North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

A Busher’s Lasting Legacy – You Know Me, Al reviewed

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Okay, it’s been a while since I last updated the Sports Illustrated Book Challenge. In fact, it’s been close to a year since it’s last update (not counting a review of Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars I hated so much I trashed it). I’m jumping back into it in haphazard fashion – with a review of the fifth-highest ranked book, Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me, Al”, one of the best and funniest novels in all of literature, not just sports books.

Baseball has a very solid spot in the annals of American fiction. Philip Roth wrote a great novel – The Great American Novel – about the Rupport Mundies, a team of misfits that play an entire season on the road. Shoeless Joe and the Bingo Long Travelling All Stars are two novels which any sports fan should read.

But they all trace back to Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al.

Set in just before the first world war, You Know Me Al is a collection of letters by a semi-literate pitcher entering the big leagues, ego and stomach-first.

Jack Keefe is caricature of a turn of the last century ballplayer. He’s brash, acts on impulse and is astoundingly self-centred. He treats women badly, can’t stand left-handed pitchers and can only barely string together a sentence. If he wasn’t so supremely self-confident yet unaware, he would be a hard guy to like. But that’s what sets him apart.

Like the best athletes, Keefe is completely free of self-doubt. When something bad happens to Keefe – a poor game or a girl dumps him- it doesn’t inspire a letter of self-loathing, but just rolls off him, like water off a duck’s back. He doesn’t think he’ll be back, he knows that he will and when he’s there, he’ll embarrass them – be it Ty Cobb or an ex-girlfriend:
I looked up the skedule and I seen where we play in Detroit the fifth and sixth of September. I hope they will let me pitch there Al. Violet goes to the games and I will make her sorry she give me that kind of treatment. And I will make them Tigers sorry they kidded me last spring. I ain’t afraid of Cobb or none of them now, Al.
This happens time and time again. He pitches a poor game, but it’s always an oddity. Next time he’ll get them. Keefe seems to be a good enough pitcher for teams to take a risk on him and he even has a few good games here and there – he kind of reminds me of Jamie Moyer or Tim Wakefield. When he wins

His most memorable encounters come against Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers, who in both real life and in You Know Me… is kind of an asshole:

Cliched as it sounds, Lardner’s Jack Keefe is a timeless baseball player. The sheer ineptitude and poor judgement of the pitcher. He’s quick with a comeback, often in the worst settings possible. He insults, demeans, drinks and pitches his way through the majors, pissing off almost everybody he comes into contact with, on or off the diamond.
Even now, almost 100 years after it’s initial publication, baseball players are still coloured in Larder’s lines – just look at Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers.

As a just-hanging on pitcher, Keefe is often just above the poverty line. Pleas for money are a common element in his letters to his friend Jack – but he’s always careful to mention he can pay his friend back once he gets a break in the majors:

Al old pal that $25.00 you give me at the station the other day is all shot to peaces and I must ask you to let me have $25.00 more which will make $75.00 all together includeing the $25.00 you sent me before I come home. I hate to ask you this favor old pal but I know you have got the money. If I am sold to Detroit I will get some advance money and pay up all my dedts incluseive.

On top of this, he’s at the mercy of his team’s owner, Charles Comiskey. In many ways, he’s owned by Comiskey. When Keefe hears how much be could be making in the upstart Federal league, he weighs jumping leagues:

Comiskey ought to feel pretty good about me winning and I guess he will give me a contract for anything I want. He will have to or I will go to the Federal League.

But Keefe can’t actually jump, since he signed a contract with the Sox. Soon, Cominsky puts him on waivers and threatens to send him to Milwaukee if he doesn’t agree to his original contract – $2800 a season. Compared to today’s multi-millionare athletes, such a fight over $200 is otherworldly quaint.

In 1914, when Lardner wrote You Know, baseball was just beginning as a professional sport; large sums of money had yet to pour into the game. It was decades before Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause and years before players started making enough money to live a whole year off of. As a player, Keefe was far from in control of his own destiny.
That’s a telling in it’s own way. Just a few years after Lardner’s book was published, eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox took payoffs from a gambler and threw the World Series.

Even in YKMA, the roots of the scandal can be seen growing: the team, and especially the owner, hold all the cards of a player. They dictate what the pay is and when they play. They can bench you for almost any reason, a move that can (and did) cost players a bonus. And if the player didn’t like it, it was tough beans: the team held your baseball rights in perpetuity. It was their way or leaving baseball.

That feeling is what makes Lardner’s book still relevant in the era of the multi-million-dollar athlete. He’s playing and working hard for what seems like such a small sum of money, but he loves the sport too. His happiest moments in the book are when he’s pitched particular well.

After all, Keefe’s eternal confidence and bull-headedness still feel fresh; in more ways then one, he’s like Don Quixote, tilting against the windmills of major league baseball. He has more then a few moments where everything is going wrong and lesser, probably smarter people would pack it in. And Keefe never does. And, as readers, we’re the better for it.

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