (Babe) Ruth’s home runs possible. (p 147)

Lardner, in other words, gave up on the game, not because of an epiphany about the nefarious nature of baseball players, but because the game — to him — was no longer baseball.

 

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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