OUT OF LEFT FIELD
A John Lardner
On a Press Box Legends
Classic Sports Writing
By STAN ISAACS
The people at the University of Nebraska Press have done a good thing. They have published a collection of pieces by John Lardner.
John Lardner, of the famous Lardner clan sired by Ring Lardner, was a sports writer in the 1940s and 50s who wrote mostly for Newsweek as well as for The New Yorker, Sport and True Magazine among others. He is a cult figure among sports writers as evidenced by the tributes by Dan Jenkins and John Schulian, the editor of The John Lardner Reader (Bison Press, $19.95)
Jenkins, the colorful Texan who brought golf writing to life, wrote, Reading Lardner was the finest creative writing class in the world. Schulian, who went on from sports columns to screen writing, wrote, Lardner handled whimsy and satire with a deft touch unmatched by anyone in the press box before or since.
Here is some Lardner:
He wrote of Babe Herman, the bumbling outfielder, Floyd Caves Herman, known as Babe, did not always catch fly balls on the top of his head, but he could do it in a pinch. He never tripled into a triple play, but he once doubled into a double play, which is the next best thing.
The career of Lou Nova, the heavyweight fighter, is divided sharply into two phases, the perpendicular and the horizontal, and there has never been a dull moment in either, to my way of thinking.
And Eating contests have always appealed to the truest sporting instincts in your correspondent. Stories of the old-time, bare-knuckle eaters .have thrilled me since boyhood. An eater with skill and stamina, who can go to his right or to his left, is a spectacle as brilliant as Citation pounding down the stretch.
Lardners droll touch--precise, detached--is evident in many of the 48 pieces in The John Lardner Reader. There is of course his oft-quoted lead about the fighter, Stanley Ketchel, that Red Smith called, the greatest novel ever written in one sentence.
The article in True Magazine starts, Stanley Ketchel was twenty--four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.
Lardner died at 47 in 1960. He is remembered fondly in the sports writing trade. Roger Kahn says, Quite simply, the best sports columnist I have read.
Alex Belth, a student of sports reporting, suggested that Lardner has largely been overlooked by younger generations because he died young, because he had the famous father, Ring, (as well as Ring Jr, a celebrated screen writer who was one of the Hollywood Ten) and because he wrote, not for a daily paper but for Newsweek and the North American Newspaper Alliance.
He also was a modest, extremely taciturn man. I found this out early in my career when I was assigned a seat next to him in the subsidiary press box at Ebbets Field during the 1952 World Series. He did not speak. He merely nodded when I tried to start a conversation. I figured I had said the wrong thing so I kept quiet for the rest of the game. I learned only later that it wasnt me, that he was known for his reticence.
On the page he was something else.
When St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck ordered drinks for everyone in the ball park, Lardner wrote, Sometimes you can buy a drink for every man and lady at a Brownie ball game and still get change for a dollar. He wrote that it is bad will that sticks out, like Sandy Saddlers thumb. Of boxer Gene Tunney as an actor he wrote, He ran the gamut of human emotion from frozen to slightly defrosted.
Lardner was a sickly man, suffering tuberculosis, the pain of heart disease, multiple sclerosis, private troubles and a gnawing premonition that he would not live to be 48. When he had his fatal heart attack at 47, a doctor friend rushed to his side and massaged his chest. John, the aggrieved MD said, You cant die, John, youre a noble human being. Lardner looked up and said, Oh, Lou, that sounds like a quotation. And then he died.
Editor Schulian got it right when he wrote, Lardner embraced the eccentric and the unappreciated, celebrated scamps and scoundrels and deflated the pompous, but never drawing blood.
©2010 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The book cover illustration is courtesy of Bison Press. This column first posted Sept. 6, 2010.
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