Frank Chance's Diamond: The Baseball Journalism of Ring Lardner
“a comprehensive volume capturing the Lardner style and offering a considerable insight into America’s favorite sportswriter.”
In the first three decades of the 20th century, Ring Lardner was the best-known sportswriter in the United States. He was read daily by millions and could be found in newspapers and popular magazines across the land. He was admired by fans, athletes, and officials, as well as leading literary figures of the time, some of whom had no particular interest in sports. He was, according to Ron Rapoport, one of the most famous men in America, along with Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and Calvin Coolidge.
According to Rapoport, Lardner’s output over the years was massive, and his primary interest was baseball, although his baseball writing often had very little to do with the nuts and bolts of games. Sometimes a game report would go off so far that the outcome of the game was not included.
Between 1913 and 1919, he wrote 1600 regular columns for the Chicago Tribune along with other articles. He wrote virtually every day for the paper. Simultaneously, Lardner published four volumes of short stories. In 1919, he moved to the Bell Syndicate, producing 600 columns that appeared weekly in over 100 newspapers and reached an estimated eight million readers. Much of Lardner’s writing is done in the vernacular, and that can be a challenge to his readers, past and present. It also adds to the humor.
In Frank Chance’s Diamond, Ron Rapoport has collected approximately 80 pieces that have not been anthologized previously. Rapoport has provided context when needed, and it often is, and he offers clarification and identification in footnotes that should not be neglected. There is much to be learned in Rapoport’s clarifications. The columns are, with a few minor exceptions, presented exactly as written.
Lardner enjoyed verse, and many of his columns are written in part in verse, and some in verse only. One section of this collection is titled “Baseball Poems” and many of the poems and other columns identify the author as a player. One attributed to Heine Zimmerman starts with these lines:
“There was an outfielder named Frankie,
He’s homely and ugly and lanky,”
At times, Lardner also used verse in game coverage.
One very clever piece titled “Cubist Baseball” written in 1914 succeeds in describing baseball as would be done in the cubist style, at least as Lardner saw it. He begins a description of a spitball in this way: “The Spitball is nastiness and to not talk about it is polite. It breaks it breaks red it breaks white it splashes.” There are 12 other cubist baseball definitions in the column.
He liked to transform phrases producing in one example “Weeping writing arithmetic.” He once described the Cleveland Indians as looking like “one of the Lost Tribes.” When writing about the World Series he calls it the “World Serious,” at least until late in his career when he begins to use “World Series.” This change seems wrong.
Several World Series columns were taken up not by the games but by the saga of the Lardner family cats and their possible role in fulfilling Mrs. Lardner’s hope for a fur coat to fend off the cold in the off-season. These are very cleverly written and quite funny.
Lardner did write serious pieces and when he did, they are memorable. His report on Christy Mathewson’s loss in the 1912 World Series is one excellent example included in this volume. Another is a column in praise of Ty Cobb, which runs against the grain of Cobb’s popular image. The opening of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field is another gem of Lardner’s serious writing.
There are two pieces on Babe Ruth. One humorous column offers advice on how to pitch to the Babe. In another, he describes a relationship between the two boyhood pals in Baltimore, Ruth and H. L. Mencken. Lardner noted the limitations on writing of these two famous citizens of Baltimore: “I would repeat some of their conversations, but Mencken’s can’t be spelled and the Babe’s can’t be printed.”
This is a comprehensive volume capturing the Lardner style and offering a considerable insight into America’s favorite sportswriter. Some will find it difficult at times as the vernacular and total disregard for the rules of the English language can make for something less than smooth reading. It may take some time to catch onto the rhythm and style, but with patience it will come and, when it does, the rewards are considerable.
Ron Rapoport has done a superb job in his selection of columns and his editing and footnoting. As with many such anthologies it is not to be consumed in one sitting, but to be enjoyed in small portions over time.