You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner
a review by Rich Horton
You Know Me Al remains, I think, fairly well known, even 100 years after it was first published, as a series of short pieces in the Saturday Evening Post. The book version came out two years later, in 1916, from George H. Doran. I confess I had assumed it was a bestseller: Lardner was a popular writer, and the book was immediately famous and sequels followed. But apparently it sold only modestly at first -- perhaps because so many people had read it first in the SEP. (My edition is a 1992 trade paperback reprint from Prairie State Books, an imprint of the University of Illinois Press, with an introduction by well known baseball novelist Mark Harris, author of Bang the Drum Slowly.)
Ring Lardner was born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner in 1886, in Niles, Michigan, in the Southwest corner of the state (nearish to Chicago, and an area I'm moderately familiar with). He disliked his full first name and insisted on being called Ring ...but then he named his son Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, Jr. (Ring Lardner Jr. was one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten screenwriters -- he won Oscars before the blacklist (for Woman of the Year) and after (for M*A*S*H, though supposedly he disliked that film because director Robert Altman changed the script so much (I had thought he allowed his actors to improvise and change lines?))
Lardner (Sr.) was, like Irvin S. Cobb who I've mentioned here previously, rather precocious, and became a reporter on the South Bend Tribune as a teenager, moving to Chicago, and eventually the Chicago Tribune, soon after. Lardner spent time on the baseball beat, covering the White Sox, and that became the genesis of You Know Me Al. You Know Me Al is considered his only "novel", but that's a stretch -- structurally, to me, it is a collection of linked stories, with admittedly something of a narrative arc. Lardner went on to publish many more stories about Jack Keefe, the hero of You Know Me Al, and indeed it became a comic strip in the '20s. Lardner published many excellent short stories on other subjects than baseball, perhaps the most famous being "Alibi Ike" and "Haircut". His editor, later in life, was Maxwell Perkins, who begged him for a novel -- or at least a novella! -- that never came. Lardner died quite young, in 1933.
You Know Me Al is a sequence of letters from a young man named Jack Keefe to his best friend, Al Blanchard, back home in Bedford (which is presumably a rural town in Indiana or Michigan). Keefe has been pitching for Terre Haute but is bought by the White Sox. The book, in 6 chapters, tells the story of Keefe's first two or three years in the major leagues. He's a pretty talented pitcher, though not so talented as he thinks he is, and he's arrogant and lazy. Over the course of the book he has some ups and downs, though it seems that when he pitches regularly he does quite well. But he also messes up some, doing things like hitting a man on purpose with the bases full, and he finds himself sold to Milwaukee, and out of a job, and eventually back with the Sox but on the second team. He is also naive about money, insisting he will hold out for much more money than he ends up settling for, etc.
We get some details about baseball training at the time -- it seems the White Sox trained in California in those days. There's a bit of inside baseball, and some hints about the other ways teams tried to make money -- barnstorming, foreign trips, etc. And there are a lot of tidbits about the famous players of the time, like Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Tris Speaker.
But all that makes it sound very little like the book really is. It's definitely a baseball book, yes, but not in a dry way at all. For one thing, Jack Keefe's personal life is also central -- he has a lot of woman trouble, taking up with two different women who end up throwing him over when he seems in danger of losing his job with the Sox, then marrying the sister-in-law of one of his teammates, who leaves him for a time after a quarrel. He has a child eventually, who he loves but doesn't quite know how to deal with. And he is quick to threaten a fight, if slightly slower to follow through, and he likes his liquor and his food rather too much. In fact, he's kind of a jerk -- a blowhard, rather stupid and not very aware of it, careless with his money and with others and yet very cheap at times as well, not always a good teammate (constantly blaming his fielders for any runs he gives up, that sort of thing).
The real joy of the novel is the language. Jack Keefe is not an artful writer, nor speller, though he's a facile writer, and Lardner captures his voice beautifully. Here he describes Tigers' manager Hughie Jennings trash-talking him before a game: "Jennings says You ain't going to pitch that bird are you? And Callahan [Sox manager] said Yes he was. Then Jennings says I wish you wouldn't because my boys is all tired out and can't run the bases." Here he asks Charlie Comiskey, the owner, if his wife can come to spring training: "He says Sure they would be glad to have her along. And then I says Would the club pay her fair? He says I guess you must have spent that $100 [that Comiskey had advanced him] buying some nerve. He says Have you not got no sisters that would like to go along to? He says Does your wife insist on the drawing room or will she take a lower birth? He says Is my special train good enough for her?"
And much more like that. So, it's a fine work, a good picture of life in the early part of the century, and of baseball at that time, and engagingly written. It did drag a bit after a while, though -- I wonder if it read a little better in installments as originally published. Later stories apparently took Keefe to World War I, among other things. Lardner, a huge baseball fan, apparently gave up on the game after his beloved White Sox threw the World Series in 1919, in the worst scandal in the game's history, however, and that was the end of the Jack Keefe stories as well.