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Jonathan Yardley discusses his book about Ring Lardner

BROADCAST: Sep. 15, 1977 | DURATION: 00:50:28


Terkel interviews author Jonathan Yardley on his latest book. This book titled "Ring" is a biography of the sports writer columnist Ring Lardner.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel It's only in recent years, I think, that Ring Lardner popularly has been accepted as one of the major American writers, someone who understands--perhaps not. We'll come to that with my guest Jonathan Yardley, he's written a very endearing and revealing biography of Ring Lardner called simply "Ring", Random House the publishers. Mr. Yardley is a really excellent book editor and literary critic, "Miami News", but also freelances and this is a labor of love, obviously, and it's a--the audience knows that I love Lardner and will read Lardner stories on the air a lot and, so, it's a study of Lardner and his frailties and his giftedness and perhaps the role in American letters, in American life, and the program in a moment after this message.

Jonathan Yardley "It is an August afternoon in 1910 and the correspondent of 'The Chicago Tribune' is sitting in the press box at Comiskey Park. The stadium, a grand construction of steel and concrete, has been open for only two months, and the smell of newness is still in the air. Below the correspondent, on the green field defined as a diamond by brief swatches of brown and sharp lines of white, the game of baseball proceeds at a swift, yet stately pace. The sun slowly falls as the afternoon advances and the shadows steadily lengthen, but there is no score, and the innings march past. The correspondent watches intently. He is, as the young woman he will marry a year from now describes him, a very large, handsome young man who holds his head very high in the air and looks at the world with very amused and twinkling eyes. He dresses rather sternly in the fashion of the day: dark suit, dark knit tie, high stitched starched collar, dark-banded straw boater, the darkness relieved only by the bright stripes of his shirt. As he watches the game, he keeps meticulous score in a small, neat script. In the ceaseless chatter of the press box, he is an oasis of silence. He delights in the noise around him, but only occasionally contributes to it, and then in a low, deliberate voice one must strain to hear through the din. He is only 25 years old, but he is as much a professional in his craft as the players before him are in theirs."

Studs Terkel Jonathan Yardley reading the opening passages of his biography, "Ring". It's funny how that opening sets the scene, it sets the time and the man, doesn't it,

Jonathan Yardley Yeah, well, I'll tell you, I took a calculated risk in that opening chapter, Studs. It seems to me that Lardner, that the role of baseball in Lardner's life had always been deprecated. It's not fashionable in academic circles to treat sports as a serious cultural literary or social influence, but it seemed to me, we talk about Ring Lardner, no matter what he did after he left baseball, it all began with baseball, and to understand him you had to set what Chicago baseball was like, what--not just the game, how the game was played, but the kind of people who played it, the kind of people who watched it, and to some extent the kind of world in which it was played.

Studs Terkel It was in that--we'll come to Fitzgerald's comment about Lardner and the world, the diamond being his world, he was--

Jonathan Yardley He said that his, Fitzgerald, who loved Lardner, nonetheless said in a wonderful obituary notice that his life was contained by the confines of Frank Chance's diamond. It's a lovely phrase, but it's not true.

Studs Terkel Yeah, but there's something else here, that baseball itself as you point out and as Lardner probably understood intuitively, was a microcosm in that was, the diamond was the microcosm of the whole society.

Jonathan Yardley Well, you know, one of the most stunning comments that was ever made about Lardner was made by Virginia Woolf in 1925, when she was reading the "You Know Me Al" stories and she was in England and she knew nothing about baseball and she knew nothing about this strange vernacular language that Lardner was writing, but she understood that Lardner perceived games as a meeting place for this diverse American society. And I don't think he perceived it in a conscious way, he was an intuitive man and I just think that he found in baseball a way in which he could describe a larger world.

Studs Terkel Here's something interesting. Virginia Woolf, the distinguished British writer, essayist, critic, recognized in Lardner stories about a busher, a guy named Jack Keefe, "You Know Me Al", a piece of literature that reflects America, the argot, the language and the psyche. I was nine years--my two brothers gave me a copy of "You Know Me Al", and I think I was nine years old in 1921, I figure, '21 I think it was, and I--so here's the beauty of Lardner, I may in a way--I'm not saying he's Mark Twain, but the appeal. It appealed to me so much! I liked, I got to know baseball as a kid, but was funny. The extravagances of this semi-literate ballplayer, his boasting, and I got a tremendous kick out of it, but so did Virginia Woolf!

Jonathan Yardley That's right. Yeah, she said in one of those extravagances that book reviewers are prone to, that it was "the best writing that has come our way." An extraordinary statement, but I think what she was really saying was that it was, what made it so good was that it was so true. You know, he had that incredible ear. He'd sit there in the dugout or the press box or the Pullman car, and he didn't talk much, but he listened all the time and with his extraordinary fidelity he put it down on paper the way these very ordinary, everyday Americans were talking.

Studs Terkel Now we come to something: his ear,

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel He was the first to really capture the idiomatic

Jonathan Yardley Absolutely. You know, if you go back now and read Mark Twain, great though Twain was, the dialogue is stilted. It is not the way people talk. There are too many apostrophes, too many contractions. It's a strained effort to achieve something called folk diction, but Lardner simply listened and without any artifice just said, "This is the way we talk."

Studs Terkel Yeah. He is. You quote him here somewhere: "Maybe it's true that my hearing is keener than my other senses. You play a chord on the piano"--oh, by the way, he was very good musically, he had pitch, didn't he?. So here again the ear. "You play a chord on the piano, I can tell what key it's in even if I happen to be several rooms away. Musicians tell me it's a pretty rare faculty." They call him the "perfect ear." Well, just as he had the ear for music, he had the ear for the lingo.

Jonathan Yardley Exactly. And I--You know, I think that if he had a problem, and he had several problems as a writer, but if there was something that kept him from going on to the kind of heights of accomplishment that some thought he could reach, I think it was because it came so easily to him. He heard it all and he could set it down with so little effort that it probably never occurred to him to do that kind of gut-wrenching that at least is supposedly the writer's lot.

Studs Terkel That's, I think somewhere he tells about how he wrote, that his stuff was always--now we come to something interesting, his stuff was always not long, limited, as far as words are concerned. The short story--

Jonathan Yardley He was a writer for the short run.

Studs Terkel And I guess one of the poignant aspects is that people say, "Oh, Lardner never really wrote the great American novel of which he was capable," in fact his marvelous agent Maxwell Perkins said, "But they realized that that wasn't his world."

Jonathan Yardley That was--it seems to me that there is nothing dishonorable in being a brilliant miniaturist, which is what he was. A brilliant short story writer, a brilliant journalist, a brilliant writer of little nonsense plays, but it seems to me that the notion that he somehow failed a test by not writing a novel is setting him up against standards that are not pertinent to the main.

Studs Terkel And not only did he capture the ballplayer as he would, he demythologized the player.

Jonathan Yardley That's right.

Studs Terkel That's

Jonathan Yardley That's right. It's very fashionable now in sporting circles to, it's fashionable for athletes to tell you quote "Like it is" from the locker room, and it's fashionable for sportswriters to debunk athletes, but in those days athletes were heroes. There's a wonderful story that I found in an old scholarly magazine, of all places, about the 1906 White Sox. They were on tour after that incredible upset of the Cubs in the World Series, and they came to some little town in Wisconsin and the train rolled in, and a little boy sitting up on his father's shoulders watched this parade of athletes for a while, and he finally turned to his father and said, "Why, they're only men."

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Jonathan Yardley And that was that--they were gods in those days! And Lardner was the--it's not that he said they're all liars, bums, cheats, alcoholics, wastrels, or whatever. He said they were ordinary human beings, and that's what makes Jack Keefe so attractive, is just--he's a person.

Studs Terkel He's a person. Also Jack Keefe--this could be modeled after any number, we don't know.

Jonathan Yardley And Lardner loved keeping that a secret.

Studs Terkel As some say, you imply might be Ping Bodie.

Jonathan Yardley Well, let me see if I can

Studs Terkel Some say it might have been Nick Altrock, one of the third Sox pitcher.

Jonathan Yardley Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel Nineteen sixteen.

Jonathan Yardley Oh, yes. Lardner finally decided to put all the speculation of the true source of Jack Keefe to rest, and he didn't as follows: "The writer has been asked frequently, or perhaps not very often after all, two vital questions regarding the letters published in this book. One, are they actual letters or copies of actual letters, and two, who was the original Jack Keefe? The first question seemed highly complimentary until you thought it over and realized that no one with good sense could have asked it. Some of the letters run as long as a thousand words, and there is only one person in the world who writes letters of that length. She is a sister-in-law of mine living in Indianapolis, and when she sits down to write a letter, she holds nothing back, but she is a Phi Beta and incapable of the mistakes in spelling and grammar that unfortunately have crept into this volume. As for the other question, I have heretofore declined to reply to it, as a reply would have stopped the boys and girls from guessing, and their guesses have given me many a thrill. But now there are no ballplayers left whom they haven't guessed from Noah to Bucky Harris, and I may as well give the correct answer. The original of Jack Keefe is not a ballplayer at all, but Jane Addams of Hull House, a former Follies girl."

Studs Terkel Another thing, Lardner later on after becoming known and becoming a writer of stories in New York, he did his crazy wild nonsense.

Jonathan Yardley Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel That's Jane Addams, an ex-Follies girl.

Jonathan Yardley Yes, yes. He--for some reason, Jane Addams was one of his, one of the names he loved to drop in whenever he wanted a startling incongruity.

Studs Terkel But he also, see, just as he spoke of certain illiterate ballplayers who became heroes, they were very human and very funny. Also, there was--there were guys he knew who were quite intelligent. Frank Schulte and--so it's all--they were humans, but we can't--we'd be remiss if we didn't read a piece of [Tomaham?], a piece of

Jonathan Yardley Oh, go to it.

Studs Terkel So this is Jack Keefe the pitcher, who is fantastic, but almost like "Alibi Ike."

Jonathan Yardley That's right. This is one of

Studs Terkel "This should ought've gave me a record of 16 wins and 0 defeats, because the only games I lost was throwed away behind me, but instead of that my record is ten games and it's"--oh is numerically spelled--"Ten games win and six defeats and that don't include the games I finished up and helped the other boys win, which is about six more altogether. What do I care about my record, Al?" In letters to his friend.

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel "Because I'm not the kind of man that is always thinking about their record and playing for their record while I'm satisfied if I give the club the best I got and if I win all, OK, and if I lose, whose fault is it? Not mine, Al."

Jonathan Yardley "Not mine,

Studs Terkel And then he also covers the fans. And now we come, just as he covered the ballplayers, who were the fans? And he captures a certain moment, does he not, in a country that's growing, and people come into the cities, aspiration and grabbiness and status climbing and everything.

Jonathan Yardley He walks the fans with a kind of friendly skepticism. I mean, oh, yes, he--fans were called "bugs" in those days. And he's the know-it-all. He says that "The man who is on intimate terms with the ballplayers, who calls at their hotel and takes them out in his machine, goes to the station with them to see them off, gets letters from them occasionally, and knows they are just real people, isn't the real "fan" or "bug," even if he does have to pay to get into the park. The real article is the man who knows most of the players by sight, as they appear on the field, but wouldn't know more than one or two of them if he saw them on the street, struggles hard to keep an accurate score and makes a mistake on every other play, or doesn't attempt to score at all, disputes every statement made by his neighbors in the bleachers whether he knows anything about said statement or not, heaps imprecations on the umpire and the manager, thinks something is a bonehead play when it really is good, clever baseball, talks fluently about Mathewson's "inshoot," believes that Hank O'Day has it in for the home team and is purposely making bad decisions, and says, "Bransfield is going to bat for Moore" when Walsh is sent in to hit for Chalmers. He doesn't know it all, but he's happy. He is perfectly satisfied when the folks around him believe what he says, and sometimes he almost gets to believing in it himself. He's having a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, if his team wins. If it doesn't, he knows just why and can tell his wife, his brother or his pal, that evening, how the tables could have been turned if only Manager Tenney had used a little judgment." And it hasn't changed a bit. I was in Fenway Park recently and I had some real Boston fans sitting around me and I kept thinking of Lardner and laughing. As a matter of fact, he wrote that when he was the sports editor of "The Boston American", and I thought Boston hasn't changed at all.

Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking. Lardner was a man of a certain time.

Jonathan Yardley Absolutely.

Studs Terkel The country was new, world war, a sort of innocence; just about to lose it.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah. He was born in Niles, Michigan in 1885. And by the time World War II was over, he was in his mid-30s.

Studs Terkel World

Jonathan Yardley World War I, sorry. And, really, his life was--well, there's a passage of Yardley I'll read that I kind of like that describes--

Studs Terkel We're talking to Jonathan Yardley--

Jonathan Yardley Describes what happened--

Studs Terkel And it's his biography of Lardner, "Ring".

Jonathan Yardley When he goes off into his, the beginning of his journalistic career in 1907 in South Bend, I say as he's leaving Niles, I say "It was a beginning but inevitably it was also an end. Ring would return to Niles over and over in the years to come and he would write about it with unflagging affection. But he would never again truly be a part of it. The regularity and insularity of life in a small town are such that once one breaks away from its daily rhythms, a permanent severance is affected. But more than Niles was coming to a close for Ring. A way of life was ending: the gentler life of turn-of-the-century upper-class America. It was a life shaded by parasols, a life lived to the peaceful pace of a paddle wheel steamer idly entering its way across a lake, a life frozen brightly on a wall by the lamp of a Magic Lantern. Ellis Abbott, his fiancee, knew that life as well as Ring did. One spring evening in 1910 she wrote him a letter which, in a few words casually and hastily set down, somehow summarizes everything that was vanishing. 'Helen and I went on a nice little bat this afternoon. We took a book, a box of strawberries and some sugar and walked way out in the woods down by the river. Then Helen read out loud while I ate strawberries. Everything is beautiful and green. '" Well, you know, Studs, after the war was over, that was all gone.

Studs Terkel There's something about Lardner that's very interesting. He's obviously a complex man and a man out of his time after World War.

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel You have a sequence here, a long sequence of exchange of letters with Ellis Abbott, who became his wife and the mother of those four remarkable sons. That, the letters, it's almost of another time. There's an air of innocence and sweetness, yet the guy had this marvelous acrid approach to life, too, as he demonstrates in some of the

Jonathan Yardley Well, you know he was really a romantic, and not in the Fitzgerald sense, he wasn't a romantic figure himself. It's kind of hard, as a matter of fact, to sit around and tell Lardner anecdotes, because there really aren't that many of them. But he grew up in a romantic age, he had, I think, a rather romantic view of life, and I think that much of what in his stories is taken as bitterness is really Lardner the romantic coming up against the shock of post-World War I life and not knowing really quite how to deal with it.

Studs Terkel Because there's the Puritan Lardner here.

Jonathan Yardley That's right. A true Puritan.

Studs Terkel That is quite astonishing. When he did some stuff in "New Yorker" later

Jonathan Yardley That's right. There were song lyrics with the songs with titles like "As You Desire Me", really innocuous things, but he just went off on a tear in the pages of "The New Yorker" saying that this was almost pornography. And--well, go ahead.

Studs Terkel No, I was thinking just last night, I'm talking to Jonathan Yardley, last I heard Jimmy McPartland, a jazz man I love--

Jonathan Yardley Me, too.

Studs Terkel And Buddy Tate playing, and they singing an old ballad, it's called "All of Me", and I was thinking, I knew you were coming in today and I was thinking of Lardner, if he heard the song, "Why don't you take all of me," he'd have considered that, I'm sure, pornographic.

Jonathan Yardley Oh, abso--no question about it.

Studs Terkel So we come to Lardner now and the conflict in him, that marvelous approach that is to seeing frailties and foibles in people as well as trying to defend those who were attacked.

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel You know, in many of his short stories he's defending those who are the underdogs.

Jonathan Yardley Yes, absolutely.

Studs Terkel And he hated the bullies and the phonies. At the same time, he can't understand these times, so we come to another aspect of Lardner, the dark aspect, the fact that he is quite, the drinking.

Jonathan Yardley Well, I--there are, I suppose there are a number or as many theories about why a person becomes an alcoholic as there are people who think about the subject. My feeling about it is that it's essentially psychological. He was a shy, reticent, withdrawn man. He came from an aristocratic background, he'd been sheltered from the quote "real world" as a child. I think he began to drink quite early. He obviously liked the taste of it, he drank beer at first but eventually turned to bourbon. It opened him up. It made it easier for him to talk, it made him more relaxed in an uncomfortable social situation. And then he came into the world of Chicago journalism, where you, really, drinking came with the job. And I'm not saying that lightly, it was expected that everybody spent their time, I think it was Stillson's saloon down in the Loop. And after a while I think it's just predictable that given his psychological need for release and the situation he was in, he was almost bound to become an alcoholic.

Studs Terkel And add to that later the fact that he became so celebrated, perhaps the most celebrated writer, one of the most successful--

Jonathan Yardley Oh, I think easily, of his age.

Studs Terkel And the center of attention, and that some of these parties were near where he lived, some of these--

Jonathan Yardley Out on Long Island,

Studs Terkel Quote unquote, "beautiful people" parties that Fitzgerald writes about.

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel Here is a shy guy. The center of attention. So again the booze, perhaps, has a--

Jonathan Yardley That's right. The booze would give him the courage to get up and go play the piano, for example.

Studs Terkel I like what you say here somewhere about how he's become a drunk, how he did--this is Yardley writing, somewhere here about--"Certainly alcoholism is a disease and Ring was thoroughly afflicted with it, but it is by and large a disease one catches for psychological reasons. If liquor brought out the light in Ring, if it made him gregarious, companionable and relaxed, it also gave comfort to the dark in him. He was not a bitter or hateful man but, indeed, a troubled man." And I suppose the guy was, his sensitivity, his sensibilities were so sharpened--

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel With a world that he not quite fully understood.

Jonathan Yardley And I think that it's probably quite true that given those incredible sensitive sensibilities, that liquor could also dull them. I think it's--

Studs Terkel Now we come to that

Jonathan Yardley It's a little bit risky to get into this kind of speculation, but I think that it must have made life more comfortable for him, that there were things he saw that he really didn't like, that pained him, and that it's a nice way to escape them.

Studs Terkel I wonder how it did affect, by the way, the writing. Probably for the worse. I mean, we--you know the old story about the artist and booze and jazzmen, of course, are authorities on this, booze and funny cigarettes, you know.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah.

Studs Terkel And they have the impression they're doing great, and of course they're horrible.

Jonathan Yardley Well, you know, it's funny, Studs, I came to the point where this book was just about to go into, to be bound, and I realized that the one thing I had, the one important thing that I had, to my own knowledge hadn't talked about, was how alcoholism affected Lardner's writing, and there is a comment that he made somewhere that I had intended to quote to the effect that he never wrote when he had been drinking, and Ring Lardner, Jr. in his book about the family, which is I might say a wonderful book, he substantiates that, too, so, and he had a funny drinking pattern. He would drink for long periods and then go on the wagon for long periods, and I think he was most productive, obviously, when he was off--or on the wagon.

Studs Terkel Another theory: it's, these thoughts are evoked by the reading of Jonathan Yardley's book, "Ring", is that since the world was changing so much, the jazz age, even though Lardner drank, he was shocked, I'm sure, by the flappers and the hip flask and what he considered promiscuity among guys and girls

Jonathan Yardley I think he was also offended by the hypocrisy of Prohibition.

Studs Terkel And the hypocrisy, of course, of [unintelligible], then, but his--you said the ideal is almost a frank--even though he was brilliant in insights as to human beings and people in America of a time, he's still the idealist and romantic, so he was so stunned by the Black Sox scandal of--when the White Sox threw the World Series in 1919, players whom he admired, now that probably added to his trauma.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah, and it just happened that that occurred almost within a month of his first encounter with Prohibition, and it must have been a very disillusioning summer. He was out in Toledo covering the Dempsey-Willard fight, and Prohibition took effect in Ohio before just before the fight. But the next morning, liquor was there just as easily as ever, and he, I think he must have realized, hey, you know, we're establishing, we're imposing a law on ourselves and we're not going to obey it. And then a couple of months later, his friend Eddie Cicotte comes out and throws the first game of the World Series, and he knew it.

Studs Terkel You know, we used to call him Ci-kotic, well, it is Cicotte.

Jonathan Yardley Well, there's a funny poem somewhere in there that Lardner wrote about the ways he pronounced his name.

Studs Terkel Well, perhaps Lardner doing that take-off on "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", because it's biting and

Jonathan Yardley "I'm Forever Blowing Ballgames", let's see.

Studs Terkel For those who, in case there are some, there are a good number of non-baseball fans, people who are not following, there was a remarkable and traumatic period in the history of American organized baseball when the greatest team, perhaps ever on the field, that couldn't be beaten, the Chicago White Sox of 1919, overwhelming favorites, threw, eight players sold out to gamblers and threw the World Series, and this was a tremendous shock to learn.

Jonathan Yardley And as the story goes, as I have been able, best able to piece it together with the considerable help of Eliot Asinof's excellent book, "Eight Men Out", after the first game Ring and a couple of other journalists wrote this little parody of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", which went, "I'm forever blowing ballgames, pretty ballgames in the air. I come from Chi, I hardly try. Just go to bat and fade and die. Fortune's coming my way. That's why I don't care. I'm forever blowing ballgames for the gamblers. Treat me fair." Devastating.

Studs Terkel It was devastating, but also to him, I suppose, terribly disillusioning. He never was much interested in baseball after that, was

Jonathan Yardley Well, he'd been losing interest in it over the previous five or six years. The wake of the news columns he was writing for the "Tribune" in that period drift farther and farther away from sports all the time, but these were his friends, these White Sox, Cicotte in particular, and his friend Kid Gleason was the manager and his friend Charles Comiskey was the owner, and this was the game that he really had in effect staked his life in, in certain emotional ways, and it was all corrupted.

Studs Terkel If Lardner as a man, though, in essence could be faulted here, that is, he admired Comiskey, and he admired the owners very much, and these owners by God, he was, and we have to face this reality, he was something of

Jonathan Yardley Yes, I don't find that among his more attractive traits. As a matter of fact, I've tried to think how he might feel about the trends--

Studs Terkel Today, yeah.

Jonathan Yardley I think that he would probably be so disenchanted with the way the owners are running the game that he probably would, you know, he'd see the amount of money coming in. I think he might be--I don't think he'd like the way some of the players are behaving, but I think that he would feel that in pushing for more money they're getting what's coming to

Studs Terkel So the fact is, Comiskey, who was a friend of Lardner, and I admire Lardner very much indeed and his sons very much, but he--Comiskey was a cheap guy.

Jonathan Yardley That's right. He was--

Studs Terkel And he underpaid these guys and he really--

Jonathan Yardley There is some feeling that if he had if he had been more sensible and even-handed in salaries that the players might not have felt--

Studs Terkel Might not have. By the way, another thing about that time, before we take a break, I think of that time, I want to ask you about players Lardner admired, and there's a marvelous old player talking about one he admired, that the players, the time, baseball and that time, they came from the mi-- you know, this is days before Black players were organized and before Latino players, and they came from the mines in the country and the rural communities, they were still almost, it was primarily a rural country,

Jonathan Yardley Right, and it was even much more so than now. It was a country boy's game, it was played in the cities, but even the parks had a kind of countrified atmosphere, and when Ring came into it, the parks were really quite small ramshackle affairs, it was during the years that he was covering baseball that most of the famous old parks were built. Comiskey Park in 1910, for example, Fenway in 1912. One thing that I think would please Ring a lot is that Comiskey and Wrigley are still around and still being played in.

Studs Terkel The

Jonathan Yardley The parks, yeah.

Studs Terkel And I wonder what he would have felt about night baseball.

Jonathan Yardley I think that he would have shrugged his shoulders at it.

Studs Terkel Or Astroturf, or--

Jonathan Yardley That he would have hated. And I think he would've hated the designated hitter.

Studs Terkel And the designated hitter--'cause we're talking about, a certain--a game that can't--came out of the soil, in a way, you

Jonathan Yardley And it didn't need to be tinkered with. It was good enough as it was, and of course you know he hated the rabbit ball.

Studs Terkel And the rabbit ball. Oh, yeah, of course, he liked the idea of, oh, we'll come to that, those tight pitchers' [battles?] and anyone could slap a ball out of the park at, of course--

Jonathan Yardley Strategic baseball.

Studs Terkel Strategic baseball, the bunt and the hit and run, and again, the nuances. We'll come to the other aspect of Lardner's life, moving out East and his short stories and his humor and the mordant aspect, too, of Lardner, this very endearing and quite revealing memoir--biography, of Ring Lardner by Jonathan Yardley, a biography of Ring Lardner called, simply called that, "Ring", Random House the publishers, and we'll resume in a moment after this message. Resuming the conversation with Jonathan Yardley about one of the key figures in American lit, certainly is, you say he's a key figure, even though consider a miniaturist.

Jonathan Yardley A, I think in terms of his own accomplishments, the amount of his work that will endure, Lardner has got to be realistically assessed as a minor figure. In terms of his influence, the way he opened up the vernacular American language for other writers in terms of the other writers who read him, people like Hemingway, O'Hara, Nathanael West, Ferrell--

Studs Terkel Fitzgerald.

Jonathan Yardley Fitzgerald. These people I think in large measure if we write what H. L. Mencken called the American language now--

Studs Terkel Just

Jonathan Yardley If we write it as the American language in large measure it's because of Lardner and what he did. Mencken made extravagant claims on Lardner's behalf. Yeah, he inscribed a second edition of "The American Language" to Ring, "To my esteemed colleague, the eminent philologist, Ring W. Lardner, Esquire, with respectful salutations," and then in a preface to that volume, he and George Jean Nathan wrote, "In his grotesque tales of baseball players so immediately and so deservedly successful, Lardner reports the common speech not only with humor but with the utmost accuracy. His writings are a mine of authentic American, his service to etymology incomparable," and I think that's a fair assessment.

Studs Terkel By the way, that's--H. L. Mencken, about the authenticity, the ear, now and then someone says that they bracket Lardner and Damon Runyon. Well, it doesn't apply, because Runyon specifically was doing a stylized, highly stylized caricature, was very funny, of course, writing of the half-world of the gamblers and the hoods, but Lardner was authentic. The actual speech patterns.

Jonathan Yardley That's right. Yeah. There was, Lardner didn't put Lardner between the story and the reader. He simply reported it, and that may be one of the reasons why he never went on to be the quote "great novelist" that some thought he could be, because he was not an intellectual, he had no, I think, great themes to explore, he was simply reporting, whether as a journalist or as a short story writer, life as he saw

Studs Terkel He always thought of himself as a journalist.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah, and he was, he was never comfortable in literary surroundings. He, with the important exception of Scott Fitzgerald, his friends were guys like Hugh Fullerton and Grantland Rice and Charlie Dryden, old-time and then later--

Studs Terkel Sportswriters.

Jonathan Yardley Sportswriters, and very few journalists outside of the sports section were close friends of his. This was his world.

Studs Terkel Thinking of Lardner and baseball, because we return to that, it's a recurrent theme, even though he left that world later, we hear today about, you know, by God, you've got to go and--well, Spikes High, that was Ty Cobb. I assume he was not an admirer of Cobb the man or Cobb the player.

Jonathan Yardley No, he--you can read the stuff he wrote about Cobb, particularly when Ring himself was quite young and you can see him straining to portray Cobb in the received image of the athlete as good guy, but he was really working at it, and it didn't come across. Cobb was a horrible, horrible man. And it's, you know, it's been written about so much that I don't risk libel in saying he was a racist, he was a psychopath, he

Studs Terkel And he admits all that, of course. Cobb himself, were he alive, would have admitted, he did while alive admit all that. To win was all that counted.

Jonathan Yardley That's right. But he corrected all the flaws in his game. When he came in, he was a fast base runner, but he wasn't a smart one, but he wanted to be the best, and so he taught himself the science of running the bases, and that's what Lardner admired, this infinite capacity for self-improvement.

Studs Terkel Of course, craftsmanship. See, Lardner the craftsman.

Jonathan Yardley That's what he

Studs Terkel liked. Craftsman.

Jonathan Yardley That's what he most admired, and the other player who was at the top of his list, Christy Mathewson.

Studs Terkel Now we come to Christy Mathewson, a remarkable Giant pitcher. I imagine he and I'm sure he admired Walter Johnson, too.

Jonathan Yardley Yes.

Studs Terkel 'Cause both were--how would you put it? I was almost about to say Frank Merriwell figures.

Jonathan Yardley Well, they were gentlemen, but they were also competitors.

Studs Terkel But also Mathewson never sought to bean anybody--we'll hear today about "Let's brush him back," or "Let's hit him"--and as though that were a good.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah, well--

Studs Terkel I'm thinking so, they didn't have to do that.

Jonathan Yardley Johnson, too, was afraid of pitching at his hardest, because he was afraid he would hurt someone.

Studs Terkel Let's call upon the book and the records of Lawrence Ritter and that beautiful book, "Glory of Their Times".

Jonathan Yardley Oh, that's one of the loveliest--not just a book about baseball, but one of the loveliest books about old America we have.

Studs Terkel That's what it is, and he has old-time players in the book talking and Ritter also got their voices on tape. And this is the old-time players like Sam Crawford the Tiger outfielder, and Fred Snodgrass, Rube Marquard the old Giant pitcher, Eddie Roush the Cincinnati outfielder, and Goose Goslin, and here's Chief Meyers, who was an American Indian and he's talking about the man he caught, Mathewson.

Jonathan Yardley Yes.

Studs Terkel The friend of Lardner.

Chief Meyers Now take, for instance, Mathewson. I don't think he ever walked a man. That is, from being wild, that is, no control. I don't believe he ever walked a man in his life. The only time he ever walked anybody was expedience, pitching too fine to him, you know, not letting him get a good ball. But there was never a time that he couldn't throw that ball over to the plate.

Lawrence Ritter Who called the game, Mathewson or you?

Chief Meyers I call it, but if you don't feel right about it, why he shakes his head.

Lawrence Ritter Did he often shake you off?

Chief Meyers No. Man, he never shook me off.

Lawrence Ritter What was he like as a person?

Chief Meyers Wonderful character. Lovely character. Gentle in every way. If you made an error or anything behind him or anything of that sort, he'd come and pat you on the back and say, you know. We loved to play for him. We'd break our necks for that guy.

Lawrence Ritter I understood he was a very, very good checker player.

Chief Meyers Oh, see, that's what made him a great pitcher. His wonderful retentive memory. Any time you hit a ball hard off of him, you never got another one there. Those fellas back there, they used their head in baseball a whole lot.

Studs Terkel I thinking as Chief Meyers the old catcher recalls, I suppose the word here he says, he's gentle.

Jonathan Yardley Yes. And incidentally, you know, Mathewson is one of the fascinating figures in baseball history and would be the, a likely subject for an interesting book himself. He went to Bucknell at a time when baseball, professional baseball players were almost never college-educated. He was, the pictures of Mathewson are extraordinary. I think he really may have been the handsomest man ever to play the game. Just an absolutely fascinating riveting sort of face, and during World War II--World War I, I'm caught on that again. He was in Europe in some way and got gassed and as a consequence of it contracted tuberculosis and died in 1924 or '25, and Ring's affection for Mathewson was so great that he agreed to become the publicity chairman for a fund to raise a memorial in Mathewson's honor, and Ring did not do that sort of thing as a rule.

Studs Terkel But that liking, leaning toward the gentle person, as and being offended in trying to reply to the bully is apparent now in the stories.

Jonathan Yardley Yes.

Studs Terkel He came to write after he left Chicago.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah. Well, I suppose the most famous of the stories in which that theme occurs is "Champion". It's really not a very good short story. It was told in the third person, and Ring wasn't comfortable writing in the third person. It's a very sentimental story, but it--at the time it was published it had enormous popular impact, because it portrayed the boxing champion not as a hero but as an incredibly cruel, detestable bum picking on everyone from a crippled brother to his wife to his mother, and it seemed at the time a lot more of a slice of realism than it really is.

Studs Terkel Because here you point out some of the weakness in that "Champion" was not one of his best stories because now he was the moralist.

Jonathan Yardley That's right.

Studs Terkel He was the omniscient.

Jonathan Yardley He was not comfortable being a moralist.

Studs Terkel He was the preacher. He was the preacher here,

Jonathan Yardley It was--he was much more successful at letting people through their own words dig their own graves than he was in telling the reader in his words what was happening.

Studs Terkel And so in "Haircut" the barber--

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel The barber got a kick out of this town, this village bully--

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel Who finally is killed by the retarded kid for humiliating that--

Jonathan Yardley The schoolteacher, yeah.

Studs Terkel The schoolteacher. And the barber, though, like--and the barber is telling about himself and--

Jonathan Yardley That's right. He's showing his own insensitivity and smallness.

Studs Terkel Of course, the one you like the best I'm delighted to hear, because I read this a couple of times on the air, is the exchange of letters between Al (sic) Lewis and Mabelle Gillespie.

Jonathan Yardley Yes, that's--

Studs Terkel And "Some Like Them Cold".

Jonathan Yardley Oh, what a great story that is. Incidentally, I gather that that was made into a play by Lardner and George Kaufman called "June Moon", and I gather that's going to be revived in Chicago

Studs Terkel I hope they will. I saw "June Moon". No, there was a film made of it with Jack Oakie. Oakie played in the

Jonathan Yardley Yes. Right.

Studs Terkel And but in the play it was Foster. What was his name? Not

Jonathan Yardley Norman Foster.

Studs Terkel Norman Foster.

Jonathan Yardley He was Claudette Colbert's husband.

Studs Terkel And Norman Fo--and in the play the song--very funny. The movie was funny, too, but here's Al, he meets the girl at the depot, and he's "Well, girlie," he's going to go to New York and make it big as a song--"Well, girlie, I'm a write you again once in a while as Betsy says. She don't give a damn if I write." This is toward the end and this is so funny. The sister-in-law is, puts on all kinds of paint and makeup and spends money, doesn't care, and he's, he don't like those kind of girls and she meantime writes how she's a homebody, loves to cook and furniture, and finally he's going to marry Betsy, it's a farewell letter, "and so I may write toward the end," the girl is just disillusioned, "Well, girlie, I'm a write you again once in a while, as Betsy says, she don't give a damn if I write to all the girls in the world, just so I don't make them read the answers. But that is all I can think of to say now except goodbye and good luck and may the right man come along soon. And he'll be a lucky man getting a girl that's such a good cook and get all that furniture that's sent," so forth.

Jonathan Yardley And then, but then--

Studs Terkel Read her reply.

Jonathan Yardley And then she comes back

Studs Terkel You gotta read the reply.

Jonathan Yardley "Thanks for your advice and also thank your fiancee for her generosity in allowing you to continue your correspondence with her rivals. But personally I have no desire to take advantage of that generosity as I have something better to do than read letters from a man like you. Especially as I have a man friend who is not so generous as Miss Sears and would strongly object to my continuing a correspondence with another man. It is at his request that I am writing this note to tell you not to expect to hear from me again. Allow me to congratulate you on your engagement to Miss Sears, and I am sure she is to be congratulated, too, though if I met the lady I would be tempted to ask her to tell me her secret, namely how she is going to quote "run wild" on sixty dollars." Which is what he was earning.

Studs Terkel Rather.

Jonathan Yardley It just says so much about both of them, about how small they are

Studs Terkel More how sad and funny and pathetic,

Jonathan Yardley It is not, it's not a cynical portrait of them, it's very, very compassionate, they have this chance with each other and they blow it.

Studs Terkel That and even, oh, "Golden Honeymoon", a rather boring old man is recounting the trip he and his wife took to, I think it was Sarasota, to Florida, and it's golden honeymoon, and yet even there, I suppose his capacity to take something that is a banal situation and give it a sort of meaning insight into the characters.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah. Well, another one that I'm very fond of, which he wrote while he was still working on "The Wake of the News" is the story, I'm flipping through here, oh, yes, "Gullible's Travels", and they go--Mr. and Mrs. Gullible from Chicago, with all sorts of pretensions, go down

Studs Terkel Oh, this

Jonathan Yardley Went down to, go down to Palm Beach. And they are, as they see, as they say it, the society bugs has caught them. As Joe says, "We ain't swelled on ourselves"--I'm sorry, this is what the missus tells Joe, "We ain't swelled on ourself, but you know and I know that the friends we've been associating with ain't in our class. They don't know how to dress and they can't talk about nothing but their goldfish and their meat bills. They don't try to get nowheres, but all they do is play rummy and take in the Majestic." They decide to go down to Palm Beach so "We'd be staying under the same roof with the Vanderbilts and Goulds, and eating at the same table and probably before we was there a week calling them Steve and Gus." And what they are most anxious to do is meet the famous Mrs. Potter from Chicago, and this is what happens: "We'd went up in our room after lunch. I was tired out and the missus was discouraged. We'd set 'round for over an hour not saying or doing nothing. I wanted to talk about the chance of us getting away the next morning, but I didn't dare bring up the subject. The missus complained of it being hot and opened the door to leave the breeze go through. She was setting in a chair near the doorway pretending to read the "Palm Beach News". All of a sudden she jumped up and kind of hissed at me. "What's the matter?" I says, springing from the lounge. "Come here," she says and went out the door into the hall. I got there as fast as I could, thinking it was a rat or a fire. But the missus just pointed out to a lady walking away from us, six or seven doors down. "It's Mrs. Potter," she says. "The Mrs. Potter from Chicago." "Oh," I says, putting all the excitement I could into my voice, and I was just starting back into the room when I seen Mrs. Potter stop and turn round and come toward us. She stopped again maybe 20 feet from where the missus was standing. "Are you on this floor?" she says. The missus shook like a leaf. "Yes," says she, so low you couldn't hardly hear her. "Please see that there's some towels put in five-five-nine," says the Mrs. Potter from Chicago.

Studs Terkel Of course, that is devastating.

Jonathan Yardley Devastating.

Studs Terkel Yeah, here, of course. The pretension, the seeking, wow, the ultimate put-down.

Jonathan Yardley And of course Joe, going along with his wife on all of this and yet knowing essentially how foolish it

Studs Terkel Yeah, he went along, 'cause she was a social climber.

Jonathan Yardley And eventually, the missus learns, too, and they come back sadder but wiser.

Studs Terkel You know something, it's funny, it just occurred to me. I think of Maggie and Jiggs right now for some reason, because here it was a second generation Irish immigrants coming here and he made a couple of bucks, as Joe did, and now she's a social climber, and Jiggs realized that all the time. In a sense, not that this is a cartoon, this is on the button, at the same time reflective of that time.

Jonathan Yardley That's right. That's right. And of course, this was written at that time when the lower and middle classes were beginning at last to come into money and Lardner was very conscious of the social ramifications of all of this and it fascinated him. Perhaps it was because at least in his boyhood he'd been comfortable with money, and it interested him to see how people who hadn't had it reacted to it.

Studs Terkel Also we haven't talked about Lardner and "The Wake of the News" and other stories involving his recreation of the language of his boys, of his kids.

Jonathan Yardley Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel And of course the classic would be "Immigrunts", you know, "The Young Immigrunts", which was a take-off. Now here again we come to Lardner, don't we? He was taking off on J.M. Barrie's "Young Visiter" that he thought was a fraud.

Jonathan Yardley Daisy Ashford.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And--

Jonathan Yardley She was an 11-year-old girl who had supposedly written it, and there were those who said that J.M. Barrie wrote it.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And he--I remember Ring Jr. was talking about this, he, that his father, Ring, felt this might have been faked, that is, that the guy wrote it, but he also slightly offended by there's a little prurience here in Ring.

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel It might be sexy touches to it. So he takes off and it's Ring Jr., age four, that is, who's writing the book.

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel And of course this has that classic, oh, of course.

Jonathan Yardley You got the wrong place

Studs Terkel I've got "Eek, a Spy", we'll come to that, too.

Jonathan Yardley Yes, right, let me see, I think

Studs Terkel That classic, of course, when the kid's complaining about the trip and the old man driving, it makes a--

Jonathan Yardley Yes, this is the boy narrating it. "The least said about my and my father's trip from the Bureau (sic) of Manhattan to our new home, the soonest mended. In some way either he or I got balled up on the Grand Concorpse (sic), and the next thing you know we was threatening to swoop down on Pittsfield. "Are you lost, daddy?" I asked tenderly. "Shut up," he explained.

Studs Terkel Well, of course, that's the classic line. But then we come to Lardner's nonsense. He could just turn it on, that marvelous nonsense. Those plays.

Jonathan Yardley Right.

Studs Terkel Theater of the absurd. The--Lardner is father of theater of the absurd. Now the, where, we gotta find that, just as Jane Addams ex--about I. Gaspiri (The Upholsterers), a drama in three acts by Ring Lardner adapted from the Bukovinan of Casper Redmonda and the characters, Ian Obri, a blotter salesman, Johan Wasper, his wife, Greta, their daughter, Herbert Swope, a take-off on the rich neighbor of his, a nonentity, Ffina, double F, their daughter, later their wife, Egso, a pencil guster, and Tono, a typical wastebasket. And here's a public street in a bathroom, and we come to the dialogue. "First Stranger: Where was you born? Second stranger: Out of wedlock. First stranger: That's a mighty pretty country around there. Second stranger: You married?" "I don't know. There's a woman living with me, but I can't place her." And so it goes on. "What is that cough?" And two Moors reply to the new character. "That is my mother (sic). She died a little while ago in a haphazard way." And a Greek says, "And what a woman she was."

Jonathan Yardley Yes. "And what a woman she was."

Studs Terkel "And what a woman she was." This is Lardnerian, I'm sure, the comments you hear. It's funny, I'm sure this happens to you. You hear something, you say, "That's Lardner."

Jonathan Yardley That's right.

Studs Terkel Or so, this woman said, you know, tell that some woman said, "My husband was a, passed a railroad tracks and the train hit him and he was killed, so to speak." "He was killed, so to speak." See, that's Lardner, isn't it?.

Jonathan Yardley Yes, it really

Studs Terkel "Killed, so to speak." Or the other one is a woman hollers to her kids, "Will you come on up and study your catechism, for Christ's sake?!?" And so, truly for Christ's sake, but this is, "killed, so to speak" would be Lardner.

Jonathan Yardley Yes, it really would. Well, one of my favorite stories which according to a letter Ring wrote actually happened to him, Ring was on a bus. You know, he was very tall and rather exotic-looking, dark face and just sitting innocently on this upper deck of a New York bus and a woman turned to him and said, "Do you have the time?" And he looked at his watch and said, "Yes, it's three o'clock." And she said, "Oh, I thought you were a Mexican."

Studs Terkel So we have the crazy non sequitur.

Jonathan Yardley That's right.

Studs Terkel And now we come to the latter part of Lardner's life now. Here, ill.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah. Well, the turning point is in 1926, when tuberculosis is diagnosed. And it was an obvious result of the weaknesses in health that the alcoholism had led to. He didn't eat a sensible diet. He drank enormous amounts and kept, I think, rather eccentric hours and his health was just beaten down, and in that circumstance TB is, finds a very likely prey. And from 1926 until his death in 1933 when he was only 48, he kept working. He did some good work, and some surprising work, really. He--his income in 1926 was one hundred grand a year, and you can call that about a half-million in today's dollars. His income steadily declined. He'd been living at a lavish level. And he was also subsidizing a lot of members of his family and a lot of friends. And by the time near his death he was writing to Maxwell Perkins and pleading for money in the amounts of $300, and you know, at the time of the Depression that may not seem all that sad when there were people on the street selling apples, and yet when you think of this man, where he had been and how far he had fallen, there was a real, there was some real human drama in there.

Studs Terkel The other aspect that what might have been, and you point out he did what he did.

Jonathan Yardley That's right.

Studs Terkel And he was conscious of his limitations.

Jonathan Yardley He's got to be judged on the basis of what he accomplished, not on the basis of what he might

Studs Terkel Of course, this quite remarkable editor, Maxwell Perkins, editor of Faulkner and--

Jonathan Yardley No, not Faulkner.

Studs Terkel No, not Faulkner.

Jonathan Yardley Of Fitzgerald--

Studs Terkel Hemingway--

Jonathan Yardley Hemingway and Wolfe. Yeah.

Studs Terkel Well, that's plenty.

Jonathan Yardley That's enough, right.

Studs Terkel And Lardner. This is the Thomas Wolfe we're talking about. And he, at first he was urging Lardner that--

Jonathan Yardley To write the novel.

Studs Terkel The novel. But then toward the end you quote him, he realized that wasn't it, that the guy did, the guy did what he had to do.

Jonathan Yardley Well, this is what he wrote to Ernest Hemingway after Lardner's death. Hemingway had written a rather nasty piece about Lardner called "Defense of Dirty Words" in which he took Lardner for task for his prudishness. Perkins wrote to him, "Ring was not strictly speaking a great writer. The truth is he never regarded him himself seriously as a writer. He always thought of himself as a newspaperman anyhow. He had a sort of provincial scorn of literary people. If he had written much more, he would have been a great writer, perhaps, but whatever it was that prevented him from writing more was the thing that prevented him from being a great writer. But he was a great man and one of immense latent talent which got itself partly expressed."

Studs Terkel And that about sums up.

Jonathan Yardley Yeah, I think it does, although I would like to add Scott Fitzgerald's words about Lardner which I love: "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 torn by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies because he was kind, and to millions he gave release and delight."

Studs Terkel And, may we add, insight, as does your biography.

Jonathan Yardley Thank you.

Studs Terkel Ring Lardner.

Jonathan Yardley It was a lot of fun to write. It was a lot of fun to write.

Studs Terkel Wasn't it? And by the way, and you point out that, you acknowledge the cooperation of Ring Jr.

Jonathan Yardley Oh, it was absolutely essential to me.

Studs Terkel "Ring", a biography of Ring Lardner by Jonathan Yardley, Random House the publishers, and it's quite available.

Jonathan Yardley Yes.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much.

Jonathan Yardley Thank you.