Retroactive Review: You Know Me Al

Ring Lardner was a writer who was ahead of his time. (Public Domain)

American satirist Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al might be over a hundred years old, but it’s as enduring and relevant today as it was to the post-World War I crowd that first embraced it. You Know Me Al details the rocky rise of major league pitcher Jack Keefe through his letters to his stalwart pal, Al.

The arrogant, hubristic Jack—who calls to mind other fictional hurlers such as Eastbound & Down’s Kenny Powers and the Major League franchise’s Ricky Vaughn—describes the start to his career in colorful prose, trashing those around him from his coaches and teammates to the various women who flit in and out of his life. Jack is also foolish and easily manipulated by those who surround him. He’s tricked by coaches who want to coax out his best efforts, he’s strung along by a landlord and played for a fool by a couple girlfriends, and the possibility looms that Jack’s newborn son might not be his. He remains blissfully ignorant of his wife’s potential deception throughout the novel.

When Jack doesn’t pitch well, it’s either because he was ill or his teammates failed to support him offensively and defensively. When people cross him, Jack often insists he would have beaten them up but would have killed them otherwise (with the audience fully aware that Jack would have done nothing of the sort). He also overeats and drinks excessively and frequently sneaks out to bars and restaurants after curfew to whet his unquenchable appetite. Though Jack sometimes seems to suspect others are kidding him or putting him on, he learns no lessons from those around him—particularly his coaches—because he’s so self-absorbed and self-involved.

That being said, for all of Jack’s hubris and inflated ego, he does seem to have genuine talent. At one point, he sports a 10-6 record, though Jack insists it would be 16-0 if not for his teammates’ foibles behind him.

One interesting facet of the novel is that it’s peopled with familiar faces, such as Charlie Comiskey, Kid Gleason, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Fred Merkle (of Merkle’s Boner fame). In fact, the only fictional baseball player, besides Jack himself, is the left-handed pitcher—and Jack’s nemesis—Allen.

As a sports columnist for several different newspapers, Lardner would have been well-immersed in the insular world of baseball and those who peopled it. His expertise lent an air of authenticity to his subjects and the world they inhabit, and indeed the character of Jack Keefe was popular with readers because he sounded like a “real ballplayer.” (Lardner grew close to the White Sox during his time in Chicago and felt personally betrayed when the Black Sox scandal rocked the baseball world a few years after the publication of You Know Me Al. After the scandal, Lardner never wrote about baseball again.)

While Jack frequently complains about his teammates not supporting him adequately, whether it’s through defense or offense, the book—and the baseball found within—still seems authentic for its time. Jack describes encounters with luminaries of the day such as Cobb, Gleason, Johnson, Mathewson, and others, and it never feels as if Lardner is just stuffing the novel with names of athletes he’s familiar with. The action described within also feels “real,” even with Jack’s embellishments.

The games themselves are likely fictional, as Jack describes winning the “world serious” with the White Sox that year. Chicago did not take the championship until 1917, three years after Lardner’s stories first started appearing in the Saturday Evening Post and a year after they were collected for his book. That the baseball players and games played and series won—or lost—seem so realistic is a credit to Lardner’s expertise as a sports columnist and his skill as a writer.

Jack is resentful of Allen because he doesn’t think Allen is talented, but the two become entangled when Jack takes up with Allen’s sister-in-law. The two bickering couples wind up cohabiting together somewhat unhappily, and things get even more strained when Jack and his wife Florrie introduce a baby to the mix. Florrie isn’t the first love interest mentioned in You Know Me Al. Jack has dalliances with a Detroiter named Violet and another woman named Hazel and, at different points in the narrative, writes to Al of marrying both of them.

The reader, of course, knows that neither relationship will survive. Jack naïvely writes of Violet and Hazel manipulating and using him for money and status; when Jack has neither, both women leave him, and Jack declares he’s finished with women. That’s where Florrie comes in. Jack and Florrie, Allen’s sister-in-law, have a whirlwind relationship and quickly marry—and just as quickly the marriage falls apart. Jack and Florrie clash frequently over money and their living situation with the Allens, and Jack eventually throws her out. He writes to Al that he’s going to “sew [sic] for a bill of divorce” and, for a moment, the reader believes him.

Of course, their separation lasts about as long as their whirlwind courtship when Florrie returns with a baby Jack believes is his. The relationship doesn’t much improve after that, as Jack and Florrie continuously bicker and argue, over finances, their living situation, and baby Al.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is that while it’s epistolary in nature, we’re never given Al’s perspective except through Jack’s (probably) biased filter. Jack often asks Al for money and then routinely “forgets” to pay him back or comes up with excuses to withhold repayment, with Al painted as a long-suffering but tolerant companion. We’re left to wonder what Al really thinks about Jack’s antics.

The story is not really about Al, though, nor is it really about the friendship between the two. Jack is the central character; everything is filtered through his perspective, even Al and his friendship with Jack. We’re never really given Al’s perspective on anything, not even when Jack strings him along about repaying a loan—and then renegotiates the terms of the deal after the fact. Nor is Al’s perspective provided when Jack includes cutting remarks from Florrie about Bertha, Al’s wife. The only indication of a reaction comes from Jack, such as when he comments about Al’s (unseen) response that mentions Bertha’s taking offense to Florrie’s remarks.

It’s easy to assume this is a one-sided friendship, simply because we don’t get Al’s point of view, but there are enough clues provided throughout Jack’s correspondence to indicate Al is not so much a rube as he is Jack’s loyal pal. Perhaps Al is, like most of the public, taken with Jack’s baseball skills and bravado and more willing to forgive his failings.

Thus Spoke Baseball: Another Look at the Language of the Game
In other words, baseball gets the glossary it deserves.

Epistolary storytelling is a difficult form, particularly in the case of letter-writing, because the author not only has to write the “letter,” but imagine the response from the recipient in order to write the reply as well. The point of view is also only coming from one character, so there are many ways in which the perspective could be skewed. Such as it is, Jack is clearly biased and perhaps even an unreliable narrator, but Lardner is a skilled enough writer that he provides the reader with context to draw those conclusions for themselves.

You Know Me Al was a surprising reading experience for me, as the type of reader who prefers crime fiction to humor and satire. I found myself laughing along with some of Jack’s antics, or even laughing at Jack as he is subtly manipulated by his wife, managers and coaches. And yet, for all of his bravado and hubris, Jack is still an endearing protagonist. He’s funny, relatable, and personable. Who hasn’t wanted to skip curfew to hang out at a bar and eat until closing? Kid Gleason is being totally unreasonable!

I was a little disappointed to find out Lardner stopped writing baseball fiction, because You Know Me Al was such a fun reading experience. (It appears he wrote other stories with Jack, including a series set overseas during World War I, but they don’t appear to be baseball-centered.)

While the book itself clocks in at an economical 200 pages, it’s hardly a light or inconsequential read. You Know Me Al provides a satirical glimpse back at a snapshot in time, to the early days of baseball, just a half-decade before the landscape of the sport was altered by the shocking Black Sox scandal and Lardner became so disillusioned he quit writing about baseball altogether. You Know Me Al’s enduring popularity amongst fans of sports fiction is a testament to its central character and his universal appeal, the skill of the author who penned the stories, and the enduring timelessness of the great American pastime.

The novel itself doesn’t seem to have much of a central connecting plot, perhaps owing to its origins as short stories that were later collected into a book. It’s certainly character driven in nature, relying on the personality of Jack Keefe—and his highs and lows as a major leaguer—to hold it all together. Perhaps that lack of traditional “structure” is why it’s appealing as a bit of baseball fiction. The sport of baseball is, after all, the only sport without a clock. (Maybe a bit of a stretch.)

In the age of SportsCenter, viral videos, and Twitter, it might seem odd to state that a novel penned over a hundred years ago is as relevant now as it was in 1914, but it’s true. The egotistic Jack Keefes are a familiar, enduring type, and as American as baseball itself. We enjoy watching them stumble and fall, and perhaps pick themselves up. Oftentimes, we just enjoy the spectacle, relieved they’re someone else’s problem.


Alexandra Simon is a pragmatic but somewhat rabid Detroit Tigers fan who enjoys candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach. Follow her on Twitter @catswithbats, and also @glasshalffulmer, where she also tweets about baseball.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Great look into sports journalism history. Most amazing part of this book is the cover. Probably the first and only time Mencken said something nice about someone!

kjohn
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kjohn

I really enjoyed this book when I first read it many years ago. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading this well-written synopsis, which makes me want to reread the book. Sadly, as I read this synopsis, I thought how much the fictional main character Jack Keefe reminds me of a nonfictional someone who dominates today’s daily news.

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I really enjoyed this book when I first read it many years ago. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading this well-written synopsis, which makes me want to reread the book.