Wednesday, September 15, 2010

John Lardner

"On a recent big-game hunting expedition in Brooklyn (the biggest I could find was a twenty-cent limit game, with the one-eyed jacks wild) your correspondent heard a powerful humming sound and traced it to its source. It came, naturally, from the brain of Mr. Branch Rickey and indicated a little medium-deep thought. By the time it subsided, Roy Campanella, the best catcher in baseball, had been signed to a contract for 1950."

This opening paragraph, or "lede" as it is called in the journalism business, was written for Newsweek that year by John Lardner (1912-1960), who quietly ruled the press box at a time when ballplayers juiced themselves with nothing stronger than Jack Daniels and sportswriters battered typewriters instead of girl friends.

In these days of chest-thumping anthropoids on ESPN, it does one's heart good to read Lardner (son of Ring) once again and to be reminded that there really was a golden age of sportswriting. Another throwback to that era (albeit more recent than his subject) is John Schulian, a long-ago colleague of mine on the Chicago Sun-Times who later went Hollywood and fetched up with Sports Illustrated and other longhair magazines.

Schulian has rescued Lardner from the ash heap of history by editing The John Lardner Reader: A Press Box Legend (University of Nebraska Press, $19.95 paper), also providing an illuminating introduction and recruiting the equally nonpareil Dan Jenkins to do the foreword.

Lardner's prose style could be described as subtle hyperbole, delivered in complete deadpan. He writes of a ball game in which "a subdebutante from Red Hook or Canarsie reached out and touched a baseball lightly on its jowls," resulting in an interference call that drove in a run from third base. Of bench-clearing baseball brawls, Lardner wrote about how "the last time I saw the Dodgers grow hostile, they put on informal fight programs for two days and threw in a ball game each day for the same price."

Like his contemporary Red Smith, Lardner never lost sight of the fact that he was writing about boys' games rather than military invasions. Was his a simpler time? Not necessarily. Maybe it was just less expensive.

Lardner was no mere humorist. He was also a crackerjack reporter, breaking his share of scoops, as they used to be called. He had great range, writing 700-word wind sprints for newspapers and 7,000-word steeplechases for magazines. He wrote for the common reader, too, not for the lit-mag dilettante. You did not need a dictionary when you read him.

Schulian, my friend, you have done us all a service by resurrecting Lardner's most memorable prose. Especially what Red Smith once called "the greatest novel ever written in one sentence," Lardner's lede on a piece about an old prizefighter:

"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."

Sportswriting will never again get as good as that.

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