"... Cobb came prancing up like he always does and yells Give me that slow one Boy. So I says All right. But I fooled him. Instead of giveing him a slow one like I said I was going I handed him a spitter. He hit it all right but it was a line drive right in Chase's hands. He says Pretty lucky Boy but I will get you next time. I come right back at him. I says Yes you will."
Much of the commotion and excitement that the busher stories provoked when they first appeared was because of the language Lardner used. It was immediately recognized as an authentic American voice, a faithful rendition of the way a person of the time with only rudimentary education would be likely to write in letters to his best friend. Lardner did permit himself occasional exaggerations for comic effect, but the accuracy of his ear and the care he took in writing prohibited him from indulging in the facile humor later practiced by his imitators whose humor consisted primarily of misspelled words. Lardner was trying to be both funny and accurate; he was also trying to get down on paper the words of a man who wrote the same way he talked. The scheme he devised was, if not provably accurate, certainly plausible. Jack misspelled simple words because he assumed he knew how to spell them, and he spelled long or unfamiliar words correctly because he presumably looked them up in the dictionary.
Lardner further enhanced the immediacy of the busher stories by making Jack and his family almost the only fictional characters in them. The players, coaches, managers and owners were actual baseball figures, and in fact the spring-training trip that Jack takes in his rookie season follows the same route that Lardner took with the White Sox in 1913. The close mixture of fiction and reality inevitably led to some degree of confusion and an even greater degree of curiosity about the inspiration for the character of Jack. Lardner got mail about it, and reviewers and sports-writers wrote about it, but Lardner kept his mouth shut. He got a certain pleasure out of all the gossip; he also knew better than anyone else that Jack was at heart a creature of the imagination.
The baseball in You Know Me Al is notable for the accuracy and sensitivity with which Lardner, through Jack, reported it. His son John Lardner, who in his very different way was almost as successful and influential a sportswriter as his father, wrote in his introduction to a 1960 reissue of the book: "Its broader values to one side, there has never been a sounder baseball book.... [If] you stop to pick over the accounts of ball games, you see that each detail is correct in relation to place, weather, time of year, and the hitting, pitching, or fielding idiosyncrasies of a hundred players.... I have never read a piece of baseball fiction, besides this one, in which there was no technical mistake." Even allowing for filial pride, that is an accurate assessment.
The busher stories developed a huge popular following immediately upon publication, but the critics did not pay much attention to them until the mid-'20s, when Lardner's emergence as a leading author for the prominent publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons forced people who had theretofore ignored him to take him seriously. The least patronizing and most valuable comment on Jack Keefe came from England, of all places, and from Virginia Woolf, of all people. Writing in The Dial in 1925, she encountered Lardner with a sense of genuine discovery, a clear amazement at what she had found. Her assessment of his work contains a certain element of intellectual slumming, but her understanding that he was writing a definably American language was correct:
"... Mr. Lardner is not merely unaware that we [English readers] differ; he is unaware that we exist.... Mr. Lardner does not waste a moment when he writes in thinking whether he is using American slang or Shakespeare's English...all his mind is on the story. Hence, all our minds are on the story. Hence, incidentally, he writes the best prose that has come our way.
"To what does he owe his success? Besides his unconsciousness and the additional power which he is thus free to devote to his art, Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he 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.... It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner's stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner's interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brother. Whatever the precise reason, Mr. Lardner at any rate provides something unique in its kind, something indigenous to the soil, which the traveller may carry off as a trophy to prove to the incredulous that he has actually been to America and found it a foreign land."
There can be little question that for many Americans, as for Virginia Woolf, Lardner was to be admired and imitated simply because he was so American. Like the game he wrote about, his fiction became another item of admissible evidence in the case arguing the existence of a uniquely American character, culture and society, a position extremely important to many people in U.S. literary circles who were trying to shrug off the yoke of European tradition. H. L. Mencken, who celebrated Lardner's use of the American language to the point of extravagance, was perhaps chief among these unwitting offenders.
Yet when the busher stories first came out, the public responded to them with the same unpretentious openness with which they were written. Lardner had found a sensitive nerve in his readers, one that tingled with the shock of recognition. This, indeed, was how it was, how we talked and wrote and thought, and Americans by the hundreds of thousands seized upon these "baseball stories" with delight and gratitude.