By Marty Appel
It’s been nearly a century since Ring Lardner introduced America to a smart-ass ballplayer named Jack Keefe, and readers were able to get inside Keefe’s head with letters he wrote to his pal Al Blanchard back in their hometown of Bedford, Ind.
This was all before Babe Ruth, the lively ball, the Black Sox and radio.
It was all fiction, but the nation loved it. It was an opportunity to go along with Keefe as he battled his way to the majors, always thinking he was somehow getting shortchanged along the way. And since his parent team was the Chicago White Sox, and their skinflint owner Charles Comiskey was a real person in the story, maybe it wasn’t all fiction anyway.
The stories came to be called “You Know Me Al,” and the title was simply taken from that common expression we still use today, as in, “You know me, Marty, I’d never do something like that.”
Lardner started writing this tale in 1914 for The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine later made famous by Norman Rockwell’s cover illustrations. The letters were called “A Busher’s Letters Home,” and while we seldom hear the term “busher” any more for a minor leaguer, it’s easy to see what Lardner was doing.
He was taking a fellow who might have been a bit too impressed with his own skills, and elevating his brags and boasts into an unusual form of literature – correspondence.
The technique allowed Lardner to give Keefe a voice (under-educated, undisciplined), and all the requisites that went with it, such as atrocious spelling and grammar. It would be easy to see parents in those days recoiling at this literature which their offspring were beginning to devour.
But hey, it was fun, it was baseball and at least the kids were reading. And so two years after the magazine articles appeared, Scribner’s put it into a book, called it You Know Me Al: A Busher’s Letters and set it free. It would be one of the first baseball novels to make a real impact, and created a style which made Lardner a beloved humorist.
The book’s success was aided by a second effort from Lardner, a 1915 work called Alibi Ike, in which another player finds a way to blame all of his misfortune on bad fielding, bad umpiring or being forced to pitch with a sore arm. It was never his doing.
One of my favorite passages in You Know Me Al comes when Keefe describes his first visit to Comiskey. The White Sox had just acquired the young pitcher from Terre Haute, and filled with self-confidence, Keefe shows up at Comiskey’s Chicago office looking for a contract of $3,000 a year.
“He (Comiskey) says, ‘Don’t you want the office furniture, too? Then he says I thought you was a young ballplayer and I didn’t know you wanted to buy my park.’ ”
Keefe is a little humbled, (not too much), but settles for $250 a month. He’s induced to sign when Comiskey points out that the White Sox and the Cubs play in a city series each year at which extra money can be made. “You know,” says Comiskey, “we always have a city serious here in the fall where a fellow picks up a good bunch of money.”
“I hadn’t thought that so I signed up” writes Keefe. “My yearly salary will be fifteen hundred dollars besides what the city serious brings me. And that is only for the first year. I will demand three thousand or four thousand dollars next year.”
After figuring out that city serious meant city series, I researched that the Cubs and White Sox played 22 of these city series between 1911-42, with the White Sox winning 18 of them. There was no telling how much the players made, but I suspect Comiskey had the last laugh.
Even with the book’s publication, Lardner kept writing the stories for the Saturday Evening Post, and later on, wrote the text for some 700 You Know Me Al comic strips which were distributed between 1922-25. So the expression really became part of the national lexicon, and indeed, a lot of people were introduced to the jargon of baseball through these fictional letters.
Letter writing, of course, has largely disappeared from the landscape and a modern version would be full of LOLs and OMGs, written as texts or e-mails, but in a large measure, the message would still be the same – the brash rookie, very full of himself, ready to take on the big leagues with all he’s got (if only to discover what he has ain’t enough).
Ringgold Wilmer Lardner was 29 when he started penning the “Al” letters, and 34 when he achieved greater fame as one of the Chicago-based writers who helped expose the chicanery surrounding the 1919 World Series. (John Sayles, who wrote the screenplay for Eight Men Out, also played Lardner in the film – and was a perfect double in appearance).
Ring was a respected man of letters beyond the sports world, and his work – even “You Know Me Al” – would be mentioned by Virginia Woolf, H.L. Mencken, J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway in years to come. He and his wife had four sons, including three writers, with Ring Jr., being among those blacklisted and jailed in the 1950s during the Red-hunting days of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Another son, John, an acclaimed sportswriter himself, wrote an introduction to a 1960 reprint edition of “Al.”
Ring Lardner died in 1933; 30 years later he became the first winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award (after Spink himself), chosen by the Baseball Writers Association and today presented at induction weekend in Cooperstown.
As for You Know Me Al, the book only had one printing in 1916, and wasn’t reprinted until 1925 when baseball had morphed into the lively ball era.
The comic strip had just ended, and Scribner’s decided there was a new generation weaned on the comics, ready to read. It was last released in 2004 by Barnes and Noble. The complete comic strips found their way into book form in 1979.
This is still fun to read, even if it’s a period piece. You know me, I wouldn’t lie to you.
Marty Appel, former Yankees PR Director and TV producer, is the author of 18 books including Casey Award nominee for 2012 “Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss.” He can be reached at appelPR@gmail.com.