On Virginia Woolf’s Favorite Baseball Book

March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

Finished: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.

Reading now: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.

I’m not sure quite where You Know Me Al stands these days.  It was both wildly popular and critically acclaimed in its time (shocking fact: Virginia Woolf somehow loved or pretended to love this book — look it up, there’s an easy-to-find blurb), then became one of those last-generation books that no one actually reads, and now — is it a semi-forgotten classic?  A bestseller that’s found its way to the appropriate level of public awareness?  I suppose it’s something like a cult classic now, though even when I lived in Chicago pretty much no one I knew had read or even heard of it.  But I suppose book cults must be the smallest cults of all.  We’re not talking Jesus and Mary Chain here.  We’re not talking Lebowski.

But there’s a little of YKMA‘s DNA in Lebowski as there is in all American satire, all American humor.  The book’s a transcription of the letters home of Jack Keefe, young pitcher for the White Sox, to his “old pal” Al of Jack Keefe.  It’s rife with misspellings, malapropisms, double negatives, horrible grammar.  Jack’s dumb.  And an asshole.  But he’s an entertaining asshole, an asshole on many levels and in many different ways.   I love it when he’s both too clever by half and obtuse, as in this passage:

Bodie and Schalk was on when I come up in the 5th and Hill hollers to me and says I guess this is where I shoot one of them bean balls.  I says Go ahead and shoot and if you hit me in the head and I ever find it out I will write and tell your wife what happened to you.  You see what I was getting at Al.  I was insinuateing that if he beaned me with his fast one I would not never know nothing about it if somebody did not tell me because his fast one is not fast enough to hurt nobody even if it should hit them in the head.  So I says to him Go ahead and shoot and if you hit me in the head and I ever find it out I will write and tell your wife what happened to you.  See, Al?

Thinking of Hill, the pitcher, trying to sort all of that out on the mound cracks me up.

Al ends up being a fascinating character in absentia, because you end up just itching to see the other side of the correspondence: does he realize what a jerk Jack is, even to him?  Is he just that loyal, or is he as dumb as Jack (or dumber) to keep bailing him out with loans and running errands for him back in his hometown?  Does he take offense to Jack’s apparently unintentional but really mean slights of Al’s wife Bertha, or not even notice them?  I like to think of Al as the good angel to Jack’s bad: taking care of his family, loyal to his friends and teammates, overlooking the human foibles, errors, and monstrosities of his pal in favor of remembering good times they’d shared.

Lardner clearly knew baseball from his sports writing, and he doesn’t let management off altogether: Charles Comiskey, the real-life owner of the White Sox, is a character here, and is treated as no saint when it comes to taking advantage of the onerous contracts of the day.  And in the end, when Jack is talked into an around-the-world tour of exhibition games with the White Sox for nothing but living expenses, we see the other side of the equation of Jack’s naivete and idiocy: businessmen taking advantage of it for material gain.

You Know Me Al has an infrequently cited subtitle: A Busher’s Letters.  Partly I suppose this is a matter of branding, because the first section appeared in the Saturday Evening Post under the title “A Busher’s Letters Home” and subsequent chapters appeared as stories there, as well.  But partly it’s Lardner’s sly dig at Jack Keefe, the titular busher (baseball slang: one who is or belongs in the bush, or minor, leagues).  In terms of talent, Keefe turns out to have enough to win a lot of games for the White Sox (assisted, surely, by pitching during the end of the “dead ball” era when 1-0 scores were a regular occurrence) and back up his incessant braggadocio, which surprised me.  But he’s forever a busher in his contempt for his teammates, his utter lack of self-awareness, his naive belief in his omnipotence and omniscience.  He’s a rube, and an American archetype.

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