This weekend I was struck by a text I should have read at 13. Ring W. Lardner's " You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters as has been established in the logs as the definitive tract on the American. The master anthropologist already posted on this text, but his headcase is not mine and my exposure to this text has absolutely dominated my weekend. Lardner, a man with the benefit of great exposure tells the story of Jack, a hayseed of little exposure through Jack's epistles to his buddy Al back home.
The story begins with Jack having the great fortune of being bought by Charles Comiskey as a speculative asset on the strength of his arm. Commisky is a man running an entertainment business that has a peculiar hitch in that the entertainment he is selling involves an athletic competition against other similar businesses. To this end Comiskey employs a small army of professionals to scour the bush leagues for potential that could be passed on to a cadre of expert professionals and then developed into talent. As Branch Rickey had yet to develop the "farm system"1 talent was strictly the property of big league teams. The professional scouts use a sophisticated technical jargon including terms like arm speed, stuff, power, an eye, teachability, a glove, and work ethic to describe the potential they identify. Jack was selected for consideration strictly on the basis of being able to throw a fastball with some stuff on it.
As a hard thrower given the chance to become a pitcher,2 Jack fights this opportunity at every turn. His refusal to be developed leads to predictable disaster:
I was all O.K. till I had the first two men out in the first inning. Then Crawford come up. I wanted to give him a spitter but Schalk signs me for the fast one and I give it to him. The ball didn't hop much and Crawford happened to catch it just right. At that Collins ought to of catched the ball. Crawford made three bases and up come Cobb. It was the first time I ever seen him. He hollered at me right off the reel. He says You better walk me you busher. I says I will walk you back to the bench. Schalk signs for a spitter and I gives it to him and Cobb misses it.
Then instead of signing for another one Schalk asks for a fast one and I shook my head no but he signed for it again and yells Put something on it. So I throwed a fast one and Cobb hits it right over second base. I don't know what Weaver was doing but he never made a move for the ball. Crawford scored and Cobb was on first base. First thing I knowed he had stole second while I held the ball. Callahan yells Wake up out there and I says Why don't your catcher tell me when they are going to steal. Schalk says Get in there and pitch and shut your mouth. Then I got mad and walked Veach and Moriarty but before I walked Moriarty Cobb and Veach pulled a double steal on Schalk. Gainor lifts a fly and Lord drops it and two more come in. Then Stanage walks and I whiffs their pitcher.
I come in to the bench and Callahan says Are your friends from Bedford up here? I was pretty sore and I says Why don't you get a catcher? He says We don't need no catcher when you're pitching because you can't get nothing past their bats. Then he says You better leave your uniform in here when you go out next inning or Cobb will steal it off your back. I says My arm is sore. He says Use your other one and you'll do just as good.
Gleason says Who do you want to warm up? Callahan says Nobody. He says Cobb is going to lead the league in batting and basestealing anyway so we might as well give him a good start. I was mad enough to punch his jaw but the boys winked at me not to do nothing.
Well I got some support in the next inning and nobody got on. Between innings I says Well I guess I look better now don't I? Callahan says Yes but you wouldn't look so good if Collins hadn't jumped up on the fence and catched that one off Crawford. That's all the encouragement I got Al.
Cobb come up again to start the third and when Schalk signs me for a fast one I shakes my head. Then Schalk says All right pitch anything you want to. I pitched a spitter and Cobb bunts it right at me. I would of threw him out a block but I stubbed my toe in a rough place and fell down. This is the roughest ground I ever seen Al. Veach bunts and for a wonder Lord throws him out. Cobb goes to second and honest Al I forgot all about him being there and first thing I knowed he had stole third. Then Moriarty hits a fly ball to Bodie and Cobb scores though Bodie ought to of threw him out twenty feet.
They batted all round in the forth inning and scored four or five more. Crawford got the luckiest three-base hit I ever see. He popped one way up in the air and the wind blowed it against the fence. The wind is something fierce here Al. At that Collins ought to of got under it.
I was looking at the bench all the time expecting Callahan to call me in but he kept hollering Go on and pitch. Your friends wants to see you pitch.
Well Al I don't know how they got the rest of their runs but they had more luck than any team I ever seen. And all the time Jennings was on the coaching line yelling like a Indian. Some day Al I'm going to punch his jaw.
To this day it is not uncommon for a big leaguer's best or worst performance to be their debut, when the other big leaguers see what the have for the first time in the flesh. In Jack's case his tremendous advantage of being an unknown quality with the opportunity to study his opposition first lasted all of two at bats. That he attributes a veritable shit ton of runs being scored against him as a pitcher during the "dead-ball" era3 to "luck" leads to another very predictable outcome:
I suppose you and the rest of the boys in Bedford will be supprised to learn that I am out here, because I remember telling you when I was sold to San Francisco by the White Sox that not under no circumstances would I report here. I was pretty mad when Comiskey give me my release, because I didn't think I had been given a fair show by Callahan. I don't think so yet Al and I never will but Bill Sullivan the old White Sox catcher talked to me and told me not to pull no boner by refuseing to go where they sent me. He says You're only hurting yourself. He says You must remember that this was your first time up in the big show and very few men no matter how much stuff they got can expect to make good right off the reel. He says All you need is experience and pitching out in the Coast League will be just the thing for you.
So I went in and asked Comiskey for my transportation and he says That's right Boy go out there and work hard and maybe I will want you back. I told him I hoped so but I don't hope nothing of the kind Al. I am going to see if I can't get Detroit to buy me, because I would rather live in Detroit than anywheres else. The little girl who got stuck on me this spring lives there. I guess I told you about her Al. Her name is Violet and she is some queen. And then if I got with the Tigers I wouldn't never have to pitch against Cobb and Crawford, though I believe I could show both of them up if I was right. They ain't got much of a ball club here and hardly any good pitchers outside of me. But I don't care.
I will win some games if they give me any support and I will get back in the big league and show them birds something. You know me, Al.
Jack has the great luck to be sold to a Bush league club Comiskey is especially friendly with and has to be talked out of fucking off home to Oklahoma. How many times the hayseed and ego in my own headcase failed my own self interests the exact same way! In Frisco Jack's potential is enough to offer him success to the point developing him further is a slog that takes his handlers most of the year. Upon returning to Chicago as a talent, his shortcomings and propensity to mismanage his personal life demand that Saint Gleason devote a substantial amount of his precious expert time on Jack. Liberated from Gleason's charge during the off season Jack gets captured by a dumb woman who ruins him while further burdening him with a left hander's son.
The rube in me, it isn't completely dead and I have doubts the hayseed in my head will ever completely die. Maybe the scouts would say I've got "some smarts", but... I am at the same time burdened with a sort of strucutral stupidity of a sort built more sturdily than anything else in North America to the point whatever smarts I have can be a bigger liability than an asset. When operating in Spanish, I appear to myself to be noticably less handicapped in this manner but I can't unlearn English. In English, and my earlier months in Uruguay operating in English with Spanish words I kept working myself into corners where I'd have to pray for relief. While I have less than complete mastery of the Spanish language I manage to effect conclusions to problems I encounter in Spanish with increasing regularity and efficacy,4 though getting here has been a journey.
If you suffer from the handicaps of being North American or having been born to an English speaking mother, I can not recommend the next thing you do be anything other than reading Lardner. Trusting any summary to give you the "jist" of things would be doing yourself a grave disservice. I am quite well shaken.
- An arrangement where Major league clubs buy or enter into contracts of exclusivity with a number of bush league teams to develop talent out of potential according to a set of standardized recipies. [↩]
- While some pitchers eventually develop into a sort of professional with qualities like "cunning" and "clubhouse presence" a pitcher is a sort of race horse executing a particular skill set under the immediate supervision of the professional catcher. [↩]
- Named so after the fact not because the sport was dead, but because the ball didn fly much. The ball itself wasn't very live and as a result runs scored were precious things averaging about 3.2 per game. Home runs were uncommon which means getting runners across the plate involved hard fought "small ball" in the infield. This makes for exciting games. [↩]
- This self evaluation may be colored by my ego. [↩]