No mistaking it, Lardner was a sports fan. Even in the early '30s, looking back with a certain affectionate cynicism to the Chicago teams he followed as a young reporter, he referred to the White Sox and Cubs as "we." He remained proud to the end of the old Central League, which he covered in 1906 from South Bend, and its "athletes like Rube Marquard, Donie Bush, Dan Howley, Jack Hendricks, John Ganzel, Goat Anderson and Slow Joe Doyle, to name a few." He remembered Ed Walsh as "the most willing, tireless and self-confident hurler that ever struck terror to the hearts of his opponents."
But even as he watched in admiration, he listened with sharp ears. The results were his Busher's Letters, first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1914, in which he captured all the naive pretensions of folk ignorance—and established a model for the written expression of ordinary speech that opened new vistas for American writers. As Virginia Woolf wrote in 1925, "With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insights, [ Lardner] lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us."
Bruccoli and Layman, with two previously uncollected Jack Keefe episodes, underscore that claim. Also, with a stunning stream-of-consciousness sketch called Insomnia, published two years before Lardner's death, they show us how far away from sports and into his own darkest artistic agonies he had moved late in life; it is a kind of soliloquy in which he acknowledged with harrowing honesty the despair he felt as, body and spirit failing, he tried to write stories that would make money and thus help pay the doctors and nurses.
He died before he found out what he could finally be. What he was, as this fine book suggests, was quite enough in itself.