"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: john lardner

BGS: You Know Me, Al

John Lardner’s introduction to a 1959 edition of Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, a fictional series of letters from professional ballplayer Jack Keefe to his friend Al. Those stories are included in the Library of America’s new collection. (There was also a comic strip based on the same characters, with continuity written by Ring.) John was Ring Lardner’s eldest son and a fine journalist in his own right.


The You Know Me Al letters have an unusual history, in terms of reputation. The impact of their original publication, forty-five years ago, was such that their fame has endured to a large extent by word of mouth, like that of New York’s blizzard of 1888. Mere memories of the prodigy have been handed down from one generation to another. It’s not necessary—as years of involuntary research have shown me—for someone to have read You Know Me Al to want to talk about it. I think that reading is better, because the letters are equal to their reputation and are equally timeless. But the fact of their continuing strength-through-hearsay remains, as a kind of literary curiosity. So does the fact that among people who have read them, they have been relished and judged from radically different points of view. I’ve known readers who associated them—delightedly—with the “funny-spelling” works of the Bill Nye school, which came earlier, and of Ed Streeter (“Dere Mable”), who came a little later. I’ve known readers who valued the language of the letters more highly than that, but who enjoyed them primarily as the most comical and engrossing baseball writing of all time. I’ve seen critical estimates that rated You Know Me Al as an all-around classic, or as a compact treasure-house of popular American English exactly observed and transcribed. On the whole, these cults have lived in perfect congeniality. As far as I know, no reader’s viewpoint has ever interfered with the pleasure of another reader.

It’s true that only a few of the readers or the knowing nonreaders of You Know Me Al have thought of it as a work of art. There’s a certain rough justice in that situation. The busher letters were not written with artistic prestige in mind. They were written because there was an urgent need around the home of the two hundred dollars that each of the first installments brought from The Saturday Evening Post. (Later, according to Donald Elder’s biography, Ring Lardner, which has more reliable information about those times than I have, Jack Keefe letters fetched up to twelve hundred and fifty dollars per installment. The cheaper installments—the ones that were incorporated in the book You Know Me Al—were the best.) Almost as soon as the Post began to publish them, the letters made their author as famous as the President of the United States. (They were to keep him famous in the same degree throughout the next two or three administrations.) This turn of events startled my father, but it totally failed to cause him to think of what he had written as literature.

At that stage, thanks to the atmosphere in which he worked and to his own ingrained shyness, he couldn’t think of anything he wrote in that way–although it may come to the same thing as conscious artistry that he struggled constantly to make his stuff as good and as true as it could be. A few years afterward, when H.L. Mencken, Gilbert Seldes, Franklin P. Adams, and others began to praise his work as art, he was deeply pleased—although, again, startled. He was critic enough himself, and his standards were severe enough, so that he sometimes pointed out, privately, what he thought were inaccuracies or inanities in some of the things that were written in his praise. In other words, he could react like a literary man when he was stimulated to do so. He had known when he wrote it that the language of You Know Me Al was right. He was bound to know—he had the world’s best ear. But it was impossible for him then, and hard at any time, to connect this sort of rightness, or rightness of character-drawing, in his own case, with the idea of artistic creation.

Some strong tributes have been paid to the literary importance of You Know Me Al. Probably the most striking is one that was written in England, in 1925, by Virginia Woolf, who didn’t know an infielder from a fungo bat and who approached all contemporary American writing in the spirit of an explorer of unknown territory. Earlier in the essay in question, she had said that Sinclair Lewis’s work had confused her by what she considered its self-consciousness—that Lewis seemed to be exhibiting and explaining American types in the style of an educated tourist guide, with his mind on British or European audiences.

“But Mr. Lardner,” she wrote, “is not merely unaware that we differ; he is unaware that we (the British) exist. When a crack player is in the middle of an exciting game of baseball he does not stop to wonder whether the audience likes the color of his hair. (Mr. Elder has noted that Mrs. Woolf may have guessed wrong in this detail.) All his mind is on the game. So Mr. Lardner does not waste a moment when he writes in thinking whether he is using American slang or Shakespeare’s English—whether he is proud of being American or ashamed of not being Japanese; all his mind is on the story. Hence, incidentally, he writes the best prose that has come our way. Hence we feel at last freely admitted to the society of our fellows.

”That this should be true of You Know Me Al, a story about baseball, a game which is not played in England, a story written often in a language which is not English, gives us pause. To what does he owe his success? Besides his unconsciousness … Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. As he babbles out his mind on paper there rise up friends, sweethearts, the scenery, town, and country—all surround him and make him up in his completeness.”

Mrs. Woolf then raised a point that first struck me when it was made in reverse to indicate a weakness, rather than a strength—by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Ring,” an obituary essay that appeared in The New Republic. “Ring” was a fine piece, eloquent, loving, and brilliantly written. I suspect, however, that some of its author’s reasoning was based on delayed intuitions summoned up for the occasion and shaped by his proselytizing instinct. I’ll quote briefly from a passage in which I think the spirit of do-it-my-way interfered with Fitzgerald’s sense of proportion.

He had been saying that Ring Lardner’s “achievement” fell short of what he was capable of, and speculating about my father’s unwillingness or inability to tackle presumably larger subjects than the ones he had handled in You Know Me Al and The Big Town and in his short stories.

“During those (sports-writing) years,” Fitzgerald wrote, “when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game. A boy’s game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure. This material, the observation of it under such circumstances, was the text of Ring’s schooling during the most formative period of the mind. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.

“Here was his artistic problem, and it promised future trouble. So long as he wrote within that enclosure the result was magnificent: within it he heard and recorded the voice of a continent. But when, inevitably, he outgrew his interest in it, what was Ring left with?”

This appraisal overlooks the fact that very little of what my father wrote during the last fourteen years—almost one-third—of his life had to do with baseball. It fails to consider that one man’s period of creativity may be shorter—especially if his work has been cleaner and more painstaking—than another’s. Also, it seems to me, it tends to belittle what had been done, the depth of the cut in the cake. I don’t know, frankly, just how genius works in the matter of dimensions—whether it can probe a wide body as deeply as it can a narrow one. I have an idea that it was the compactness of the material, and the intensity, the concentration, that it produced, that made my father’s stories as good as they were. This would apply to The Big Town, and to Broadway stories like “Some Like Them Cold” and “A Day with Conrad Green,” and to the old people’s story, ”The Golden Honeymoon” (which has a lot in common with You Know Me Al), as well as to baseball stories. It’s my feeling, an entirely respectful one, that Scott Fitzgerald was at his best when he wrote in tight focus, about neat, intricate, carefully coded systems of life in which he knew all the moves.

Mrs. Woolf has said: “It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner’s stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner’s interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brother.”

I’m not sure that the problems that Mrs. Woolf spoke of were purely American even at the time she wrote. There was a good deal of writing in Europe in those days that was loose and garrulous, that teemed with unframed types and symbols. In the last ten or fifteen years—perhaps because the Second World War accelerated the decline of many traditions—there have been quantities of that kind of writing in nearly every country that publishes books. At any rate, I think it was lucky both for my father and for his readers that the things that interested him were snugly organized. His subjects suited his special abilities. He carried a sharp knife; with one stroke of it, in You Know Me Al, he laid bare all the vital parts of a man who, because he was a human being, was more meaningful than any type could be.

In other words, the author of You Know Me Al was able to do more than reproduce “the voice of a continent.” Still, what he accomplished in that direction was astonishing. As Mencken said in The American Language (1919), everything that had been observed about American English by the shrewdest scholars, and much that had not, was compressed into a single piece of fiction by a newspaper man—a writer who, obviously, had not read the findings of these scholars and who worked by ear and self-respect alone. As I’ve said, my father was exhilarated by Mencken’s learned notice. Also, whenever Mencken dissented, in phrases like “my own observation is” or “my own belief is,” my father swiftly—though privately—overrode the objections and alternatives, again by ear and from a sense of fitness. (He dissented strongly, for instance, from Mencken’s dissents in the matter of the participles “throwed” and “gave.” He thought that Mencken and other critics sometimes failed to allow for the differences between spoken American and written American.) I doubt if my father would ever have ruled publicly on questions like these if Mencken had not encouraged him to it by recognizing his gift. Still, when he did permit himself to criticize another writer’s “American” in print, which was rarely, he showed a scientific, and almost a proprietary, interest in the matter, along with an uneasy need to depreciate himself in the role of scholar. A review he wrote of John V. A. Weaver’s book of verse, In American, was both precise and apologetic.

The language in the book, he said, was “pure American, nearly. The few impurities are a lifesaver for the critic. We can’t hope to land a K.O. on the writer’s jaw, but we can fret him a little with a few pokes to the ear. For the most part, this organ has served Mr. Weaver well. But I think that on occasion it consciously or unconsciously plays him false. It has told him, for example, that we say everythin’ and anythin’. We don’t. We say somethin’ and nothin’, but we say anything and everything. There appears to be somethin’ about the y near the middle of both these words that impels us to acknowledge the g on the end of them. Mr. Weaver’s ear has also give or gave (not gi’n) him a bum hunch on thing itself. It has told him to make it thin’! But it’s a real effort to drop the g off this little word and, as a rule, our language is not looking for trouble.”

It was a long and not very relevant step to this kind of analysis from the entertainer’s mood in which the busher letters were written. There’s a long distance, too, between the views of Mencken and Mrs. Woolf and the untrained, reflexive pleasure of the public’s reaction to You Know Me Al. Mrs. Woolf has shown why ignorance of baseball need not prevent a reader from appreciating the book as a classic. But there is a great deal in it that she was bound to miss. For the knowledgeable, the baseball details are pure delight; the thirsty fan drinks them down like cold water. Many names and conditions that were topical in 1914—Cobb, Mathewson, the “Federals,” McGraw, the gracefully ruthless Comiskey, Walsh, the spitball, Cicotte, Buck Weaver—are historical now; but history, for the baseball-lover, is full of romance. And the baseball technique and dramatics of You Know Me Al are as timeless as the literary values.

Gilbert Seldes, in discussing what he felt was the iconoclastic effect of Al, wrote that “baseball has never recovered” from what my father did to its heroes. I think it’s true that there was an element of shock in the author’s treatment of Keefe and one or two other non-historical characters. I believe that Mr. Elder stated the point a little more reasonably when he said that baseball fandom was “far more ingenuous” before the First World War than it is now, and that You Know Me Al reduced the “baseball hero” (my father, however, did not make Keefe a type, or even necessarily a fans’ hero) to human dimensions. Baseball did not have to recover from You Know Me Al, because its hard assets had not been disturbed. The book did make an important change in a state of mind which Mr. Seldes, writing in the early 1920s, could recall vividly. Since then, there have been other changes in player attitudes and in fan habits with which the Keefe letters had nothing to do. It’s noteworthy that Al has survived change as easily as it has created it. Everything that is inherently sound in our national diversion, and everything that is characteristically silly, are fixed for all time in this story.

Superficially, ball players are not quite the same kind of people today as they were in Keefe’s day. Present times have developed a distinct athlete class, to which most professional players belong—a group of men at least semi-educated in classrooms as well as lavishly trained since early youth in sports. In former times, professional baseball was the chancy lot of a handful of average workingmen. Only a thin margin of luck and physical aptitude separated the ball player from the clerk, the cab-driver, the farmer, and the coalminer. The difference between old-time and present-day players is reflected partly in the jargon of the modern game. Keefe used a certain amount of shop-talk; but the new athlete class has greatly refined and expanded baseball culture, and its wordiness has infected fans and baseball writers and sportscasters (who to some extent have re-infected the players). The vocabulary of the game has become swollen with expertise, with “changeups” and “breaking stuff” and “hitting the ball where it is pitched” and “getting good wood on it” and “shading him a little toward left” and “three speeds of curve” and the whole prolix cult of the “slider.” “Inside ball,” which was a glamorous mystery in the heyday of McGraw and Mack, is now public property, and there is, ostensibly, a hell of a lot more of it than there used to be.

But all the essential truth about ball-playing can be found in You Know Me Al. Its broader values to one side, there has never been a sounder baseball book. The story flows along with unpretentious smoothness. But if you stop to pick over the accounts of ball games, you see that each detail is correct in relation to place, weather, time of year, and the hitting, pitching, or fielding idiosyncrasies of each of a hundred players. Baseball strategy is set down as accurately as the speech and characters of Keefe, his friends, his girls, and his in-laws. I have never read a piece of baseball fiction, besides this one, in which there was no technical mistake. (Thirty-odd years ago, my father and mother worried and conferred when I was caught reading a novel about flaming youth called The Plastic Age. But my father was even more worried when he caught me reading a baseball novel called Won in the Ninth. He didn’t take it away from me, but he warned me not to let my mind be soiled by corrupt observation of baseball procedures.)

There is one more salient point about You Know Me Al. It is funny. The fact has gone unmentioned, or been taken for granted, by Mrs. Woolf, Mencken, Fitzgerald, and others as they studied the literary or scientific aspects of the book. But Al knocked the country head over heels in the first place because people laughed at it, so intensely that the echoes have been accepted at face value ever since. My feeling about nonreaders and tradition-carriers is that they also serve. But reading, as I said before, is better.

Great stuff from son to father, huh?

Sof you aren’t familiar with Ring, let me suggest two books—The Lardners: My Family Remembered, a fine memoir by Ring Jr., and Jonathan Yardley’s excellent biography, Ring.

Here’s Yardley:

He was a writer of manners, and the manners he described were those of a society markedly different from that in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James. He wrote about the manners of the bleachers and the clubhouse, the mezzanine and the dressing room, the barbershop and the beauty parlor, the Pullman car and the touring car, the kitchen and the diner, the bridge table and the bowling alley. He wanted us to get rich, and he showed us how foolish we often looked as we threw our new money after idle and inane pleasures and possessions; he had been truly bitter or misanthropic or hateful, he never would have succeeded in making us laugh at ourselves so heartily.

He wrote so perceptively and accurately about what he saw because he was a great journalist. This, in the end is the singular accomplishment of his life. Ring came into the profession when it was held in far too much disdain even to be considered a “profession”; it was a line of work pursued by coarse people who had a coarse talent for putting words together in a speedy way. He was one of the very first people to bring creativity and felicity of style to the press. He set an example that was eagerly followed by younger writers. His aristocratic manner and confident bearing gave the lie to the argument that journalists were by their very nature guttersnipes. The quality of his writing and the doggedness with which he kept it so high proved that good prose and journalism were not mutually exclusive. So, too, he showed that in newspapers one could do serious work and be respected for it. P

Ring Lardner: An American Original

And yet Lardner, who was widely admired by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and his friend and neighbor, Scott Fitzgerald, was chided by the critical establishment for not writing a novel. Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor, once wrote:P

Ring was not, strictly speaking, a great writer. The truth is he never regarded himself seriously as a writer. Healways though of himself as a newspaperman, anyhow. He had a sort of provincial scorn of literary people. If he had written much more, he would have been a great writer perhaps, but whatever it was that prevented him from writing more was the thing that prevented him from being a great writer. But he was a great man, and one of immense latent talent which got itself partly expressed. P

Yardley has a thoughtful take on the matter:P

Ring was scare of the mere idea of writing a novel; he had the journalist’s fear of taking on something so long and complex and structurally unclear. Beyond that, so many people had by now asked him so many times when he was going to write a “real” book that he must have felt that expectations had been raised past any point he could possibly hope to match.

…It is a mystery why he never simply said: Look, no one does what I do better than I do, so why not accept me for what I am? He could also have said, with utter legitimacy, that his mind functioned best over short, intense distances and that he did not think he was capable of writing a good novel—which in fact he probably was not.

Americans equate bigness with greatness, and all around him people were saying that he had to do something big if he wanted to be great. In truth, he probably did not care all that much about being great, but neither did he want to disappoint. He was a miniaturist to whom the world seemed to be shouting “Inflate! Inflate!” and he could not handle it. P

We’ve had Elmore Leonard on the brain, a writer famous for his ear and his ability to write dialogue. Ring Lardner built his reputation as a writer who appreciated how Americans talk. That’s no small achievement. He was also, as Yardley points out, funny. We’re grateful to theLibrary of America for celebrating an American original.

BGS: Battling Siki

More from John Lardner. Originally published in 1949 in the New Yorker and reprinted here with permission of Susan Lardner.

“The Battling Siki”

By John Lardner

Hell’s Kitchen, the region west of Eighth Avenue around the Forties, won its name many years ago and continued to deserve it until about the time the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Things are different there now. So its residents will tell you, and so you can see for yourself if, having known the neighborhood a little during Prohibition, you visit it even briefly today. Once it was carpeted, for nearly all its length and breadth, with low, swarthy brick tenement houses containing a warren of flats, speak-easies, six-table cellar “cabarets,” hole-in-the-wall stores and restaurants, back-room stills, and “social clubs,” where a portion of the manhood of the district stored guns and ammunition and planned stick-ups and highjackings. Right along the equator of Hell’s Kitchen ran the Ninth Avenue “L” tracks, throwing a grim, significant shadow by day and night. Other parts of town had clip joints, or “buckets of blood,” scattered through them, but the Kitchen, as a detective friend of mine used to say, was one big bucket of blood. Nowadays the Kitchen is a bit more shiny and much more respectable. Neon lights and modern shops and garages have pushed their way into it. The McGraw-Hill Building has gouged out half of what was considered one of the hottest blocks in Hell’s Kitchen in the nineteen twenties—the block bounded by Eighth and Ninth Avenues and Forty-first and Forty-second streets. The Lincoln Tunnel approaches have formed an asphalt plaza west of Ninth Avenue. The sleek New Jersey buses and automobiles bound for and away from the West Side Highway plow across the old badlands in steady procession. The retail liquor traffic thereabouts has become negligible; the city’s center of gravity of crime has shifted elsewhere, perhaps to Brooklyn. Broadly speaking, Hell’s Kitchen is not a frontier community any more but a sort of vehicular gateway to the heart of Manhattan. However, if you want to conjure up the atmosphere of earlier times, you can still find islands of squat tenement houses here and there to help you, many of them boarded up and condemned, and the empty shells of many basement grogshops. In the unlikely event that you want to visit the scene of the murder, twenty-four years ago, of a man called Battling Siki, which is what I did one day recently for no useful reason, you will come across a few surviving landmarks. You can pace off distances in the same gutter and seamy street—Forty-first—down which Siki crawled forty feet west toward Ninth Avenue, with two bullets in his body, before he collapsed and died. He crawled in the direction of the “L,” the cave of shadows that no longer is there. His killer threw away the gun in front of a grimy old house that is now gone; the McGraw-Hill Building is there instead. These changes make the setting less sinister than it used to be, but even now there’s plenty to show that it was a drab and lonesome place to die.

Siki who held the light-heavyweight boxing championship of the world for six months in 1922 and 1923, was born in Senegal, in French West Africa, in 1897 and was killed in Hell’s Kitchen twenty-eight years later, in 1925. He was the Kitchen’s most turbulent citizen in the short time he lived there. He was thought by neighbors who knew him to have an honest heart and a generous soul, but when he drank the newly cooked liquor of the parish, as he often did, the cab drivers, cops, bartenders, and hoodlums whom he chose, with impeccable lack of judgment, to knock around, found it hard to take him philosophically. Rear-line observers, on the other hand were usually able to be philosophical about Siki. During the three years of his life in which he received international publicity—the last three—he was referred to repeatedly as a “child of nature,” a “natural man ” and a “jungle child,” and at least once as “the black Candide.” After his murder, the New York World said editorially, “What is all this [Siki's physical strength, his brawling and dissipation] but the sulks and tempers of Achilles, the prank of Siegfried and the boars, the strutting of Beowulf, the armours of Lemminkaïnen? We have had a walking image of our beginnings among us and did not know it. . . . He had, it is true, the mentality of a backward toad… But he had the soul of a god.”

It strikes me that tributes paid by civilized people to a “natural man,” especially one who has walked among us, are apt to sound either patronizing, like the World’s, or uneasy, like some delivered by American correspondents when Siki won his boxing championship in Paris in 1922 and was first interviewed. After praising Siki’s strength and simplicity, one reporter wrote apprehensively, “He is very black and very ugly.” Siki’s manager at the time, a M. Hellers, was quoted as saying that Siki was a fine lad but “just a little bit crazy.” I can discover no support among those who were acquainted with Siki in America later on for the idea that he was crazy, except when he drank, or the idea that he was mentally toadlike. He was illiterate, never having been to school, but he could make himself understood in several languages including English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and German. As far as Candide is concerned, Siki resembled Voltaire’s hero in that he had a sheltered boyhood, was thrown suddenly into the thick of the best of all possible worlds, and found society both violent and larcenous. At seventeen, he was involved in a civilized world war. At twenty-five, he was permitted to box a champion on the condition that he lose the match. Having ignored the condition and won the championship, he insured his loss of that title, in all innocence, by fighting an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. He entered American life in the heyday of the Volstead act. He could not master the strong waters or the social customs of the West Side of New York City. He was killed by gunfire, after surviving a stabbing earlier in the same year. It may seem, offhand, that Hell’s Kitchen was a curious place for the curtain to fall on a twenty-eight-year-old Mohammedan born in St. Louis de Senegal on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, but Voltaire has shown that when civilization gets its hands on one of these natural men, it pushes him about at random from curious place to curious place. Candide was lucky to wind up safely cultivating his garden. He came close to meeting his end in an auto-da-fé in Portugal and, another time, on a roasting spit in Paraguay. Siki’s story is perhaps more realistic. He failed to last out the course.

The newspaper writers of the 1920s were merely being wishful when they called Siki a jungle child. St. Louis, his African home, is a seaport ten miles above the mouth of the Senegal River, on a bare plain that marks the Sahara’s southwesternmost edge. It’s doubtful whether anyone in Europe or America today knows what Siki’s real name was. Legend has it that when he was ten or twelve years old, a French actress touring the colonies saw him in St. Louis, was impressed by his appearance, and took him into her personal service, giving him, for reasons based on classical Greek, the name of Louis Phal. Whatever its origin, this, Anglicized as Louis Fall, was his legal name when he was married, and when he was murdered, in America. He did not become known as Battling Siki until he began to box professionally, in 1913; apparently the word “Siki” was coined or borrowed by French fight promoters, to whom it had vague “native” or colonial connotations. The tale about the actress was told widely in Paris in the days of Siki’s first fame, when he knocked out the celebrated Georges Carpentier, but it was never, so far as I know, closely checked up on. It accounts, plausibly enough, for the abrupt shift of Siki from dusty African streets to the perils of Western civilization. The lady is said to have taken him to her villa on the French Riviera and dressed him in a page boy’s uniform of bottle green. Subsequently, he worked in one town and another as a bus boy. He was fifteen when he started boxing.

Siki had just time for a handful of fights, most of which he won, before the war of 1914-18 broke out and he was conscripted into the 8th Colonial Infantry Regiment of the French Army. His war record was distinguished; in fact, he is reported to have been the bravest soldier in his outfit which saw action on several fronts and gave a strong performance generally. For heroism under fire, Siki won not only the Croix de Guerre but the Médaille Militaire. After demobilization, he could have had his choice of a variety of ordinary civilian jobs; his record guaranteed him that. However, he went back to the prize ring, where the rewards were intermittent but came in good-sized pieces when they came. He barnstormed in France, North Africa, Spain, Belgium, and Holland. From a tour of Holland in 1921 he returned to Paris, where he lived with a Dutch girl who was thought to be his wife and by whom he later had a child. Siki did not work especially hard at his trade. He fought once or twice a month, which is not often for a “club,” or journeyman, fighter, and, while he usually won, he beat nobody of major importance. Between bouts he drank more absinthe than is normal in the profession. American critics were to speak of him three or four years later as a fighter of considerable natural ability who might have been much better than he was. Weighing about a hundred and seventy-five pounds, the maximum for light heavyweights, and standing five feet eleven inches tall, he was a well-muscled young man with a leaping, bounding, lunging style from which he got slapstick effects that amused the galleries, and himself as well. In the early months of 1922, he happened to defeat a couple of men of some slight reputation and thus came to the notice of François Descamps, then the most influential and artful character in French boxing. Descamps offered him a bout for the world’s light-heavyweight championship with Carpentier, whom Descamps managed.

The prizefight business in Continental Europe in those days was an odd blend of laissez faire and team play—laissez faire being understood to mean “Let Descamps do it his way,” and “team play” to mean that all hands share in the spoils. Descamps owned a large stable of fighters and also, it was commonly believed in Paris, a large stable of sports writers. Some of the latter were growing restive in 1922, possibly because of a failure in the team-play system as administered by Descamps. When the Carpentier-Siki match was announced, certain journalists expressed a distrust of it. They suggested that, in Siki, Descamps had laid hold of a small-time, happy-go-lucky trouper with no ambitions beyond getting all the absinthe he could consume, who would be glad to bolster Carpentier’s fortunes—Carpentier had not fought for really big money since his knockout by Jack Dempsey in New Jersey, fourteen months before—without making too much trouble for the champion in the ring. Their hints were undoubtedly read by the public. Carpentier was a war hero, the toast of the boulevards, a boxer still regarded, in spite of his defeat by Dempsey, as peerless in Europe, but though the crowd of 55,000 that came to the new Buffalo Velodrome in Paris on the afternoon of September 24, 1922, to see him fight Siki was the largest in European boxing history, it showed before the day was over that it was on the alert for signs of skulduggery. Its suspicions were inflamed during the preliminary bouts by the work of Harry Bernstein, a referee charged by sports writers with occupying a special compartment in the hip pocket of M. Descamps. In one preliminary, the opponent of a Descamps featherweight named Fritsch was disqualified by Bernstein for hitting too low; in another, the opponent of a Descamps heavyweight named Ledoux was disqualified by Bernstein for not fighting hard enough. Bernstein’s rulings brought a volley of coups de sifflet from the customers, particularly those in the seven-franc seats, who had mustered their sous at a sacrifice and wished for their money’s worth of equality and justice.

The main bout was scheduled for twenty rounds. Carpentier, pale and blond, weighed 173 1/2 pounds, Siki 174. In the first round, Siki fought cautiously and less acrobatically than usual; Carpentier jabbed at him with his left hand. Once, hit lightly, Siki dropped to one knee; Bernstein, who was refereeing this bout, too, did not bother to count. “Get up, Siki, you’re not hurt,” he said. After the round, ringside spectators saw Carpentier smile broadly and heard him say, “I’ll get him whenever I want to.” The champion, boxing easily, won the first two rounds. In the third, Carpentier sent a right-hand blow to Siki’s jaw, and Siki dropped to his knee again, this time taking a count of seven. When he got up, he rushed at Carpentier and hit him violently in the body with a left and a right. Carpentier, looking startled as well as hurt, went down for four seconds. The rest of the fight was all Siki’s. Siki battered Carpentier about the ring in the fourth round while Carpentier hung on to Siki’s arms whenever he could and tried to pinion them with his own. In the fifth, Carpentier fell against the ropes. Siki leaned over him (“I whispered to him to quit,” Siki said later), and Carpentier, pushing himself up, butted angrily at Siki’s belly. Carpentier could hardly stand when the sixth round began. Siki hit him at will. A right uppercut followed by a shower of right and left swings sent Carpentier to the floor unconscious one minute and ten seconds after the start of the round. As he fell, one of his feet became tangled between Siki’s, assisting the fall.

It was plain that Carpentier was completely knocked out, but at that point Bernstein ruled that Siki had lost the fight by tripping his opponent illegally. The third disqualification of the day was more than the crowd was prepared to stomach. It pushed its way to the ring from all quarters of the stadium and stormed around it, yelling furiously. Police were called up to protect Bernstein. Descamps, meanwhile, for whose blood the demonstrators were also shouting, slipped out of the arena behind a couple of gendarmes. Three judges—Victor Breyer, Jean Pujol, and an Englishman, Tom Bannison—who, before the fight, had been appointed by the French Boxing Federation to make a decision in case there was no knockout were now appealed to. After conferring briefly with Federation officials, they announced that they would give a final and formal verdict either supporting or overruling Bernstein’s. They deliberated for three quarters of an hour while Bernstein stood in one comer of the ring among his police guards and practically no one in the audience went home, or even stopped talking unkindly to the referee. The judges, willingly or not, at last did what the crowd wanted: they declared Siki the winner by a knockout and, in the name of the Federation, awarded him the light-heavyweight championship of the world, plus a subsidiary title of Carpentier’s—the heavyweight championship of Europe. Siki said to Hellers, his manager, “Tell America I am ready for Dempsey,” and repaired in triumph to his dressing room. The crowd disbanded. The police saw Bernstein safely to the door of his dressing room.

Siki never got a match with Dempsey, but some offers of lesser opportunities did come to him from America. He was lavishly feted in Pans during the first two days after his victory, and after public enthusiasm subsided, his own continued to run high, especially in the Montmartre neighborhood. “No more absinthe. I will train and fight hard as champion,” Siki had told a gathering outside the office of the newspaper Echo des Sports on the twenty-fifth, the day following the fight. Later that evening, he took a few glasses of champagne, and on touring Montmartre in a rented car with a chauffeur, he reverted to absinthe wholeheartedly at every stop he made. After another week or so he acquired, probably as gifts from fellow colonials, a monkey, which he carried everywhere on his shoulder, and a lion cub, which he led about on a leash. Carpentier was still lying in bed suffering from a sprained ankle, two broken hands, and an unsightly swelling of his nose and lips. Most of the Parisian sporting press was sympathetic toward him but nastily jubilant about Descamps, who, it was implied, had overreached himself and been double-crossed. Rumors to the same effect circulated through Paris for the next several weeks. In early December, the French Boxing Federation precipitated the publication of what was very likely the true story of the fight by suspending Siki—it was charged that while seconding another fighter in the ring, he had struck the manager of his man’s opponent. Siki, deprived of a chance to make a living in France, went for help to M. Diagne, the representative for Senegal in the French Chamber of Deputies. Diagne asserted before the Chamber that the Boxing Federation was discriminating against colonials in favor of Parisian city slickers who wanted Siki out of the way, and in support of this theory he gave the deputies the account of the Carpentier bout that Siki had given him. When the Chamber appeared unwilling to take any action, Diagne called a press conference and had Siki repeat his story to reporters. It ran as follows: A fix had been arranged fifteen days before the bout took place, with Descamps dictating procedure to Siki’s manager. As a sign of good faith, Siki was to take a short count in the first round and another count in the third. He was to get himself knocked out early in the fourth. Siki followed the scenario through the third-round knockdown—”I stayed down for seven the first time Carpentier hit me hard enough to give me an excuse,” he said—but as he knelt on the floor at that point, he decided not to go through with the frameup. It was his pride, he said, and his loyalty to the public that made him change his mind. When he got up, he began to fight in earnest. He ignored a sharp reminder from his manager, between the third and fourth rounds, that his end was expected momentarily. (This detail in Siki’s narrative gave Hellers a clean bill of health, in a left-handed way; Descamps had been so suspicious of treachery by Hellers that he quarreled with him in public after the bout.) Siki surprised Carpentier with his counterattack and soon demolished him.

When Siki’s story was done, M. Diagne explained to the press what it meant: A simple, uneducated man had defended himself and all underprivileged peoples against exploitation by a predatory society. Siki, who was always emotional, wept freely at these words. His tears and his deputy’s arguments got him nowhere. Neither did a court of inquiry appointed by the Boxing Federation to investigate Siki’s statement. The court, with a flashy display of ingenuity, hired two deaf-mutes to watch the motion pictures of the fight and see if they could lip-read certain remarks delivered excitedly by Descamps to Hellers in Siki’s corner during “a critical phase of the battle,” after Siki had begun to knock Carpentier around. The experiment (unique, I think, in boxing history) was later described by the court as “successful,” but Siki remained suspended. He never fought in France again until after he had lost his championships elsewhere. My own opinion is that being champion constituted Siki’s chief sin in the eyes of the Federation. Also, I believe his story of the Carpentier match was substantially correct. A “sign of good faith”—a preliminary fall, or lapse of some other kind, by the loser—is a standard device in the plotting of sports frameups. Eddie Cicotte, a Chicago baseball player, hit the first batter he faced with a pitched ball in the crooked World Series of 1919, as a signal to gamblers that the fix was in. Siki’s tale confirmed the rumors that were current before and after the fight; it was in keeping with the character of Descamps and of Continental boxing methods in 1922, and it is believed by every European and American I know who was familiar in any degree with the time, the place, and the actors.

As it turned out, the Carpentier bout was the only one of importance in Siki’s professional career, except for the next one. The next one was weak and anticlimactic as a show, but it did involve a world’s championship, and it demonstrated in a special way how complicated the civilization of the West can be for an unlettered Moslem with no grounding in our rituals and customs. A fairly good light heavyweight from County Clare in Ireland named Michael Francis McTigue happened to pass through Paris with his staff during Siki’s suspension. Finding Siki idle and nearly broke, the visitors proposed a match between him and McTigue for the title. (The world’s light-heavyweight championship was the one that interested them; the heavyweight championship of Europe had no value in the world market, and has been recognized only sporadically since the day Carpentier lost it.) They spoke of Dublin as a pleasant spot for the Siki-McTigue bout. They mentioned March 17, 1923, as an open date in their engagement book. Siki fell in with these suggestions and met McTigue in the ring in the Irish capital on Saint Patrick’s Day. The operation for the removal of his crown was painless. The decision went to McTigue on points. There was nothing particularly wrong with this verdict, I am told by a neutral eyewitness, except that McTigue did not make the efforts or take the risks that are commonly expected of a challenger for a world’s championship. There was no need to. In the circumstances, nothing less than a knockout could have beaten him, and he avoided that possibility by boxing at long range throughout.

One device by which a civilized man can avoid a predicament like Siki’s in Dublin was illustrated by McTigue himself later in the same year. He went to Columbus, Georgia, to fight a Georgian named Young Stribling before a crowd that was strongly and ostentatiously in favor of his opponent. There was almost no way McTigue could avoid losing within the Georgia state limits, so, to protect his planetary interests, he took along a referee from the North. The referee called the bout a draw. Then, yielding to the howls of protest, he announced that he would deputize the local promoter to give the decision. The promoter called Stribling the winner. The referee, on his way back North by train with McTigue and McTigue’s manager, signed an affidavit that his own true and considered verdict was for a draw. That is how the result has been listed in the record books ever since.

Siki had only two more European fights, both in Paris, after he lost his titles. The last two years of his life he spent in America, disintegrating with headlong speed on bootleg gin and whiskey but nearly always able to make money in the ring when he needed it. When he first arrived in New York, in September 1923, his name had a certain value here, based on curiosity, which it no longer had abroad. He signed on with the stable of a veteran New York manager, Robert (Pa) Levy (Hellers appears to have discarded Siki at the time of his suspension in France), and his first fight in this country was a serious one with a respectable opponent, Kid Norfolk, who beat him in fifteen rounds at Madison Square Garden. From then on, American fight fans were not disposed to think of Siki as a boxer of the top rank, but they liked to watch him. His style was eccentric and funny. He was strong and fast enough to knock out most of the palookas he met, when he felt like it. He was booked as far west as California and as far south as New Orleans, and he earned, according to a fairly reliable estimate I have heard, nearly a hundred thousand dollars between November 1923 and November 1925. He was one of the best spenders, in proportion to income, that the United States has ever seen. In restaurants and speakeasies he sometimes tipped five or ten times the amount of the check. Once, having made five thousand dollars from a fight in New York on a Friday, he was turned out of his rooming house the following Monday for nonpayment of rent. Another time he gave away all the money in his pockets to passengers on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat on which he was returning from a fight in New Jersey. Scolded for this by his manager, Siki wept. Most of his cash, however, continued to be spent on gifts, liquor, and clothes. In clothes, Siki’s taste was unusual but rich. In the first part of his New York residence, when he lived and roamed mainly in the Times Square area, he almost always wore full dress when he went out at night. By day, ordinarily, he appeared in a high hat, a frock coat, red ascot tie, striped trousers, spatted shoes, and a monocle, and he carried a gold-headed cane. From time to time he gave away all the stylish clothes he had on and went home by cab in his underwear. He was particularly open-handed with his high hats. One of these, Siki’s gift to the management, hung on a peg in a West Side saloon I used to visit until a few years ago, when the place closed up.

Siki’s New York life was divided into two roughly equal periods, the second of which he passed largely in Hell’s Kitchen. He had been married in the summer of 1924, at the Municipal Building, to a woman from Memphis named Lillian Werner. The event attracted just enough attention to stimulate newspaper inquiries in Paris, where neighbors of the Dutch girl with whom he had lived in the suburb of Lanves said she was still there and was still thought to be his wife. She herself was not interviewed or quoted to that effect then or afterward, so far as I know. Siki and his American bride moved into a flat at 361 West Forty-second Street early in 1925. Siki had begun to go downhill physically and professionally by then. His bookings for fights were fewer than they had been, and he did not fulfill all those he made. He got into trouble, almost simultaneously, with the United States Immigration Service and the boxing commissioners of New York State. Siki had come to America on a short-term permit. In July 1925 he was arrested for felonious assault after slashing at a policeman with a knife, at which the Government began deportation proceedings. In August the Boxing Commission, annoyed by a facetious exhibition Siki had given at a small New York Cityfight club, summoned him and Levy to its office, suspended Siki, and told Levy to make sure that the fighter was somewhere beyond the three-mile limit within thirty days. The order may seem to have been a usurpation of Federal powers, but it coincided with the Government’s view. At this point, France told the United States that it would refuse to receive Siki if he were deported. Siki, who had wept in the Boxing Commission office when he heard the order to his manager, now took advantage of the stalemate and, in November, filed application for his first citizenship papers. Government decision on his deportation case was still pending when he died.

Siki had the reputation in Hell’s Kitchen in 1925 of being dangerous when drunk, mild and affable when sober. As he drank more heavily and fought less in the ring, he fought more in the street, and his opponents were a rough and active group of men. He was known for his favorite joke of hailing a cab, taking a ride, and then challenging the driver to fight for the fare. Occasionally, too, he would invade the Times Square station of the I.R.T. in the early morning in search of amateur boxing engagements. It is characteristic of many boxers that as they lose their ability in the ring they swing their fists more frequently outside it, as a sort of blurred insistence on the claim that they are as good as ever. That, along with the drinks Siki bought or charged up in the bars of the West Side, may account for his pugnacity in his last months. The only instance of Siki’s using a knife that I have found was the time he was arrested for drawing one on a policeman. His wife went to night court to plead for him on that occasion. She made a good impression and got him off with a five-dollar fine. Though he was stabbed in the back himself in August, not long after he had smashed up a speak-easy in the West Forties and spent a few days in the French Hospital on West Thirtieth Street as a consequence, Siki went on using his fists—and now and then a piece of furniture—in nearly all his brawls. He was fined another five dollars on December 6 for slapping a patrolman at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street.

At about seven o’clock in the evening on Monday, December 14, Siki’s wife met him on the stairs to their flat on West Forty-second Street. The house they lived in still stands, a house of dingy brick with ten walk-up apartments, two on each of its five floors. Siki told Mrs. Siki he was going “out with the boys” and would be back in time to help her pack for a trip they were making next day to Washington, where Siki was to appear in a theater. Shortly after midnight on the morning of the fifteenth, Patrolman John J. Meehan, of the West Thirtieth Street station, walking his beat along Ninth Avenue, had a brief encounter with Siki, whom he knew by sight. Siki, wobbling a little as he turned under the “L” tracks from Forty-first Street, called to Meehan that he was on his way home. The patrolman told him to keep going that way. At 4:15 A.M., Meehan walked past the intersection of Forty-first Street and Ninth Avenue again and saw a body lying about a hundred feet east of the corner in the gutter in front of 350 West Forty-first. Approaching it, he recognized Siki. The body was taken to Meehan’s station house where a doctor pronounced the fighter recently dead from internal hemorrhage caused by two bullet wounds. Detectives examined the deserted block of Forty-first between Eighth and Ninth avenues. In front of No. 346, some forty feet east of where Siki had died, they found a pool of blood on the sidewalk. It seemed to them that Siki might have been trying to crawl home after he was shot. They could not tell just where the shooting had taken place. The gun, a vest-pocket .32-caliber pistol, was lying in front of No. 333, on the other side of the street. Only two bullets had been fired from it. An autopsy showed that these had entered Siki from behind, one penetrating his left lung and the other his kidneys. The autopsy showed something else which surprised Siki’s neighbors a good deal when they heard of it: he had suffered from an anemic condition.

At his wife’s request; Siki was given a Christian funeral service at the Harlem funeral parlors of Effie A. Miller. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell delivered a eulogy. However, seven Mohammedan pallbearers in turbans carried his body to the hearse, chanting prayers as they did so, while a crowd of three thousand people looked on. The body was clothed in evening dress, as Siki would undoubtedly have wished. His estate, estimated at six hundred dollars, was awarded to his wife in Surrogate’s Court after Levy made out an affidavit in her favor. The words of the affidavit while perhaps not strictly accurate in point of fact told the broad truth about Siki’s place in the world better, I think, than the editorial that spoke of Achilles, Siegfried, and “natural man.” To the best of his knowledge, Levy said, Siki left surviving “no child or children, no father, mother, brother, or sister, or child or children of a deceased brother or sister.” He lived as a man without kin or country, roots or guides, and that, it seems to me, is a hard way to do it.

Siki’s murder was never solved. There was an abundance of suspects, but none of them suited the police at all until one day in March 1926 a young man of eighteen who lived a block or two from Siki’s house was arrested and booked on a homicide charge in connection with the killing. Detectives disguised as truck drivers had heard him making incriminating remarks, they said, over a telephone in a bootleggers’ hangout at Tenth Avenue and Fortieth Street. On being arrested, he allegedly signed two statements which gave two different accounts of the crime. One said that Siki had staggered into a coffee pot at Eighth Avenue and Fortieth Street in the early morning of December 15 and had thrown a chair at the eight men, including the deponent, who were gathered there. Deponent ran out of the place in alarm and heard shots fired in the restaurant behind him. The other statement, which fitted the physical facts of the killing a little better, said that a short while after the throwing of the chair, he, the young man under arrest, lured Siki to Eighth Avenue and Forty-first Street on the promise of buying him a drink. At the corner they were joined by two other men, one of whom, as the party walked west on Forty-first, shot Siki in the back. The young man was held in the Tombs for eight months, until the fall of 1926, and then was released by the court without trial, presumably because the state was not satisfied with its case. I might add that in May 1927 this same young man got five to ten years for second-degree robbery, committed in April in the vicinity of Ninth Avenue and Forty-second Street against a tourist from another state. That was clearly the wrong part of town for a tourist to go to.

BGS: A Sportswriter Goes to War

 

Here’s my Introduction to Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacificavailable now

 

When he went off to cover the war in the Pacific in January 1943, John Lardner was twenty-nine years old and, thanks to his weekly column in Newsweek, already a major figure in sportswriting. Nothing at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium, however, could match the lure of what awaited him overseas. “The war was everything,” he said. “I was glad to be in it, speeding along with it.”

Lardner’s first stops were Australia and New Guinea, and what he wrote there became the backbone of the book you hold in your hands, Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific. Originally published seventy years ago, this was a buried treasure in Lardner’s considerable body of work as a reporter during World War II. It’s blessed with Lardner’s unmistakable humor, and it captures the immediacy of what was then, to Americans, a new theater of war.

“There was more to be seen, heard, and felt in this war, of course, than the fighting of it,” he wrote. “It took Americans to a strange world, with a strange flavor, and gave many of them a long time to look around between bullets.”

Lardner crisscrossed Australia for four months, piling up ten thousand miles as he filed dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance and Newsweek. A lesser writer may have sought to dramatize what he saw, but Lardner pared away the extraneous with impeccable reporting. In the opening chapter, Lardner writes, “I want to tell the story with as few profundities and earth-shaking conclusions as possible.” It’s this unpretentious approach to reportage that keeps Southwest Passage fresh for us today.

Shortly after he arrived, Lardner observed an American soldier opening diplomatic relations with an Australian in a bar in Sydney.

“Well, boy,” said the American, “you can relax now. We’re here to save you.”

“Ow is that? I thought you were a fugitive from Pearl Harbor.”

About the locals, he wrote: “There can hardly be people in the world more fiercely and fanatically independent than Australians. The notion that the Yanks had come to ‘save Australia’—well, some of us had it, sure enough, and there was no quicker way of tasting the quick mettle and genial scorn of the fellow we came to save.”

No wonder Orville Prescott of the New York Times called Southwest Passage “as personal, informal and chatty a book of war correspondence as has yet come along. Mr. Lardner has the happy faculty of taking the war seriously without taking himself seriously.”

Lardner’s equanimity came naturally. He was, after all, the son of Ring Lardner, who was America’s most famous sportswriter before he became its most famous literary wit. Like his father, the son was serious about writing. As he said in a letter home: “It seems pretty plain that the best thing to do during the war is to work hard at whatever work you have to do, wherever it may be. Working is the only way I’ve ever found of being happy in a bad time.”

Lardner had been witness to the pitfalls of being labeled a sportswriter. His father never fully escaped being typecast as just a sportswriter. But John wasn’t just a sportswriter; he was one of the best. His reputation was cemented when he began a True magazine piece about a hell-bent prizefighter with these words: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Lardner’s fellow sportswriting legend Red Smith called it the “greatest novel ever written in one sentence.”

Like his contemporaries W. C. Heinz and A.J. Liebling, Lardner was a war correspondent, and if he didn’t enjoy their longevity or the lasting renown of Smith or Jimmy Cannon, he was every bit their equal. Heinz, in fact, is on record as calling Lardner “the best.”

“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, a longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer—which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”

John was born in 1912, the first of Ring and Ellis Lardner’s four boys. Their father was a study in reserve, a poker-faced observer of human folly who ushered his sons into the family business, although not by design. When his third son, Ring Jr., sold his first magazine piece, the father said, “Good God, isn’t any one of you going to turn out to be anything but a writer?”

The Lardners moved to the East Coast from Chicago in the fall of 1919. Early on, they lived in Great Neck, Long Island, the model for the fictional West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (for a time, Fitzgerald was one of Ring’s closest friends). Another friend was Grantland Rice, who succeeded Lardner as the most celebrated sportswriter in the country. Whenever Ring took his sons to Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig always came by to pay their respects.

In his memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, Ring Jr. wrote about the striking similarities he and his brothers shared with their father: “Intellectual curiosity with a distinctly verbal orientation, taciturnity, a lack of emotional display, an appreciation of the ridiculous. It was a matter of course that you mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing at the age of four, and by six reading books was practically a full-time occupation.”

John was all of ten when he broke into print with this ditty for the New York World:

Babe Ruth and old Jack Dempsey,

Both sultans of the swatOne hits where other people are,

The other where they’re not.

Ring Jr. claimed that John, more than any of his brothers, patterned his life on his father’s. John was bright and restless, and perhaps he pushed himself because he didn’t want to be known only as Ring’s son. He wasn’t given to talking about his motivations, but it is no stretch to assume that his father’s considerable talent gave him something to shoot for.

“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” Liebling wrote. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”

As for himself, John wrote, “In the interests of learning to read and cipher, I made the rounds at a number of schools, my tour culminating in Phillips Academy, Andover, and Harvard University (one year), where I picked up the word ‘culminating.”‘

He went to Paris for another year to study at the Sorbonne, worked for a few months in Paris on the International Herald Tribune, then returned to New York in 1931 and landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. He covered local news and quickly earned bylines—no small achievement at what was considered the city’s best-written paper. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” his father boasted.

 

At twenty-one, John left the Herald Tribune to write a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. It was the Depression, and he was pulling down an impressive $100 a week, but his father would not live long enough to see him cash any paychecks. Ring died in 1933 after suffering for years from tuberculosis and alcoholism. He was forty-eight.

In the late ’30s, John began his transition to magazine writing. He published a story for the Saturday Evening Post on the Black Sox scandal and launched the Newsweek sports column that would run for eighteen years and establish his reputation. And yet, for all of that, the rumblings of the coming war were impossible to ignore.

Finally, in 1940, he wrote a letter to John Wheeler, his boss at NANA:

A year or so ago you suggested—not at all in a definitive way, but simply as something to think about—that in case of real action abroad, perhaps involving this country, you might consider sending me to do some work there instead of, or in addition to, the people that usually do the stuff of that kind for you and the Times. The idea stuck in my mind, naturally, but I haven’t given it any serious thought until recently. I think I can do other work as well as or better than most newspaper men and writers, and that a time may be coming shortly when that work will be more important and valuable to both you and me. This sounds swellheaded—but if I didn’t feel the way I do about writing, I wouldn’t give a damn about being a writer.

John got his wish not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During his voyage to Australia he wrote to his wife, Hazel: “I have now stated for the 143rd time that I don’t think Billy Conn can beat Joe Louis. This opinion is not censorable, and I will pass it along to you, too, for what it is worth, though you probably knew it all the time.”

Lardner traveled with four other American reporters during his twelve weeks in Australia. All proved more than happy to break up their considerable downtime by arguing about the following: “Food; Russia; women; the Louis-Schemling fights; the art of Michelangelo; the Civil War; religion; the Newspaper Guild; Cornelia Otis Skinner; tattooing; the best place to live in New England; William Randolph Hearst; war production; venereal disease; the Pyramids; walking-sticks; dining out as opposed to dining home; the private life of Hedy Lamarr; marriage; For Whom the Bell Tolls; prizefight managers; education for children; Enzo Fiermonte; Paris; this war and all others; Leopold and Loeb; San Francisco restaurants; Greek and Roman architecture; Seabiscuit; the comparative merits of Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scots. And several hundred others.”

As consistently amusing as Lardner is in Southwest Passage, he strives for more than comic effect in his dispatches. Take his description of Darwin, the ghost town “at the topmost pole of the dusty road across Australia, brooding over its scars”; or his account of the nurses who survived brutal air raids in the Philippines with “their hard-bought shell of resistance.” Nothing showy, nothing fancy—just a world-class observer at work, as Lardner was when he encountered a swing band performing for a U.S. Army outfit near Darwin a few days after Easter. “The night, following a day without bombs, was moonlit, and the Southern Cross blazed above. The musicians brought their guns as well as their instruments.”

Lardner downplayed any personal jeopardy he faced, but as Liebling said, “John was naturally brave. When he saw blinding bomb flashes by night, he used to move toward them to see better.” Lardner himself might have chalked that up to poor eyesight, but his courage is evidenced by his trip through hostile waters to Port Moresby on a freighter dubbed the “Floating Firecracker,” whose cargo consisted of bombs and drums of gasoline. On another occasion, after successfully bombing their target off the north coast of New Guinea, the plane Lardner was aboard stopped to refuel at a barren little base. The men ate bread and marmalade in the mess shack while Lardner talked to one of the soldiers about the ice hockey playoffs for the Stanley Cup.

We got our last thrill of the day then, thrown in for good measure and absolutely unsolicited. Doggedly the Zeros [Japanese fighter planes] had trailed us south, and with them carne bombers. The alarm sounded, and the crews on the ground beelined for their planes, for there is nothing more humiliating, useless, and downright impractical than to be caught on the ground, in the open, with your aeronautical pants down.

There is nothing more scary, I should add, because something always goes a little wrong when you try to take off under the condition known as “or else.” One of the engines missed. Then the door failed to shut tight . . . but we did get off, after sitting there for what seemed like a couple of minutes longer than forever.

Given his natural reticence, there is little to be found in Lardner’s papers revealing his feelings about Southwest Passage. In letters home he didn’t much talk about himself or the content of his work, just the conditions under which he produced it. “As far as I know the stories I’ve been writing have not been done by others,” he wrote to his wife. “The main trouble with being frontward and one of the reasons I’ll have to spend more time here is communications and censorship. You can’t be sure how fast your stuff is getting to headquarters and clearing from there, and you have no way of knowing what’s being taken out of stories. It’s like writing in a void.”

Lardner came home to resume his sports column in the summer of 1942, but by the end of the year he was a war correspondent again. His first stops were North Africa and Italy, then it was back to the Pacific, where he went ashore at Iwo Jima only a few hours after the first wave of marines. By the time he covered the invasion of Okinawa, now also writing for the New Yorker, he was haunted by the deaths of two of his brothers: Jim was the last American volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War, in 1938, and David was killed in 1944 by a landmine in France. You can practically feel the shadow of mortality on him in the letter he wrote to his wife after filing his dispatch from Okinawa: “That was the last one, baby. During the last few days I was there, I got one or two small and gentle hints, much more gentle than the one at Iwo Jima, that my luck was beginning to run out and I had better quit while I was still in one handsome, symmetrical piece. By the time I get home it will be practically three and a half years since I started covering the war which I guess will be enough.”

Like his father, John had considerable health problems for much of his adult life: TB, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. Undeterred, he worked hard and steadily as he gave up his syndicated newspaper column to write long magazine pieces for True and Sport as well as the New Yorker. Along the way he published two collections of his columns, It Beats Working and Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, and a history of the golden age of boxing called White Hopes and Other Tigers.

A certain mystique rose up around Lardner. He was forever described as someone who could stay at the bar all evening, nursing a Scotch, smoking, and scarcely saying a word. “He was as easy to like as he was hard to know,” said Liebling. And yet he was far from morose. “I’d like to fend off at least a few tragic overtones in the account of John Lardner,” his daughter Susan once wrote. “Those of us who knew my father . . . remember him as a song-singing, piano-playing, butter pecan ice cream-eating cat rancher and driver of Buick convertibles, who drank more milk than whisky and who often and rightly referred to himself as Handsome Jack.”

John had always told friends he wouldn’t outlive his old man, and he was right. He died of a heart attack in 1960 six weeks before his forty-eighth birthday. That day, he was writing an obituary for an old family friend, Franklin P. Adams. “F.P.A. was always a poor poker player and often a bore,” he wrote before collapsing with chest pains. When the family doctor arrived, he took Lardner in his arms and said, “John, you can’t die. John, you’re a noble human being.” Lardner looked at him and said, “Oh Lou, that sounds like a quotation.”

 

 

In September of 1943, Lardner sat down in a stone house in southern Italy to compose his latest dispatch from the war. He had written in less commodious surroundings as he bounced from Australia to New Guinea to North Africa, but he neither complained about them nor reveled in this rare taste of comfort. Usually he was glad for mail call, too, even if it came in midsentence. But not this day.

Lardner was hoping for a letter from his wife and instead received a legal notice from the midwestern law firm of Duffy, Claffy, Igoe & McCorkindale. The letter concerned a column he had written about a former outfielder from St. Louis named Bohnsack, who seemed not to have been memorable except that he once threw an umpire off a moving train. Lardner, who knew something worth writing about when he saw it, happily included the incident in his column. Now Bohnsack’s lawyers were claiming the anecdote was “false and misleading,” and they urged Lardner to settle out of court. Then as now, there was nothing like a little moola to ease a fellow’s “grievous social and mental damage.”

Lardner seethed: “Bohnsack annoyed me because he showed me that his world, which had also been my world, had great vitality, and that it took considerably more than a global battle to kill its self-preoccupation,” he wrote. It wasn’t just that Bohnsack had told Lardner personally that he’d thrown the umpire off a train, or that the first piece of mail he had received in the battle zone was not from his wife. “It was most of all that now, in the midst of the great and bloody planetary adventure of war, these barristers chose callously to call me back to the world of petulant outfielders and remind me that I was a sports writer.”

In fact, Lardner wrote about a variety of topics: lexicography, jury service, and New York history; for the New Yorker he contributed occasional film, theater, and book reviews and in the last three and a half years of his life wrote a column for the magazine on TV and radio. “Sportswriter” was a label that he, like his father, would never escape. This slim volume of his war reportage proves that Lardner was a quick-witted and assured writer no matter the subject. As Stanley Walker, the Herald Tribune’s city editor, said, Lardner “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.” Never were those skills put to a stiffer test than on the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. In the thickest drama, the unflappable man remained unflappable, at his best writing what Red Smith called novels in a single sentence.

Lede Time

Over at Grantland’s essential Director’s Cut series, Michael MacCambridge dusts off another gem: John Lardner’s “Down Great Purple Valleys.”

Can’t beat this lede:

Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.

That was in 1910. Up to 1907 the world at large had never heard of Ketchel. In the three years between his first fame and his murder, he made an impression on the public mind such as few men before or after him have made. When he died, he was already a folk hero and a legend. At once, his friends, followers, and biographers began to speak of his squalid end, not as a shooting or a killing, but as an assassination — as though Ketchel were Lincoln. The thought is blasphemous, maybe, but not entirely cockeyed. The crude, brawling, low-living, wild-eyed, sentimental, dissipated, almost illiterate hobo, who broke every Commandment at his disposal, had this in common with a handful of presidents, generals, athletes, and soul-savers, as well as with fabled characters like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed: he was the stuff of myth. He entered mythology at a younger age than most of the others, and he still holds stoutly to his place there.

 

The Banter Gold Standard: The Life and Loves of the Real McCoy

When we talk about the all-time great sports writers a safe place to start is with Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, A.J. Liebling, Jimmy Cannon, and John Lardner. A few years ago, John Schulian edited The John Lardner Reader, a fine compilation of Lardner’s sports writing (and next spring, the University of Nebraska Press is publishing Southwest Passage, a collection of Lardner’s WWII correspondence).

I wrote this appreciation of Lardner for SI.com and you can find more on Lardner in the Banter archives:  here and here.

The following piece is a beaut. It originally appeared in True and is reprinted here with the permission of Susan Lardner.

Enjoy.

 

“The Life And Loves of The Real McCoy”

By John Lardner

The hotel manager and the detective stood looking down at the man on the bed, who had killed himself during the night. “Norman Selby, it says on the note, and Selby was how he checked in,” the manager said. “Wasn’t that his right name?”

“It was his right name,” the detective said. “But he was also McCoy. The real McCoy.”

Kid McCoy lived by violence, by trickery, and by women. He fought 200 fights, and was beaten in only six of them. He married eight women—one of them three times—and shot another to death. For the murder, he paid a light price, lightly. There was vanity in him, and guile, and wit, and cruelty, and some larceny, and a great capacity for enjoying himself. Above all, there was self-satisfaction. At no time in his life—not when he was world’s welterweight champion (with a strong claim to the middleweight title, as well), nor when he was a bankrupt, nor a jailbird, nor a Broadway favorite, nor a suspected jewel thief, nor a semi-professional adulterer, nor a mellow old pensioner, owing his job to a friend—at no time did he do or say anything that displeased himself. No one knows why, on an April night in 1940, he suddenly lost his contentment with Norman Selby, alias Charles (Kid) McCoy, and wiped it all out with one impatient gesture.

The Kid wasn’t sick, or broke, when he checked in alone at Detroit’s Tuller Hotel that night. He had work. He was 66 years old, but in good shape, still with a lot of gray but curly hair over his fair-skinned, boyish face, and still nearly as neat, trim, and supple of body as ever. Registering with the night clerk, he had left a call for 10 the next morning. It was when he failed to answer the call that the manager went up with a passkey, and found him dead. An overdose of sleeping pills had put him out, and away. There were two or three notes in the room. In one of them, he asked the paymaster at the Ford Motor Company, where he’d been working, to turn over such wages as were due him to his eighth and final wife. In the longest note, the Kid said, in part:

“To whom it may concern—For the last eight years, I have wanted to help humanity, especially the youngsters who do not know nature’s laws. That is, the proper carriage of the body, the right way to eat, etc. . . . To all my dear friends, I wish you all the best of luck. Sorry I could not endure this world’s madness. The best to all. (signed) Norman Selby. P.S. In my pocket you will find $17.75″

As to health laws—it was true that McCoy had invented, and tried to sell, a so-called health belt, or health suspender. As to “this world’s madness”—most of the madness the Kid had known had been of his own arranging, and he had endured it well and gaily. As to helping humanity—the Kid had always helped himself. An old-timer, seeing the dead man lying there among his last words, would have reflected that never before had McCoy played so sweet, peaceful, and tender a part. The old-timer might have suspected a trick.

Once, in 1895, in Boston, a welterweight named Jack Wilkes was dismayed by McCoy’s looks, as they climbed into the ring to fight. The Kid’s face was as white as a sheet. There were dark hallows under his eyes. Every few moments, he put his left glove to his mouth, and coughed rackingly. When they clinched in the first round, McCoy whispered, “Take it easy, will you, Jack? I think I’m dying, but I need the money.” Wilkes took it easy; he mothered McCoy. But in the second round, just after a cough, McCoy’s coughing hand suddenly snapped out and pushed Wilkes’s guard aside, and his right hand drove against his chin, and knocked him unconscious. For that bout, McCoy had made up his face with talcum powder, and his eyes with indelible pencil. The prop cough was from many dime novels of the time.

In Philadelphia, in 1904, McCoy fought a large, highly-touted Hollander named Plaacke. In the second round he began to point frantically at Plaacke’s waistband. “Your pants are slipping!” he muttered. “Pull ‘em up!” Plaacke reached for his pants with both hands. McCoy hit him on the jaw, and knocked him down. “Stay down, or I’ll tear your head off!” he snarled. The Dutchman was terrified by the savagery that had suddenly come into the Kid’s voice and by the cruelty that transfigured his impish face. He stayed down, and his American manager sent him back to Holland on the next cattle boat.

When McCoy ran a gymnasium in New York, in the early years of this century, he said to a new pupil one day, as the latter came in the door, “Who’s that that came in with you?” The pupil turned to look. McCoy knocked him down. “That’s your first lesson—never trust anybody,” he said. “Five dollars, please.”

The Kid got a lifelong pleasure out of teaching this lesson. Once, only a few months before he died, as he was driving along a road in Wayne County, Michigan, his car had a slight collision with a truck. Both vehicles stalled. The drivers got out, and the trucker came at McCoy, braying abuse. ”I’m a little hard of hearing, Mack,” McCoy said, cupping his hand to his ear. The trucker brought his chin close to the ear to make his point clearly, and McCoy, whipping his hand six inches upward, knocked him cold.

On the morning he was found dead, a true student of the ways of Kid McCoy, seeing the suicide notes, would have looked twice to make sure the Kid was there too. They were not the first suicide notes he had written. In 1924 McCoy was living with a divorcee named Mrs. Theresa Mors in a Los Angeles apartment. When Mrs. Mors was fatally shot by her lover, the police, investigating the crime, discovered near her body a message from Norman Selby which began—as his last one on earth was to do—”To whom it may concern.” The message suggested that the Kid meant to end it all—but no dead McCoy went with it. In jail, a few days later, McCoy moved on to still another strategem, feigning insanity to protect himself from the murder charge. A visitor found him walking around his cell with a blank look on his face, stop• ping now and then to lick bits of cardboard and stick them on the walls.

“What are those for?” the visitor asked.

“Quiet!” McCoy said. “I’m making a trap for that rat, her husband.”

The law, to be on the safe side, called in a team of alienists to examine the sudden madman. “He’s at least as sane as the rest of us,” the scientists reported. He was. The state, in proving its homicide case against him later, said that the Kid had had no notion of killing himself. He killed the lady, it charged, for a very intelligent reason—she was rich, and she wouldn’t marry him.

Of all the rich and beautiful women in the life of McCoy, she must have been the only one who wouldn’t. It was curious, the way the pattern of the Kid’s loves and marriages changed with the changes in his own career. When he was young, tough, and fight-hungry, scrapping first with skin-tight gloves and then by Marquis of Queensberry rules, first on turf and covered bridges and dance-hall floors, later in the ring, outboxing scientists like Tommy Ryan, the welter champion, mauling and knocking down heavyweights like the powerful Tom Sharkey—in those times his love affairs were brief. About his first marriage, at 22, to an Ohio girl named Lottie Piehler, McCoy once said: “A few months after l married her, I met a burlesque queen who finished me as a married man.” He wasn’t finished, he was just starting. But he had to keep on the move. There was less sense of investment, of security for McCoy, in those early matings. There was even romance in some of them. Certainly, he loved Mrs. Julia Woodruff Crosselmire, whose stage name was Julia Woodruff. Certainly, she loved him. He caught her eye by breaking up a free-for-all fight in a railroad car, one day in 1897 on a trip from New York to Philadelphia. In the next few years, they were married three times and divorced three times.

A change set in when the kid grew older, when he fought only when he had to and felt the pressures and hardships of life as a job-hunter and part-time con man. That was how it was in 1905 when he married Lillian Ellis, the young widow of a millionaire. Julia had recently cut him loose for the last time-as a matter of fact, he had divorced her, the only time it happened that way with McCoy.

“She ran away with a man named Thompson,” the Kid used to say. “They took a tour around the world, and when they got back, I seceded.”

On the morning his engagement to Mrs. Ellis was announced, the Kid was lying in his bed in the Dunlop Hotel, in New York, when the telephone began to ring. “Before I could get my shoes on that day,” McCoy said, “the phone had rung a hundred times, and a hundred friends had touched me for a million dollars.” Mrs. Ellis told the press that she knew what she was in for. “I know I’m not getting any angel, but I’m satisfied,” she said. The Kid himself was so moved that he wrote a wedding poem:

“Dogs delight to growl and fight,
But let men be above them,
It’s better to have a gal for a pal,
When he really knows she loves him.”

In a sense, McCoy said, these lines were his farewell to the fight game. For now, at least, he was through—”Even though Jeff,” he said, “is the only man alive who can lick me.” He was referring to James J. Jeffries, the retired heavyweight champion of the world.

High-flown though it sounded, the last statement may well have been true. It’s possible that for his weight, which ranged from 145 pounds to 170, McCoy was the finest fighter in the world, when he was at his best. ” A marvel, a genius of scientific fighting,” James J. Corbett called him. “Vicious, fast, and almost impossible to beat,” said Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. It was a strange fact about McCoy that he did not need his tricks to be great. He cheated because he loved to cheat, just as, in the early days, he married women because he loved them. Fighting on the level, he would still have been the real McCoy.

The phrase which keeps his name famous was born in San Francisco, in 1899. At least, McCoy always said so; and while he was one of the most fertile and tireless liars of his generation, there’s a good chance that he was telling the truth. The Kid went to the Coast in March of that year to meet the rough, hard-punching Joe Choynski. A little earlier, in San Francisco, a Joe McAuliffe had easily whipped a man named Peter McCoy. Kid McCoy, following this low-class act with a better one, gave Choynski a savage beating in 20 rounds, knocking him down 16 times. The press hailed him with gratitude: “Choynski is beaten,” a headline said, “by THE REAL MCCOY.”

As to how Norman Selby got the name of McCoy to begin with, there are two stories, both told by McCoy, and both plausible. He was hom, probably in October 1873, in Moscow, Indiana, a little farmland crossroads northwest of the town of Rushville. The Selby family moved to Indianapolis when Norman was small. When he was somewhere between 14 and 16, he and two other boys ran away by train to Cincinnati. Cops met them at the Cincinnati station, alerted by their fathers. “Are you Norman Selby?” a cop asked Norman. “I’m Charlie McCoy,” he said. The night before, through the train window, he had seen a sign, “McCoy Station.” When he made his first prizefight it was under the name of Charlie (Kid) McCoy.

In a story the Kid told another historian, he once saw a burlesque act featuring the exploits of two real-life safe-crackers, Kid McCoy and Spike Hennessy. In the theater lobby, for a dime, you could buy a book on the lives of McCoy and Hennessy. The Kid read the book, was taken with the daring, aggressive character of McCoy, and borrowed his name. Either way, there’s no doubt that he began fighting early in life as Kid McCoy. Some say his first bout, for $5 or $10, was against Charleston Yalla. Some say it was against Pete Jenkins, in St. Paul, in 1891. In St. Paul, the Kid, who was pausing there to wash dishes, joined the Baptist Church, because you had to be a member to join the YMCA, which had the only sports-training facilities in town. He beat Jenkins in four rounds.

After March 1895, the Kid was a fighter with a reputation; he was “the man who beat Shadow Maber.” To Maher, he was “that bloody trickster.” Shadow, an Australian fighting in the States and a boxer of note, met McCoy in Memphis. Near the end of one round, Maber heard a strong, clear voice say, “The bell has rung. Go to your comer.” He started to turn for his corner, and McCoy, the author of the unofficial announcement, belted him in the jaw. McCoy went on to beat the weakened Australian in 10 rounds.

He had marvelous speed and elusiveness, the Kid did, besides his tricks and the cruel, cutting power of his punches. By practising endlessly, he was able to run sideways, or backward, nearly as fast as the average man can run forward. “In a backward race, in fact,” he said once, “I could probably beat any man in the world.” He improved the use of his left hand by eating, writing, and throwing a ball left-handed. From every good fighter he fought or watched he learned something. Bob Fitzsimmons, then recognized as world’s middleweight champion, was training for a fight in New Orleans while McCoy was down there for a bout of his own. The Kid picked up a few dollars sparring with Ruby Robert.

“You’re a cunning bugger,” Fitz told him after McCoy, feinting a left, drove his right straight into the pit of Bob’s stomach, showing that he had mastered one of Fitzsimmons’s favorite moves. “And you can hit almost as hard as I can.”

“For the same reason,” the Kid said.

“Wot in ‘ell do you mean by that?” the Cornishman asked. He did not like to think he was giving away too much.

“You’re knock-kneed, Bob,” McCoy said. “I figured the reason you hit so hard is because your punch comes up from the knee instead of the waist or the hip.”

“—-! ” said Fitzsimmons unkindly. He considered that the theory was buncombe, and he may well have been right. It was a fact, however, as McCoy then demonstrated, that the kid had schooled his own knees to come inward by walking around for 20 minutes or a half hour at a time holding a fifty-cent piece between them.

Fitzsimmons (who was to win the heavyweight title from Jim Corbett in 1897) was too big and strong for McCoy who in those years weighed in at about the welter limit, 145. The welterweight champion of the world was Tommy Ryan, thought by many to be the most skillful boxer extant. Ryan and McCoy were matched to fight for the welter title in Maspeth, Long Island, in March, 1896. It was a match Ryan had no worries about. McCoy had sparred with him, too, a couple of years earlier, and McCoy had deliberately made a poor impression-chiefly by a kind of cringing timidity. Once, in a workout, he had asked Tommy not to hit him around the heart. “It makes me sick, Mr. Ryan,” he had said. “And it gives me a sharp pain that scares me. I wouldn’t fight if I didn’t have to.”

In their fight for the championship, Ryan did his best to hit McCoy around the heart-and every place else where he thought there might be an opening. But there were no openings, to speak of. And in the 12th round, getting impatient and beginning to swing wildly, Ryan exposed his own chin, and caught a straight right on the end of it that drained all the strength and science out of him and left him helpless. McCoy then slashed and mauled the champion until the 15th, when he knocked him out.

It was. in Africa, the Kid used to say, that he . developed the “corkscrew punch.” The phrase, like others coined by this prince of phrasemakers, became known all over the world. The corkscrew punch, probably, was only a left hook to the head, like other left hooks. Like other hooks, it involved a turning of the wrist, just before impact. But McCoy declared, and the world believed him, that he gave his left wrist an extra, prolonged spin that increased its velocity and its power to cut and maim. “It was the principle of rifling,” he said. “I learned it by studying a rifle in South Africa.”

It was in South Africa, too, at Bullawayo, that McCoy fought a 250-pound Negro called the King of the Kaffirs. In the first round, McCoy, running backward, lured the giant into McCoy’s corner. The King, in sudden pain and confusion, looked down at his bare feet, and the Kid, at the same moment, brought up his right hand and knocked the Kaffir senseless. The floor, as it happened—we have McCoy’s complacent word for this—had been sprinkled with tacks by McCoy’s seconds just as the fight began.

It was strange, the way the elements of human nature were mixed in this curly head, behind the bland, youthful face and the smooth, bragging tongue. The Kid could not help lying-his picaresque imagination worked day and night to add to his own legend. He could not help swindling-his fight with Corbett, in 1900, after Corbett had lost the heavyweight title, was called by contemporaries one of the most flagrant fixes in ring history. One reporter wrote, “It was the cleverest boxing match ever seen, as it should have been, considering how carefully it had been rehearsed in advance.”

But there was far more than greed and deceit in McCoy; there was courage and ferocity. He could fight, against odds, like a tiger. Under such conditions, Maurice Maeterlinck, the playwright, who had seen the Kid fight in Europe, once described him as “the handsomest human on earth.” McCoy must have been like that on the night he fought Tom Sharkey—after he had given up the welterweight title, had outgrown a brief claim to the middleweight crown and was fighting them as big as they came.

Sailor Tom Sharkey was not a giant—he was squat, but massive, and very tough. In 45 rounds of fighting, the great Jim Jeffries was never to knock him down once. Sharkey and McCoy met on January 10, 1899, at the old Lenox Athletic Club, in New York City. It was the biggest gate of McCoy’s life; there was $46,000 in the square brick arena that night. The Kid was about Sharkey’s height, but he looked like a thin, pale boy beside the Sailor. His legs were slender, his stomach was concave at the narrow waist. Such power as he had was bunched in big arms and low, sloping shoulders. Running like a burglar, he made Sharkey commit himself with rushes and lunging swings. Then the Kid let the gap close. He countered the swings. He hooked Sharkey’s head with his left, and drove straight rights against Sharkey’s teeth and cheekbones. Twice he floored the man whom Jeff could not bring down. By the end of the ninth, it looked like McCoy’s fight for sure, and the patrons were screaming for him to finish it. The truth was, the Kid himself was finished. He had used up all his strength on a head like an oaken bucket; in the tenth, his legs went dead. Sharkey caught him in that round, first with a body punch that seemed to cave in the Kid’s ribs, then with a smashing blow on the jaw. Paul Armstrong, the playwright who wrote “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” was covering the fight. Of the Kid, at the very last, he wrote:

“He clawed the canvas like some deep-sea crab . . . rattled along on all fours . . . and then bobbled into a meaningless heap.”

In 1900, the Kid ran a night club in the cellar of the Hotel Normandie, at the comer of Broadway and 40th Street. He ran it until a matter of what the police called “larceny from a customer” by McCoy came up—then the customers began to abstain from the Kid’s saloon. In 1904, he filed a petition in bankruptcy, having $25,000 worth of debts and no assets. The debts included one of $320 for clothing, and another of $569 for repairs to a fast, red car. It was natural that the Kid should react to this slump by marrying Lillian Ellis, the rich widow. It was natural that when Mrs. Ellis detached him, after three or four comfortable years, he should marry Mrs. Edna Valentine Hein, the daughter of a silverminer. The Kid impressed Mrs. Hein favorably, before the marriage, by winning a street fight from Mr. Hein.

It was one of the few fights he had, in those years. W hen occasional spells of non-marriage, meaning poverty, overtook him, and• McCoy was obliged to fight professionally again, he found the going hard. It was the flesh that was weak—not the two-edged brain. A lad named Young Jim Stewart climbed into the ring in New York one night, during these downhill days, to see what McCoy had left. He went to the Kid’s comer before the bout to pay his respects. McCoy, waving to friends in the crowd, pretended not to see him. Stewart, hurt, but not mortally so, returned to his corner. When the referee called them out for instructions, McCoy tramped heavily on the youngster’s feet and bumped him accidentally in the eye with his elbow. Next McCoy grabbed Stewart by the nape of the neck with one hand, pulled down his head, and cracked him two or three times in the jaw with his other fist. “What I want to know, Mr. Referee,” said the Kid, deferentially, “is whether it’s all right for him to hit me like this?” “No, it ain’t,” said the referee. Young Jim Stewart survived these preliminaries, and the fight got under way and went six rounds to no decision.

“Tell me, Mr. McCoy,” said Stewart afterward, “did you expect to soften me up with that stuff with the referee?” “God knows, boy,” the Kid said. “You can never tell till you try.”

In the last fight on his record, McCoy met a British seaman, Petty Officer Curran, in London, in 1914. The bout was scheduled for 20 rounds—a long, weary haul for a man of forty. Three-quarters of the way through it, McCoy’s feet had gone nearly flat. His nerves were snapping in his body like little twigs. Suddenly, the timekeeper, sitting by the ring in evening clothes, took a tall glass of whisky-and-soda from an attendant, and placed it carefully on the apron of the ring. A moment later, the Kid ran into a punch from Curran, fell to the floor near the timekeeper’s seat, snatched up the highball and drank it off. The fight went the full distance. It was close, but McCoy, making his last post a winning one, got the duke.

With Charlie Chaplin

Though he was still debonair, still a strutter, McCoy was plainly at the end of his rope, financially, when he beat his way home from London at the start of the first World War. The U. S. Army bought his meals for the next few years. Enlisting in 1915—tired, played out, turning to the security of a uniform and steady pay as he had turned to marriage when he was younger—McCoy served on the Mexican border in 1916, and on the home front generally in the wartime years, mostly as a boxing instructor. There was another fling left in him, but in the Army, for awhile, he charged his batteries, and marked time.

When his enlistment was up, the Kid headed for California. He got a few bit parts in Hollywood, but this career died quickly. In 1922, he became an official bankrupt again—assets: two suits of clothes. One way and another, he took the busy, hot town for a dollar here and a dollar there, and hung on. And in the summer of 1924, he found his way into the life of still another woman with money and a husband she did not like.

Theresa Weinstein Mors was on the point of divorcing Albert E. Mors when she met McCoy. She was in her late 30′s, and easy to look at. It is not known just how she came to meet the Kid, but on August 4, when their friendship became a matter of record, she described him to the police as her “bodyguard.” The police had been called in by Mors, who complained that his wife and McCoy had used him roughly. The visit had been for the purpose of discussing the Mors’ property settlement. The Kid, of course, had the habit of discussing things with his knuckles. In this case, however, it was Mrs. Mors who hit Mr. Mors in the mouth, while McCoy protected her.

A divorce followed, and the Kid and Theresa took an apartment together, under the names of Mr. and Mrs. N. Shields. There’s good reason to believe that the Kid wanted marriage in more than name. Mrs. Mors, at least for the time being, did not. For this reason, and perhaps for others, it was a quarrelsome partnership. It came as no surprise to the Shields’ neighbor, in the next apartment, when, on the sultry night of August 11, at a few minutes after midnight, she heard a woman’s voice in the Shields’ flat cry out, “Oh, my God, don’t do that!” The cry was repeated. Then came a single gunshot. The neighbor investigated, but only to the extent of trying the Shields’ door, which was locked. It was not till 10 a.m. on the 12th that the janitor found Theresa lying dead on the floor of the bedroom she had shared with McCoy. She had been shot once, in the left temple. A .32 pistol lay nearby. A photograph of the Kid had been placed across her breast. Also clearly visible was a suicide note signed Norman Selby leaving his estate to his mother.

At almost the same moment the police discovered the note and the body which did not match it, the Kid himself was running amok a few blocks away, with another gun, in an antique shop owned by his mistress. It was a wild scene he made there. Disheveled, apparently drunk, he burst into the shop with his gun out. He told the men there, mostly employes, to take off their shoes and pants. He put a dance record on the phonograph and, under cover of the noise, went through the pants pockets for money. Then, cursing with all the foulness he could muster from 51 years’ experience, he went out the door again and, in the street, shot and seriously wounded the first three people he met, two men and a woman. The police caught up with him as he was running blindly through Westlake Park.

Had he been drunk? McCoy, though he’d taken some wine in his time, had never been given to drinking. Had he been faking madness, to set up a defense against a murder rap? Maybe. At any rate, his wildness, real or feigned, subsided after a few days in jail, and at his trial he told the jury in serious, sensible tones that Theresa—”the only woman I ever loved”—had shot herself to death in his presence. It was a story the Kid was to stick to for the rest of his life. The prosecution, in rebuttal, pointed out that Mrs. Mors, a right-handed woman, had been shot in the left side of her head. The prosecutor told the jury that McCoy had said to his sister, after the crime, “I had to kill that woman.” It took the jurymen 78 hours to decide whom to believe. In the end, they disbelieved McCoy. He was sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter, and to two terms of 7 years each for the larceny and mayhem of his last daffy stand in Theresa’s antique shop: a total of 24 years.

The rap seemed to mean that the Kid would die of old age in San Quentin. There was one way to escape such a fate—sweetness, light and good conduct on a scale such as McCoy had never before attempted.

When he came out in 1932, paroled after a little more than seven years, the Kid had established one of the purest records in the history of San Quentin—never a mark against him. With him he brought a canary named Mike, a prison pet as harmless as the new McCoy. His future life was to be mild and pastoral, too. Years before, he had given boxing lessons to a Navy fighter who used the name of Sailor Reese. In 1932, under his real name of Harry Bennett, the sailor had become personnel chief for Ford, in Detroit. Bennett gave the parolee a job as watchman in one of the Ford public gardens. The new line on the payroll read: “Norman Selby. Age, 59. Farmhand.” The terms of his parole kept the Kid close to Detroit for five years. When, in 1937, he became totally free—the Kid used to say he’d been “pardoned,” but it was really just the formal ending of parole—he went on living in Detroit and working for Ford.

He did make a few trips out of town after the papers came through. One of them was to Rushville, Indiana, near the place of his birth, where he took unto himself an eighth wife, Mrs. Sue Cobb Cowley. Another was to New York, where the Kid and an old fellow-wizard, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, pottered around town together for a day, cutting up touches and reviewing the past. Wherever he went, the Kid seemed happy. His marriage went well. His job was for life. When he lied, he told contented lies that showed the old vanity, the old satisfaction with Norman Selby, alias Kid McCoy. One day a man asked him if he ever saw his former wives.

“You won’t believe it,” the Kid said smugly, “but I see them all, regularly. Every year I give a party, and every woman I’ve ever been married to comes to Detroit to see me again.”

He gave a roguish smile. “Why wouldn’t they come, for me?”

The Kid was not crazy, or senile. He simply liked this lie and all the others that celebrated the glory, the beauty, the cunning of Kid McCoy. In everything he did, as his days dwindled down to the last and strangest one, his mind and his body worked smoothly and well.

And then, suddenly, smoothly and well, he killed himself. Perhaps there had been one special sin in his life that was too big for him to Jive with any longer. If so, nobody knows what it was but Kid McCoy.

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt: Paper Tiger

Stanley Woodward is best remembered today for a wire he almost sent to Red Smith. Woodward was the sports editor for the New York Herald Tribune and Smith was his star columnist. One spring, according to “Red: A Biography of Red Smith,” By Ira Berkow,  “Woodward had been upset with the general sweet fare of columns” Smith had written. “Stanley was about to send a wire saying, ‘Will you stop Godding up those ball players?”

Woodward did not send the wire but Smith never forgot the sentiment. He repeated the story in Jerome Holtzman’s terrific oral history, “No Cheering in the Press Box.”

Woodward ran perhaps the finest sports section in New York after WWII. His Tribune staff included Smith, Al Laney, Jesse Abramson and Joe Palmer.

“Paper Tiger” is Woodward’s classic memoir. Fortunately for us, the good people at the University of Nebraska Press reissued the book not long ago (and it features an introduction from our man Schulian). Woodward’s gem is in print and it is essential reading. (Check out the “Paper Tiger” page at the University of Nebraska Press website.)

Please enjoy this excerpt. Woodward writes about bringing Smith, and Palmer–a writer who is also criminally overlooked these days–to the paper.

From “Paper Tiger,” by Stanley Woodward

Mrs. Helen Rogers Reid blew hot and cold on me at various times during my prewar and wartime career with the New York Herald Tribune. When I came back from the Pacific I felt I was in high favor. Not only had I written reams of copy about the nether side of the war but I worked largely by mail and so had not run up the hideous radio and cable bills the lady was used to receiving for war correspondence.

Mrs. Reid was extremely active in running the paper. She was the actual head of the Advertising Department but in the late stages of Ogden’s life she played a role of increasing importance in the Editorial Department. He started to fail in 1945, and his death occurred on January 3, 1947.

My first day in the office after getting back from the Pacific theater, Mrs. Reid invited me to her office and asked me what I would like to do for the paper. I believe I could have had any job I named at the time. But I asked merely to be returned to the Sports Department which needed reorganization. I asked to go back as sports editor on the theory, held by myself at any rate, that I would be moved out of Sports after the department had been put on its feet.

The first move I made was to install Arthur Glass as head of the copy desk. Our selection of news had been poor during the war and our choice of pictures was abysmal. Glass improved the paper the first day he worked in the slot, which was September 4, 1945.

At this time Al Laney was the columnist and didn’t like the job. He much preferred to handle assignments or to get up a feature series as he had in the case of “The Forgotten Men” before the war.

The first move I made was to attempt to get John Lardner to write our column. The first time we discussed it we renewed the old crap game argument and got nowhere. The second time I took along our publisher, Bill Robinson, and the talk was more businesslike. We met Lardner several other times but couldn’t come to terms with him. The fact was he didn’t want to write a newspaper column and kept making difficulties. So we dropped him, reluctantly.

Even before we talked to Lardner I had been scouting a little guy on the Philadelphia Record whose name was Walter Wellesley Smith. This character was a complete newspaper man. He had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish. In Philadelphia he was being hideously overworked. Not only did he write the column for the Record but he covered the ball games and took most other important assignments.

We scouted him in our usual way. For a month Verna Reamer, Sports Department secretary, bought the Record at the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square. She clipped all of Smith’s writings and pasted them in a blank book. At the end of the month she left the book on my desk and I read a month’s work by Smith at one sitting. I found I could get a better impression of a man’s general ability and style by reading a large amount of his stuff at one time.

There was no doubt in my mind that Smith was a man we must have. After I’d read half his stuff I decided he had more class than any writer in the newspaper business.

At first I didn’t think of him as a substitute for Lardner. Rather I wanted to get them both. When dealings with Lardner came to a stop I was afraid I would have to go back to writing a daily column myself, which I dreaded. I thought of myself at this time as an organizer rather than a writer, but Laney was anxious to have a leave of absence to finish the book he was writing (Paris Herald).

I telephoned Smith and asked him if he could come to New York and talk with me. We set a date and he arrived one morning with his wife Kay. She and Ricie paired off for much of the day while Smith and I discussed business.

It must be said that I was making this move without full approval of the management. George Cornish, our managing editor, knew I was looking for a man but was hard to convince when higher salaries were involved.

It is very strange to me that there was no competition in New York for Smith’s services. He was making ninety dollars a week in Philadelphia with a small extra fee for use of his material in the Camden paper, also operated by J. David Stern. Nobody in New York had approached Smith in several years. In fact, he never had had a decent offer from any New York paper. I opened the conversation with Smith as follows—

“You are the best newspaper writer in the country and I can’t understand why you are stuck in Philadelphia. I can’t pay you what you’re worth, but I’m very anxious to have you come here with us. I think that you will ultimately be our sports columnist but all I can offer you at the start is a job on the staff. Are you interested?”

“I sure am if the money is right,” said Red.

We adjourned for lunch and I told him about the paper and what I hoped to make of the Sports Department. I told him that I had lost all interest in sports during the war but now I was determined to make our department the best in the country.

“I can’t do this without you, Red,” I told him.

I left Smith parked in Bleeck’s and went upstairs to talk to George Cornish. With him it was a question of money and he blanched when I told him how much I wanted to pay Smith. I got a halfhearted go-ahead from George, but still I didn’t dare make the offer to Smith.

He owned a house in the Philadelphia suburbs and would be under great expense until he could sell it and move his family to New York. I suggested that we would perhaps be able to pay him an “equalization fee” until he moved his wife and children into Herald Tribune territory.

I went back to see Cornish and broached this subject. No one can say George wasn’t careful with the company’s money. He argued for a while but finally agreed that if we were to bring Smith to New York, it would be fair to save him from penury during his first weeks with us.

I was able to go back to Bleeck’s and make a pretty good offer to Red. I explained to him that his salary would be cut back after his family moved.

“But don’t worry,” I added. “You’ll be making five times that in three years.”

Of course, it turned out that way. As our columnist, Red was immediately syndicated. His salary was boosted within a couple of months and his income from outside papers equaled his new salary. Before anyone knew it he was making telephone numbers—and he deserved it.

I am unable to account for the fact that none of the evening papers of New York grabbed him. He could have been had, in all probability, for five dollars more a week than we gave him.

With him in hand I was able to let Laney take a few months off to finish his book while I slaved at the column, in addition to other duties. I didn’t want to put Red in too quickly. I wanted him to get the feel of the town first, and also I needed some of his writing in the paper to convince the bigwigs that he was as good as I claimed.

After Smith had been with us a month or so, I talked to Bill Robinson about making him our columnist. I wanted Bill to talk to Mrs. Reid about Smith so that Red would get away from the gate in good order. Bill had been reading him and was enthusiastic about his work. So not long after Smith had shifted his family to Malverne, Long Island, having sold his house, I told him that he was the columnist until further notice.

“I think that means forever, Red. And I’ll go right upstairs and see if I can get you more money.”

As a columnist Smith made an immediate hit and it wasn’t long before the Hearst people were showing interest in him. I told Bill Robinson it was silly not to have a contract with Smith. He agreed and it was drawn up at once. It gave him a large increase in salary and half the returns from his syndicate, which was growing fast. It now includes about one hundred papers.

I’d like to go back to the question of why Smith wasn’t hired by somebody else. My conclusion is that most writing sports editors don’t want a man around who is obviously better than they. I took the opposite view on this question. I wanted no writer on the staff who couldn’t beat me or at least compete with me. This was a question of policy.

I was trying to make a strong Sports Department and it was impossible to do this with the dreadful mediocrity I saw around me on the other New York papers.

The week the Smiths moved from the Main Line to Malverne was memorable. The kids, Kitty and Terry, were dropped off at our farm for a few days so that the parental Smiths could move in peace. I think the kids had a good time playing with our little girls.

Terry, who is now a bright young reporter and a graduate of Notre Dame and the army, was satisfied to sit on the tractor for hours at a time. To be safe I blocked the wheels with logs of wood and took off the distributor cap. The tractor had a self-starter.

With the Smiths established in Malverne, the next move was to get a racing writer. I wrote about twenty-five letters to people in racing—horse owners, promoters, trainers, jockeys, concessionaires, and gamblers. I asked each one whom he considered to be the best racing writer available to the New York Herald Tribune. The response was nearly 100 percent unanimous: “Joe Palmer.”

I asked Smith if he knew Joe Palmer. He said, “Yes, and he’s a hell of a writer.”

I found that Joe had a regular job on the Blood Horse of Lexington, Kentucky, that he was also secretary of the Trainers’ Association and was currently in New York tending to the trainers’ business.

I got hold of Bob Kelley, my old Poughkeepsie associate, and asked him if he would make an appointment for Palmer to meet for lunch in Bleeck’s restaurant at his convenience. Kelley had left the Times and had become public relations counsel for the New York race track. He got hold of Palmer and conveyed my message. Palmer answered as follows, “Tell that son of a bitch I won’t have lunch with him, and if I see him on the street I’ll kick him in the shins.”

I told Kelley that his answer was highly unsatisfactory and sent him back to talk further with Palmer. This time Joe came into Bleeck’s with his guard up. What he didn’t like about me was that I made a specialty of panning horse-racing. But once we got together we were friends in no time.

Joe liked the idea of working for the Herald Tribune. We came to terms quickly. It was agreed that he should go to work for us on the opening day at Hialeah, some months away. He needed the intervening time to finish his annual edition of American Race Horses.

I didn’t know at this time what a remarkable performer I had hired. Palmer turned out to be a writer of the Smith stripe, and his Monday morning column, frequently devoted to subjects other than racing, became one of the Herald Tribune’s most valuable features.

I was misguided in the way I handled Palmer. I should never have tied him down with daily racing coverage. He would have been more valuable to us if I had turned him loose to write a daily column of features and notes as Tom O’Reilly did for us much later. But Joe was effective whatever he wrote. He even did a good job on a fight in Florida one winter, though he hated boxing.

He and Smith were at Saratoga during one August meeting, and Smith persuaded him to go to some amateur bouts, conducted for stable boys and grooms. On their way home Palmer panned the show.

“I’d rather see a chicken fight,” he said.

“Why?” said Smith, outraged. “Chicken fighting is inhuman.”

“Well,” said Joe, “what we just saw was unchicken.”

Palmer was a big man physically and as thoroughly educated as John Kieran. Joe had earned his master’s degree in English in Kentucky and had taught there and at the University of Michigan where he studied for his Ph.D. He could speak Anglo-Saxon. His knowledge of music was stupendous and he would have made a good drama critic for any newspaper.

He had started his thesis at Michigan when he discontinued his education and went to work for the Blood Horse.

He first attracted my attention with a St. Patrick’s Day story in which he revealed that the patron saint’s greatest gift to the Irish was the invention of the wheelbarrow, which taught them to walk on their hind lefts.

Joe, himself, was of Irish decent and was brought up a Catholic. When he moved into a house in Malverne near the Smiths, he didn’t like the public education and sent his children to the parochial school. He decided on this course after a long talk with the mother superior. She asked him if he wanted his children instructed in religion and he said he did.

One day Steve and young Joe were learning the catechism. One of the questions was, “How Many Gods Are There?”

“That’s an important question and I want you to be sure to give the sister the right answer,” said Joe. “Now say this after me: ‘There is but one God and Mohammed is his prophet.’”

The story ends there. Nobody ever found out whether the boys told the sister what Joe told them. It’s a safe bet, though, that their mother, Mary Cole Palmer, touted them off Mohammed.

A few days before Palmer came to work for us, we carried a special story by him explaining his credo of racing and a four-column race-track drawing by the distinguished artist, Lee Townsend. The main point of Joe’s story was, “Horse-racing is an athletic contest between horses.”

He was not interested in betting or the coarser skullduggery that goes on around a race track. For a long time he wouldn’t put the payoff in his racing story.

“Why should I do that?” he asked Smith.

“Because if you don’t, the desk will write it in and probably get it in the wrong place.”

A few days before Joe went to work for us, Tom O’Reilly, another great horse writer, heard about it. He said, or so it was reported to me, “Holy smokes! Those guys will be hiring Thomas A. Edison to turn off the lights.”

Excerpted from PAPER TIGER by Stanley Woodward. Copyright © 1962 by Stanley Woodward. Originally published by Atheneum, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

You can order “Paper Tiger” here.

For more on Woodward, check out “Red: A Biography of Red Smith” by Ira Berkow and “Into My Own,” a memoir by Roger Kahn.

And read this about Joe Palmer:  blood horse.

(Thanks once again to Dina C. for her expert transcription.)

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver