Savoring the stories of Ringold Wilmer Lardner
Posted: Friday, June 25, 2010 8:02 pm
Having said that, you may find it odd that I am a loyal fan of one of the greatest writers of baseball stories in the annals of American literature. His name? Ringold Wilmer Lardner (1885-1933). He didn’t like his first name, so he shortened it to “Ring.”
His is the kind of writing that makes you want to read a story two or three times so it can all sink in.
Some of his baseball stories are:
• “Alibi Ike” First appeared in the July 1915 issue of Saturday Evening Post. A website synopsis: “A star outfielder makes good in the big leagues, even gets engaged to the manager’s sister-in-law, but runs into trouble when he can’t stop apologizing for everything he does.”
• “Back to Baltimore” “A big league manager is driven out of his job by a lady owner and her pet college boy.”
• “The Crook” “Why has (been) a usually unflappable umpire savagely attacked by a ballplayer who’s called him a crook? There must be a woman involved.”
• “My Roomy” “A major leaguer tells the story of his roommate, a (literally) crazy busher.” (A “busher” is someone from the “bush” or minor leagues.)
• “Take a Walk” “An umpire mourns the premature retirement of his partner, who has become embroiled in a dispute with a ballplayer over a girl.”
• “You Know Me, Al: A Busher’s Letters” “A pugnacious, uncontrolled young pitcher writes to a friend back home about his misadventures as a member of the Chicago White Sox.”
Lardner’s talents were applied to stories other than sports.
Some of his short stories outside baseball are “Haircut,” “The Golden Honeymoon,” and my favorite, “I Can’t Breathe.”
I recommend you find a copy of “I Can’t Breathe.” Read it, then read it again. Read it aloud in a group setting. You’ll all have a lot of fun.
In it, Lardner departs from his usual narrative style and presents the story as the 10-day diary, or journal, of an 18-year-old female who has got herself in quite a pickle. She’s engaged to three men at the same time. Lardner doesn’t tell us her name.
The diary opens with her saying she’s “staying here at the Inn” two weeks with Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule. “I think I will keep a kind of a diary while I’m here to help pass the time and so I can have a record of things that happen though it’s not likely anything exciting will happen because Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule are both at least 35 years old and maybe older.”
Her mother and father are away on a cruise. The trip to the Inn with the uncle and aunt is supposedly a kind of recompense. “A fine recompense to be left with old people who come to a place like this to rest.”
She tells us that would be OK if only Walter were here. He’s one of the three boys she’s engaged to.
“This is our first separation since we have been engaged, nearly 17 days. It will be 17 days tomorrow. And the hotel orchestra at dinner this evening played that old thing, ‘Oh how I miss you tonight,’ and it seemed they must be playing it for my benefit though of course the person in that song is talking about how they miss their mother though of course I miss mother, too, but a person gets used to missing their mother and it isn’t like Walter or the person you are engaged to.”
Then she tells us there won’t be any more separations much longer.
“We are going to be married in December even if mother does laugh when I talk to her about it because she says I am crazy to even think of getting married at 18.
“She got married herself when she was 18, but of course that was ‘different,’ she wasn’t crazy like I am, she knew whom she was marrying. As if Walter were a policeman or a foreigner or something.
“And she says she was only engaged once while I have been engaged at least five times a year since I was 14. Of course, it really isn’t as bad as that and I have really only been really what I call engaged six times altogether, but is getting engaged my fault when they keep insisting and hammering at you and if you didn’t say yes they would never go home?
“But it is different with Walter. I honestly believe if he had not asked me I would have asked him. Of course, I wouldn’t have but I would have died. And this is the first time to be engaged to be really married. The other times when they talked about when should we get married I just laughed at them, but I hadn’t been engaged to Walter ten minutes when he brought up the subject of marriage and I didn’t laugh. I wouldn’t be engaged to him unless it was to be married. I couldn’t stand it. …
“There were a couple of awfully nice looking boys sitting together alone in the dining room tonight. One of them wasn’t so much, but the other one was cute, and he — There’s the dance orchestra playing ‘Always,’ what they played at the Biltmore the day I met Walter. ‘Not for just an hour not for just a day.’
“I can’t live. I can’t breathe.”
Walter has been sending her night letters via Western Union, professing his undying love and getting very personal and it’s embarrassing to her to know that Western Union operators read every word. And Walter is on his way to see her.
She has more troubles. She’s also getting letters from Gordon Flint, to whom she is also engaged. Both the boys are coming to see her. And the plot thickens.
While she was by herself at a tennis game she spied the boy, the cute one, she’d seen the night before. “His name is Frank Caswell and he has been out of Dartmouth a year and is 24 years old. That isn’t so terribly old, only two years older than Walter and three years older than Gordon.”
By now you have guessed it: Frank asks her to marry him. He’s had a few drinks and she says yes but it’s OK because he’s drunk and won’t remember any of it. Wrong.
In her diary the next day she writes: “I can’t stand it. I can’t breathe. Life is impossible. Frank remembered everything about last night and firmly believes we are engaged and going to be married in December. Of course, it can’t go on and tomorrow I will tell him about Walter or Gordon or both of them. I met Frank for lunch and we went for a ride this afternoon and he was so much in love and so lovely to me that I simply did not have the heart to tell him the truth. I am surely going to tell him tomorrow.
“He asked me where I would like to go on my honeymoon and I suppose I ought to have told him my honeymoon was all planned, that I was going to California with Walter. …
“Life is so hopeless and it could be so wonderful. For instance, how heavenly it would be if I could marry Frank first and stay married to him five years and he would be the one who would take me to Hollywood. … At the end of five years I would be only 23 and I could marry Gordon. …
“Gordon and I would separate at the end of five years and I would be 28 and I know of lots of women that never even got married the first time till they were 28, though I don’t suppose that was their fault, but I would marry Walter then, for after all he is the one I really love and want to spend most of my life with and I wouldn’t care whether he could dance or not when I was that old. Before long we would be as old as Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule and I certainly wouldn’t want to dance at their age when all you can do is just hobble around the floor.”
How does her psycho predicament resolve itself? She tells us Merle has been much on her mind of late. Who’s Merle? Another of her boyfriends.
In her last diary entry she tells us, “Merle is coming here today, here to this Inn, just to see me. And there can only be one reason. And only one answer. I knew when I heard his voice calling from Boston. How could I ever had thought I loved anyone else? A whole year and he still cares and I still care. That shows we were always intended for each other and for no one else.
“After all this is the best way out of it, the only way. I won’t have to say anything to Frank, he will guess when he sees me with Merle. And when I get home Sunday and Walter and Gordon call me up, I will invite them both to dinner and Merle can tell them himself. With two of them there, it will only hurt each one half as much as if they were alone.
“The train is due at 2:40, almost three hours from now. I can’t wait. And what if it should be late? I can’t stand it.”
Staff reporter John Brannon may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 6.25.10