Bucs Dugout Book Club: "You Know Me Al," by Ring Lardner

This novel began life

as serialized "Letters From a Busher" in the Saturday Evening Post from 1914-1919 (according to the one-source Wiki entry). The "busher" of the title is Jack Keefe, a pitcher who lands with the White Sox in the middle part of the decade. Apparently, he's pretty good, at least to hear him tell it in letters to his friend Al, back in Bumpkin, Indiana. I say "to hear him tell it" because the novel is told entirely from Jack's POV -- we never see Al's replies -- and he is the type of guy who never gave up a run that wasn't somebody else's fault. (Though, in the context of 1914 baseball, and the small gloves and the poorly groomed fields of the day, that's not entirely unlikely.) Still, the fact that he sticks with a team building itself into a power in the real world is perhaps de facto evidence of his ability.

(Just for the fun of it, I plugged "Jack Keefe" into bb-ref and, oddly perhaps, no one of that name ever played major-league ball; there was a Jackson Keefer in the minors, but he didn't come along for another decade).

Jack is, to be kind, a punk and a hothead who (true to "busher" form) also seems hopelessly naive. This is a one-joke novel, and that's the joke: Jack never does what he says he's going to do, and always does what he says he won't do. Jack has, as Jim Bouton put it in "Ball Four," "the alligator mouth and the hummingbird ass." He is forever mouthing off to his manager and his teammates and the women who pursue him and basically everyone, and threatening to sock someone in the jaw ... but he never does. He always takes the easier way out, and bends. In fact, for all the tough front Jack puts up, everyone around him quickly learns how to play the rube, to manipulate him for their designs. For instance, after his first season with the Sox, Jack swears to Al that he will not sign a contract for a dime less than $4,000 and in the next letter brags that he got $2,800 a year for three years out of Comiskey. (On a historical note, Jack tries to use the Federal League as leverage, which was a viable though brief option at the time.)

That's the setup, and the letters and the storylines they convey are simply variations on the theme. It's like a sitcom, "The Honeymooners," for instance. A particularly funny sequence involves Jack's first two hours alone with his baby, during which he feels compelled to call a doctor three times.

The joke wears thin eventually, but the novel has several things going for it that still make it worth a read.

One, it's reasonably short.

Two is the historical context. I have little doubt that Lardner is accurately portraying MLB as it was run and played in the 1910s. Few people today would, for instance, have any memory of the fact that owners would grub any dollar they could get by playing non-World Series series after the season (the White Sox and Cubs for awhile played a city series -- Jack calls it a "serious," one of the many glorious misspellings Lardner puts in Jack's pen) for which the players would get a cut to supplement their often penurious wages but which were doubtless lucrative for the owners, or taking all-star teams on tours around the world during the winter.

Three is, of course, that this is Ring freaking Lardner, writing rings (pun intended) around many sportswriters of the day, and the use of the language is glorious. (Though he must have had a difficult time of it reminding himself to misspell and misuse many words the way a bumpkin would.)

This novel was available free (it's in public domain) on Nook through the Barnes & Noble site.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the managing editor (Charlie) or SB Nation. FanPosts are written by Bucs Dugout readers.

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