SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
How big was Ring Lardner? Well, he helped create what's still called the golden age of sports writers who wrote about The Babe, The Iron Man, Dempsey, DiMagg and Joe Louis. And he went on to write short stories, novels, songs and plays. He was an inspiration to Hemingway, who read his columns growing up outside Chicago, and a confidant of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But a lot of the early journalism that made Ring Lardner one of the most influential writers of the early 20th century disappeared over the years. His columns appeared in the South Bend Times and the Chicago Tribune in an old technology called newspapers.
Ron Rapoport, who won the Ring Lardner Award for Excellence in sports journalism this year and was a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Los Angeles Daily News and sports commentator on this very program has unearthed and collected some of those columns for a new book, "The Lost Journalism Of Ring Lardner." Ron joins us from our studios at NPR West.
Thanks so much for being with us.
RON RAPOPORT: Oh, thanks for having me, Scott. It's good to talk to you.
SIMON: Well, listen, Mr. Ring Lardner Award winner...
SIMON: ...Does every sportswriter trace something back to Ring?
RAPOPORT: Well, in a way, I think so. I heard the other day somebody say that he invented the column, not necessarily the sports column. But he started out, of course, writing sports for the Chicago Tribune. But it was when he moved to Long Island, where he and F. Scott Fitzgerald started matching each other drink for drink, that he really took off. His syndicated column ran into 150 papers, reached 8 million readers and made him the single most best read columnist of any stripe in the country.
What's interesting is that once he got to Long Island and started writing these weekly columns, he left sports pretty much behind. He wrote about World War I, Prohibition, politics, his travels, his family, the craft of journalism. These were all for newspapers, as you point out. And they're the kind of thing that fascinated readers back then, but you don't see in papers or even online today, I don't think.
SIMON: Let me also bring up one of his World War - a couple of his World War I columns. He says, (reading) in the one place supposed they should be war, they ain't no chance of it coming off of round Chicago because the Europe can spare no men to send over here. But even if three or four of them could get away and cross across the ocean, they would have to stop off in New York City first. And probably while they was waiting for a train to come - T-R-A-N-E - to come out here, they would drop into the Brooklyn ballpark and get a look at the Dodgers and good night.
RAPOPORT: (Laughter) Well, that paragraph ends with one of my favorite Lardner-isms. He says (reading) being drafted is a great way to get a free grant-us trip to Europe to see Westminster Abbey and the tour of London...
RAPOPORT: ...And all of the sights of Paris 22nd Street and Napoleon's tomb - T-O-O-O-M - and so forth.
SIMON: He pushed the envelope of what you could get away with in a newspaper, didn't he?
RAPOPORT: Well, he did. And he kind of invented the first-person column, I think.
RAPOPORT: He just wrote so much about himself and his family and his travels. He was always writing poems about his children. He wrote poems about when each of the boys were born. His wife insists that they named Ring Jr. after himself. So he writes, (reading) when you are christened ringworm by humorist and wits, when people pun about you till they drive you into fits, when funny folk saying, Ring, ring off, until they make you ill, remember that your poor old dad tried hard to name you Bill.
SIMON: Another thing to ask you about - his so-called friend F. Scott Fitzgerald once said he didn't think writing about sports was up to Ring Lardner's gifts. I bet you've wondered about that yourself.
RAPOPORT: Fitzgerald was 10 years younger, and he greatly admired Ring. But you're right. He thought he wasn't stretching himself, was too content to stay within the confines of his short stories in his journalism. And Edmund Wilson, the great critic of the year - he agreed, comparing Ring to Mark Twain and wondering when he was going to write his "Huckleberry Finn." But here's my view.
RAPOPORT: You can't judge a writer by what he doesn't write. Lardner wrote what he wanted to write. The short stories, you know, secured his place in American literature. He already wrote for Broadway, a play and a musical, song lyrics - he loved and journalism - he just loved the journalism, and that's what he stayed with.
SIMON: Ron Rapoport - he's the editor of "The Lost Journalism Of Ring Lardner" from University of Nebraska Press. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.
RAPOPORT: Thank you, Scott. And Happy New Year from Ring and me.
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