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Ring Lardner

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message 1: by Frederick (new)

Frederick I'm about as close to being a sports fan as Hillary Clinton is to being Sir Edmund Hillary. (The polls did say Hillary was dead, and, speaking of sports, now he IS!)
Anyway, I suggest to any and all the works of Ring Lardner. The father of the M*A*S*H screenwriter with the "Jr" at the end of his name was a humorist in the manner of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, although his focus was definitely sports.
When I was twelve or so and immersed in the short stories of the old NEW YORKER humorists, my grandmother gave me Ring Lardner's YOU KNOW ME, AL. It is a fictional series of letters from a baseball player to a fan. It was written around the time of World War One. Lardner had a newspaper column and his letter-writing creation, Jack Keefe, became popular the way comic strip characters did.
I'm not sure YOU KNOW, ME, AL is in print, but there is a book called LARDNER ON BASEBALL, which contains the whole book. LARDNER ON BASEBALL was published in 2002 and edited by Jeff Silverman. (ISBN 1-58574-784-X.)
If you want to get a sense of baseball as the public regarded it before Shoeless Joe lost his shoes, you can't go wrong with Lardner.

message 2: by Patrick (last edited Jan 10, 2008 11:49PM) (new)

Patrick | 8 comments I'd love to find YOU KNOW ME, AL. It would be so interesting to see how that might be written today, from a modern perspective of a baseball player writing to a fan. I can't imagine many players who the teams and MLB might trust to do that...maybe David Eckstein of the Angels/Cards, but that's about it off the top of my head. I think the teams might think most of the rest of the players are too jaded and out of touch with the fans to treat them decently.

Of course, Schilling of the Red Sox runs a blog where he communicates directly with his fans, so maybe it isn't so far-fetched. I don't know of any other major league baseball players who do that, though. The only other pro athlete I've heard of who also does this is Gilbert Arenas of the NBA's Washington Wizards.

I can only wonder at what the old-time sportswriters like Lardner, Jimmy Cannon, and Shirley Povich would think about pro sports today.

message 3: by Frederick (new)

Frederick I bet there are some e-texts on the internet of Lardner's writing.
It seems to me most American writers in any field before World War Two would be shocked at current writers, events, etc. I know that James Thurber (who was about Ring Lardner's age) thought (in the 1950's) that MAD MAGAZINE represented horrible cynicism. So, I take it as a given that a lot of what, to us, seems rather tame, would be, to someone of Lardner's generation, a sign of society's collapse.
I think the idea that a boxer or a baseball player should be a role model is impractical. I'm not sure professional sports has the same meaning, even without the coprrution, that it had for the young in 1918. You went to the ballpark then because that's where you could see the game. There was barely any radio then. Today, people are exposed to sports from birth to death while perched on a couch.

message 4: by Patrick (new)

Patrick | 8 comments Good point. But even in the early days of last century the writers were well aware of the personal foibles of the pro athletes, such as Babe Ruth's massive appetites for women and liquor, Ty Cobb's mean streak, etc. Lardner surely was aware of all that, so it would be fascinating to see how those letters read. I assume that the letters were to a young I wrong on that? Or were they to an adult fan?

I agree that kids today don't hold pro sports, especially baseball in anywhere near the smae reverence that they may have held in the past, and that the stature of the individual athlete has been diminished by the overexposure of the 24 hours sports news and talk cycle. That's probably not a bad thing, overall, as I agree that athletes really shouldn't be role models.

Whenever this idea comes up, though, I often think back to Lou Gehrig and how he was portrayed in the New York and national media. I wonder if the cult of the sports star and especially the idea of the athlete as role model would have become as prevalent as it did had Gehrig never made the majors, or if he had played for a team other than the Yankees.

With almost every other pro athlete I've ever read or heard about, the whole sports star as role model thing had some personal "weakness" that the sportswriter and newspaper editors either had to choose to ignore or cover up because they felt that it may have detracted from the popularity of the athlete's public image. Gehrig seems to have been the one exception, and he also had the "good fortune" of dying right at the end of his career (not that I'd wish ALS on anyone) so that the public never saw an "old" Lou Gehrig. Since he played phenomenally well during the best years of the best team in the most popular team sport in the media capital of the nation, I wonder if the effort to popularize him as a star somehow subtly influenced the way the country perceived the role of the star pro athlete as an entertainment figure.

Of course, as I'm writing this I'm also thinking of Roberto Clemente as well, who also died in mid-career after some of his best years and quickly became an icon, but I don't think he has quite the same impact as Gehrig because media ideas about public figure and athletes had kind of matured by then.

If the above is lacking in some clarity of thought, please advise, as it's kind of late out here (even later where you are, though, no?). Feel free to hammer at any discrepancies of thought and I'll try to clean it up in an edit or a response tmw.

message 5: by Frederick (new)

Frederick Actually, I have yet to actually READ "You Know Me, Al." But I happen to have it right next to me, so, let me quickly scan the first two or three letters...Okay, the letters started in 1914 in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. It's clear in the first letter that Jack Keefe is writing home to an old buddy. Jack has just been called to play for a big team far away. Here's the first paragraph: "Terre Haute, Indiana, September 6. FRIEND AL: Well, Al old pal I suppose you seen in the paper where I been sold to the White Sox. Believe me Al it comes as a surprise to me and I bet it did to all you good old pals down home. You could of knocked me over with a feather when the old man come up to me and says Jack I've sold you to the Chicago Americans. I didn't have no idea that anything like that was coming off. For five minutes I was just dum and couldn't say a word."
Lardner's POST colum was called "A Busher's Letters Home." According to Jeff Silverman's introduction to LARDNER ON BASEBALL (which reprints YOU KNOW ME, AL) Lardner did, indeed, report on the Black Sox scandal of 1919.
My copy of LARDNER ON BASEBALL is a bargain edition I got at the Barnes and Noble where I work. (My copy of YOU KNOW ME, AL, given to me about thirty-five years ago by my grandmother, is somewhere in my house. I bought LARDNER ON BASEBALL just so I could suggest something on this Goodreads Group!) The ISBN I gave the other night is for the non-bargain edition. B & N sticks bargain stickers on the front of certain books after a while, with a different code. So, if you go to your local B & N, ask them for the book with this ISBN: 0641734265. The price is $5.98. My store actually had it in a half-price bin, so it was about three dollars. If your library has some Lardner, you might find this book or YOU KNOW ME, AL.
Here's another way I think modern sports differs from sports from before the Second World War. I think most sports fans then felt the players had hardscrabble lives and had, through sheer effort, achieved something worhtwhile. Today, the professional athlete is automatically looked on as a pampered individual. Sports fans circa 1920 thought baseball players were neighborhood guys who'd parlayed their old stickball skills into demonstrations of the greatness of the old neighborhood. Hence, people who grew up going to Brooklyn Dodgers games are STILL bitter about the team's move to L.A.
As for Lou Gehrig versus Roberto Clemente: I'm not sure the times Clemente lived in are the reason he is not as revered, it's the fact that Gehrig knew he was going to die and was able to make an incredibly well-crafted farewell speech. (I have to ask whether it was written for him, and have to add, immediately, that that does not matter. He delivered it with grace.) What I know about Clemente is that he was considered a great player and that he died in an airplane crash. It also doesn't hurt Gehrig's status to have Hollywood make a movie about him which made even men cry at a time when only women and children were supposed to cry. And, of course, this was a time when the papers and the film industry went out of their way to create icons. People knew Franklin D. Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair, but the newsreels never showed the wheelchair. People literally stood behind Roosevelt when he made speeches, propping him up so that he appeared to be standing. The downside of this is it bolstered the idea that being handicapped was something which should be hidden. Celebrities live in glass houses today, but is solid granite preferable? (Of course, to call a president a "celebrity" is a bit grotesque. And an athlete is an athlete, no matter what Entertainment Tonight wants us to believe.)

message 6: by Frederick (new)

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