Near the end of The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner, in a section called “Buried Treasure,” editor Ron Rapaport includes this tidbit from a Lardner column about diet and exercise:
Like for inst. you wouldn’t go to Babe Ruth for beauty hints no more than you would ask Lillian Gish which cheek to park your tobacco in vs. a left-hander.
Rapaport’s newly published book might just as well have been titled Buried Treasure because little of Lardner’s work as a journalist has previously been available despite the high praise he garnered during and after his short life from such literary luminaries as Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson.
He’s remembered today for his short stories, but, throughout his writing career from 1907 until shortly before his death in 1933 at the age of 48, Lardner was a practicing journalist whose work, often syndicated throughout the nation, attracted a huge audience.
His output, too, was huge. For instance, during his career with the Chicago Tribune, he wrote more than 1,600 columns and other stories, most often about sports but also such other topics as politics, Prohibition and World War I.
“Bowed his knees”
Although he left Chicago in 1919, Lardner was firmly in the tradition of great Chicago columnists, such as Mike Royko and Finley Peter Dunne. Royko, who dominated Chicago journalism commentary for four decades, created as his alter ego a working-class Pole named Slats Grobnik. More than half a century earlier, Dunne had fashioned the character of Mr. Dooley, a witty immigrant bartender speaking in an Irish dialect.
The central character of Lardner’s journalism is an exaggerated version of himself — a somewhat lackadaisical guy who, despite his newspaper job, is rather innocent and wide-eyed and not very grammatical.
Consider, for instance, his description in the Tribune of a keynote address that Warren G. Harding gave at the 1916 Republican Convention in Chicago:
(A)ll I got to say about it is that it was the longest speech ever made and he committed it to memory…I studied this guy pretty close and I noticed that he bowed his knees every time he expected applause and always got it. I will have to practice with my knees out on the golf course.
“Regiments of infants”
On occasion, Lardner could give a bitter tone to his commentary, such as when he visited some ill-prepared National Guard units training in Springfield for service against the guerilla leader Pancho Villa in Mexico. In a Tribune report, he predicted facetiously that the troops would scare Villa into surrender:
Because any army, even though it be as fierce and warlike as the Mexicans, would fade away and quit when confronted by anything like the First and Second regiments of infants which know everything they is to know about fighting except that they haven’t never seen a battle and never shot off a gun and all they done was play horse tennis in the armory.
“How to pitch to this bird”
Most often though, Lardner is a smart-aleck whose clueless and/or grandiose reporting is a send-up of know-it-all commentators with which the newspapers of his time, like the news media of today, were filled. In a Bell Syndicate column, for instance, Lardner describes the various — and always unsuccessful — ways opposing teams tried to get Babe Ruth out. Then, he presents his own:
I would tell them how to pitch to this bird. I would stand on the mound and throw the first ball to first base and the second ball to second base and the third ball to third base, and then I would turn around and heave the fourth one out in right field, because he couldn’t be in all those places at once, and further they’s a rule that makes a batter stand in the batter’s box and if a person pitches in that direction with this guy up why all you can say about them is they’re a sucker.
It’s good to have the lost treasure of Ring Lardner the Journalist back with us again. At long last.
Patrick T. Reardon