You Know Me Al
|Genre||Epistolary novel, humor|
|ISBN||9780684136684 (1960 edition)|
You Know Me Al is a book by Ring Lardner, and subsequently, a nationally syndicated comic strip which Lardner scripted, drawn by Will B. Johnstone and Dick Dorgan. The book consists of stories that were written as letters from a professional baseball player, Jack Keefe, to his friend Al Blanchard in their hometown of Bedford, Indiana.
Jack Keefe is a headstrong, gullible, cheap, naive, self-centred, egotistical and uneducated rube -- but he has a strong pitching arm. He begins the book as a minor leaguer in Terre Haute, Indiana who gets called up to the big leagues to pitch for the Chicago White Sox, circa 1914. In his barely literate letters home to his friend Al, he details his first experiences in the big leagues, which ends in disaster as he pitches poorly and gets sent back down to the minors again. Later, he makes it back up to the majors where he gains a measure of success as a pitcher, but is taken advantage of by nearly everyone he meets.
Much of the humour in the book comes from Jack's boastful, oblivious nature, and his utter inability to recognize when he is being manipulated or cheated. In one of the book's many examples of this, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey repeatedly outfoxes Keefe during contract negotiations, but still convinces Keefe he's getting a good deal. Other characters also routinely manipulate Keefe into doing what they want -- amongst the major characters, only Al, who is always offstage, seems to be completely aboveboard and loyal to Jack. (Coach Kid Gleason also seems to be honourable and on Jack's side, though he is not above deceiving Jack when it's ultimately for Jack's own good.)
Note that almost all the figures Jack interacts within the realm of baseball -- be they team owners, managers, or players -- were real-life people. Well known baseball figures who appear in the novel include Comiskey, Gleason (who constantly teases Jack about his weight and lack of baseball smarts), opposing players Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb, and many of Jack's White Sox teammates. The only major completely fictional baseball character is the left-handed pitcher Allen. Allen is a teammate who Jack has little use for, but he eventually introduces Jack to Florence ("Florrie"), who is Allen's sister-in-law.
After brief, semi-disastrous engagements to two other women (Hazel and Violet), Jack eventually marries Florrie. Florence enjoys living in style (on Jack's salary) in Chicago, and refuses to move back to Bedford during the off season, which causes tension between the two. For a while, running short on money, Allen and his wife move in with Jack and Florrie which makes things even worse. Jack and Florrie separate for a while, but eventually reconcile after Florrie announces her pregnancy. The Keefes soon have a child named Allen; Florrie assumes the child is named for her brother, but Jack writes Al that he is really named after his old friend Al in Bedford. Jack and Florrie's marriage continues to be rocky even after Allen's birth.
Jack actually does fairly well as a major league pitcher; at one point his record is 10-6. (Typically, the self-centred Jack takes full credit for the ten wins, but blames his teammates for the 6 losses.) However Jack's gullibility and almost complete self-absorption lead him in and out of a number of scrapes and comical situations throughout the six linked stories in the novel. The book ends with Jack and his teammates about to embark on a trip to Japan for a baseball exhibition.
Lardner was a sportswriter who moved to Chicago in 1907, where he covered the Cubs and White Sox for several city newspapers, most notably the Chicago Tribune. He took his experiences as a baseball writer and worked them into his first published piece of fiction, "A Busher's Letters Home", for the Saturday Evening Post in 1914. According to the introduction to the book Ring Around the Bases: the Complete Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, the Post published nine of Lardner's baseball stories in 1914, six of which comprised You Know Me Al, published by George H. Doran Company in 1916.
According to Bruccoli, "Despite the magazine exposure of Lardner's magazine stories – the Saturday Evening Post had a weekly circulation of 2,000,000 copies when he wrote for it – he did not reach a large book readership. You Know Me Al required just one printing in 1916 and was not reprinted until 1925 as part of the Scribners program of launching Lardner as a serious writer." (ibid)
Lardner published a total of 25 "busher" stories, featuring Keefe's fictional letters to Al, between 1914 and 1919 in the Post. According to Bruccoli, "the Post and its readers wanted all the Busher stories that Lardner could deliver. More than he wanted to write, for he tired of the character and the requirements of the epistolary form ... After he stopped writing about Keefe, Lardner reluctantly provided continuity for a syndicated You Know Me Al comic strip from 1922 to 1925," (ibid) distributed by the Bell Syndicate, for which Lardner was also working as a writer.
Lardner scripted continuity for over 700 of the syndicated You Know Me Al strips, but, as with his "Busher" stories, he soon grew tired of it, and quit writing continuity in January 1925. According to Richard Layman's introduction to the Harvest collection of strips, Lardner continued to receive credit on the strip until September 1925, "but it is clear he worked ahead very little and after the first of February the ideas are someone else's." (ibid)
- Rogers, Michael (15 September 1995). "Book Reviews: Classic Returns". Library Journal 120 (15): 58.
- Schweid, Barry (15 May 1979). "Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al (Book REview)". Library Journal 104 (10): 1133.
- Goetsch, Douglas (Spring 2011). "Baseball's Loss of Innocence: When the 1919 Black Sox Scandal shattered Ring Lardner's reverence for the game, the great sportswriter took a permanent walk.". American Scholar 80 (2): 82–95.
- Lardner, Ring, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Ring Around The Bases: The Complete Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992. ISBN 0-684-19374-4.
- Lardner, Ring. Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al: The Comic Strip Adventures of Jack Keefe. New York: Harvest, 1979. ISBN 0-15-676696-5.