In the grand era of sports that spanned the middle of the 20th century, few writers were more revered by their contemporaries than John Lardner. When he died in 1960, at the age of 47, he was widely recognized as an unsurpassed observer of sports, through his long-running weekly column in Newsweek1 and a variety of freelance pieces for The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, True, and Sport. The famed sportswriter W.C. Heinz succinctly put it: Lardner was "the best of us."
Lardner was raised in a literary family (his father, Ring, was the nation's best-known sportswriter by the 1920s, though that only begins to describe his place in the culture) and matured quickly into an elegant essayist with a sharp eye, a gift for language that was at once formal and wry, and a humor that was wholly original. "John really was funny, but not like his old man," eulogized Red Smith. "He wasn't funny like anybody else. He was funny like John Lardner, a bona fide original."2
Lardner possessed a sturdy laconicism. His oldest daughter, Susan (a writer herself), remembers him as "taciturn," but says he was a "wonderful letter writer," and it was through those missives that "he conveyed his love and interest" to his children. His best friend, Walt Kelly (creator of the comic strip Pogo), wrote: "To be alone with John Lardner was to enjoy solitude in the best of company. The quiet of the man's presence was like the silence of a forest, where the lack of noise does not indicate a lack of life."
This same sense of calm was present in his writing; critic Carl Van Doren once described Lardner as "a writer who can say a great deal in a few words, and who when there is nothing more to be said, says just that." That spare and incisive eye is rare in any age, but particularly stood out in an era when much of sportswriting was purple, slack, and self-indulgent. Lardner's studied, insightful reserve allowed him to take in stride the inimitable figures he encountered and chronicled. Those barnstorming, bar-hopping, mythical characters — promoters, managers, and gamblers — who along with athletes were an essential part of the sports universe before the homogenizing rise of television forever altered the landscape.
Lardner's upbringing was perfect for his chosen trade. His parents were close friends with their Great Neck, New York, neighbors F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald3 as well as the sports columnist Grantland Rice and the writer Franklin Pierce Adams,4 who ran a verse of Lardner's in his newspaper column when John was a child.5 After studying at Phillips Academy in Andover and later Harvard in 1929, Lardner attended the Sorbonne in Paris for a year, then left school in 1931 to begin work at the New York Herald-Tribune. By the fall of 1933, he'd been hired to write a nationally syndicated sports column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. In '39, he started another weekly column — "Sport Week" for Newsweek.6 Three years later, he set off to cover World War II, for both Newsweek and the NANA.
After spending much of 1942 to 1945 in the Pacific Theater,7 Lardner returned to the U.S. and his Newsweek column, but also began to do more freelance pieces, showing an increasing facility for long-form journalism. Whether writing a column or a magazine piece, he spent much of his free time in New York City at Bleeck's (officially known as the Artist and Writers Restaurant) on West 40th Street, a block from the Metropolitan Opera House. Lardner often stood at the bar, frequently joined by his friend and protégé Roger Kahn8 and other former colleagues at the Herald-Tribune.
By the early '50s, Lardner was influencing a generation of American sportswriters. Future Los Angeles Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Murray was an avid reader, as was the young, talented troop working under Blackie Sherrod at the Fort Worth Press. "Every week there was always an urgent dash to a newsstand to grab Newsweek and desperately search out Lardner's column," Dan Jenkins recalled in the foreword to The John Lardner Reader. "The one that came to the office was Sherrod's, and if any of us dared touch it we might be sentenced to cover a high school football game between the Itasca Wampus Cats and the Trent Gorillas."
Lardner's writing style was deliberate and distinctive. "He worked at home, on a typewriter, from notes in pencil in small, brown spiral notebooks and soft yellow paper," recalls Susan Lardner. "Copies were made using carbon paper. We (my sister, brother, and I) remember having to be quiet whenever we were at home and he was working. He came out from his workroom in the evening for a scotch and soda and dinner, and sometimes watched TV, then often went back to work."
In 1954, after years of fighting tuberculosis ("the typewriter was part of the background noise at home," says Susan, "and, for a couple of years, his coughing"), Lardner wrote a lengthy profile of the legendary middleweight Stanley Ketchel for True magazine. The genesis of the piece remains something of a mystery, with little to no record of it among Lardner's papers housed at the Newberry Library in Chicago. "The decision on Ketchel was probably based on best offer," says Kahn. "When John's brother, Ring Lardner Jr.,9 was blacklisted by Red-baiters, John contributed heavily to the support of Ring's family. So supporting two families left him pretty much strapped, and Ed Fitzgerald, the great editor of Sport, said Lardner's pieces came to him with a request for prompt payment because 'there's a small wolf at the door.'"
However it came about, Lardner's profile of Ketchel ran in the May 1954 issue, and exemplified Lardner's assured style — with a lead for the ages — and his mastery at capturing the ragged spirit of an American original.
Down Great Purple Valleys
By John Lardner
Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.10
That was in 1910. Up to 1907 the world at large had never heard of Ketchel. In the three years between his first fame and his murder, he made an impression on the public mind such as few men before or after him have made. When he died, he was already a folk hero and a legend. At once, his friends, followers, and biographers began to speak of his squalid end, not as a shooting or a killing, but as an assassination — as though Ketchel were Lincoln. The thought is blasphemous, maybe, but not entirely cockeyed. The crude, brawling, low-living, wild-eyed, sentimental, dissipated, almost illiterate hobo, who broke every Commandment at his disposal, had this in common with a handful of presidents, generals, athletes, and soul-savers, as well as with fabled characters like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed: he was the stuff of myth. He entered mythology at a younger age than most of the others, and he still holds stoutly to his place there.11
There's a story by Ernest Hemingway, "The Light of the World,"12 in which a couple of boys on the road sit listening to a pair of seedy harlots as they trade lies about how they loved the late Steve Ketchel in person. This is the mythology of the hustler — the shiniest lie the girls can manage, the invocation of the top name in the folklore of sporting life. Ketchel is also an article of barroom faith. Francis Albertanti, a boxing press agent, likes to tell about the fight fan who was spitting beer and adulation at Mickey Walker13 one night in a saloon soon after Mickey had won a big fight.
"Kid," said the fan to Walker, "you're the greatest middleweight that ever came down the road. The greatest. And don't let anybody tell you different."
"What about Ketchel?" said Albertanti in the background, stirring up trouble.
"Ketchel?" screamed the barfly, galvanized by the name. He grabbed Walker's coat, "Listen, bum!" he said to Walker. "You couldn't lick one side of Steve Ketchel on the best day you ever saw!"
Thousands of stories have been told about Ketchel. As befits a figure of myth, they are half truth — at best — and half lies. He was lied about in his lifetime by those who knew him best, including himself. Ketchel had a lurid pulp-fiction writer's mind. He loved the clichés of melodrama. His own story of his life, as he told it to Nat Fleischer,14 his official biographer, is full of naïve trimmings about bullies twice his size whom he licked as a boy, about people who saved him from certain death in his youth and whom he later visited in a limousine to repay a hundredfold. These tall tales weren't necessary. The truth was strong enough. Ketchel was champion of the world, perhaps the best fist fighter of his weight in history, a genuine wild man in private life, a legitimate all-around meteor, who needed no faking of his passport to legend. But he couldn't resist stringing his saga with tinsel. And it's something more than coincidence that his three closest friends toward the end of his life were three of the greatest Munchausens in America: Willus Britt, a fight manager;15 Wilson Mizner, a wit and literary con man;16 and Hype Igoe, a romantic journalist.17 They are all dead now. In their time, they juiced up Ketchel's imagination, and he juiced up theirs.
Mizner, who managed Ketchel for a short time, would tell of a day when he went looking for the fighter and found him in bed, smoking opium, with a blonde and a brunette. Well, the story is possible. It has often been said that Ketchel smoked hop, and he knew brunettes by the carload, and blondes by the platoon. But it's more likely that Mizner manufactured the tale to hang one of his own lines on: "What did I do?" he would say. "What could I do? I told them to move over."
Ketchel had the same effect on Willus Britt's fictional impulse. When Britt, Mizner's predecessor as manager, brought Ketchel east for the first time from California, where he won his fame, he couldn't help gilding the lily. Willus put him in chaps and spurs and billed him as a cowboy. Ketchel was never a cowboy, though he would have loved to have been one. He was a semi-retired hobo (even after he had money, he sometimes rode the rods from choice) and an ex-bouncer of lushes in a bagnio.
"He had the soul of a bouncer," says Dumb Dan Morgan,18 one of the few surviving boxing men who knew him well, "but a bouncer who enjoyed the work."
One of Bill Mizner's best bons mots was the one he uttered when he heard of Ketchel's death: "Tell 'em to start counting to ten, and he'll get up." Ketchel would have lapped it up. He would have liked even better such things as Igoe used to write after Ketchel's murder — "the assassin's bullet that sent Steve down into the great purple valley." The great purple valley was to Ketchel's taste. It would have made him weep. He wept when he saw a painting, on a wall of a room in a whorehouse, of little sheep lost in a storm. He wept late at night in Joey Adams's nook on Forty-third Street just off Broadway when songwriters and singers like Harry Tiernery and Violinsky played ballads on the piano. "Mother" songs tore Ketchel's heart out. He had a voice like a crow's, but he used to dream of building a big house someday in Belmont, Michigan, near his hometown of Grand Rapids. In it there would be a music room where he would gather with hundreds of old friends and sing all night.
The record of his life is soaked with fable and sentiment. The bare facts are these:
Ketchel was born Stanislaus Kiecal on September 14, 1886. His father was a native from Russia, of Polish stock. His mother, Polish-American, was fourteen when Ketchel was born. His friends called him Steve. He won the world's middleweight championship in California at the age of twenty-one. He lost it to Billy Papke by a knockout and won it back by a knockout. He was a champion when he died by the gun. He stood five feet nine. He had a strong, clean-cut Polish face. His hair was blondish and his eyes were blue-gray.
When you come to the statement made by many who knew him that they were "devil's eyes," you border the land of fancy in which Ketchel and his admirers lived. But there was a true fiendishness in the way he fought. Like Jack Dempsey, he always gave the impression of wanting to kill his man. Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, a rhetoric-lover whom he twice knocked unconscious, called Ketchel "an example of tumultuous ferocity." He could hit powerfully with each hand, and he had the stamina to fight at full speed through twenty- and thirty-round fights. He knocked down Jack Johnson, the finest heavyweight of his time, perhaps of any time, who outweighed him by thirty to forty pounds. He had a savagery of temperament to match his strength. From a combination of ham and hot temper, and to make things tougher on the world around him, he carried a Colt .44 — Hype Igoe always spoke of it dramatically as the "blue gun" — which was at his side when he slept and in his lap when he sat down to eat. At his training camp at the Woodlawn Inn near Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York, Ketchel once fired the gun through his bedroom door and shot his faithful trainer Pete (Pete the Goat) Stone in the leg when Pete came to wake him up for work. Ketchel then leaped into his big red Lozier car and drove Stone to the hospital for treatment.
"He sobbed all the way," said Igoe, "driving with one hand and propping up Pete's head with the other."
The great moments of Ketchel's life were divided among three cities: San Francisco, New York, and Butte, Montana. Each city was at its romantic best when Ketchel came upon it.
Ketchel was a kid off the road, looking for jobs or handouts, when he hit Butte in 1902 at the age of sixteen. He had run away from Grand Rapids by freight when he was fourteen. In Chicago, as Ketchel used to tell it, a kindly saloonkeeper named Socker Flanagan (whose name and function came straight from Horatio Alger) saw him lick the usual Algeresque bully twice his size and gave him a job. It was Flanagan, according to Ketchel, who taught him to wear boxing gloves and who gave him the name of Ketchel. After a time the tough Polish boy moved west. He worked as a field hand in North Dakota. He went over the Canadian line to Winnipeg, and from there he described a great westering arc, through mining camps, sawmills, and machine shops, riding the rods of the Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific through rugged north-country settlements like Revelstoke, Kamloops, and Arrowhead, in British Columbia, till he fetched up on the West Coast at Victoria. He had a .22 rifle, he used to recall, that he carried like a hunter as he walked the roads. In Victoria, he sold the .22 for boat fare down across the straits and Puget Sound to Seattle. In Seattle he jumped a Northern Pacific freight to Montana. A railway dick threw him off the train in Silver Bow, and he walked the remaining few miles of cinders to Butte.
Butte was a bona fide dime-novel town in 1902. It was made for Ketchel. Built on what they called "the richest hill in the world," it mined half the country's copper. The town looked sooty and trim by day, but it was red and beautiful by night, a patch of fire and light in the Continental Divide. As the biggest city on the northwest line between Minneapolis and Spokane, it had saloons, theaters, hotels, honky-tonks, and fight clubs by the score. Name actors and name boxers played the town. When Ketchel struck the state, artillery was as common as collar buttons.
Ketch caught on as a bellhop at the hotel and place of amusement named the Copper Queen. One day, he licked the bouncer — and became a bouncer. As Dan Morgan says, he enjoyed the work; so much so that he expanded it, fighting all comers for $20 a week for the operator of the Casino Theater, when he was not bulldogging drunks at the Copper Queen. If Butte was made for Ketchel, so was the fight game. He used to say that he had 250 fights around this time that do not show in the record book. In 1903, he was already a welterweight, well grown and well muscled.
All hands, including Ketchel, agree that his first fight record, with Jack (Kid) Tracy, May 2, 1903, was a "gimmick" fight, a sample of a larcenous tradition older than the Marquis of Queensberry. The gimmick was a sandbag. Tracy's manager, Texas Joe Halliday, who offered ten dollars to anyone who could go ten rounds with his boy, would stand behind a thin curtain at the rear of the stages on which Tracy fought. When Tracy maneuvered the victim against the curtain, Texas Joe would sandbag him. Ketchel, tipped off, reversed the maneuver. He backed Tracy against the curtain, and he and the manager hit the kid at the same time. The book says, KO, I round.
The book also says that Ketchel lost a fight to Maurice Thompson in 1904. This calls for explanation, and, as always, the Ketchel legend has one ready. A true folk hero does not get beat, unless, as sometimes happened to Hercules, Samson, and Ketchel, he is jobbed. At the start of the Thompson fight a section of balcony seats broke down. Ketchel turned, laughing, to watch — and Thompson rabbit-punched him so hard from behind that Ketch never fully recovered. In the main, the young tiger from Michigan19 needed no excuses. He fought like a demon. He piled one knockout on top of another. He would ride the freights as far as northern California, to towns like Redding and Marysville, carrying his trunks and gloves in a bundle, and win fights there. In 1907, after he knocked out George Brown, a fighter with a good Coast reputation, in Sacramento, he decided to stay in California. It was the right move. In later years, when Ketchel had become mythological, hundreds of storytellers "remembered" his Butte adventures, but in 1907 no one had yet thought to mention them. In California the climate was golden, romantic, and right for fame. And overnight Ketchel became famous.
When minstrels sing of Ketch's fight with Joe Thomas, they like to call Thomas a veteran, a seasoned, wise old hand, a man fighting a boy. The fact is, Thomas was two weeks older than Ketchel. But he had reputation and experience. When Ketchel fought him a twenty-round draw in Marysville — and then on Labor Day, 1907, knocked him out in thirty-two rounds in the San Francisco suburb of Colma — Ketchel burst into glory as suddenly as a rocket.
Now there was nothing left between him and the middleweight title but Jack Twin Sullivan. The Sullivans from Boston, Jack and Mike, were big on the Coast. Jack had as good a claim to the championship (vacated by Tommy Ryan the year before) as any middleweight in the world. But he told Ketchel, "You have to lick my brother Mike first." Ketchel knocked out Mike Twin Sullivan, a welter, in one round, as he had fully expected to do. Before the fight he saw one of Mike's handlers carrying a pail of oranges and asked what they were for. "Mike likes an orange between rounds," said the handler.
"He should have saved the money," said Ketchel.
Mike Twin needed no fruit; Jack Twin was tougher. Jack speared Ketchel with many a good left before Ketchel, after a long body campaign, went up to the head and knocked his man cold in the twentieth round. On that day, May 9, 1908, the Michigan freight-stiff became the recognized world champion.20