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The New Yorker’s recent compilation, The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from the New Yorker, is a fine and handsome collection but it is does not contain a single piece by John Lardner, which begs the question: Is Lardner the most neglected great sports writer of all-time?
Sure, Jimmy Cannon is overlooked these days and he was a legend during his time; Joe H. Palmer was on his way to a PHD in English Literature when he became a full-time chronicler of horse racing–which he did as well as anyone ever has–but he died young and his name is lost; and Lenny Shecter was a funny, irascible talent, the patron saint of cynicism and snarki, and he’s sadly known as just the “co-writer” of “Ball Four.” Shecter also died young.
John Lardner was painting a prose portrait of a legendary con man when he wrote: “On a small scale, Titanic Thompson is an American legend. I say on a small scale, because an overpowering majority of the public has never heard of him. That is the way Titanic likes it. He is a professional gambler. He has sometimes been called the gambler’s gambler.”
Lardner might well have been writing about himself, although calling him a writer’s writer is too limiting, not to mention entirely inadequate. In a career that spanned three decades, the ’30s through the ’50s, he wrote for The New Yorker about everything from movies and TV, to the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. But it was as a sports columnist for Newsweek that Lardner left his deepest footprint, and he underscored it with long, brilliant pieces for magazines like True and Sport. His trademark, as Stan Isaacs, the former Newsday sports columnist recently pointed out, was a “droll touch — precise, detached.”
“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, the longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me recently. “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.”
Al Silverman, who ran Sport magazine in the Sixties, edited Lardner’s once-a-month sports column in True for a year-and-a-half in the early ’50s. “We never did meet but talked over the phone about his piece every month,” said Silverman. “I don’t remember ever saying, ‘You made a little grammatical error here, John.’ Always it was me saying, ‘Another great one, John.’ And they all were wonderful.”
In the epilogue to a posthumous collection “The World of John Lardner” (1961), his friend Roger Kahn wrote, “Although most perceptive sports writers accepted him as matchless, sports writing was not the craft of John Lardner. Nor was it profile writing, nor column writing. After the painstaking business of reportage, his craft was purely writing: writing the English sentence, fusing sound and meaning, matching the precision of the word with the rhythm of the phrase. It is a pursuit which is unfailing demanding, and Lardner met it with unfailing mastery.”
Do yourself a favor and pick up the new Lardner collection. You won’t be sorry.
[Drawings by Walt Kelly]