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.... However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond.
—F. SCOTT FITZGERALD,
Speaking at the funeral of Ring Lardner,
"...but you are facing terrible odds, for George will never read your book, being trained to read a scorecard only and live like a seal. And even the people that read it will think it is about baseball or some such stupidity as that, for baseball is stupid, Author, and I hope you put it in your book, a game rigged by rich idiots to keep poor idiots from wising up to how poor they are."
Bang the Drum Slowly
"Why does not somebody write I decent book about baseball, Krazy? There never been a good book yet."
"There been dozens of good books," said he.
"There has only been fairy tales," I said.
Henry W. Wiggen, Mark Harris's brash, young fictional southpaw, scored a pretty good literary point in that exchange with the pigheaded sportswriter Krazy Kress. Until the publication of The Southpaw in 1953, the literature of baseball had consisted mostly of "fairy tales," boy's books written by such fabulists as Ralph Henry Barbour, Lester Chadwick, William Heyliger, Burt L. Standish and John R. Tunis. The heroes of those potboilers were so clean-cut as to make even Horatio Alger characters seem dissolute in comparison. Those make-believe ballplayers were all homely virtue. Teamwork was a religion. The game was all that mattered. Neither doubt nor despair ever creased those alabaster brows. These players spoke, of course, the King's English.
The towering exception to the goody-two-shoes genre was Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al stories of 1914, in which the barely literate protagonist, Jack Keefe, talks tough—"I wish I had knew then that he was stealing my girl and I would of made Callahan pitch me against him. And when he come up to bat I would of beaned him"—knocks back the booze, chases women and is a big league penny-pincher. Despite his friend Fitzgerald's graveside disclaimer, Lardner was a much-respected literary man. Virginia Woolf was a fan of his. The American critic Maxwell Geismar called Jack Keefe "a remarkable figure of folk poetry." The British novelist and critic V.S. Pritchett credited Lardner and James Joyce with founding a "literature of talk."
But Lardner had little patience with such prattle from the literary salons. He was a saloon man. "The writer has been asked frequently, or perhaps not very often after all...who is the original of Jack Keefe?" Lardner wrote in one of his typically self-deprecating prefaces. "The original of Jack Keefe is not a ball player at all, but Jane Addams of Hull House, a former Follies girl."
Lardner was the first major writer to use baseball as a subject for serious fiction, and for nearly 40 years, he was just about the only. Then, in 1952, The Natural by Bernard Malamud was published, followed by Harris's The Southpaw a year later. Both were indisputably serious books about baseball, the former mythic, the latter realistic. "One thing Malamud and I deeply shared was our self-consciousness about what we were doing," Harris wrote in
The New York Times Book Review two years ago. "We insisted that we were creating literature just as earnestly as Ring Lardner had insisted that he was not."
Harris never met Malamud, who died in 1986, but they had much in common besides a love of baseball. Both were Jewish intellectuals who grew up in the New York City area, Malamud in Brooklyn, Harris in suburban Mount Vernon. Malamud, however, abandoned baseball after the great success of The Natural, his first novel, while Harris wrote three more Henry Wiggen books, which carried Wiggen through a 19-year career with the New York Mammoths. In the process Harris launched a literary movement that has fairly boomed.