Meet the journalist who invented sports blogging a century ago
To those who think sports blogging is an invention of the modern era, guess again.
Ring Lardner beat Bill Simmons and others like him by about 80-90 years.
A new book, “The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner,” edited by Ron Rapoport, should be required reading for sports journalists who want to know the roots of their profession. It shows how the superstar newspaper columnist in the early part of the 20th Century actually laid the foundation for what we see on the internet today.
During his stint as the Chicago Tribune’s Wake of the News sports columnist, Lardner wrote every day from 1913-1919. When told by the sports editor that the Tribune needed his name in the paper on a regular basis, he cracked, "Why don’t you just put in, ‘Ring Lardner, who did not work today?'"
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However, much like modern bloggers, Lardner felt compelled to constantly fill the well. Then he inserted himself in his wonderfully entertaining columns. His off-topic ramblings with brilliant observations call to mind the insightful digressions that Simmons used to forge his popularity at ESPN.com.
"A lot of bloggers might be Ring’s great, great grandchildren," said Rapoport, a long-time columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Los Angeles Daily News. “There was a very modern sensibility to what he did. I do think maybe the wheel has come all the way around to Ring’s sense of style and purpose.”
During his time, Rapoport says Lardner was "among the 10 or 12 most famous people in America." His syndicated columns, which covered a wide range of topics from World War I to prohibition to politics, eventually appeared in more than 150 papers.
Lardner’s fame reached new levels as a short story writer. His "You Know Me Al," a series of letters by a young naïve baseball player, are considered to be an American classic. A young budding writer in Oak Park, Ill., Ernest Hemingway, was said to have been inspired by Lardner’s work.
"Virginia Woolf, who didn’t know second base from Westminster Abbey, thought he was terrific," Rapoport said.
Sports, though, is where Lardner first caught everyone’s attention. Rapoport said that he was friends with many of the players on the Cubs and throughout the big leagues. Traveling with the teams, he was able to pick up their vibe and culture.
Lardner often made them the object of his fun, Rapoport said. He invented feuds between players, and he put his jokes in their voices.
"Think about it today," Rapoport said. "If somebody put words in the mouth of a Derek Jeter or Cam Newton, there would be hell to pay. But in that era, the players liked it. I don’t know that we’ve seen anything like it since then."
Lardner also was wonderfully adept at writing in the players’ vernacular. He started one World Series column this way:
"We ought to of trimmed ‘em. When Egan, the big slob, said I was out at second he musta been full o’ hops, the big boob. I like t’know where he was at las’ night, the big bum."
Go ahead and try if you think it is easy to write an entire column like that.
"The fact that he was writing in this very difficult style to master makes it all the more remarkable," Rapoport said.
Lardner also could be serious and capture the emotion of the moment. One of his most famous columns was on Christy Mathewson after the famed pitcher lost Game 7 of the 1912 World Series.
"It was the spectacle of an old man, as baseball players are called, on the New York players’ bench with bowed head and drooping shoulders, with tears streaming from his eyes, a man on whom his team’s fortune had been staked and lost and a man who would have proven his clear title to trust reposed in him if his mates had stood by him in the supreme test."
Lardner’s observations of Mathewson were cutting-edge in a pre-radio era when most sportswriters simply wrote lengthy play-by-play of games. And the column stands the test of time, providing lessons for today’s generation of journalists, Rapoport said.
"There is much to be learned from Lardner," Rapoport said. "He really paid attention to what was going on around him. He was very descriptive, whether it was about players or opera patrons. An eternal truth of journalism is having an awareness of where you are."
Despite his acclaim as a fiction writer, Lardner never gave up writing newspaper columns until his death at age 48 in 1933. Rapoport says his 500-page book covers "maybe five percent" of Lardner’s journalism.
Be advised: Lardner’s early 20th Century style does require an adjustment for the modern audience. You can’t just mindlessly read one of his columns.
"You can’t skim Ring," Rapoport said. "He demands you pay attention to what he’s doing. He’s worth the time you have to put in. Every so often, you’ll come across a line that will have you burst out laughing."
Case in point is Lardner on the contradictions of Babe Ruth, the one-time star pitcher turned slugger for the Yankees in 1920.
"His name is George Ruth but they call him Babe on acct. of him being over 6 ft. tall and pretty near as wide, and he is a great left hand pitcher that don’t pitch."