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Baseball as a Second Language : RING AROUND THE BASES: The Complete Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner, Edited by Matthew Bruccoli (Charles Scribner's Sons: $35; 609 pp.)

August 02, 1992|Allen Barra | Barra is a columnist for the Village Voice and a regular contributor to the L.A. Weekly

The irony of Ring Lardner's reputation is that he spent nearly two decades gathering plaudits from virtually every contemporary worth knowing, only to be best remembered for a few disparaging remarks made by one of his best friends in a tribute. Lardner, F. Scott Fitzgerald implied, wasted a great deal of time and creative energy writing about "a boy's game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bound by walls which kept out novelty or danger or adventure." This was a remarkably spiteful and shortsighted statement, especially coming as it did in the middle of an otherwise eloquent and heartfelt tribute.

Was there a tinge of jealousy in Fitzgerald's words? Whatever the reason, as Matthew Bruccoli points out in his introduction to "Ring Around the Bases: The Complete Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner," the charge is untrue. Of Lardner's 130 short stories, 46 are about baseball, and the entire output shows a more remarkable range than Fitzgerald's (whose boundaries were limited by obsession with diamonds of a different sort). Bruccoli could just as well have pointed out that Fitzgerald was being equally unfair to baseball itself--that in fact, baseball, whose foul lines extend theoretically into infinity, as a subject for fiction isn't bound by any walls at all except those of the writer's imagination.

During his own lifetime, Lardner picked up quite a few endorsements. Edmund Wilson found some of his stories "equal in importance to those of Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis." H. L. Mencken, who thought Lardner's characters to be "loathsome--as so many Methodist evangelists," thought him more profound than Henry James (two judgments in which he was decidedly not correct). During the silly season, John Chamberlin even compared him to Proust. Hemingway, who confirmed the obvious influence of Lardner on his own work by so vigorously denying it, thought him superior to Fitzgerald, while Fitzgerald preferred Lardner to Hemingway; Dorothy Parker thought him the superior of both.

All of this praise--some of which no doubt indicated the personal esteem in which Lardner's friends and acquaintances held him--puts out a lot of heat and little light. Oddly enough, the most illuminating critical remarks on Lardner came not from someone who knew him but from an absurdly unlikely source: Virginia Woolf. In a review of "You Know Me Al" that must have startled Lardner, Woolf said that he "writes the best prose to come our (Britain's) way," often, she noted, "in a language which is not English." Further probing Lardner's Americanness, she observed that "It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner's stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner's interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a center, a meeting place for the diverse activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brother." There's the boundaries of your "boy's game," F. Scott.

"Ring Around the Bases" caulks a crack in American letters. It makes only part of the case for Lardner because it includes only the baseball stories and excludes the journalism, the nonsense plays and stories like "Haircut" and "There Are Smiles." Still, the case it makes can't be ignored, and no single in-print volume of Lardner's work makes it more strongly. These are stories Lardner's early fame was built on: "The Busher" (for "bush league") stories collected under the title "You Know Me Al," "Alibi Ike," "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain" and the rest of the stories that helped create a new American method of communicating a new American language.

Do you have to know baseball to appreciate them? Did Virginia Woolf know a declaration of ball four from the Balfour Declaration? You don't have to know that Walter Johnson had a legendary fastball to laugh at this from "Horseshoes": "While Johnson was still windin' up to pitch again I started to swing--and the big cuss crosses me with a slow one. I lunged at it twice and missed both times . . . "

And you don't have to know many baseball teams to know there are jokes in these lines from "The Poor Simp": "Skull pitched a one-hit game over in Philly. But he wasn't in there a whole innin'. He pitched to six men and the other five got bases on balls." And: " 'You had swell control in New York,' says Carey. 'You was hittin' their bats right in the middle.' "

And if you do know the game you can get an extra chuckle out of lines from "The Crook" such as: "The times I got the best o' the reporter I can count on the fingers of a catcher's mitt." And, from "Women": "Anything a third baseman don't get they call it a base hit. A third baseman ought to pay to get into the park." (Easy, Mike Schmidt fans: This was written in the dead-ball era.)

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