Baseball's Golden Ring
I was thinking about Ring Lardner when the Mets sent Ike Davis to the minor leagues in June. And we’ll get to that in a moment.
One thing I really like about Ring’s life, a century after his fame started to take hold, is that he was really just one of us — a sportswriter.
And he wound up being spoken of in the same breath with F. Scott Fitzgerald - a great man of letters, an American original.
It was largely because he had the gift of imagination, and the sense to listen when someone was telling a good story.
I would have rather known Ring Lardner than F. Scott Fitzgerald because he created Alibi Ike and Jack Keefe who were, in their own way, greater American characters than Jay Gatsby. And they were baseball guys.
In 1914 Ring Lardner first created the fictional baseball pitcher Jack Keefe in the comic strip “You Know Me, Al”. Over the next several years, Jack was the persona of over 20 separate story lines which followed his life from his arrival in Chicago as a White Sox pitcher through is experiences in World War One. His adventures were told in letters he wrote to one Al Blanchard, his boyhood friend from Indiana. The comic strip ran over 700 times until the fall of 1925.
Another very cool thing about Ring’s life is that ever so briefly —we’re talking about three months in 1910-1911 — he was talked into becoming the editor of The Sporting News. He moved from Chicago to St. Louis and also wrote a column there called Pullman Pastimes. This was when Charles Spink and his son, J. G. Taylor Spink ran the baseball weekly, and Ring knew at once he had made a big mistake. He hated everything about the Spinks, and he couldn’t quit fast enough. It was one of the worst stops of his career.
So now we fast forward, and we’re in 1963, it’s 30 years after his death and the Baseball Writer’s Association honors one of their own with a lifetime achievement award in Cooperstown on Induction Weekend. They call it the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Yup, same guy. (Taylor Spink, the year before, is the first recipient.)
And the second winner is . . . Ring Lardner. Lardner wins the Spink Award. Talk about having the last laugh.
I wish we had Lardner in baseball for the full span of his all-too-short life, only 45 years. He had a gift for seeing the great characters in the game, or just making them up, whichever wrote better. He made up Alibi Ike in 1915, 98 years before the Mets had to send Davis to the minors for seasoning. During his 2012 struggles, Davis had attributed some of his failings to Valley fever. No journalists thought to make the connection, although a few headline writers jumped on it.
Where was Ring when we needed him?
He was born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, on March 6, 1885, in Niles, Mich., 10 miles north of Notre Dame. He was the youngest of nine, and he became Ring while still a tot. As we approach the centennial of his gifts to baseball literature, it is a good time to recall a man who lived a nomadic, sportswriter life, drank too much, but didn’t let that get in the way of his ability to turn out fabulous prose.
He did not attend college but instead worked a series of odd jobs until focusing on a career as a newspapermen. The family needed his income, so he turned down his one scholarship offer.
With so many newspapers in business a century ago, it was not uncommon for journalists to hop from one to another with great frequency. So we have Ring beginning his career at the South Bend Tribune, followed quickly by the South Bend Times. At 22, he was off to Chicago, joining the staff of the Inter-Ocean, then quickly moving to the Examiner and then the Tribune. When his Sporting News experiment failed, it was off to Boston to work for the American, but by 1913 he was back in Chicago at the Trib.
About a month after President Warren Harding’s inauguration in 1921, he posed, then played golf, with sports writers Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner and Undersecretary of State Henry P. Fletcher.
He may have been the only one to have been in Boston for the opening of Fenway Park and in Chicago for the opening of Wrigley Field, (then called Weeghman Field). We can’t be sure if he was actually present, but he loved baseball and certainly may have been.
Newspapers used to include in their pages poetry and serialized short stories. These were wonderful opportunities for Ring’s strengths, such as the poem he wrote lamenting the departure of the West Side Grounds in favor of Weeghman. He wrote this poem in 1916, the first years in which the Cubs played in the new park, and called it “Elegy in a West Side Ball Park.”
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight.
Save for the chatter of the laboring folk
Returning to their hovels for the night,
All is still at Taylor, Lincoln, Wood and Polk.
Beneath this aged roof, this grandstand’s shade,
Where peanut shucks lie in a mold’ring heap,
Where show the stains of pop and lemonade,
The Cub bugs used to cheer and groan and weep.
Ring’s first year covering baseball was 1908, and the Cubs would win the World Series that year (and none since). He loved the train travel with the team, and while on the road he learned the dialogue of ballplayers, the cadence of their stories, the amusing accents and use of profanity. He estimated that he spent “ninety nights per annum in lower berths” at the ballpark seeing many of the games greats, hitters like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth to the great deadball pitchers such as Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank, Walter Johnson and spitballer Ed Walsh. He was a baseball beat reporter from 1908 to 1913 but continued to be a regular presence in the baseball press boxes into the mid-1920s while becoming more of a general columnist.
Lardner saw and wrote about all of the games greats from the press box from 1908 until the mid 1920s. Ring witnessed “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” many times throughout his very first year as a baseball beat writer in Chicago during the Chicago Cubs 1908 Championship season and studied all of the deadball era’s greatest hitters and pitchers. However, it was Big Ed Walsh (standing to the right of his pal Eddie Plank) whom Ring called “the most willing, tireless and self-confident hurler that ever struck terror in the hearts of this opponents.”
His observations, even in letters, were revealing of the game’s progress. In 1911, while in Boston, he wrote to his fiancee, “They are using a new ball this year. It’s livelier and that means more hitting, and more hitting means longer games and that’s the devil. It appears to be impossible to finish a game in less than two hours. It’s bad enough now, but it’s going to drive me crazy when it keeps me away from my own home.”
Establishing his credibility as a man knowledgeable about baseball was accomplished when he was in his early 20s. He’d played the game as a youngster, and enjoyed the company of players and owners. Now, before he turned 30, he was about to become a figure of national prominence through the characters he would create in Jack Keefe and Alibi Ike.