Ringgold Wilmer Lardner was born on March 6, 1885, in Niles, Michigan, to Henry and Lena Phillips Lardner, a quintessentially Victorian couple who raised their six children in a beautiful, some might say idyllic, environment in the wealthy section of town. Both Henry, a farmer who had inherited his wealth from his father, and Lena, a local poet and church organist, were devout Christians who educated their children by means of private tutors until high school.
This private education was overseen by Lena, who made sure that young Ring was brought up with a healthy appreciation of poetry and music. His lifelong love of music and the written word can no doubt be attributed to the mother he adored. From his father, he learned to love sports; in fact, Henry Lardner helped his boys build their own private baseball diamond on which the neighborhood kids would play. These games would number among Ring’s most cherished memories toward the end of his life.
Lardner graduated from Niles High School in 1901 at the age of sixteen, having written the class poem, his first published work, which appeared in the Niles Daily Star. While working for the Niles Gas Company, he was active in the local minstrel group, and he wrote his first musical piece, Zanzibar, in 1903. After two years of working for the gas company, Ring fell into his first newspaper job when Edgar Stoll, the editor of the South Bend Times, came to Niles to hire Ring’s brother, Rex, who had been writing stories for the local paper. Rex was on vacation and, though the details are not clear, Ring somehow convinced Stoll to give him the job.
Little did the directionless Lardner know how much this opportunity would change his life. Stoll recognized the young writer’s talent and granted him the freedom not only to report about sporting events but also to write creatively about them as cultural happenings. Lardner did just that for various newspapers, including the Chicago Examiner and The Sporting News, from 1905 to 1913, when he was finally rewarded with his own column, “In the Wake of the News,” by the Chicago Tribune.
From 1906 to 1911, Lardner interacted with major-league baseball players on an almost daily basis. He was the beat writer for the Chicago White Sox for several years, and he got to know the players and their way of life like few non-players ever could. He understood the way they talked, the way they thought, and the way they acted off the field. Above all, he understood the gap between the players’ status as larger-than-life heroes to most of the American public and their actual manners and shortcomings.
Thus, as he wrote about their on-field exploits, he also began working on ways to show Americans a funny, at times satiric view of their heroes’ world. “In the Wake of the News” allowed him to experiment with the voice of the “Busher,” the big-leaguer who, though equipped with good intentions, was every bit the rube, an arrogant and somewhat simple fellow through whose eyes Lardner would show America the seamier side of life in the Big Leagues. His stories, told though the voice of Jack Keefe, the arrogant, luckless busher, became the toast of the sporting world. By 1914, Lardner was publishing his Busher stories in the Saturday Evening Post, allowing him to earn enough money to get off the road as a sports journalist and concentrate on his fiction and on raising a family. Lardner married Ellis Abbott of Goshen, Indiana, in 1911, and by 1915 they had two sons with two more on the way.
As a settled family man with a growing literary reputation, Lardner embarked on his most prolific decade as a writer. In 1915, he published his first book, Bib Ballads, a collection of humorous stories derived from his “Wake” columns, which was followed that year by the novel You Know Me Al, adapted from Jack Keefe stories from the Saturday Evening Post. Lardner capitalized on the popularity of his early works by publishing the hilarious
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