Stacks loves baseball for several reasons, not the least of which is how it lends itself to fiction. With references as far back as Jane Austen, no other sport can match baseball’s literary history, and with classics by the likes of Philip Roth (The Great American Novel) and Bernard Malamud (The Natural), no sport even comes close to its literary output.
The recognized master of the baseball short story, Ring Lardner, had yet to establish that reputation for himself when Chester Jenkins, who attended Antioch College 1915-1917 but did not graduate despite the class year listed in his byline, contributed “The Ninth Inning Finish” to The Antiochian for April 1916, though the first six chapters of Lardner’s seminal You Know Me Al about the career of “The Busher,” fictitious minor league pitcher Jack Keefe, had appeared in serial form in The Saturday Evening Post in 1914. Born in 1885, Lardner moved from sportswriter, a pursuit at which he was considered the best of his time, to satirist in the 1910s, rapidly becoming one of the most influential American short story writers of the 20th century. Ring’s books did not sell in his lifetime, and his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald thought he wasted his time writing about baseball, but there is no doubt that he created a form duplicated endlessly in short fiction.
Chester’s story, reprinted below, contains many elements of Lardner’s style. It is told in the form of a conversation in colloquial language (right down to Jack Keefe’s propensity to start every sentence with the word “Well”), and has more than a touch of absurdity (apart from the chemical bat that probably could not have the properties it possesses in the story, baseball has never had a rule that permitted batters to continually run the basepaths during a fly ball). The characters are both fictional and factual, leaving the reader to wonder, if just for a moment, that this tall tale may have actually occurred. Its teller Edward Collins, for instance, shows up in the rolls of Antioch College for the 1870-71 school year, but not the hero of the story, Archie Jackson, nor the woman he loves, May Arnold. There is neither a Tubby McGraw nor a Rube Waddell in any Alumni Directory, though the real Rube Waddell was a Philadelphia Athletics pitcher as well known for his eccentricities as for his strikeouts. Dad Anson, known to history as “Cap,” was a giant of the 19th century game and one of the first members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, as was Willie Keeler, although “Wee Willie” as he was known was considerably more famous for beating out ground balls than for driving them any distance at all. There has never been a Varden University, nor has there ever been a “championship of America” game against the New York Knickerbocker baseball club, an organization famous for having codified the first rules of baseball in the 1840s but barely in existence by 1870 when the story takes place.
Archie is for the most part a spectacular failure at the game; though on this day he comes through, redemption being one of baseball’s enduring underlying themes, both fictional and otherwise.
From The Antiochian, April 1916
“The Ninth Inning Finish”
Chester Jenkins ‘15
Several years ago I had the pleasure of staying a few days with Edward Collins, an old Antioch graduate of the class of ’71. Collins had been something of an athlete in his youth, and naturally our talk turned to the great American pastime, baseball.
I had related a few funny incidents of the diamond, when he cleared his throat and began, “That reminds me—“ I knew that I was in for a good story, and settled myself back in the old rocker.
“That reminds me,” he began again, “of the season of 1870. In those days our college was rather of the jerk-water variety, as compared with the larger universities with which we competed. It wasn’t noted so much for its size, as for spirit. Well, that’s where we shone. And we made the other six colleges in the Conference sit up and take notice, especially in baseball.
“That year I was playing second base,” said Collins. “Most of the team were men from last year’s nine; but three vacancies had been left by the graduating class. For one of these positions Archie Jackson was competing as an outfielder.
Archie Jackson was a Senior that year, and an odd fish he was, too. Tall, slim, so slim, in fact, that that as the Yankee would say, it took two of him to make a shadow, and awkwardly built, but as good natured as a kitten, He was a witty fellow, nothing out of the ordinary in his studies, but always full of queer ideas. Archie had gone into every branch of athletics from the time he entered his Freshman year; but he had never been able to get his letter, and now he was trying for the last time to win his A.
“There was another, very good reason, too; for there was a girl—there usually is one; but this one, May Arnold, was quite a sports enthusiast. She had made it plain to Archie that there were no hopes for him unless he could win the school letter or distinguish himself in some similar manner. And now baseball was the only sport remaining.
“Just a word about our baseball, too,” said Collins. “It wasn’t played by the same rules of the game today.” And it was here that I noticed that Collins was getting quite worked up about his story.
“Well, in those days,” continued he, “the pitchers knew nothing about curves and spit balls, but depended entirely on speed. Naturally, the batters could knock the ball much further when they hit it.
“It was a rule that whenever you hit a pop fly you were allowed as many bases as you could get before it came down. And you could keep running around the bases until you were put out. Many times have I seen Dad Anson knock that ball up out of sight and score several runs before it came down. And I have seen Willie Keeler drive the ball so far that he had circled the bases five times before the ball was returned to the infield again. They did not have catching gloves in those days, and if a catcher caught a pitched ball at which the batter had struck, the batter was out. These” said Collins, “are only a few of those old rules, but they give you a little idea of the style of the game.
“Well, that year we had a good ball team and were cleaning up about anything in the Conference; but Varden University also had a good team, and when things were sifted down to the final game, we were tied with Varden for the championship with ten won and only three games lost. The last game was to be played on our diamond, and the winner was then to play the famous Knickerbocker Club of New York for the championship of America.
Archie had managed to play in the first six games, but he had not shone as an outfielder, and Tubby McGraw was placed in his position. Tubby was as fat as a porpoise and had double chins clear down to his stomach; but he could surely hit a ball, and that was the reason he was now playing in Archie Jackson’s place. But the college rules were that a player had to participate in one-half of the games in order to get a letter; therefore, Archie must get into one more game to win his letter and the girl.
“In the meantime Archie had worked on many of his queer baseball ideas, and at last he thought he had one that would prove a success.
“He had been working in the laboratory, experimenting with white rubber, and found that by boiling the gum to a certain degree of hardness and adding other chemicals, he would get a gummy substance that would hold its shape very well, but had none of the elasticity of rubber. Archie had made a bat of this material, then polished and stained it to appear like wood.
“Then came the day of the final game,” said Collins. “I shall never forget it. It was a warm June day. The sun shone down just hot enough to make us feel our best. Varden arrived on the 12:45 train, and at 2:00 o’clock both teams were on the field. We all knew Archie Jackson’s predicament and were anxious to see if he would be started in the game; but when the coach gave our line-up, Archie’s name was not there. We were sorry for him, but we wanted to win.
“I shall not trouble you by going into all the details of that game, but there was something the matter with Rube Waddell, our pitcher, that day, and the way those Varden boys walloped the ball gave our rooters a heart-sickness that no physician could relieve. One time, with the bases full, their catcher knocked the ball so high that it went up until it looked like a marble, then up and up until it appeared a mere pin point, and then it went out of sight. Then it came down and down until it looked like a marble, and then down to the earth once more, but by that time all the runners had gone around the bases twice and scored eight runs.
“That is about the way things went for the first eight innings, and at the beginning of the ninth the score stood twenty-six to nothing against us. All this time Archie had been coaxing the coach to let him play just one inning, so in the ninth inning, since the game seemed hopelessly lost, it appeared that no harm could be caused by letting him play.
“With two out in the ninth inning, Archie came to the plate, swinging his chemical bat. The Varden pitcher, who knew Archie was a weak batter, took a chance and threw the first one straight over the plate, waist high. Archie swung. There was a dull thud, and away he sped to first base, second, third, and then home. He started around again, once more he completed the circuit; then the third time, and started on the fourth.
“In the meantime, the Varden players were looking everywhere for the ball. The infielders were searching in the air, expecting to see it come down at any moment.
“Archie was running slower now, as he had gone around twelve times.
“The bleacherites, and especially Miss Arnold, were going wild over the sudden change of affairs.
“Round and round went Archie. When he had scored twenty runs, he gave completely out; but after being rubbed down by the trainer and given some hot lemonade, he started again.
“The Varden players were frantically searching every bush, shrub and weed for a quarter of a mile that might possibly shelter that elusive sphere, but to no avail.
“Archie was crawling now, once more around the bases to tie the score. Then once more around to win. To win his letter, the girl, the college championship of America for his school.
“And he did it.
“That was the most exciting finish I ever witnessed,” concluded Collins.
“But did they ever find the ball?” I inquired.
“Yes,” answered my friend.
“Imbedded in Archie’s bat, about four inches from the end, which was lying a few feet in front of the plate.
“Those were good old times,” said Collins; whereupon I agreed and went off to bed, leaving my old friend still in front of the fireplace, and as I mounted the stairs I could still hear him talking to himself. “Yes, those were happy days.”