Lardner, Ringgold Wilmer ("Ring")

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LARDNER, Ringgold Wilmer ("Ring")

(b. 6 March 1885 in Niles, Michigan; d. 25 September 1933 in East Hampton, New York), sportswriter and master of the short story who covered Chicago baseball and created the memorable character of pitcher "Jack Keefe," a "busher" with a large ego and a small brain.

Lardner was the youngest child of five in an economically comfortable, solidly Episcopal, conservative Republican family headed by Henry Lardner, a farmer and mortgage broker. Born in a mansion on the St. Joseph's River, surgery helped him overcome the handicap of a deformed left foot. Lardner received his early education from his mother, Lena Bogardus Phillips Lardner, a poet, and later graduated from Niles High School in 1901. At the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago (now the Armour College of Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology) from 1901 to 1902, Lardner briefly attempted to become the mechanical engineer his parents desired, but found he had "no more desire to be an engineer than a sheep herder." He held various odd jobs, finally leaving his position as bookkeeper for the Niles gas company to join the South Bend Times in South Bend, Indiana, as a reporter from 1905 to 1907. Hardly an athlete, although he "liked to watch tennis and play golf" according to his son, Lardner had found his métier almost by accident; sportswriting fulfilled his lifetime ambition to see "enough" baseball games. Reporting in succession for the newspapers Chicago Inter Ocean, Chicago Examiner, and Chicago Tribune, Lardner became managing editor of the Sporting News in St. Louis from 1910 to 1911, but left after arguing with owner Charles Spink. After he married Ellis Abbott on 28 June 1911, the couple moved to Boston, where Lardner wrote for the Boston American until he was fired for attending the World Series on his own. He remembered later that "Of all big cities one,/Is easy to get lost in,/I hardly need to tell you,/The one I mean is Boston."

Lardner became a serious writer during his years with the Chicago Tribune from 1913 to 1919, while he and his wife raised their four sons. His column "In the Wake of the News" appeared daily, enlivened with baseball player argot. One comic invention of Lardner's was southpaw pitcher "Jack Keefe," and he sold several of the "busher's" (bush-leaguer's) letters home to the Saturday Evening Post. The first six of twenty-six Keefe stories appeared as You Know Me, Al (1916), the book that made Lardner's reputation as a humorist. Gullible's Travel's, Etc. (1917); My Four Weeks in France (1918), Treat 'Em Rough (1918), and The Real Dope (1919), quickly followed, and won Lardner a growing following.

Tall, dark, and fastidious, Lardner was always something of a puritan—his son considered him a "strait-laced prude"—who paradoxically reveled in traveling with both Chicago baseball teams. He was a fan as well as a commentator, a hard drinker who enjoyed an easy relationship with often-ignorant players basking in public adoration; Lardner's writing humanized them. As a reporter he lauded the artistry of the Chicago White Sox, who easily won the American League pennant in 1919, respecting players like star pitcher Eddie Cicotte far more than the club's penurious owner Charles Comiskey. Yet by the end of game two of the "World Serious," Lardner concluded that rumors of a "fix" were true and, as the train returned to Chicago, he drunkenly mocked the Sox for "blowing ball games." Lardner personally confronted Cicotte, and never forgave his denial. Nevertheless Lardner sat on the "Black Sox" story as unproved; even after the scandal broke and eight players admitted to a grand jury that they had thrown the series in return for a bribe, he never wrote about it. "Disenchanted" by sports, Lardner stopped going to ball games and permitted his other writing to become progressively more ironical and disillusioned.

By 1920 Lardner was well established as a humorist, but his apprehensions regarding orderly, middle-class life were apparent in Own Your Own Home (1919). He agreed to cover major sports for the Bell Syndicate, and moved his family east to Great Neck, New York; his automobile trip with his wife and child became the subject for The Young Immigrunts (1920). Lardner's song, "Prohibition Blues" (1920), demonstrated both his lifelong interest in music and his forlorn hope that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution might stop his drinking. But with Long Island, New York, neighbors like Herbert Swopes, a war correspondent and the managing editor of the New YorkWorld, and friends like F. Scott Fitzgerald, partying intensified. His literary output did increase, including The Big Town (1920), Symptoms of Being 35 (1921), How to Write Short Stories—With Examples (1924), and The Love Nest and Other Stories by Ring W. Lardner (1926). With Fitzgerald as his advocate, Lardner's writing became more satirical. Critics praised his mocking of pretension, his insight into characters, and his ear for vernacular language; H. L. Mencken found his writing a "mine of authentic Americana." Lardner's stories like "Haircut" (1926), "Love Nest" (1926), "Alibi Ike" (1924), and "Champion" (1924), often appear in "best" short story anthologies.

A diagnosis of tuberculosis in 1926 hardly affected Lardner's drinking, his wit, or his deep cynicism regarding sports; he believed that the 1926 Dempsey-Tunney fight was fixed. Lardner's characters included not only flawed athletes but also stenographers, brokers, actresses, and social climbers "too ignorant to know how dull they are." Critics cited Lardner's "misanthropic nature," with one concluding he "just doesn't like people," but self-mockery was also apparent in his autobiography, The Story of a Wonder Man (1927). An abiding Lardner ambition was to write for Broadway, and in 1922 Will Rogers performed his baseball skit in the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1928 Lardner collaborated with George M. Cohan on Elmer the Great, the saga of a thickheaded pitcher; June Moon with George M. Kaufman in 1929 was an even bigger hit that parodied song-writers. Lardner's last important collection of stories, Round-Up, appeared the same year. After the Lardners moved to East Hampton, New York, in May 1928, Lardner was often hospitalized. He wrote a weekly radio commentary for The New Yorker from 1932 to 1933, and launched an "odd little campaign" against pornographic songs. Poor health made him more of a reader, Russian novels and Civil War history were his favorites, but his decline was rapid. Heart disease and alcoholism caused Lardner's death at the age of forty-eight, and after private burial services in East Hampton, New York, his remains were cremated.

Lardner's papers are deposited in the Newberry Library in Chicago; Matthew J. Bruccoli published a complete listing of his works in 1976, Ring Lardner: A Descriptive Bibliography. Excellent biographies have been written by Donald Elder, Ring Lardner: A Biography (1956); Walton R. Patrick, Ring Lardner (1963); Otto Friedrich, Ring Lardner (1965); Maxwell Geismar, Ring Lardner and the Portrait of Folly (1972); and Jonathan Yardley, Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner (1977). Ring Lardner, Jr., The Lardners: My Family Revisited (1976), is often insightful; and Clifford M. Caruthers, ed., Letters from Ring (1979), provides a sense of the private man. Al Capp's introduction to Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al: The Comic Strip Adventures of Jack Keefe (1975), ought to be read, along with critical assessments compiled in Elizabeth Evans, Ring Lardner (1979). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Sept. 1933), and F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Ring," New Republic (11 Oct. 1933), gives a contemporary's tribute.

George J. Lankevich