You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Ring Lardner's first published fiction created a sensation, catapulting a regional sports journalist into the national literary spotlight. Presented as semi-literate letters written to a friend by a baseball player embarking on a professional career, Lardner's short stories first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914. Readers couldn't get enough of "busher" Jack Keefe, the unpolished, exasperating, charismatic narrator. Since being published in book form in 1916, You Know Me Al has retained its place on ...
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You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Ring Lardner's first published fiction created a sensation, catapulting a regional sports journalist into the national literary spotlight. Presented as semi-literate letters written to a friend by a baseball player embarking on a professional career, Lardner's short stories first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914. Readers couldn't get enough of "busher" Jack Keefe, the unpolished, exasperating, charismatic narrator. Since being published in book form in 1916, You Know Me Al has retained its place on the list of essential readings in baseball literature. In a 2002 ranking of the one hundred greatest sports books ever, the editors of Sports Illustrated placed Lardner's masterpiece at number five.
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Meet the Author


Born in Niles, Michigan, in 1885, Ringgold Wilmer Lardner was raised in prosperous isolation on acreage that included a private baseball diamond. Ring followed his brother Rex into journalism at age twenty, talking his way into a sports-writing job with the South Bend (Indiana) Times. He later spent five years traveling with the White Sox and the Cubs, perfecting the listening skills that not only made him the confidant of players but also enabled him to reproduce their vernacular in his writings. His reputation grew after he joined the Chicago Tribune staff in 1909, and in 1913 he was invited to take over its most prestigious column, "In the Wake of the News."
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Introduction

Ring Lardner's first published fiction created a sensation, catapulting a regional sports journalist into the national literary spotlight. Presented as semi-literate letters written to a friend by a baseball player embarking on a professional career, Lardner's short stories first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914. Readers couldn't get enough of "busher" Jack Keefe, the unpolished, exasperating, charismatic narrator, and Lardner eventually wrote twenty-six Keefe stories. The first six were published in book form in 1916 with one of Keefe's catch phrases, You Know Me Al, as the title, and this volume has retained its place ever since on the list of essential readings in baseball literature. In a 2002 ranking of the one hundred greatest sports books ever, the editors of Sports Illustrated placed Lardner's masterpiece at number five.

Born in Niles, Michigan, in 1885, Ringgold Wilmer Lardner was the youngest of six children. Raised in prosperous isolation on acreage that included a private baseball diamond, Ring followed his brother Rex into journalism at age twenty, talking his way into a sports-writing job with the South Bend (Indiana) Times. Two years later, he moved to Chicago and by 1908 was covering the Chicago White Sox for the Hearst-owned Examiner. Lardner spent five years traveling with the White Sox and the Cubs, perfecting the listening skills that not only made him the confidant of players but also enabled him to reproduce their vernacular in his writings. His reputation grew after he joined the Chicago Tribune staff in 1909, and in 1913 he was invited to take over its most prestigious column, "In the Wakeof the News." Married and a father by then, Lardner welcomed the chance to escape the rigors of the road and stay with his family. During his six years of creating seven columns a week, he also blossomed as a writer of short fiction, largely but not exclusively about baseball. Lardner moved to New York to capitalize on his fame and spent the 1920s writing nationally syndicated columns, producing story collections, and pursuing an elusive career as a Broadway playwright and songwriter. Despite being grouped with the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the pantheon of emerging American fiction stylists, Lardner steadfastly refused to write a novel. Plagued since his youth by alcoholism, he preferred to write short pieces for money rather than mount the sustained effort needed for literary posterity. He died in 1933 and has been gradually relegated to minor status as a mere humorist and baseball writer. However, within this realm Lardner's influence remains strong and his legacy intact.

Lardner prepared himself well for his first excursion into fiction. In 1908, he befriended an illiterate White Sox player and composed for him a letter to his girlfriend, impersonating the player's speaking voice in an early version of Keefe's. The "notes" sections which accompanied his daily coverage of the White Sox and Cubs often included sarcastic banter, gossip, and accounts of player quirks, elements he would refine in his stories. During the winter of 1910-1911, Lardner served as editor of The Sporting News, the pre-eminent baseball weekly, and wrote his first baseball columns. These "Pullman Pastimes" detailed the train travels of the Cubs, further acquainting his readers with the players' personalities and group dynamics, including poker games and bragging sessions. In all these early efforts, he focused on reproducing the voices and thought processes of athletes, a subject he found increasingly captivating. Lardner began flexing his literary muscles when he took over In the Wake of the News in 1913, incorporating satire, verse, and non-sports material which attracted a wider audience. Soon the Tribune's Sunday editor offered him $50 for a baseball story, and he quickly wrote "A Busher's Letters Home." Accounts vary on the sequence of events which began with the Sunday editor turning down the story, but the end result was that the story first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on March 7, 1914. The response was so overwhelming that in addition to the Post's request for more stories (at a pay scale increasing to $1,500 per story by the end of the year), Lardner received overtures from numerous other magazines. "Almost as soon as the Post published them," wrote Lardner's son John, "the letters made the author as famous as the President of the United States." His career as a short-story writer was launched full-blown, and for the rest of his life, magazines paid him lavishly for any story he might care to contribute.

The Jack Keefe stories remained the most popular, though many of them took the protagonist away from the baseball scene. According to Ring Lardner, Jr., "there is no reason to think Ring had sequels in mind" when he wrote the initial stories, and he fit Keefe's adventures to current demands. In 1915, Lardner wrote "The Busher Abroad," five stories which recounted Keefe's travels around the world on the 1913-14 tour taken by the White Sox and the New York Giants, a tour which in reality ended back in Chicago on the day the first Post story was published. Later in the decade, as World War I raged, Lardner contributed to the patriotic cause by having Keefe enlist, endure the rigors of military training, and do a tour of duty in Europe. These stories were issued in collections titled Treat 'Em Rough and The Real Dope, but they have not endured as the baseball stories have. Keefe came alive in the baseball stories, where his considerable athletic ability flourished despite his personality flaws; in the Army, Keefe was just another soldier struggling to survive. Lardner himself became disenchanted with baseball after the scandal of the fixed 1919 World Series (many players from that fateful White Sox team, along with manager Kid Gleason, appeared in You Know Me Al). In the 1920s, he limited his baseball writing to covering the World Series. The public remained entranced with Keefe, so from 1922 until 1925, Lardner provided the story lines for a comic-strip version of You Know Me Al, though he wearied of that daily grind and did it only for the $20,000 annual royalty.

Although the first Keefe stories attracted millions of readers, their 1916 publication in book form by Doran and Company did not cause much additional stir. Because the stories were told in vernacular and involved characters regarded as lower class, the critics did not feel compelled to acknowledge them as literature. It is doubtful that Lardner cared what the critics thought of him. He was a full-time journalist with four young boys to feed. He worked hard at producing his newspaper columns and cranking out magazine stories, most notably "Alibi Ike," "Haircut," "Gullible's Travels," and "The Young Immigrunts".

Fame took Lardner to New York, where one of his neighbors in fashionable Great Neck was F. Scott Fitzgerald. They became friends and drinking partners, two Midwesterners both transfixed and disillusioned by wealth. It was Fitzgerald who attached Lardner to Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner's editor who made Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe famous. In 1923, Scribner's published a volume of Lardner stories, followed in 1925 by a five-volume set of his works, leading off with You Know Me Al. Now the critics paid attention. Among those who analyzed Lardner's literary merits were H. L. Mencken, Virginia Woolf, and Edmund Wilson. Mencken celebrated Lardner's mastery of language and his portrayal of "the lineaments of Democratic Man," and wrote that "I doubt that anyone who is not familiar with professional ball players intimately and at first hand, will ever comprehend the full merit of the amazing sketches in 'You Know Me Al.'" Yet Woolf, who knew nothing of baseball, recognized that "the best of Mr. Lardner's stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner's interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls." Wilson, like Perkins, wanted Lardner to write a novel, asking "Will Ring Lardner then, go on to his Huckleberry Finn or has he already told all he knows?"

Lardner never yielded to that lure, but he told us plenty, and everything he wanted and needed to tell is in You Know Me Al. His chief subject was human nature, and in Jack Keefe he created a vivid character type that has been often imitated but never surpassed. Perhaps the most popular Keefe descendant is Henry Wiggen, the cocky pitcher-narrator of The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly, two novels by Mark Harris. Yet Wiggen cannot match Keefe's dazzling array of dismaying traits - Keefe is tactless, quick-tempered, indecisive, cheap, self-centered, gullible, gluttonous, boastful, ignorant, and more. He is insensitive to his wife's needs and oversensitive to his baby's. He disdains advice, retreats from adversity, and blames others for his misfortunes. Yet we find him delightful and endearing. How did Lardner manage this feat?

The answer lies in the distinction between Keefe the man and Keefe the narrator. We see the man only through his letters, and he is oblivious to every one of his faults. "You know me, Al," he keeps telling his friend back home, but he doesn't know himself, he only thinks he does. The letters read as candid accounts of a splendid fellow's reactions to everyone else's problems, allowing the reader the pleasure of seeing through Keefe's disclaimers. He is a perfect straight man because he doesn't understand that the joke is on him, and he blithely reports each piece of sarcasm. When White Sox manager Nixey Callahan urges him to do something to prevent Ty Cobb from stealing bases, he tells Callahan, "I says Maybe Cobb can't get on base when I work against him. He says That's right and maybe San Francisco Bay is made of grape-juice." Chided for being lazy and out of shape, he protests, "I am in shape all right. He [Callahan] says Well don't work no harder than you have to or you might get hurt and then the whole league would blow up. I don't know if he was kidding me or not."

Keefe is the only one who doesn't know, much to our delight. He can dish it out, as when he tells his brother-in-law, a pitcher named Allen, "if you was to throw that fast ball of yours at him and hit him in the head he would think the musketoes was biteing him and brush them off." But mostly he is the butt of the joke, targeted chiefly by coach Kid Gleason, who is assigned to make sure that Keefe stays in shape. "I will make you work," he tells Keefe, "and won't let you eat everything on the bill of fair includeing the name of the hotel at which we are stopping at." In one of the book's funniest passages, Keefe invites Gleason to see his newborn son "and tell me what you think of him. He says I can tell you what I think of him without takeing no look at him. I think he is out of luck." When Gleason visits Keefe's apartment and the baby starts crying; Gleason thinks it's a toothache. "I says How could he have a toothacke when he has not got no teeth? He says That is easy. I have saw a lot of pitchers complane that there arm was sore when they did not have no arm."

Keefe complains of a sore arm, too, one of the innumerable excuses he makes when things go wrong. His credo: "I am satisfied if I give the club the best I got and if I win all O. K. And if I lose who's fault is it. Not mine Al." Failure is someone else's fault; success is his alone. Other teams are lucky to beat him, other pitchers lucky to win despite their lack of talent, but he can write to Al to "tell the boys about my good luck Al but it is not no luck neither because it was comeing to me." The road to success is rocky for Keefe, who gets bounced back to the minor leagues, alienates his teammates, and even gets suspended after losing a 1-0 game by getting mad at the opposing pitcher (who has married one of Keefe's former loves) and beaning him with the bases loaded. He threatens to quit, loses several contract disputes with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, and despite his obsessive frugality, manages to run up debts forcing him to borrow money from his friend Al. Yet he winds up a star whose presence on the 1913-1914 World Tour is considered vital.

If You Know Me Al merely recounted Keefe's baseball doings, it would still be important as the first work to portray athletes realistically. A hundred years ago, ballplayers were regarded by society as drunken roughnecks. To protect America's youth, popular baseball stories veered to the other extreme, encouraging them to follow the example of characters like Frank Merriwell, paragons of virtue, nobility, and grace. Lardner wanted nothing to do with that pretense. Keefe brags about his drinking prowess, has a brief suicidal impulse, and frequently wishes he could solve his problems through violence. Angry at his brother-in-law (whom he has already beaten up once), he writes, "I felt like busting him in the jaw but then I thought No I might kill him and then I would have Marie and Florrie both to take care of and God knows one of them is enough besides paying his funeral expenses."

However, the longevity of You Know Me Al is due to the universal appeal of Keefe's travails with romance and parenthood. He falls for two women at once, lamenting "I wish they was two of me so both them girls could be happy," but discards both in favor of Florrie, who soon presents him with sarcasm, opposition, and a son. Keefe's concern for his son's welfare is both admirable and ludicrous (he wants the baby "fixed" so he won't be left-handed), attended by far more pride than wisdom.

That is the way of life, for Keefe, for Lardner, and for the rest of us. We want to do the right thing, but our natures often prevent us from doing so. Jack Keefe is constantly undercut by the disparity between what he thinks he is and what he really is. Lardner's genius gave us a direct path into the thought processes of this remarkable American original. By letting us see into him and through him, Lardner allowed us the comfort of believing we would handle ourselves much better than Keefe did. So it is that every generation which encounters Keefe cannot get enough of him.

Gabriel Schechter is a research associate at the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He is the author of two books: Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw's Giants and Unhittable! Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2007

    Essential Baseball Fiction

    Lardner is well known as one of the greatest sports writers to ever live and he really makes a show of it in this work of fiction. Jack Keefe is a character you'll not soon forget and Lardner paints a picture of old time baseball that is gritty and enchanting. Good luck trying to put this one down!

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