Ring Lardner’s influence on American letters is arguably greater than that of any other American writer in the early part of the twentieth century. Lauded by critics and the public for his groundbreaking short stories, Lardner was also the country’s best-known journalist in the 1920s and early 1930s, when his voice was all but inescapable in American newspapers and magazines. Lardner’s trenchant, observant, sly, and cynical writing style, along with a deep understanding of human foibles, made his articles wonderfully readable and his words resonate to this day.
Ron Rapoport has gathered the best of Lardner’s journalism from his earliest days at the South Bend Times through his years at the Chicago Tribune and his weekly column for the Bell Syndicate, which appeared in 150 newspapers and reached eight million readers. In these columns Lardner not only covered the great sporting events of the era—from Jack Dempsey’s fights to the World Series and even an America’s Cup—he also wrote about politics, war, and Prohibition, as well as parodies, poems, and penetrating observations on American life.
The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner reintroduces this journalistic giant and his work and shows Lardner to be the rarest of writers: a spot-on chronicler of his time and place who remains contemporary to subsequent generations.
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The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner
By Ring Lardner, Ron Rapoport
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Ring Lardner got his first newspaper job, so the story goes, when the editor of the South Bend Times came to his home in Niles, Michigan, in 1905, looking for his brother. Rex Lardner, who was four years older than Ring, had established himself at the Niles Daily Sun and Edgar Stoll, the Times' editor, wanted to hire him. But Rex was out of town and Stoll asked Ring whether Rex had a contract with the Niles paper.
"I said yes, which was the truth," Lardner wrote years later. "I asked how much salary he was willing to offer. He said twelve dollars a week. Why? 'Oh,' I said, 'I thought I might tackle the job myself.'" When Stoll asked if he had any writing experience, Lardner said he often helped Rex, which was, he admitted, "far from the truth."
Lardner, who had failed at a number of jobs, and not enjoyed any of them, was then working as a meter reader and collector of bad debts for the Niles Gas Company. ("I never heard of any good ones," he wrote.) He was ready for something more interesting and was not about to let the truth get in his way. The following week, he reported for work at the Times, where, for twelve dollars a week, he covered everything from high school sports to Notre Dame football, with some general news, court reporting, and society and theater news thrown in. He never received a byline but it was the best on-the-job training a twenty-year-old reporter could have had.
Though his writing for the Times was competent enough for a beginner, it seldom gave any indication of the imagination he would apply in the future. One exception was a roundup of the previous year's sports news that appeared on New Year's Day, 1907. The first sentence showed he meant to have fun and he kept his tongue firmly in cheek throughout.
Lardner would summon up the memory of his days in South Bend a few years later in articles he wrote for the Chicago Tribune — his first "Memoirs of a Baseball Scribe" is one example — just as he wrote a number of pieces about leaving South Bend for Chicago, as shown in the second "Memoirs of a Baseball Scribe." And he would summarize the origins of his career in a nutshell in the poem preceding this section that appears to have run only in the Omaha World-Herald, which ran nearly all of his Bell Syndicate columns.
Lardner's first job in the big city was with the Chicago Inter-Ocean, where he wrote his first article on major-league baseball in 1908: "Twenty-Six Cubs Will Be Taken On Southern Journey." He does not appear to have met any of these Cubs, nor would he write about them again until the following year when he was at the Tribune. But the article is noteworthy on two accounts. First, it adopts the jocular tone he would seldom abandon in the future when writing about baseball — Vicksburgers and Vicksburgerines, indeed — and second, a look at the Cubs' roster in the closing paragraphs gives an indication of what Lardner and his readers were in for.
These were the Cubs of Tinker to Evers to Chance. They had played in the last three World Series, and won the last two, and were the reigning lords of the game. But beyond that, the team contained some great characters who soon came to enjoy Lardner's dry wit as much as he enjoyed them. Players like Frank Schulte, Jim Schekard, Heine Zimmerman, Mordecai Brown, and others were story-tellers, practical jokers, poker players, drinkers, and all-around good companions who made numerous appearances in Lardner's work. The players and reporters mixed freely on their long train rides together and Lardner took copious mental notes.
Nor did the players seems to object when Lardner made them figures of fun in print. They enjoyed his satirical parodies of popular songs, which he sang while accompanying himself on the piano, and regarded him as one of them. It may have been for the best, however, that the St. Louis Browns had left the Cubs' spring-training site in West Baden, Indiana, before Lardner wrote of their best pitcher: "Rube Waddell left in his wake various broken hearts and bottles." Lardner's description of the first game ever played at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh shows he could also write a sweetly evocative piece when called upon, while his story on the Cubs winning the 1910 National League pennant demonstrated the creativity that would always be one of his hallmarks.
Looking for more money — and, as he was about to be married, a less itinerant life-style — Lardner left Chicago late in 1910 to work for The Sporting News in St. Louis. He lasted there only three months before leaving in a dispute with his bosses, but he made the most of them, turning out 10 "Pullman Pastimes," which gave his first extended look at the lives of ballplayers and reporters on the road. As such, they provided the template for the short stories that would make him famous. He then moved to the Boston American where he covered the Boston Rustlers — they would become the Braves the following season — who had yet another colorful bunch of players.
Another disagreement with management led to Lardner's resignation during the 1911 World Series and he returned to Chicago. He was twenty-six years old and had worked at five different newspapers. It had been a remarkable apprenticeship, one that pointed him in the direction of bigger and better things.
South Bend Has Cause to Be Proud of Athletic Record the Past Year
South Bend Times, January 1, 1907
Looking back over the past year local followers of sport have three things to be thankful for. There were no fake fights pulled off in our midst, the High school football team went through the season with no deaths and only one defeat and the South Bend ball club did not run absolutely last. For the first of these sources of gratefulness, let us extend a vote of heartfelt thanks to the local promoters of pugilism, who have booked very few matches; for the second to the High school football team itself for its great and successful fight for the sectional championship; and, for the last, to the Terre Haute club, which absolutely refused to give up its hold on the cellar door.
There are also manifold matters of deep regret to the heart of the true sport lover, but these we will pass over in brief, since it is not good for the heart to be sorrowful at the opening of the new year. For one thing the tennis championship of Navarre Place was never satisfactorily settled. There were innumerable claimants of the honor, as there are of every championship title, but on the showing of all the wielders of the racket north of the bridge, it would be unfair to single out anyone as being superior to his neighbors. The bait casting club has not held its regular meetings for some time and there is really no telling whether or not it has breathed its last. The tournament arranged with Kalamazoo which was to have taken place last summer has been postponed until the 22nd of August 1952 and the locals are already hard at work in preparation.
The career of the 1906 South Bend baseball team is as a sad tragedy, which we will call "The Broken Elevator." For some reason or other, the promoters of the play lost sight of the plot and allowed several villains to make their entrance at the wrong time and break up the action. These same villains were originally slated to appear in the role of heroes and their sudden change of heart was thus rendered all the more grievous. One of them was found guilty and sent to the reformatory at Grand Rapids, while another waived arraignment, pled guilty and is now serving a life sentence in the Three I league. The Grand Rapids prisoner has visited here twice on parole since his conviction and on both occasions, proved that he had entirely reformed and was leading a model life.
When the villains got in their cruel work, the play was running most smoothly, having only the production led by Actor Ganzet to cope with. The climax did not come all at once, but in chunks of a little at a time, until the damage was done and the stage too hot to hold the offenders. However, the chance for revenge has not passed forever and we all take comfort in the time-worn adage "He who laughs at the finish, laughs like — —.
Begging your pardon for switching figures, the South Bend ship sank gradually until it struck what it thought was bottom. This afterwards proved to be merely the hull of another ship which had suffered a like fate and was covering the whole bed of the sea. For some time after the first sinking, those on shore daily cast anxious glances at the surface of the water and hoped against hope that the masts would be seen to rise again. But there was nothing doing in the rescue line and the life saving crew was powerless to give sufficient aid.
However, to the cheerful among the owners of the South Bend ship there is ground for consolation in the fact that some parts of the vessel were not hurt by the wreck at all ...
The high school football team of 1906 will be looked back to for many seasons by the members of elevens to come, with reverence and pride. The boys, under the skillful coaching of Donald DeShane and the captaincy of Otis Romine, swept everything before them with the exception of the teams representing Winona and the High school of a hamlet known as Niles. The only defeat of the season was suffered at the hands of the Winona aggregation, which is recognized as being in a higher class than the average high school team. The locals did not have their full strength in the contest with Niles, although the last named team was not one to be sneezed at by any means.
The Notre Dame football eleven was one of the best in the history of the college and this after a discouraging outlook at the opening of the season. The success of the gold and blue is due to the clever drilling of Coach Barry and the presence on the team of three or four stars of the first water. A victory over Purdue and a great fight against the Indiana team1 are among the team's achievements. Judging by the comparative scores, Notre Dame ranked well in Western football and the students are looking forward to a state champion eleven next fall.
The lack of snow last winter was fatal to the racing game in this city, as there is no track where summer racing can be held. If the plans of many of South Bend's leading citizens do not go amiss, there will soon be a driving park in this city and the regular summer meetings will become a feature of local sport.
Rowing races in South Bend are mostly indulged in by teams of opposite sexes, which makes the sport doubly interesting, but precludes the possibility of making public the records. Boat races are numerous on the old St. Joe in the warm summer evenings and slow races have become quite a fad among the rowers.
Bowling has made rapid strides during the past twelvemonth and is now at its zenith in this city. The formation of the Elks' and Antlers' leagues has done much to bring the sport to its present place of popularity and there has not been any flagging of interest in these organizations since the season opened. The bowling stars of former years have maintained their reputations and others, unknown previously to the sport, have come forward to take their places in the front ranks. Among the latter class are Chief of Police James McWeeny, for whom an average of 115 is now a mere bagatelle, and F.E. Hering, who rolls 233 in one game and, then, feeling sorry for his less fortunate competitors, drops to 98 in the next.
Golf has taken its regular place among the summer sports and its advance must be attributed partly to the efforts of Harry S. Turple, who instructs the members of the St. Joseph Valley Country club in the Scotch game. His able tutelage has aided many of the golfers to play a greatly improved game and as a result, to take much more interest in the sport.
That chess and checker records are not available is to be regretted. Playing the slot machines was very popular at an earlier season of the year, but has fallen off a trifle in the last two or three weeks. Curling is confined mostly to daintily scented boudoirs, although we have heard some curlers on the street.
Memoirs of a Baseball Scribe (Part 1)
Chicago Tribune, July 15, 1915
Grand Rapids had a third baseman who thought that water was created for chasing purposes only. But for his insatiable thirst for something stronger this man would have been in a big league — a star in it, too. He might even have "gone up" if he could have got enough liquid refreshment at night. But no; he had to have it in the morning, which, as every ball player is supposed to know, is unethical.
He had a whip of steel and a fast ball as smoky as most pitchers'. He preferred warming up with some catcher to practicing in his regular position.
South Bend, where I first reported the pastime for gain, had two press tables. They were in front of the grandstand, on the field. Mine was a few feet from the visitors' bench and the rival sheet's close to the home dugout.
John Ganzel's Grand Rapids team came down for a series and the third baseman proceeded to light himself up the minute the club got in town. By game time he was so bad that Ganzel wouldn't allow him to play. Being near the Grand Rapids bench, I heard the torrid dialogue between manager and man. Ganzel came over to me at length and asked that I print nothing about the matter. Being agreeable in those days, I promised to pass the story up.
The rival sheet's reporter, however, had no such request from Ganzel and ran half a column of the stuff, with pictures. It was in his paper the next afternoon.
The afternoon after the next afternoon I took my place as usual and proceeded to write down the batting order in my massive score book. I was interrupted by a sharp pain in the shin. A ball had struck me, and the ball had been thrown by the steel whip of the Grand Rapids third baseman. He was doing his customary warmup stunt and one of his shots had escaped his catcher.
The catcher, Dan Howley, was standing directly in front of me, not ten feet distant.
"Move over a little, will you?" I said. "I don't want to get killed."
Dan moved to a position which made mine safe except from a ball thrown deliberately at me.
And right away there was a ball thrown deliberately at me.
I ducked and the ball whistled past my ear.
"What are you trying to do?" I yelled at the third sacker.
"You'll find out if you set there long enough," he said.
The ball had bounded back off the screen and he had recovered it. Taking careful aim, he shot at me again. Howley was quick enough to get his glove in front of the ball and divert its course.
"Cut it out, — !" said Howley. "You'll get in trouble."
"I don't care if I hang," said — —. "I'm goin' to get that bird."
Howley picked up the ball and held it. The third baseman went to the bench to secure another ball. Failing to find one, he grabbed a bat and let fly. The missile fell short.
"Give me that ball," I said to Howley.
Howley gave me the ball and, standing up, I threw it as hard as I could at my friend. If it had hit him in a vulnerable spot it might have hurt him. But he caught it in his bare hand and it came back several times as fast as it had gone. It missed target by inches.
Ganzel and the other Grand Rapids players were returning to the bench from their practice. I summoned Ganzel.
"— — is pegging at me," I said. "You'd better make him cut it out."
— — came over to the table.
"This is the guy [he didn't say guy] that knocked me in the paper," he said.
"No, it ain't," he said. "It was the other fella."
"It don't make no difference," said — —. "They're all alike."
"You lay off'n my ball players!" said Mr. Ganzel.
"It was the other fella," repeated Howley.
"Whoever it was," said, Mr. Ganzel, "you lay off'n my ball players or you'll get killed. I'll do it myself."
Grand Rapids had lost two straight.
"The next time you tell me not to print a story I'll run it on the first page," I said.
"You do and see what happens to you," said Mr. Ganzel. "I got a notion to fix you now."
The arrival of Chief McWeeny (Jim) and a short speech by him saved my young life.
I shed few tears when — — guzzled himself out of baseball and when Manager Ganzel suffered worse than death — the management at Cincinnati.
Lardner told this story somewhat differently for a 1931 article in the Saturday Evening Post. In that version the aggrieved player became angry when Lardner, the game's official scorer, called an error on what he insisted was a hit.
Memoirs of a Baseball Scribe (Part 2)
Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1915
There came a day in the late summer of 1907 when I was taken violently ill with big league fever.
"I'm going to Chicago for Labor day," I told my boss.
"You have fine taste," said he.
But it was not for pleasure that I was going.
I went, or came, and on my arrival called up a friend who had the honor of knowing Hughey Fullerton personally to speak to. On Labor day morning my friend escorted me to the newspaper office where Hughey was working. If we'd known anything about the metropolitan newspaper business we never would have sought Hughey at his office in the morning. Our ignorance took us there, and there, for some queer reason, was Hughey.
Excerpted from The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner by Ring Lardner, Ron Rapoport. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by James Lardner,
A Note to Readers,
Ring Lardner Tells His Sad, Sad Story to the World,
1. Getting Started,
3. Ring Goes to War,
7. The Noble Experiment,
8. The America's Cup and Other Sports,
9. Family Life,
10. On Journalism,
11. People, Places, and Pieces of Ring's Mind,
12. Parodies and Reviews,
13. Buried Treasure and Night Letters,