The players with whom he traveled for the next five seasons were generally coarse, illiterate, or nearly so, and incredibly naive. Doubtless the preponderance of hayseeds has been exaggerated, but essentially it was a country boys' game. They happened to have a talent for hitting a ball with a bat or throwing a curve, and in many cases it was the only talent they had. A few collegians gave a veneer of social respectability to their ranks, but they were exceptions to the rule. A great deal of heavy drinking went on, much of it no doubt induced by the boredom of life on the road and the eagerness of fans to ply their heroes with hard liquor. Furthermore, as baseball historian Harold Seymour has pointed out, difficulties politely known as "social diseases" were an occasional problem; if the press said a player had "malaria" or "rheumatism," it might well be syphilis or gonorrhea.
There is much evidence in Lardner's letters and published writings, however, to suggest that many of the players were as innocent as he was in play and love. A lot of them were stagestruck, as he was, and in the off-season they tried to score in vaudeville as hoofers, comics, actors and singers. Singing, in fact, seems to have been as popular with traveling ballplayers as poker playing. Almost every club had at least one barbershop quartet, and the passion of some players for harmonizing was extraordinary.
Romance was another popular form of recreation. During the first 3� seasons he was on the road, Lardner conducted a courtship by correspondence as noteworthy for its innocence as for its ardor, as did many of the "hard-boiled" ballplayers. Much of their time was spent hanging around hotel lobbies waiting for mail call and the arrival—so they devoutly prayed—of their loved ones' latest missives. Some of the game's more celebrated players were thus afflicted, as Lardner told his fianc�e Ellis Abbott:
"Speaking of letters, I have a new job. I don't know what to call it. It consists of standing perfectly still and listening while one or the other of two ballplayers reads me his latest letter from his girls—from one of his girls, rather. It seems these two—who are Mordecai Brown and Frank Schulte—must confide in some one. The only reason I know of that I am the victim is that they can trust me to keep still. We all came into the hotel together tonight and there was mail for everybody. I took my letter from you and started for my room when Mr. Brown stopped me. He said he wanted to talk to me awhile and I told him I had a letter to read. He said: 'You read yours and I'll read mine and then we'll swap.' I didn't want to make it look like a onesided deal, so I told him mine was from my sister and wouldn't interest him. So I had to read his and, as soon as I was through, Schulte gave me a sign that he wanted to see me and there was another one to read. And all the time they were detaining me, I wanted to get away and read your letter again."
Those players who had successfully completed their courtships had other preoccupations.
"You ought to hear the athletes discuss the relative merits of their babies," Lardner wrote. "There was an argument in my room last night that was the funniest I ever heard. Mr. [Artie] Hofman's Mary Jane has two teeth, and two others just breaking through. She weighs twenty-five pounds. Mr. [Ed] Reulbach's Edward has four whole teeth and weighs twenty-six. But Mary Jane can pound her fist on the arms of a chair and laugh at the noise. Yes, but Edward is a boy. Whereupon I told them that my four months old nephew—there isn't any such—could dive from a tower ninety feet high into a dishpan full of salt water without making a splash. I wanted to get them out of the room so I could go to sleep. One of them left a five o'clock call for my room by way of revenge. Whenever they start their debates in Schulte's presence, he quiets them by saying, 'Wait till you hear what my dog can do.' "
The Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox, worrying over mail call and Mary Jane's teeth, were authentic American heroes, although most were not heroes of the first stripe. That distinction belonged to the giants of the game, men whose names are now enshrined in American legend. These were men Lardner watched from the press box, chatted with in the clubhouse, drank with in saloons. There were the great managers: Connie Mack, born Cornelius McGillicuddy, of the Athletics; Clark Griffith of the Senators; John McGraw of the Giants. There were the pitchers: Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Doc White, Three-Fingered Brown, Rube Marquard and Big Ed Walsh of the White Sox, whom Lardner called "the most willing, tireless and self-confident hurler that ever struck terror to the hearts of his opponents." There were the hitters: Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, Home Run Baker, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Sam Crawford. There were the clowns and eccentrics: Rube Waddell, Germany Schaefer, Ping Bodie.
Young Lardner—he was only 23 when he began to cover the White Sox in 1908—moved among these heroic figures with seeming ease, but his youth showed. A fellow journalist, Hugh Fullerton, described how he was then:
"What a season for a young and vitally interested kid to break into the business! And Ring Lardner, despite his pretense of indifference and sophistication, was just a green country boy trying to pretend. An odd sort of youth he was then. Although he pretended to be hard-boiled and indifferent to criticism, he was one of the most sensitive fellows I have ever met, and sometimes his feelings remained hurt for weeks at a time."
The ballplayers seem to have sensed this in him, too, for though his reticence puzzled them, they liked him greatly and were far more relaxed around him than they were around most reporters; they called him Lard, or, this being a time when men often nicknamed each other in honor of their hometowns. " Niles." Reulbach, the former Notre Dame pitcher who was a Cubs star in 1909, described Ring in a letter to Donald Elder, Lardner's first biographer: