Ringgold Wilmer Lardner died in September 1933. He was 48 years old. Tuberculosis, heart trouble and alcoholism killed him. His funeral was private. The grief was not.
He was perhaps the most popular American writer of his day. His widow was overwhelmed by condolences from the people in sports, show business and journalism whom he loved: Jerome Kern, William L. Veeck (Bill's father), Will Rogers, Herbert Bayard Swope, Eddie Collins, George S. Kaufman, Damon Runyon, Fielding Yost. Westbrook Pegler, who was at the World Series in Washington shortly after Lardner's death, organized a two-page letter to Mrs. Lardner that seems to have been signed by everyone who passed through the press box, baseball players and reporters alike.
Later that fall a piece called Ring appeared in The New Republic, written by a friend whose name evokes nostalgia for the '30s. The last paragraph reads:
"A great and good American is dead. Let us not obscure him by the flowers, but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all abraded by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to many millions he gave release and delight."
Scott Fitzgerald wrote that. He also wrote, in the same loving eulogy, these haunting lines:
"...Whatever Ring's achievement was it fell short of the achievement he was capable of.... Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy's game. A boy's game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure.
"This material...was the text of Ring's schooling during the most formative period of the mind. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond."
What beautiful words, and what wrong words. The dimensions of Lardner's accomplishments have been neglected or misunderstood for so long that he has almost passed from our consciousness. We may remember one or two of his classic lines—"You know me, Al," or, "Shut up, he explained"—but his profound influence upon American writing seems to be largely forgotten.
Perhaps, with the publication of Some Champions (Scribner's, $8.95), that situation will in some measure be corrected. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman, with an introduction by Ring Lardner Jr. (whose Lardner family history will be published later this spring), Some Champions is a collection of 26 Lardner pieces published between 1911 and 1934. Sixteen are journalism, the others are fiction; most in varying degrees are autobiographical. Taken as a whole, the collection should help restore Lardner to the reputation he deserves.
This is not to say that it is top-of-the-line Lardner; there is no Haircut here, no Golden Honeymoon. But the material in Some Champions underscores two important points: Lardner's strong grounding in, and abiding affection for, baseball, and his eventual growth beyond "the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond."
No mistaking it, Lardner was a sports fan. Even in the early '30s, looking back with a certain affectionate cynicism to the Chicago teams he followed as a young reporter, he referred to the White Sox and Cubs as "we." He remained proud to the end of the old Central League, which he covered in 1906 from South Bend, and its "athletes like Rube Marquard, Donie Bush, Dan Howley, Jack Hendricks, John Ganzel, Goat Anderson and Slow Joe Doyle, to name a few." He remembered Ed Walsh as "the most willing, tireless and self-confident hurler that ever struck terror to the hearts of his opponents."
But even as he watched in admiration, he listened with sharp ears. The results were his Busher's Letters, first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1914, in which he captured all the naive pretensions of folk ignorance—and established a model for the written expression of ordinary speech that opened new vistas for American writers. As Virginia Woolf wrote in 1925, "With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insights, [Lardner] lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us."
Bruccoli and Layman, with two previously uncollected Jack Keefe episodes, underscore that claim. Also, with a stunning stream-of-consciousness sketch called Insomnia, published two years before Lardner's death, they show us how far away from sports and into his own darkest artistic agonies he had moved late in life; it is a kind of soliloquy in which he acknowledged with harrowing honesty the despair he felt as, body and spirit failing, he tried to write stories that would make money and thus help pay the doctors and nurses.
He died before he found out what he could finally be. What he was, as this fine book suggests, was quite enough in itself.