Sportsman

09.01.13

The Forgotten Genius of Ring Lardner

A writer so influential and popular that Hemingway adopted his name finally gets the collection he deserves. Allen Barra on the literary legacy of one of America’s finest sportswriters and short story craftsman.

ESPN has a niche website for fine sports writing named Grantland after the famous sportswriter of the 1920s, Grantland Rice. With all due respect, they named it for the wrong person. The more appropriate name would have been “Ring.”

Rice is mostly remembered today for writing perhaps the most famous lead in sports history after the 1924 Notre Dame-Army game, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.” Modern sportswriters who quote those lines in tones of ashen awe are missing the joke: the lines weren’t remembered by Rice’s contemporaries because they thought them memorable but because many of thought the prose stilted and funny.

Ringgold Wilmer Lardner was actually fond of Rice—“Granny,” as he called him—but his own style was crisp, sardonic, and slangy in direct contrast to the solemn, often stilted prose of Rice and his imitators. Lardner would crack up colleagues in the press box by reciting the “Four Horsemen” lead in stentorian tones. (Where was Rice viewing the Four Horsemen from that they were outlined against the sky? Was he lying down on the turf looking up at them?)

It’s seems strange today that hardly anyone who invokes the Golden Age of Sports Writers associates it with the man who really started it, but then Ring Lardner’s career was filled with odd contradictions.

First, he is often included as a member of the Algonquin Round Table (Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, etc.), though in fact he seldom sat with the bunch and almost never at the Algonquin. Second, he’s recalled as a popular writer—sort of the rich man’s Damon Runyon—who won grudging critical respect from his peers, but Lardner’s books never sold particularly well during his lifetime (a handy explanation is that his stories had already reached most of Lardner’s readers through magazines).

A third misconception, possibly the most damaging to Lardner’s critical reputation, was buried in a tribute by his good friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ring, Fitzgerald implied, wasted a great deal of time and creative energy writing about baseball, “a boy’s game with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bound by walls which kept out novelty or danger or adventure.”

And yet, Lardner’s influence on American writing, both journalism and short fiction, is arguably greater than that of any American writer in the 20th century before Hemingway. How influential was Lardner on American prose circa World War I? Consider that Hemingway, writing sports for his high school paper, chose Ring Lardner as his pseudonym.

Lardner was considered the equal or superior of Sinclair Lewis (by Edmund Wilson), of Fitzgerald (by Hemingway), and of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (by Parker). H.L. Mencken, admittedly a fast man with a hyperbolic comparison, thought him more profound than Henry James. (“I can recall no character in the Lardner gallery,” wrote the Sage of Baltimore, “early or late, male or female, old or young, who was not loathsome … They are all as revolting as so many Methodist evangelists, and they are all as thoroughly American.”)

[Woolf] remarked in a letter to a friend that Lardner “writes the best prose to come our [Britain’s] way” although often “in language which is not English.”

The most illuminating critical remark on Lardner came from an absurdly unlikely source, Virginia Woolf. Woolf, who wouldn’t have known a declaration of ball four from the Balfour Declaration remarked in a letter to a friend that Lardner “writes the best prose to come our [Britain’s] way” although often “in language which is not English.”

Further probing Lardner’s American-ness, she observed, “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 diverse activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Game gives him what society gives his English brother.” How strange that Virginia Woolf should have understood Lardner’s gift better than his friend Scott Fitzgerald did.

Ring Lardner has never been entirely out of print. In 1946 Viking published The Portable Ring Lardner, a cross-section of his fiction, essays, newspaper columns, parodies and exquisitely silly nonsense plays, lovingly assembled by Gilbert Seldes. In 1992 Scribner’s made a substantial contribution to American literature with Ring Around the Bases, The Complete Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner. You Know Me Al, the closest thing he ever wrote to a novel, has even made it onto a few high school and college reading lists.

But the Library of America’s Ring Lardner, Stories & Other Writings edited by Ian Frazier, is the best Lardner collection ever assembled. There are more than 130 pages from You Know Me Al as well as all of the great stories—“Haircut”, “There Are Smiles,” and the story that made Lardner’s reputation as a short story writer, “Alibi Ike” (the title of which contributed a phrase to American lexicon).

The lovely “There Are Smiles,” about a New York traffic cop who becomes infatuated with the pretty driver of a blue roadster, is his most popular non-baseball story. Her jauntiness and carefree attitude appeals to him; the negative side is her carelessness. Her death in an auto accident forever changes the cop’s disposition to bitter and sullen. The story is Lardner at his best, skirting the fence between sentimentality and cynicism and achieving pathos.

Frazier has also included several of Lardner’s nonsense plays which Hemingway, correctly I think, pronounced superior to the best of the French absurdists. They prove how modern a writer who died eighty years ago can still seem.

The Library of America edition is superior to all previous Lardner collections in its generous sampling of Ring’s baseball journalism. As his best biographer, Jonathan Yardley, put it, before Lardner “the rule of the sports pages was: never use one word when two or three will do, and never use a simple word when a sesquipedalian … euphemism … is handy. At times the sports pages seemed to be a bad dream by Sir Walter Scott.”

Lardner went from journalism to short fiction without missing a beat, recreating the ballplayers, most of them Midwestern or southern farm boys, in their own distinct language. Baseball writers in Ring’s day traveled with the teams by train and learned their idioms over card games, dinner, and booze. He was the first sportswriter to make American athletes sound American and not as if they were being written about by a Victorian sporting journalist, and he never made the mistake of piling more literary language on his subjects than they could support.

In some cases he used the same players in his stories that he had written about years earlier in his newspaper columns. When Casey Stengel became manager of the New York Yankees in 1949, some young beat writers asked him if he had nicknamed himself after the character in Lardner’s baseball stories, not knowing that he was the character in Lardner’s baseball stories.

You don’t have to know things like that, though, to laugh at the stories. You don’t even have to know that Walter Johnson had an almost mythical fastball to laugh at this from “Horseshoes.” “While Johnson was still windin’ up to pitch again I started to swing – and the big cuss crosses me with a slow one. I lunged at it twice and missed both times …”

And you don’t have to be familiar with baseball terminology to get the jokes in these lines from “The Poor Simp.” “Skull pitched a one-hit game over in Philly. But he wasn’t in there the whole innin’. He pitched to six men and the other five got bases on balls.” Also, “You had swell control in New York,” says Carey. “You was hittin’ their bats right in the middle.” Lardner’s ear for dialogue was sharp and true; you won’t find a line that sounds contrived, as it can be in Runyon or, for that matter, in some of Hemingway.

Mencken was wrong when he said that Lardner was more profound than Henry James, but he might not have been wrong if he had said Edith Wharton – and if comparing Lardner to Wharton sounds like a stretch, try naming two other American writers who were contemporaries (Wharton was born three years earlier and died four years after him in 1937) who were both admired by Woolf and Fitzgerald.

They were different in temperament—Wharton and Lardner could probably not have passed a saltshaker to each other without missing the connection—but they were both writers of what was once called “manners.” Their respective starts in society were different; Lardner’s people were in the bleachers while Wharton’s sat in the box seats. But Lardner knew where everyone in the ball park was sitting while Wharton probably didn’t know if the people she wrote about even went to the games.

If Lardner has never quite been in vogue (as, say, Wharton was about twenty years ago), it might be because he’s never quite gone out of fashion. As Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings proves, he’s one of the rarest type of American writers, both a spot-on chronicler of his time and place while remaining contemporary to the next generations.