A few minutes after the 1908 Chicago Cubs were relieved of the burden of carrying the franchise on their backs for 108 years, Ring Lardner's grandson, James Lardner, checked in to ask if Ring had covered the team's last World Series champions. Alas, I had to tell him no, that Ring didn't pick up the Cubs until the following year when they won 104 games but finished six games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and their long slide into oblivion had begun.
The 1909 Cubs were almost identical to the 1908 team, however, and Ring reveled in their company. These were the Cubs of Tinker to Evers to Chance and they had played in the last three World Series, won the last two and were the reigning lords of the game. But beyond that, the team contained some fabulous characters who soon came to enjoy Ring's dry wit as much as he enjoyed them. Players like Frank Schulte, Jim Schekard, Heine Zimmerman, Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown and others were story-tellers, practical jokers, poker players, drinkers, and all-around lovers of fun.
The players and reporters mixed freely on their long train rides and Ring began using them in his articles, which were supposed to be coverage of baseball games, in a manner never attempted before and never dared since. He put poetry in the players' mouths, invented feuds between them--and between them and himself--had them telling tall tales to gullible rookies and more. His crowning achievement may have been a $100 bet that Zimmerman, a noted baiter of umpires, could not go two weeks without being thrown out of a game. The Cubs and major league baseball went along with the gag and after much buildup Zimmerman was presented with his winnings at home plate.
Ring's flights of whimsy would often overwhelm any account of the games themselves and sometimes obliterate them altogether. Readers could count themselves lucky if they got the score. But the players didn't object to Lardner making them figures of fun. They enjoyed his satirical parodies of popular songs, which he sang while accompanying himself on the piano, and regarded him as one of the boys. It may have been for the best, however, that the St. Louis Browns had left the Cubs' spring-training site in West Baden, Ind., before Lardner wrote of their best pitcher: "Rube Waddell left in his wake various broken hearts and bottles."
Ring would soon take his writing about baseball to a loftier realm. In 1914, his first "busher" stories were published in the Saturday Evening Post and became a public sensation. They were collected under the title, "You Know Me Al," which remains a seminal text in the canon of baseball literary fiction. Ring poured everything he had learned covering baseball into this volume and even when his journalism and fiction made him one of the 10 or 12 best-known figures in America, he continued covering the World Series for many years--none of them, to his sorrow, involving the Cubs.
The story of the 2016 Cubs is sure to be told in Chicago for years to come, but unless there is another Ring Lardner lurking in their press corps, they are not likely to have the fictional shelf life of the team that won the World Series 108 years ago.
Ron Rapoport is a writer in Los Angeles and the editor of The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner, which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in January.