It is an August afternoon in 1910, and the correspondent of The Chicago Tribune
is sitting in the press box at Comiskey Park. The stadium, a grand construction of steel and concrete, has been open for only two months, and the smell of newness is still in the air. Below the correspondent, on the green field defined as a diamond by brief swatches of brown and sharp lines of white, the game of baseball proceeds at a swift yet stately pace. The sun slowly falls as the afternoon advances, and the shadows steadily lengthen. There is no score and the innings march past.
The correspondent watches intently. He is, as the young woman he will marry a year from now describes him. "a very large, handsome young man who holds his head very high in the air and looks at the world with very amused and twinkling eyes." He dresses rather sternly, in the fashion of the day: dark suit, dark knit tie, high starched collar, dark-banded straw boater, the darkness relieved only by the bright stripes of his shirt. As he watches the game, he keeps meticulous score in a small neat script. In the ceaseless chatter of the press box he is an oasis of silence; he delights in the noise around him but only occasionally contributes to it, and then in a low, deliberate voice one must strain to hear through the din.
He is only 25 years old, but he is as much a professional in his craft as the players below him are in theirs. So when at last the shadows cover the field and the umpires end the contest—"Game called on account of darkness"—he turns with dispatch to the typewriter before him and begins to write. He types with two fingers, the keys clacking in staccato bursts punctuated by occasional pauses. The words he writes describe vividly and lovingly what he has seen:
"Sixteen innings. 0 to 0. That was the way the last game of the series between the Sox and Athletics wound up. People who left the park at the finish, four minutes before 7 o'clock, did not regret the loss of supper half as much as they would have regretted missing that ball game.
"Perhaps it was not the best ever played, but don't try to tell anyone who saw it that there have been many better. The book says there was just one longer runless contest in the big leagues and that was the one between Washington and Detroit in July last year. That one lasted eighteen rounds. Most of us missed that one, so we must be content to talk about yesterday's in the years to come."
For more than five years—from March 1908 to June 1913—Ring Lardner reported the daily events of major league baseball. For many more years than that, baseball was at or near the core of his existence. As a boy in Niles, Mich., he played the game with his friends, cheered the local heroes in their contests against neighboring towns and counted down the days to the baseball excursions he would make once or twice a year with his father and his brother to Chicago, 90 miles to the west. As a cub reporter in South Bend, Ind., he heightened his understanding of the game by covering the Central League, a minor league in which many outstanding players of the day refined their skills to major league levels. Though he stopped covering baseball regularly in the summer of 1913, it was one of the subjects most frequently discussed in "In the Wake of the News," the daily column he wrote for The Chicago Tribune
from then until 1919, and he covered the World Series almost every year until the mid-'20s. His first fiction, published in 1914, had a baseball setting, and he was a national celebrity by the time those baseball stories were collected in a book under the title You Know Me Al. Eventually he wearied of what he felt was the stupidity of so many of the game's fans, and after the integrity of baseball was undermined by the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 he turned, in disgust and sorrow, to other subjects. Yet he never lost his love for the game as he had once known it, and in the last years of his life he remembered it with deep nostalgic longing.
Lardner was, however, much more than a successful baseball "scribe." He was one of the most respected writers of the '20s, widely discussed and widely imitated. His short stories—among them such non-baseball classics as "Hair Cut," "Some Like Them Cold" and "The Golden Honeymoon"—were read by millions, scrutinized and praised by critics, honored and anthologized. In the middle of the decade, his annual income from his writing was the equivalent of $500,000 today. For a time, at least, his name was invariably listed alongside those of other "important" writers of the period: Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson. But it was always listed with a reservation, with, in baseball's statistical language, an asterisk. And that asterisk was baseball itself. Fitzgerald, who was his devoted friend, summarized the problem in a tribute written shortly after Lardner's death in September 1933:
"The point of these paragraphs is that, whatever Ring's achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work. How far back did that attitude go?—back to his youth in a Michigan village? Certainly back to his days with the Cubs. During those years, when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy's game. A boy's game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure. This material, the observation of it under such circumstances, was the text of Ring's schooling during the most formative period of the mind. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond."
Fitzgerald's words were both kind and unkind, accurate and inaccurate, selfless and self-serving. He insisted on judging Lardner by the standards he had set for himself, and as a consequence he was blind to Lardner's ultimate accomplishments. Though Fitzgerald was a person of great kindness, he was not wholly untouched by the jealousies that ran so deep and thick through his literary circle, and there is more than a trace of competitiveness in his words. Yet they can be neither slighted nor ignored, because they point the way to an understanding of Lardner's life and work. Baseball was where Ring Lardner began, and to comprehend him one must look to baseball in the first two decades of the 20th century.
It was, to begin with, still a very young game. It had been "founded"—to the extent that its origins can be confirmed—less than half a century before Lardner encountered it. Professional baseball did not begin until 1869, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings were put together by Harry Wright. The National Association of Professional Baseball Players, which became the National League in 1876, was formed two years later, and it had the field pretty much to itself until the American League came along in 1901. After two years of expensive and generally fruitless competition, the leagues united in 1903 and played the first World Series that fall. So when Lardner headed South for his first spring training in 1908, what is called baseball's modern era was only a few years old.