Lardner's tales score without the stats

BOOKS

April 03, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

When Ring Lardner began writing these stories about 80 years ago, baseball was a game. There were no Rotisserie Leagues, or middle-aged men paying $300 for a replica baseball jersey, or myth-makers eager to put the sport on an altar of mystical worship.

Plenty of people played baseball, and plenty of people watched it, but it had not yet been discovered by the intellectuals. The fans were blue-collar and working-class; the players were farm boys or city kids, perhaps functionally illiterate, probably fond of booze and almost certainly lacking in social graces. This was the baseball scene when Ring W. Lardner, a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune, began writing whimsical stories for the Saturday Evening Post.

Now, of course, these stories are considered among the finest fiction ever written about the sport. As this book shows, the stories are still bursting with vivid writing, humor and both a knowledge of and an affection for the game.

Lardner (1885-1933) knew baseball from the inside out -- the owners, the players, the managers. He was especially gifted at capturing the essence of the players, and his Jack Keefe character was one of his best.

Keefe was the wise-fool narrator of Lardner's "You Know Me Al," a collection of short stories that were first published in the Post. Lardner's device for framing the stories was ingenious: They were built around letters that Keefe sent home to Al Blanchard, an old buddy in Indiana.

A young pitcher, Keefe was, in the parlance of the day, a "busher" -- that is, a rube. Thus, the title of the first story that ran in the Post, on March 7, 1914, was called "A Busher's Letters Home," and most of the subsequent Keefe stories had "busher" in the title as well.

Keefe, writes editor George W. Hilton, "is immature, semiliterate, arrogant, unstable, miserly and vain, but he manages to carry a self-image of shrewdness and great ability through all his experiences."

Keefe is not a reliable narrator, but he's an engaging and often quite funny one. Here's a sample, from "The Busher Comes Back":

Well Al you know by this time that they beat me today and tied up the serious. . . . My arm wasn't feeling good Al and my fast ball didn't hop like it ought to. But it was the rotten support I got that beat me. That lucky stiff Zimmerman was the only guy that got a real hit off of me and he must of shut his eyes and throwed his bat because the ball he hit was a foot over his head.

Mr. Hilton, a retired professor of economics at UCLA, writes in his detailed and generally thoughtful introduction that the Keefe character changed markedly in the five years the stories were written. He observes that "Keefe proves either to organize his finances or to control his weight. He moves from beer to whiskey and begins drifting unmistakably toward alcoholism." By the end of the Keefe stories, "one pictures him as the town drunk -- worse, the town bore -- of Bedford [Ind.], sitting in the public square giving all who will listen an inaccurate account of such glories as he had had in the major leagues."

Although Lardner's dark side increasingly came through in the Keefe stories, many of his lighter stories were terrific. "Alibi Ike," about a hapless player who had an excuse for every occasion, is a carefully controlled comic masterpiece.

Although Mr. Hilton shows a good understanding of Lardner and the world of baseball he was writing about, one of the book's selling points -- its annotation -- is ultimately annoying and unnecessary. Lardner frequently interspersed real baseball players amid his fictional characters, and this volume tells us in great detail who these players were, what they hit, and so forth.

Maybe some people will need to know that the "Zimmerman" in the first passage quoted refers to Heinie Zimmerman, the old Cubs third baseman, but shouldn't Lardner's fictional talents suffice? If they do, as I believe, you might prefer "Ring Around the Bases," a collection of his baseball stories published in 1992. That book has a brief, intelligent introduction by literary scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli -- he calls Lardner "the last notable figure in the tradition of American vernacular literature" -- but mostly lets Lardner be Lardner.

This volume features not only extensive footnoting but a wealth of photographs; you might consider it overkill, but there's no question that Mr. Hilton has done his homework. At any rate, it's still a more-than-adequate substitute for the real-life foolishness of today's baseball. At the very least, it seemed like a lot more fun back then.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Annotated Baseball Stories of Ring W. Lardner, 1914-1919"

Editor: George W. Hilton

Publisher: Stanford University Press

Length, price: 631 pages, $35

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