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A Sporting Life
The author of America’s best-loved baseball book speaks of his days as a reporter, of his time (unique among sportswriters) owning a team, and of his latest subject, Jack Dempsey, whose violent career he uses to illuminate an era
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
Two events that resonated throughout the sporting twenties celebrate their eightieth anniversaries this year. One, of course, was Dempsey’s astounding win of the championship in Toledo in the summer of 1919, and the other was that fall’s Black Sox scandal. I’ve read that Lardner never really loved baseball after the shock of the World Series fix, that he was sobered by it and afterward focused on the new champion, Dempsey.
I don’t think sobered is the word you want. He was horrified by it. He was from Niles, Michigan, and he was a great White Sox fan, and this was a great White Sox team. They’d really fixed the Series, and there’s this interplay between Lardner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You look at The Great Gatsby, and the fix is in there, with Wolfsheim. I heard from John Lardner—Ring Junior doesn’t agree, but John was older—that after the fix Ring really didn’t want to be around baseball very much, that all he cared about in sports were Jack Dempsey and the Notre Dame football team. Also, John told me that during the actual playing of the 1919 World Series, Ring and Christy Mathewson both were covering it. Mathewson had come back from the war, where he’d been gassed, and they had a deep respect for each other. At the end of one of the games, Matty circled several plays on Ring’s scorecard as fixed plays. Maybe he did this a couple of games. And Ring wrote, “I’m forever blowing ball games / pretty ball games in the air / I come from Chi / I never try / But the gamblers treat us fair.”
Seven years later, when Dempsey lost to Tunney, Lardner turned on him and wrote a nasty column about how “the rabbit puncher punched like a rabbit.”
How skeptically should we read old newspapers for history? If I don’t trust the New York Post ’s entertaining version of yesterday, how should I approach news accounts from sixty or seventy years ago?
Collectively. If you don’t trust the Post or the Times or the Chicago Tribune, you are still going to find aspects of the truth in each. Read a variety of dispatches, then let the muse of common sense be your guide.
How wondrous or nasty a time was the twenties era, really, outside of Dempsey and Ruth?
The nasty twenties: Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin moving toward power. American mob violence, jingoism, the lynchings of blacks, and anti-Semitism.
The good twenties: DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, starring the future Mrs. Dempsey, the literary flowering, the athletic heroes, the knockout and the home run.
Overrated? The gifts and wit of the Algonquin crowd and Prohibition hootch. One day, when I was twenty-three, my father ordered a Manhattan cocktail, and I said, “Dad, why are you drinking that instead of a respectable scotch on the rocks?” He told me that during Prohibition the booze was so bad you had to disguise its taste in cocktails. That speaks volumes about the way things really were.