- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"We often tried to make Ring break into a full laugh, but all we developed was a faint smile. Sometimes he would sit at the window of the train and stare out for a long time; if you sat down beside him he would greet you but never say another word, unless you forced him to answer a question.
"Ring was a kindly fellow, modest, intelligent on the fine points of the game, always careful about writing something that might hurt the feelings of a player, and we responded by tipping him off to some inside deal and he was always appreciative.
"We were all fond of Ring, but we were all at a loss as to why he never laughed.... If he had any faults, we liked him too much to notice them, he was one of us."
This silence of Lardner's was a mystery, doubly so because he was not shy or silent as a child. Its sources can be guessed at, but only that. He was shy and—at least in part because of an aristocratic background (the Lardners were an old and wealthy family)—aloof. In that first summer of 1908, pure insecurity may have had something to do with it; for years his "real and only ambition was to associate with big league ballplayers," and now he was doing that. So in some degree he may simply have been awed into silence. Yet dime-store psychologizing of this sort is far less fruitful than what appears to be the simple truth: he was laconic, a natural listener rather than a talker.
That quality, combined with his innate decency, served both a White Sox player and himself that summer. Lardner never revealed the player's name (and in fact the mystery has been unsuccessfully puzzled over by countless amateur sleuths) but gave him the alias of Jack Gibbs. disguising him as a "regular in-fielder" who "had been graduated from college—cum laude—at the age of four, and everybody on the club knew that he could neither read nor write." Gibbs attempted to disguise this deficiency, but it showed in countless ways; he would peruse a menu, for example, and "after a long and careful study, order steak and baked potato, or ham and eggs, or both." Lardner, sensing both Gibbs' embarrassment and his boredom with such limited cuisine, began mumbling menus out loud as he looked them over, and soon Gibbs was making a point of sitting next to him at meals.
Gibbs took the relationship one step further when he heard Lardner typing and asked if, as "a kind of a joke," Ring would type up a reply to a letter Gibbs had received from his wife Myrtle. He wheedled Lardner into reading Myrt's letter out loud. It said, in effect. Ring recalled, "How can you expect me to meet you in Chicago unless you send me some money? I don't intend to make the trip out there on a freight and I don't want to get my feet all blisters walking." Lardner asked Gibbs what he wanted to tell Myrt, and he replied:
"Well, I guess you better tell her where we are first. No. Start out this way: 'Dear Myrt.' And then tell her she knows damn well I don't get no pay till the last of April, and nothing then because I already drawed ahead. Tell her to borrow off Edith von Driska, and she can pay her back the first of May. Tell her I never felt better in my life and looks like I will have a great year if they's nothing to worry me like worrying about money. Tell her the weather's been great, just like summer, only them two days it rained in Birmingham. It rained a couple days in Montgomery and a week in New Orleans. My old souper feels great. Detroit is the club we got to beat—them and Cleveland and St. Louis, and maybe the New York club. Oh, you know what to tell her. You know what they like to hear."
Lardner may not have known what the ballplayers' girls and wives liked to hear, but he certainly knew what the ballplayers liked to say, and how they said it. In recounting the story about a quarter of a century later, Lardner may or may not have embellished it (how, for example, did Myrtle Gibbs learn from her illiterate husband that he wanted her to meet him in Chicago?) but the essential point is absolutely accurate: that Lardner found, on that first trip with the White Sox, a ballplayer who would help him shape the character and language of Jack Keefe, the narrator of You Know Me Al.
Almost six years would pass, however, before Jack Keefe emerged, and precisely how he did so has been the subject of varying accounts. Virtually all agree that the Sunday editor of the Tribune offered Lardner $50 for a baseball story, to be printed in the feature section. Lardner gave him one, told in the form of letters from Keefe to his friend Al; the language was in the vernacular and the spelling was that of a semiliterate. The editor decided he could not accept the story for his section, but Lardner clearly felt he had hit on something, for he sent it off to George Horace Lorimer, editor of The Saturday Evening Post. What happened next is where the accounts differ; some have the story coming back from the Post with astonishing rapidity, some ascribe a large role to a sportswriter and friend of Lardner's named Charles Van Loan, some suggest that Lardner's carefully unliterate prose was at first gussied up by a fastidious Post editor. One account, written in 1926 by the prominent book reviewer Burton Rascoe, was so riddled with inaccuracies that Lardner wrote to him in exasperation to correct them:
"...The first 'busher' story was never sent back by The Post; it was accepted promptly by Mr. Lorimer himself. I didn't show it to Hugh Fullerton or Charlie Van Loan first; I sent it to Mr. Lorimer at The Post's office, not to his residence; I didn't write "Personal" on the envelope in even one place; I didn't write any preliminary, special delivery, warning letter to Mr. Lorimer; no sub-editor ever asked me to correct the spelling and grammar, and I never sent any sub-editor or anyone else a bundle of letters I had received from ballplayers. Otherwise—"