Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

You Know Me, Al by Ring Lardner

May 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Baseball Writing, Book Review, Your Turn

Ted Cox, a Books on Baseball friend, has been kind enough to review his favorite baseball book, You Know Me, Al by Ring LardnerYour Turn is a regular feature of Books on Baseball that spotlights our BoB friends as guest book reviewers.  Thanks Ted!

In 1916 Lardner published You Know Me Al, which was written in the form of letters (an epistolary), written by “Jack Keefe,” a bush league baseball player, to a friend–Al–back home. The letters made heavy use of the fictional author’s idiosyncratic vernacular. It had initially been published as six separate, but inter-related short stories in The Saturday Evening Post, leading some to classify the book as a collection of short stories; others have classified it as a novel. Like most of Lardner’s stories, You Know Me Al employed satire, in this case to show the stupidity and avarice of a certain type of athlete. [1]

Lardner’s Jack Keefe character was the antithesis to the mythology created around the protagonists of other contemporary baseball writers, heroic figures such as Frank Merriwell, and Baseball Joe, always portrayed as brave, moral, upstanding men. 

Ted’s Review

Ring Lardner seems in danger of being forgotten. Not only was he recently snubbed by the nascent Chicago Literary Hall of Fame – not even nominated as a potential charter inductee – but, far more galling, his first novel, “You Know Me Al,” wasn’t even mentioned as one of the “best baseball books of all time” in a poll of “baseball writing experts” conducted by the Hardball Cooperative and posted here in April.
 
 
In the past, You Know Me, Al has routinely been considered one of the first and best novels about baseball, and a recent rereading confirms that – at least as far as I’m concerned.  Not only is it a hoot in itself, but its satire about the clueless sense of entitlement felt by the supremely talented athlete rings true today. Not for nothing did I refer to Danny McBride’s Kenny Powers in HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” as a not-too-distant cousin of Lardner’s Jack Keefe (back when I was a TV critic, that is). Ballplayers might make far more money today, but Keefe’s obsession with pay and expenditures – worthy of a Scottish poet – remains an important historical baseball artifact, and look how Lardner lays bare the penny-pinching scheming of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey with a book first published in 1916, three years before he drove his players to concoct the Black Sox scandal.
 
True, dialect humor, once a hallmark of American writing from Twain through late Faulkner, now seems passé, and it can stick in the mind as a reader mentally corrects the rampant misspellings all along. Yet, in an age developing its own text-messaging shorthand, I think Lardner is ready to be rediscovered.
You Know Me, Al should never be forgotten by baseball fans in the first place. 
 
It remains the best baseball novel ever written. Only Mark Harris’ Henry Wiggen series (i.e. The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly) even come close.     

Literary Analysis

Before Ring Lardner’s appearance as a baseball writer, few members of the literati took baseball prose seriously.  It was assumed by the educated class that baseball columnists only wrote for the boorish fan, the unrefined reader.  Ring Lardner erased permanently the snobbery directed toward baseball writers.  Winning the admiration of such noted authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, H.L. Mencken, and Virginia Woolf, Lardner’s work transcended the baseball world and awakened future readers and writers to the fact that baseball could be a source of serious literary material. [2]

Another widely recognized characteristic of Lardner’s baseball stories, one that adds the appearance of substance to their sound of authenticity, is the use of real-life major-league-players as foils to Lardner’s fictitious bushers and boobs.  Jack Keefe pitches in his well-filled White Sox uniform against the legendary Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Babe Ruth.  As a sports journalist, Ring Lardner knew better than to valorize baseball players as heroes or to celebrate the game as the American Dream.  His baseball stories, from You Know Me, Al to Lose with a Smile, debunk the traditional baseball narrative and deflate its pure-of-heart heroes. [3]

Where do they get that stuff about me being a satarist?  I just listen.  Ring Lardner

Beyond You Know Me, Al

Lardner continued his writing using the Jack Keefe character in a series of letters/short stories such as The Busher Pulls a Mays which sees Keefe sold to the lowly Philadelphia Athletics.  In addition, there was a comic strip, “You Know Me Al”, inked by Dick Dorgan from 1922 to 1925.  The comic strip was reprinted into a book in 1979; Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al: The comic strip adventures of Jack Keefe.

Lardner was famously portrayed in Eliot Asinof’s wonderful novel about the 1919 Chicago White Sox, Eight Men Out and in the film adaptation of the same name.  Interestingly, the film’s director,  John Sayles, played Lardner in the film.  (see video clip below)

An entire website, Lardnermania, is devoted to the writing of this great author.

The link below contains a chronological listing of Lardner’s fictional stories, including the Al Letters appearing in the Saturday Evening Post.

http://www.philsp.com/homeville/fmi/d1130.htm#A50915

Article Sources:

Video Clip from Movie Eight Men Out

Comments

2 Responses to “You Know Me, Al by Ring Lardner”
  1. James Bailey says:

    It’s not completely accurate to say the Hardball Cooperative panel didn’t mention “You Know Me Al,” in our list of best baseball novels. In writing about Mark Harris’s “The Southpaw,” I said this: “Harris owes a minor debt to another earlier American writer, Ring Lardner, whose You Know Me Al, broke much of the ground Wiggen walks four decades earlier. But where Lardner’s Jack Keefe never quite worked his way into loveable, and was often borderline likeable, Wiggen is an easy guy to root for, despite his propensity for shooting his mouth off from time to time.”

    I’ve read Lardner’s book twice, and while I appreciate its place in baseball literary history, I don’t think it’s one of the “best.” I actually think it went on a little long and grew tiresome by the end. Strictly my opinion, and it’s fine to have your own, but keep in mind that any time you call something the “best” you are dealing with subjective terms and a difference of opinion doesn’t make one person right and the other wrong.

    As for our panel of “baseball writing experts” that you take exception to, two of the seven are English professors with pretty solid credentials, and Ron Kaplan probably reads more baseball books in a year than most fans do in a decade. Again, that doesn’t make them “right” and you “wrong,” but to attack our effort because it doesn’t align with your opinion is kind of silly.

  2. Mark says:

    @James,

    One person’s best book can be another’s snooze-ville as we saw with The Natural within your group being both a “best” and a “worst” selection. Speaking for myself, I found The Southpaw to be wonderful but The Celebrant quite tireseome reading. My point is that subjectivity is a natural outcome of a human process.

    However, the point you raise that your book analysis mentions You Know Me, Al as a journalistic predecessor to The Southpaw is a fair one. I think the issue was the way in which the list was presented in the earlier article on the website–either a book was on the list or not–didn’t give enough texture to the full analysis that the group performed.

    As such, I have amended the article to include a link to the Hardball Cooperative’s full analysis of the books.

    Best Regards,

    Mark Ahrens

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

Better Tag Cloud