SI Vault
Jonathan Yardley
August 29, 1977
Behind the chronicles of Jack Keefe, a brash and semiliterate rookie pitcher, loomed Ring Lardner, a literary giant and fervent baseball fan
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August 29, 1977

Everybody Knew Me Al

Behind the chronicles of Jack Keefe, a brash and semiliterate rookie pitcher, loomed Ring Lardner, a literary giant and fervent baseball fan

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The story was "A Busher's Letters Home," the first of the six that would be collected in 1916 as You Know Me Al. It appeared in the Post's issue dated March 7, 1914. The Post must have been inundated with favorable letters from readers, for Lorimer was quick to ask Lardner for more Jack Keefe stories and to begin a process that would gradually increase his fee per story from $250 to $1,500. The mail at the little house that Ring and Ellis, who had married in 1911, had recently built in the Chicago suburb of Riverside increased, too. John N. Wheeler, a newsman who had gotten in on the ground floor of the syndication business, wrote in April to inquire if Lardner would be interested in doing a "series of humorous articles to be run once a week, for syndication purposes," with Lardner getting 50% of the net profits. Lardner must have said no, for nothing came of the offer. (But he did not forget Wheeler; it was to him that he turned when he decided to leave The Chicago Tribune in 1919 and free-lance.) Franklin P. Adams, the New York columnist, asked Lardner if he would be interested in taking a journalistic position in that city. Lardner's reply was revealing:

"'s dough and the prospect of it that would tempt me to tackle the New York game. I think a gent in this business would be foolish not to go to New York if he had a good chance. From all I can learn, that's where the real money is.... I could be torn away from here—and Riverside—for $8,000, and that's probably more than I'm worth. But you see how things are. It's not that I'm swelled on myself as much as some of our well-known diamond heroes, but that I'd have to get something like that to make the change pay."

In May, George H. Doran of Doran and Company made "immediate application for the book publishing rights" to Lardner's stories. Ray Long of Redbook magazine wrote to solicit stories; Cameron MacKenzie, vice-president of McClure's, offered 7�� a word for stories, with an increase to 10� "if these prove a success"; C. B. DeCamp of Metropolitan was interested. Lardner, who according to Ellis was in good health "except for a slight attack of swell head," accepted just about every offer that came along. It was a wise course to follow, for the unknown writer who turns down assignments is not likely to be offered them again, but it was an exhausting course as well; Ellis told her family that Ring was "working his head off." By the end of 1914 he had published 10 stories—an extraordinary achievement for a young writer who had come, with astonishing swiftness, almost totally out of the blue.

Ultimately, the saga of Jack Keefe encompassed three books and a large handful of uncollected stories, but You Know Me Al is unquestionably the best of the lot, written as it was when Lardner's enthusiasm for his subject was at its peak. (Treat 'Em Rough is trivial, of interest now only to Lardner scholars, and not of much interest to them. The Real Dope, written during World War I, contains enough good moments to compensate for its overall flatness. Of the loose stories, the two best—"Call for Mr. Keefe!" and "Along Came Ruth"—are now available in a 1976 collection, Some Champions.)

You Know Me Al is not a novel, but it comes close to having the form of one. In the letters Jack Keefe writes to "Friend Al" back home in Bedford, Ind., Lardner tells the loosely structured tale of an extremely brash rookie who joins the White Sox, fails in his initial test, is sent to the minors, returns and pitches well, marries a gold-digging shrew and ends the season as a reasonably well-established big league performer. It was, at the time of its publication, the first book to treat baseball and the men who played it as the subjects of literate fiction, but ever since it has suffered under the handicap of being dismissed, or condescended to, as a "baseball novel." It is indeed that, but it is also much more: Jack Keefe is one of the great "originals" in American fiction, and the language in which he writes his friend is an expression of the vernacular that has had a lasting effect on the way American writers describe American talk.

Jack Keefe may be a bit larger than life, but not much. From his very first appearance, his character was firmly set; Lardner allowed no significant deviations from it. Jack is talented, pigheaded, cocky, gullible, selfish, sentimental, naive, stubborn and self-deceiving. He is a fountain of alibis, mangled axioms and witless repartee. He is a terrible tightwad, but at the bargaining table White Sox owner Charles Comiskey routinely takes him to the cleaners. He fancies himself a great lover, and in the course of his rookie season manages to propose to three equally horrible women, finally landing the dreadful Florrie. He has a great natural talent but—and here we have what Lardner hated most—he abuses it; he allows himself to get "hog fat" and he makes no effort to learn the refinements and subtleties of the pitcher's trade; as Christy Mathewson supposedly tells him when Jack complains of having a sore arm, "I wisht I had a sore arm like yourn and a little sence with it."

Jack is often confused by readers with another famous Lardner character, Alibi Ike; the confusion is pardonable, for Jack too is no slouch when it comes to handing out excuses. In an early test with the White Sox, he gives up only one hit in three innings, "and that was a ground ball that the recrut shortstop Johnson ought to of ate up." When Ty Cobb challenges him with a bunt, "I would of threw him out a block but I stubbed my toe in a rough place and fell down." In the City Series against the Cubs, "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." Finally, in August of his second season, he sums it all up:

"This should ought to of give me a record of 16 wins and 0 defeats because the only games I lost was throwed away behind me but instead of that my record is 10 games win and 6 defeats and that don't include the games I finished up and helped the other boys win which is about 6 more alltogether but what do I care about my record Al? because I am not the kind of man that is allways thinking about there record and playing for there record while I am satisfied if I give the club the best I got and if I win all O.K. And if I lose who's fault is it. Not mine Al."

Jack fancies himself a man of wit and savvy, with the consequence that he is the classic American rube in whose hands a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. He has a clich� ready for every occasion, and he invariably gets it wrong. Florrie, he tells Al, "maybe ain't as pretty as Violet and Hazel but as they say beauty isn't only so deep." Later he wishes he had never seen the woman, but "it is too late now to cry in the sour milk." In The Real Dope he reports that asking Florrie for favors "is like rolling off a duck's back you might say and its first in one ear and then the other," and he warns his fellow soldiers who have put over a practical joke on him that "they's plenty of time for the laugh to be on the other foot before this war is over."

Similarly, Jack regards himself as a lively fellow in any debate, and he reports his devastating squelches to Al with obvious pride: "And then he says I wish we had of sent you to Milwaukee and I come back at him. I say I wish you had of." On another occasion, he has it out with Cobb:

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