Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Chicago White Sox in American Literature

“Manager Callahan called us all to his room after breakfast and give us a lecture. He says there would be no work for us the first day, but that we must not take the training trip as a joke. Then the colored trainer give us our suits and I went to my room and tried mine on. I ain’t a bad looking guy in the White Sox Uniform Al. I will have my picture taken and send you boys some.”
from “You Know Me, Al,” by Ring Lardner (pictured in the hat).

Bear with the scribe here folks, as he tries to cram World Series fever into his Web blog of political and literary pretensions.

The genesis of this particular post was born with a King Kaufman article in Salon.com on Oct. 21. King is a fun sportswriter and you get to kick it back and forth with him by e-mail when he's not overwhelmed.

The gist of his piece was that...well let’s just quote him: “Wretcheder than a Red Sock, more unsuccessful than a Cub, able to leap Tigers and Indians in a singular quest to avoid pennants, the White Sox have built up none of the mystique and tragic beauty of some of their fellow losers...”

This was Kaufman’s lede paragraph, the unwitting subtext of which is that the SOX ARE HOT! Everybody’s lovin’ their gear with the cool White Sock (see image, again), their South-Side-wrong-side-of-the-trax Chicago allure, and their...just about everything.

The Sox are simply too hip and cool right now to resist.

As a humiliated Angels fan still smarting from the Wrath-of-Sox, that’s not easy to admit, but the scribe can (“Forebearance Please...” Oct. 12).

But that’s not going to stop King Kaufman, a guy with a deadline in search of a hook, from keepin’ on. He says that the Sox’ travails [that’s French for work, you know] are rooted in, “an unavoidable fact of American life: You need star power, but what you really need is a good press agent.”

The Red Sox, he said, “had the Babe Ruth thing, Ted Williams, Yaz, Fenway Park and the Eastern literary establishment. The Cubs had Hack Wilson and Ernie Banks, Sweet Swingin’ Billy Williams and Ron Santo, Ryne Sandburg and Sammy Sosa. They had the ballpark and the celebrities, they had Harry Caray becoming a national figure on their payroll.”

the scribe couldn’t have disagreed more and he posted a letter on Salon pointing out that maybe the problem was rooted in the general illiteracy of our own people. the scribe was not suggesting Americans are illiterate in that they don’t read. No, somebody has to scan that instructions manual before the flat screen TV is affixed to the wall.

He meant they are il-literal when it comes to literature; for when it comes to the literary, few teams can count an American icon as one of its beat recorders.

Ring Lardner was a baseball writer for the “Chicago Tribune” back at the turn of the century, or perhaps better put, the 19-teens. The team he covered was...you guessed it, the Chicago White Sox.

His signature piece, a collection of letters from hayseed and spitballer Jack Keefe, published first in “The Saturday Evening Post” [the Trib wasn’t interested] and later packaged in 1916 as the novel “You Know Me, Al,” used the White Sox world as a platform for some of the best, most entertaining literature around.

His fictional guys mix with the legends of the time - Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, Babe Ruth, Joe McGraw - men Lardner drank and played cards with. His writing is a window on a distant time filled with ghosts of greatness.

Keefe was a hick from southern Indiana, Bedford to be precise, and a pretty dumb bunny whom good things happened to, in spite of his own decisions, thanks to the simple fact he could hurl a dead ball in a blazing manner.

But the scribe is editorializing. Here are a few sweet passages that capture Keefe’s vernacular and two from Lardner’s actual coverage of the 1919 World Series between the [Black] Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, which the boys from Chicago, led by Shoeless Joe Jackson, threw for gamblers’ money.

A Busher’s Letters Home:

In this first piece, Keefe writes Al from Cleveland on April 10, early in his first season as a pro player:

“The hotel here is a great big place and got good eats. We got in at breakfast time and I made a B line for the dining room. Kid Gleason who is a kind of asst. manager to Callahan come in and sat down with me. He says Leave something for the rest of the boys because they will be just as hungry as you. He says Ain’t you afraid you will cut your throat with that knife. He says There ain’t no extra charge for using the forks. He says You shouldn’t ought to eat so much because you’re overweight now. I says You may think I am fat, but it’s all solid bone and muscle. He says yes I suppose it’s all solid bone from the neck up. I guess he thought I would get sore but I will let them kid me now because they will take off their hats to me when they see me work.”

As it turns out, sometimes they do take their hats off, if only to hit him with them.

In this letter from Chicago nine days later, Keefe details the drubbing he took at the hands of Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers:

“They sure did run me wild on the bases. Cobb stole four and Bush and Crawford and Veach about two apiece. Schalk [the catcher] didn’t even make a peg half the time. I guess he was trying to throw me down...I come in to the bench and Callahan says Are Your friends from Bedford up there? I was pretty sore and I says Why don’t you get a catcher? He says We don’t need no catcher when you’re pitchin' because you can’t get nothing past their bats. Then he says You better leave your uniform in here when you go out next inning or Cobb will steal it off your back. I says My arm is sore. He says Use your other one you’ll do just as good.”

From Detroit on Sept. 6, near the end of his first season, Keefe recounts this exchange between himself, the manager, and Cobb:

“Then Cobb come over and asked if I was going to work. Callahan told him Yes. Cobb says How many innings? Callahan says All the way. Then Cobb says Be a good fellow Cal and take him out early. I am lame and can’t run.”

The next season, Keefe has some fun at the expense of the Washington Senators in an Aug. 22 letter from Chicago:

“P.S. Washington comes in tomorrow and I am going to ask Rowland to leave me pitch. The worst I can get is a tie. They scored a run in St. Louis yesterday and that means they are through for the week.”

These bits of pleasure are pulled from a tome entitled “Lardner on Baseball,” which the scribe bought from the discount dealer Daedalus Books for $5, hardcover ‘n all. The compilation is edited by Jeff Silverman who explains that the final section of the book, the only nonfiction entries included, involved Lardner’s coverage of the Black Sox and that nefarious World “Serious” [to quote Keefe] they threw.

Here’s Silverman: “Though quite capable of it, Lardner didn’t dream up the Black Sox; he didn’t have to. That darker side of the flesh that he refused to sugarcoat, personified by greed and a few other deadly sins, was already abroad in the land to do it for him. Lardner was its amanuensis, and if you read between the lines of his coverage, you’ll see how suspicious he was, and, given the restraints of his business, how clever he had to be in the implications of his reporting.”

Here’s one, original headline and all, that is downright eerie given some of the bad calls that have gone the White Sox' way this playoff season. Note the modern, almost Joycean, touches to what are nothing more than daily newspaper dispatches:

Gents: Lardner Says the Umpires Interfere With His ‘Dope’ on Big Series.

You Never Can Tell What They Are Going to Do Declares Expert Who Compares Players of Both Teams and a Few Who Are Not

Cincinnati, Sept. 28 – Gents: In doping out a conflict like the threatened world serious, an expert like myself works under a heavy strain as they’s no way of telling what those d––m umpires is going to do and in the case of a couple of even matched ball clubs like the White Sox and Reds neither 1 of which has ever lose a world serious why some finicky notion of some umpire is libel to raise havioc.

And finally, one more legend mentioned in daily paper prose:

Moran and Gleason Widely Different Types

The shortstops can be past over, as they seldom never cut any figure in an even of this kind, and that brings us to Weaver and Groh at 3d. base both of which is the greatest 3d. baseman in the game today. Comparisons is obvious but they tell me Heinie is libel to quit as for inst. when he was first born his old man said Heinie Groh and Heinie started but soon give it up.

The least said about the 2 outfields the better as they are about equally bad and the only chance for a arguement is who has the cutest nickname Shoeless Joe Jackson or Greasy Neale.

You may not agree, but the highway scribe finds all of this to be great stuff and told Kaufman so: “As old as the stories are, one gets a sense that little in baseball has changed, and that little with the Sox, save for this season, has changed either.”

So there you have it, lore and quality galore for the season's favored sons, the Chicago White Sox.
On December 15 at 33 1/3 Books & Collective, corner of Sunset Blvd. and Alvarado, the scribe will read from "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows." Here's a review of it: http://www.angelfire.com/wa2/margin/nonficSellmanVedette.html. He will be accompanied by the wonderful guitarist Omar Torrez http://www.omartorrez.com/


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