Last summer, while rummaging through a bin of library castoffs in Western Massachusetts (anything to get away from the in-laws), I came across one of those little gems—the needle in the proverbial haystack—of which every bibliophile dreams. Wedged between an old bike-repair manual and a third-rate techno-thriller was a vintage hardcover of Ring Lardner’s "You Know Me Al," its dustjacket a bit frayed but otherwise a handsome specimen.
This classic epistolary novella (first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post from 1914-15) tells of the precipitous rise and fall of Jack Keefe, fireballing rookie hurler for the White Stockings, through Jack’s own letters to his old pal Al back in rural Indiana. Just why Al remains Jack’s pal is a question you soon begin to ask yourself as you read through Jack’s grammatically impaired letters, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the letter-writer is in fact a self-centered, lazy, ungrateful, and none-to-bright busher headed for a much deserved come-upance. But I won’t ruin the story for you.
So why bring it up here? It makes sense to inaugurate YFSF’s new Book Notes column with a nod to what may rightly be called the Ur text of baseball literature. From "You Know Me Al," there follows a clear line of descent through baseball’s most cherished works. James Thurber’s "You Can Look It Up" comes right from Lardner. So does Mark Harris’s vastly underappreciated "Henry Wiggen" series, Philip Roth’s "The Great American Novel," and Jim Bouton’s "Ball Four," (which took the format and flipped it on it’s head)—to name just a few of its progeny.
The moral of this story: if you don’t know Al (or, more correctly, his dear old pal Jack) go ahead and make his acquaintance. You’ll be glad you did.