John Lardner, a forgotten giant of the sportswriting world

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John Lardner was painting a prose portrait of a legendary con man when he wrote: "On a small scale, Titanic Thompson is an American legend. I say on a small scale, because an overpowering majority of the public has never heard of him. That is the way Titanic likes it. He is a professional gambler. He has sometimes been called the gambler's gambler."

Lardner might well have been writing about himself, although calling him a writer's writer is too limiting, not to mention entirely inadequate. In a career that spanned three decades, the '30s through the '50s, he wrote for TheNew Yorker about everything from movies and TV, to the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. But it was as a sports columnist for Newsweek that Lardner left his deepest footprint, and he underscored it with long, brilliant pieces for magazines like True and Sport. His trademark, as Stan Isaacs, the former Newsday sports columnist recently pointed out, was a "droll touch -- precise, detached."

In an age of legendary sportswriters, Lardner was every bit the equal of Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, A.J. Libeling and Joe Palmer -- yet he is virtually forgotten today. I can think of several reasons, none having to do with the quality of his work. Lardner is forgotten because he was a humorist and an essayist in the age of the novel. He wrote for newspapers and magazines, ephemeral institutions at best, and yet he didn't enjoy Smith's longevity or possess Cannon's flair for self-promotion.

But mostly he is forgotten because he died a month before his 48th birthday, in 1960, too young to achieve the lasting greatness that he surely seems to have been building toward.

Fortunately for us, John Schulian, a distinguished sportswriter in his own right (who is, in the sake of full disclosure, also a friend), has put together an invigorating sample of Lardner's best sportswriting, The John Lardner Reader: A Press Box Legend's Classic Sportswriting. It is not overwhelmingly long at 280 pages, but it's a generous and representative blend of Lardner's Newsweek columns, newspaper stories and freelance magazine pieces.

"He was the antithesis of the screamers and borderline hysterics who are so plentiful among today's sports columnists," Schulian wrote via e-mail recently. "He was wry, playful and always understated."

Here is Lardner writing about Casey Stengel after the manager's first year with the Yankees:

"Casey remained a merry fellow until the day the Yanks fired Bucky Harris and hired him. As a man of the world, he knew what he was letting himself in for. He knew the penalty of failure on the big time -- Mr. Harris barely had time to reach for his hat -- and the penalties of success. He knew he was kissing his life of gaiety in the lower brackets good-by. However, baseball men, no matter how disillusioned, are so constituted that when offered a team with a pennant chance, they grab it. They can't help it. Casey couldn't. And in a wan and haggard way he probably thinks he's happy."

The new Lardner collection is best savored slowly, and in measured doses. It is not fair to the reader or to Lardner to try to read too much at once. Lardner's prose style is immaculate -- there is no waste -- but it is also dense, and it takes time to adjust to it for maximum reading pleasure.

"The father of us all, whether we knew it or not," Schulian continued, "was Lardner. Look at those Newsweek columns and how they skip along like a stone thrown across water. He could look at a game or a fight and see it differently than anyone else. He could find the fun in it, and if there was hypocrisy or any dealing from the bottom of the deck, he would perforate it with a writing style that was a velvet shiv. Basically, though, his primary goal was to entertain. I defy you to find a columnist working today who would confess to such a thing."

Lardner loved writing about offbeat characters like Titanic Thompson the grifter, or boxers like Battling Siki and Stanley Ketchel, both of whom came to violent ends. His most anthologized story is about Babe Herman, famed as a Brooklyn Dodger for being hit on the head with fly balls he should have caught with his glove. "He never tripled into a triple play," wrote Lardner, "but he once doubled into a double play, which is the next best thing."

There are also pieces in this collection on legendary figures like Jack Johnson, Ted Williams and Satchel Paige. But they are not fawning. Lardner was never tempted to glorify his subjects, and he had seen enough carnage in World War II to know that he was covering a sporting event, not the end of the world.

He came by his reserve naturally. His father was Ring Lardner, who had been the most famous sportswriter in America before he became its most famous literary wit. Ring was a study in reserve, a poker-faced observer of human folly who ushered his four sons into the family business. In the early '20s, they lived in Great Neck, Long Island, the model for West Egg in The Great Gatsby, and at one point Ring was F. Scott Fitzgerald's closest friend. His boys grew up around celebrities like George M. Cohan, Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, Gene Tuney and Grantland Rice. When Ring took his sons to Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig came by to pay their respects to the great writer.

"Out of our inheritance and environment, we four brothers had certain qualities in common," wrote Ring Jr. in his terrific memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, "and observers of us, both as children and adults, were likely to comment more on the similarities than on the differences. The most striking of these were acquired from our father: intellectual curiosity with a distinctly verbal orientation, taciturnity, a lack of emotional display, an appreciation of the ridiculous. It was a matter of course that you mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing at the age of four, and by six reading books was practically a full-time occupation."

John was the brother most like his father. When he was 16, Grantland Rice introduced him to Ty Cobb. Cobb spoke and John didn't say a word. "Oh," said Cobb, "another one of these garrulous Lardners."

Still, as A.J. Liebling said, John Lardner "made his own way. As a humorist, reporter, sportswriter, and critic, he found his style -- a mixture, unlike any other, of dignity and gaiety, precision and surprise. He was a funny writer, and, though he never would have admitted it, an artist."

"Reading Lardner in the late '40s and throughout the '50s," writes Dan Jenkins in the foreword to the new collection, "was the finest creative writing class in the world."

Jenkins, Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright were part of the Fort Worth Press sports department under Blackie Sherrod in the '50s, one of the best of all-time. They carried around worn copies of Lardner's three collections of essays, and eagerly awaited Lardner's latest column each week in Newsweek. They especially cherished his leads.

"We used to fondle them, memorize them, argue about the best of them, and steal from them," writes Jenkins.

Here's a quick taste from a newspaper column:

"The career of Lou Nova, the heavyweight fighter, is divided sharply into two phases, the perpendicular and the horizontal, and there has never been a dull moment in either, to my way of thinking. I enjoyed Lou in the days when nobody could knock him off his feet, and I consider him just as wholesome and educational now, when he saves people the trouble by falling down in several directions at once for reasons which may seem unusual to lay mind but are always a tribute to his ingenuity."

Then this from Newsweek:

"When Ezzard Charles won the heavyweight championship by licking J.J. Walcott, two years ago, Ezzard's manager, Jake (Madman) Mindtz, passed out in the ring. Last July when Walcott won the title, it was Charles who fell, while Jake remained on his feet throughout. That is my idea of a perfect partnership -- always one man conscious, to count the house."

But the best of them all is the opening sentence to a True Magazine story about Stanley Ketchel, a highballing middleweight who tried the giant Jack Johnson on for size and got beat down for his efforts. With a mere 26 words, Lardner made this wild man immortal:

"Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast."

Red Smith called it "the greatest novel written in one sentence."

Lardner's writing remained pristine despite great personal suffering. His father, Ring, died at 48, and two of his brothers died young -- James, at 24 in 1938, the last American volunteer to be killed in the Spanish Civil War, and David, 25, as a war correspondent in Germany, 1944. Ring, Jr. was a member of the Hollywood Ten and blacklisted from Hollywood for close to 20 years, though he later won an Oscar for writing M*A*S*H.

Like his father, John battled health issues for much of his adult life -- tuberculosis, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. He told friends that he wouldn't outlive his old man, and he was right. John Lardner died of a heart attack three weeks before his 48th birthday.

The day that he died, John Lardner was writing an obituary for an old family friend, Franklin P. Adams, the great columnist and Algonquin wit, most famous for the poem "Tinker to Evers to Chance." Lardner went through several drafts. "F.P.A. was always a poor poker player and often a bore," he wrote before he had a heart attack that left him unconscious. His family doctor arrived, took Lardner in his arms, and said, "John, you can't die. John, you're a noble human being." Lardner looked at him and said, "Oh Lou, that sounds like a quotation." He closed his eyes and was gone.

What Lardner left behind is a lively and accomplished body of work, not a persona and that's probably the way he wanted it. As accomplished as he was until his death there is no reason not to believe that his best work lay ahead of him. Sadly, Lardner's reputation has faded with time, but if W.C. Heinz was worthy of a revival -- and he most certainly was -- so is Lardner. It's a blessing that the University of Nebraska Press still cares enough to give us a collection like this. I can only hope there is more Lardner to come (not to mention Palmer and Cannon). They could start by reprinting Lardner's incomparable boxing collection, "White Hopes and Tigers." That, and his war correspondence, "Southwest Passage." And if you get the feeling that I'm being greedy, it's because I am.

To purchase a copy of The John Lardner Reader: A Press Box Legend's Classic Sportswriting, go here.