John Lardner: Writer, Sports Writer

Ted and I were emailing recently about what makes sports writing compelling or not compelling. We write many such emails. Our basic complaint is that writing about baseball is nearly always boring and rarely transcends its subject. It rarely even does baseball justice. The kind of trance one falls into reading an average baseball book is nothing like kind of trance one falls into watching an average baseball game; this is unfortunate.

We came to a semi-conclusion that what separates writing about baseball we want to read from writing we don’t is scope. Does the text say something that resonates outside the baseball vacuum? Does it do the work that allows us to connect the content to our own lives, possibly thereby changing our perspective?

But wait just a minute, you say. Are these not qualities we look for in all literature? Sure they are, but in baseball writing – and all sports writing – they are often hard to find. For one, a great deal of emphasis is placed on raw information. This is unavoidable and not a flaw, but a constitutional fact of baseball writing that will become only more prevalent as advanced statistics and analysis become more and more mainstream. (In this sense, good baseball writing will be writing that makes complex ideas about performance evaluation easy to understand and apply.)

Then there are the expectation differences. Ted and I spend a great deal of time thinking about baseball. Not that we’re Socrates and Plato, it’s just that when you spend so much time thinking about a specific topic you find that your thinking evolves. A column or a profile that once would have been interesting to me now feels regressive. I find myself reading about a player’s story, a team’s expectations, a stat-head’s findings, and thinking “so what?”

This all brings me to John Lardner. Through Alex Belth, who has turned me on to more good baseball writing than anybody, it came to pass that John Schulian (a talented sportswriter turned screenwriter) sent me a copy of “The John Lardner Reader.” Schulian edited this collection by the lesser known son of Ring and brother of Ring Jr. It was published last year.

I had never heard of John Lardner previously. He was a war correspondent, a columnist and a feature writer, for The New Yorker, Time, and magazines of the era like True and Sport. The dozens of works collected in this book (subtitle “A Pres Box Legend’s Classic Sportswriting”) are often only glancingly sports writing. Lardner, by all accounts, was a student of the human condition – especially its uglier forms.

The first thing that strikes you about Lardner is that he writes about everybody, from Ted Williams to seedy fight fixing mobsters, with the same casual disdain. The story is the story. The characters are all terribly flawed – and so, as he frequently points out with a wink or an elbow nudge – is he. Tragedy is inevitable and there’s no reason to draw it out. Take one of Lardner’s most famous leads:

“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.”

Says everything it needs to about Ketchel, whose story is typical of this collection. Ketchel was a boxer, a drifter, a gambler, a Kerouacian character before the romance got into it. Lardner was at his best writing about the  lesser known and less accomplished types – not Jack Dempsey, but Jack Dempsey’s manager Jack Kearns; not center fielders but roller derby girls.

Lardner’s prose acknowledges the absurdity and inherent meaninglessness of sports – but it also assigns a commensurate humanity and dignity due to the athletes, fans, commentators, promoters, gamblers, and other men and women with a hand in the endeavor. He is at his best when the subject is boxing. Lardner died young, but in his time on earth, he must have absorbed the entire history and culture of the boxing world. In his jabs at boxing’s corruption, one can read a thousand similar, less stinging sentences by future columnists.

“Primo explained the frightful catastrophe by citing in private testimony one cigarette, one glass of cognac, and one pistol or revolver,” Lardner writes about a match presumably thrown by Primo “the Ambling Alp” Carnera to a man 73 pounds lighter. In his way with boiling down major events to minor and absurd situations, Lardner’s columns remind more of Calvin Trillin than any sports writer.

Like Trillin later, Lardner was unafraid to include himself in columns, and even less afraid to end things with a punch line – though usually an understated one. Lardner was a humorous writer, not a humorist. He never got out in front of a story. And with the material he worked with, he never needed to.

“The John Lardner Reader” is proof enough that a good story in able hands is enough to make sports writing compelling. My question is whether we’re currently looking at too many hands and not enough stories.

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