This article was written by John McMurray
This article was published in the SABR Deadball Era newsletter articles
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the April 2018 edition of the SABR Deadball Era Committee newsletter.
One of the great and enduring achievements of the latter part of the Deadball Era was, in fact, literary: the 1916 publication of “You Know Me Al” by Ring Lardner. The book, which could today be categorized as a novel, was a collection of six sublime pieces of baseball fiction originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, beginning in 1914. Lardner’s mastery in writing true-to-life ballplayer dialogue through the words of pitcher Jack Keefe, his protagonist, also offered the first major turn away from the largely positive characterizations of ballplayers which had been evident in contemporary reporting. In 1963, on the occasion of Lardner’s selection as the winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, Fred Lieb cited the endurance of “You Know Me Al,” saying: “These humorous stories which portrayed the American ball player of the 1910-1920 era better than anything else ever written became a part of Americana.”
The subtitle of the book—“A Busher’s Letters”—suggests the struggles and travails which Keefe, a pitcher battling a host of hurdles to make the Chicago White Sox, would face. All of Keefe’s letters are to his steadfast friend, Al Blanchard, back home in Bedford, Indiana. Keefe, though, is himself a caricature, failing into hole after hole of his own making while buoyed by an overconfidence and optimism that never leaves him. The book’s title derives from a phrase which Keefe repeats, always without a comma, usually at some critical moment of cluelessness. Uncompromisingly cocky but somehow eminently endearing, the Sisyphean Keefe climbs to the majors, gets sent back down, and makes it back—all while convinced he is an underappreciated phenom on the verge of superstardom.
Lardner is well-known as a master satirist, and his reputation as a writer would still be unblemished even if “You Know Me Al” had never been written. A 1985 Chicago Tribune tribute said in the title that he “was the man who made the ‘20s roar with laughter.” His skill as a humorist was so well-developed that it is easy to forget Lardner’s work as a more traditional baseball reporter, including for The Sporting News and the Chicago Tribune, the latter of which allowed him to form personal relationships with the White Sox players. James T. Farrell, writing in The New York Times in 1944, suggests that caveat emptor rules in any Lardner story, whether in social relationships or even in matters of the heart. “Thus the satire of Ring Lardner reveals the working out of the mechanisms of American civilization.”
It is the words themselves that Lardner uses in Keefe’s letters which make all the difference. Broken grammar and improperly spelled words abound (“not saw” for “not seen” or “She made me sware (sic)…”, etc.). Hardly a paragraph exists without some incorrect phrasing or a miscongugated verb. But to get lost in the imperfections is to miss the work’s essential rhythm, where notorious syntax almost becomes a language unto itself. As Donald Elder, in his 1956 biography Ring Lardner, offers with respect to “You Know Me Al”: “It is easy to write English badly, but very hard to make a literary style out of bad English.”
In 20th Century American Sportswriters, Pete Cava notes that “Lardner listened carefully to the spoken language and tried to replicate its rhythms in print. (He once explained to H.L. Mencken how ballplayers who invariably dropped the g sound on the ends of the words nothin and somethin almost invariably enunciated the words everything and anything.) He often wrote ungrammatical, first-person narratives that reflected the clumsy speech of an unlettered midwesterner.”
Keefe’s letter writing, while haphazard, is also readily understandable. A case in point, from Keefe’s third letter in the book (December 16), where he negotiates with owner Charles Comiskey following his promotion to the major leagues:
DEAR FRIEND AL: Well I will be home in a couple of days now but I wanted to write you and let you know how I come out with Comiskey. I signed my contract yesterday afternoon. He is a great old fellow Al and no wonder everybody likes him. He was Young man will you have a drink? But I was to smart and wouldn’t take nothing. He was You was with Terre Haute? I says Yes I was. He says Doyle told me you were pretty wild. I says Oh no I got good control. He says well do you want to sign? I says Yes if I get my figure. He asks What is my figure and I says three thousand dollars per annum. He says Don’t you want the office furniture too? Then he says I thought you was a young ballplayer and I didn’t know you wanted to buy my park.
Elder notes that Lardner “was not the first to use the language of uneducated people. Mark Twain had done it in Huckleberry Finn. Nor was he the first to use slang; George Ade had written Fables in Slang…There was nothing new either about stories in letter form. The medium and the devices were commonplace enough; all Ring brought to them was genius.” Perhaps most critically, suggests Elder, “no imitator ever matched [the authenticity of Lardner’s dialogue,” which included the “vocabulary of his ballplayers” and also “the rhythm of their speech; their hesitations and outbursts of fluency suggest the workings of their minds. He also solved the difficult problem of writing dialogue and also keeping it readable. His style is the perfect instrument.”
Through “You Know Me Al,” in particular, Lardner spoke both truth about what ballplayers—at least in his experience—were really like and portrayed them, through Keefe, as flawed, insecure, confused, and sometimes despondent. If Christy Mathewson was the so-called ‘golden god of baseball’s true golden age,’ Keefe was his diametric opposite, an overconfident, barely-capable fringe ballplayer with dubious morals, a superabundance of relationship problems, and flaws aplenty—yet whose personality and vigor make the reader root for him anyway. Such a characterization was the seldom seen other side of the coin, but for all of Keefe’s inner turmoil, it is hard to pull away from following him.
One of the fun parts of “You Know Me Al” is the many mentions of contemporary Deadball Era figures. As Keefe is sold to the Chicago Americans to begin the book, he boldly compares himself to Ed Walsh. Most contemporary players of prominence, from Napoleon Lajoie to Shoeless Joe Jackson, receive some mention. Keefe (cluelessly) mentions how Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford would be intimidated by his pitching prowess.
Lardner himself was coy in offering which real ballplayer was the inspiration for the fictional Keefe; Lardner claimed in a 1925 introduction to the book that readers had guessed everyone from Noah to Bucky Harris and that “the original of Jack Keefe is not a ballplayer at all, but Jane Addams of Hull House, a former Follies girl.” Less tongue-in-cheek observers believe that Walsh, albeit infinitely more stellar on the mound, provided a direct inspiration. Cava wrote: “Keefe was probably a composite of several ballplayers, including not only the illiterate ‘Jake Gibbs,’ (an alias used by Lardner in his writings for an anonymous player from the 1908 White Sox, who apparently served as one inspiration for Keefe) for a model player’ but also Joe Benz and Ping Bodie. The “boastful” Benz, Cava notes, was also an Indiana native, like Keefe, while Bodie was “brash and garrulous.” John Thorn, in his 2014 introduction to the book, cites Walsh, himself a farmboy, as the primary inspiration for Keefe, while also suggesting that there are some traces in Keefe of Rube Waddell—“a dope and a braggart,” just like Lardner’s creation.
Lardner, perhaps most influentially, changed the way baseball players were perceived, by portraying them fully while not treating them with scorn or derision. Cava, citing noted Lardner scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli, emphasizes that baseball fiction up to that point was “hero-worship stuff for boys.” Bruccoli points out that Lardner’s work had an “inside quality” to it, even by offering a portrayal of something as simple as Keefe getting on the wrong side of manager Kid Gleason by ordering too much food. Even while being more clueless than evil and usually endeavoring to do the right thing, according to Thorn: “No wiser on the last page than the first, [Keefe] is an enduring American anti-hero.”
Keefe, too, outgrew the pages of “You Know Me Al” and became a figure of his own, one who has far outlived the Deadball Era. “He has the traits of many ballplayers in him, but he is a created character and he is also a type,” said Elder. “People did not know that he was an American type before they read Ring Lardner, any more that it had occurred to them that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were types of American boys until Mark Twain had created them. After that everyone recognized them.” And it is through this type that Keefe today endures, with hints of him in generations to follow. Says Elder: “Ring’s ball player became so familiar that Heywood Broun would write: ‘Dizzy Dean wasn’t born; Ring Lardner invented him.’”
JOHN McMURRAY is the chair of SABR’s Deadball Era Research Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.