Mark Richardson —
We are all aware of Ernest Hemingway’s expression of affection for Joe DiMaggio in The Old Man and the Sea, of Phillip Roth’s extensive and extended baseball metaphors in The Great American Novel, and of Bernard Malamud’s employment of the national pastime as a conveyance for his morality play The Natural, but baseball’s appeal to the literati predates these classics by decades.
Before he was America’s favorite chronicler of fictional mobsters in such classic tales as Guys and Dolls, All Horse Players Die Broke, and A Slight Case of Murder, Damon Runyon was the most widely distributed, widely read sportswriter in America. In this magnificent collection of ballpark dispatches, Guys, Dolls and Curveballs, editor Jim Reisler reminds us that Nathan Detroit and The Lemon Drop Kid were not only not Runyon’s most well known characters, they may not even have been his best. Those may have come from real life, directly from America’s baseball diamonds. His articles feature, as would be expected, the exploits of the game’s giants, the likes of Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson, but he also has an uncanny eye for some of the often less seen aspects of ballpark goings-on, as he comments on everything from the fans (including, not unexpectedly, gamblers and bookies) to the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of the players on the field.
Runyon’s writing style is dated, as the Twenties are, but, while it may not fly as a newspaperman’s style today, it is surely fun, and it is as representative of his times as bootleg beer and the charleston. One small example: “With one out in the fourth, Baker got a hit on a hopper to Schmidt that the butcher could not handle, and in the play, Schmidt got the breath knocked out of him, so that the game had to stop until he recovered himself.” Or this: “Two balls and two strikes was the count when the King uncoiled himself in his mighty lunge which always produces a ‘blooie’ or nothing. The ball flew out over right field, traversing territory hitherto unchartered by the Babe’s ‘blooies,’ and landed among a dense collection of Bronxonians gathered in the right field bleachers.”
Runyon left sportswriting behind him as he got a little older and went on to bigger things…but maybe not better.
Ring Lardner also made a name for himself early in life as a sportswriter, and then moved on to more respectable, and more lucrative, writing, but as a baseball writer, he is in a class by himself. His remarkable wit and wry humor were the envy of copy editors throughout the land. But he was deeply affected by the dishonest play of the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series (“World’s Serious” in Lardnerspeak), and, feeling that he had been lied to by some of the players involved in the fix and taking it as a personal betrayal, Lardner quit his post as a reporter and turned to the world of fiction. It was here that he gave us such memorable characters as The Busher and Alibi Ike. The Busher was a minor league pitcher, always on the verge of promotion to the big leagues, but always self-destructing just before that promotion came to be. A large collection of short stories morphed into the novel You Know Me, Al, wherein The Busher’s sad but hilarious story is told in full to his old buddy, Al. When The Busher finally does get the call to the majors, he joins a club that has been losing but is beginning to see its fortunes turn. In a letter to Al he writes, “This is just between I and you. I don’t want it to go no further. In the first place a feller that’s had rotten luck as long as Red is entitled to the credit when his club fin’lly comes threw and cops. In the second place if I was to tell the newspapers or the public that I was the one really done it for them they’d laugh at me. But you know that I don’t lie and you know that I don’t care nothing about honor or that bunk.” There is a laugh on every page, and it is very hard to put this book down once begun. Lardner is one of the storied names in baseball writing, and in writing in general during the first three decades of the twentieth century, and he ranks with Twain and Rogers as America’s great humorists.
A third book of great value comes from the creator of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, James T. Farrell. A literary giant in his time, Farrell was one of America’s best selling novelists throughout the 1930s and ’40s. He was also an avid baseball fan (one of his best sellers being a fictional account of that infamous 1919 World Series, which was thrown by his beloved White Sox called Dreaming Baseball). In My Baseball Diary, Farrell gives us a series of essays on the great American game, his feelings for the game, and a glimpse of his view that baseball is more than a game. He considers it to be both an art and a science. Of course, he is not alone in this view; it has been espoused over and over again by many observers, but Farrell’s essays bring the game’s artistry to life. He gives us essays on his memories of baseball in his boyhood, of his favorite players past and present, the relationship of his feelings for baseball and his other passion, his work, and discusses how the study of baseball has made him a more astute observer of life, and a better recorder of it. He captures a large number of players, of scenes and of memorable moments in the game, and it is a book worthy of his reputation as a great American writer.