Monday, May 02, 2011

Ring Lardner Tonight: In Part 2 of "You Know Me Al," the busher reaches the bigs


In March 1914 Ty Cobb was only 25, but already a superstar veteran of eight full big-league seasons (the AL MVP in 1911), with 1914 plus 14 more seasons still ahead of him.

"[Manager Callahan] says And I noticed you taking your wind up when What's His Name was on second base there to-day. I says Yes I got more stuff when I wind up. He says Of course you have but if you wind up like that with Cobb on base he will steal your watch and chain. I says Maybe Cobb can't get on base when I work against him. He says That's right and maybe San Francisco Bay is made of grapejuice. Then he walks away from me."
-- from Jack's March 19 letter, in tonight's installment

by Ken

For the sake of those who may think an interest in baseball is necessary to enjoy Ring Lardner's busher letters, I'm tempted to jump to Virginia Woolf's spirited advocacy for You Know Me Al when the book first appeared, in 1925. But we'll get to that tomorrow, in the first part of the brilliant introduction that I mentioned John Lardner, the third of Ring's four sons, wrote for a 1959 edition of the book.

For tonight, I think everyone can be charmed and amused by the wild overconfidence of young Jack Keefe, in his first spring training with a Major League club, as he shows how little he understands about how much he doesn't understand about pitching. After all, much the same process can be observed in most any profession that requires an ongoing accumulation of knowledge and skill. Some people rising through the ranks get it, but many -- often including the most talented -- don't, until they come up against just how much they don't know.

The process is highlighted in the case of budding professional athletes, most of whom, after all, were local heroes where they came from, and even -- especially in the case of baseball, which has that elaborate hierarchical structure -- at the lower levels of the pros. John Lardner will have some outstandingly perceptive things to say in Wednesday's installment of his introduction concerning the changes in the game between the busher's time and 1958 (and despite the even longer time that's elapsed since he was writing, and the also-considerable changes over that time, what he wrote then might almost have been written today); in this regard not that much has changed.

In Jack's case, as is still the case with many hard-throwing young pitchers, the ability to blow the ball by the hitters he faced at those lower levels made it unnecessary for him to think about things like having a command of three pitches, fielding his position, and holding runners on base. For any fan with a sense of history, there's a frisson in Manager Callahan's evocation of the great Ty Cobb (see above), by all accounts a miserable SOB but by all measurable standards arguably the all-around most skilled player in the history of the game. By the end of that legendary career, he would achieve this Wikipedia list's worth of distinctions:
Career highlights and awards

▪ 1911 AL MVP
▪ .367 career batting average (highest ever)
▪ 54 career steals of home (most all time)
▪ Won 12 batting titles, including 9 in a row from 1907 to 1915.
▪ Third all time in stolen bases with 892.
▪ Second in runs scored with 2,245.
▪ Second in career hits with 4,191.
▪ Batted under .320 only once in his career.
▪ Batted over .400 three times.
▪ Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Just tonight on the Yankee telecast an instant poll asked which old-time player viewers most wish they could have seen, and Cobb received a stunning 66 percent of the votes. As John Lardner writes in his introduction, "[T]he baseball technique and dramatics of You Know Me Al are as timeless as the literary values."



John Lardner's Introduction (1958), Part 1 and Part 2

Chapter I: A Busher's Letters Home

Part 1: Ring's Preface, and Jack's letters of September 6 and December 14 and 16
Part 2: The busher reaches the bigs -- March 2, 7, 9, and 16
Part 3: Countdown to Opening Day -- March 26 and April 1, 4, 7, and 10
Part 4: Jack makes his big-league debut -- April 11 and 15
Part 5: A major development for Jack -- April 19, 25, and 29


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At 6:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't remember who it was, but there was a guy announcing the Little League World Series a few years ago who was asked about getting older as a baseball player and realizing there were people better than he was. I remember he played for 10 years, so there weren't many better at the end of the day,

His response was, "It never happened to me." The other guy was almost credulous. This guy wasn't that good, but as the questioner started to speak, the baseball player pointed out, "he was neighbors with a young Yogi Berra as a kid, and he always knew there people better than him."

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Noah said...

Reminds me of the film Bull Durham:
Crash Davis: Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: [to himself] What's this guy know about pitching? If he's so good how come he's been in the minors for the last ten years? If he's so good how come Annie wants me instead of him?
Crash Davis: Oh, hey, and another thing, Meat. You don't know shit, all right? If you wanna make it to the bigs, you'll listen to me. Annie only wants you so she can boss you around, got it? So relax! Let's have some fun out here! This game's fun, OK? Fun goddamnit. And don't hold the ball so hard, OK? It's an egg. Hold it like an egg.
For Anon- It was probably Joe Garagiola. He grew up with Berra and later played in the bigs.


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