My point is that Ring Lardner’s stories helped shaped our nation’s sense of itself and its pastime, but these stories wouldn’t have existed without his experience in the Central League. That raucous baseball conglomerate of Midwest toughs and shady business dealings is down there in our cultural DNA.

By Nicholas Mainieri 

He says We aren’t getting what you are worth but I want you to go up to that big league and show those birds that there is a Central League on the map.

Ring Lardner, “A Busher’s Letters Home”

The Saturday Evening Post, March 7, 1914


On July 4, 1906, Ring Lardner crosses foul territory behind home plate, en route to the press table. Ring is tall, slender, and 22 years old. The dirt he treads doubles as the horse track’s straightaway during the offseason here at Springbrook Park. Odors drift. Horse manure. Cigar smoke. He spares the grandstand a glance, his long angular features somehow impassive and stern, his bushy eyebrows furrowing. Already the bleachers crowd with more than 2000 spectators. The grandstand backs against the St. Joseph, downstream from the ironworks of Mishawaka and upriver from the mills and factories of South Bend. The park itself, owned by the Northern Indiana Railway Company, sits across from the interurban terminal between towns. Children squeal aboard the wooden rollercoaster where it rattles behind the right-field fence. Baseball, industry, commerce—they’ve always gone together.

The crowd is especially energized this morning, ready for the holiday doubleheader between bitter Central League foes, South Bend and Grand Rapids. The local fans pay special attention to the Grand Rapids third baseman, “a mark for the rooters,” as Ring and the other reporters have anticipated. The crowd knows the ballplayer well; the entire league knows him well. He’s stocky, muscled, scowling. The high woolen collar of his jersey clings to his thick neck, and his skull is a rounded block. The bridge of his nose is slightly concave; scars mark the skin around his mouth and beneath the black stubble over his small ears. When he throws the ball the pop of his partner’s mitt registers with a different caliber of sound, and he relishes this, shows it off, warming up in foul territory right in front of the fans. They jeer, according to The South Bend Tribune’s post-game writeups, calling him “jail bird” and “40 other things they thought would hurt his feelings,” including racial slurs, for the third baseman is white with a dark complexion.

Ring Lardner arranges his scorebook and pencils at the press table, where it stands in the dirt beside the visitor’s bench. Within a decade he will become one of the most widely read and beloved authors in America. A teenaged Ernest Hemingway begins to sign his high school newspaper columns as “Ring Lardner, Jr.” In 1925, Virginia Woolf states that Ring has “talents of a remarkable order” and “writes the best prose that has come our way.” Upon Ring’s early death in 1933, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes a long, complicated, and moving tribute to him, the friend who—as scholars have argued—inspired the character Owl Eyes in The Great Gatsby. In the 1988 film Eight Men Out, writer-director John Sayles himself plays the role of Ring.

=But there’s no inkling of this famous future yet, as Ring, merely a rookie, dutifully scrawls the game one lineups into his scorebook. This time last year he was collecting bad debts for the gas company back home in Niles, Michigan, a job he hated. Now he receives $12 a week from The South Bend Daily Times to cover the rowdy and casually violent Central League. He makes an extra buck as the league’s official scorekeeper, though his judgments on errors come at his own peril among the desperate, ill-tempered minor leaguers around him.

An explosive agony suddenly commands Ring’s attention—an errant warm-up throw has drilled his shin beneath the press table. As he gathers himself, Grand Rapids catcher Dan Howley jogs over to retrieve the ball. Ring asks him to shift over. “I don’t want to get killed.”

Howley is an atypically rational sort among the brawlers, drunks, and criminals of the Central League (he has a future as a Big League manager, matter of fact), and obliges Ring’s request, taking the reporter out of the line of fire. A moment later, however, another baseball rips past Ring’s ear—the concussive pulse of air, the whine of the laces—and slams against the wooden backstop with a report like a gunshot.

Down the line, Howley’s catch partner glares. The stout third baseman.

“What are you trying to do?” Ring yells at him.

“You’ll find out if you set there long enough,” the ballplayer calls back.

As he prepares to launch another missile, Howley rushes and grapples with him. The third baseman breaks free and hurls a baseball bat at Ring. The crowd, one imagines, latches onto the pregame fracas, insults clamoring. South Bend’s chief of police, the fantastically named Jim McWeeny, sprints onto the field with a mind to break things up.

“I don’t care if I hang,” the third baseman says. “I’m going to get that bird.”

* * *

It is a common misconception that, in 1919, Lardner resigned the baseball beat at The Chicago Tribune due to his disgust with the game’s moral disarray following the Black Sox Scandal, when eight White Sox threw the World Series on the take from Arnold Rothstein. Ring, who covered the team, counted fellows like Shoeless Joe and Eddie Cicotte among his friends. In a 1921 column for the Bell Syndicate, “Why Ring Stopped Covering Baseball,” he explains that the end of the so-called Dead Ball Era, in fact, and the dawn of the bombastic era of Ruth had turned him away. He writes the column in the Midwestern bush-league patois he’d become known for in both his journalism and increasingly famous fiction: “The master minds that controls baseball…fixed up a ball that if you don’t miss it entirely it will clear the fence and the result is that ball players which use to specialize in hump back liners to the pitcher is now amongst our leading sluggers.”

There is no righteousness here. Ring was not so naïve.

He couldn’t be, not after cutting his teeth in the Central League, a Class B minor league that existed from 1903 – 1917 among the small industrial cities of Appalachia and the Midwest. From Wheeling to Springfield, the league’s happenings received top billing in local sports pages, and while Ring only spent a year at The South Bend Daily Times, he would have seen much of the Central League’s routine turbulence: umpires chased from fields by brick-wielding fans, policemen who arrest ballplayers during games, base coaches who trip opposing players rounding the bases, bloody brawls. The portrait of society that emerges across Central League city newspapers during this time is also one of stunning racist and sexist attitudes. An article in The South Bend Tribune during the 1906 season, headlined Fan Is Disgusted, Takes Wife To Ball Game, But For Last Time, Her Foolish Questions, also somehow manages liberal use of the N-word in its text.

Still, it was Ring’s familiarity with this world that gave him, as Virginia Woolf would put it, “a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the diverse activities of a people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls.” She’s speaking here about his early fiction, his first linked collection of epistolary short stories called You Know Me Al, which consists of letters written by a hapless and self-absorbed meathead who plays in the Central League. Nowadays, Ring Lardner is no longer a household name, but his baseball fiction continues to attract academic study, and a reissue of his work ten years ago spawned headlines like “The Forgotten Genius of Ring Lardner” (The Daily Beast) and “The Greatest Baseball Novel Ever Written” (The Atlantic). My point is that Ring Lardner’s stories helped shaped our nation’s sense of itself and its pastime, but these stories wouldn’t have existed without his experience in the Central League. That raucous baseball conglomerate of Midwest toughs and shady business dealings is down there in our cultural DNA. And perhaps it stands to reason that none of this would have come to pass if a certain enraged third baseman from Grand Rapids had been a few inches more accurate with his sucker punch of a fastball.

Sifting fact from fun in much of Ring Lardner’s nonfiction can be difficult. There are no news stories about the attack, but Ring recalls the story twice: once in 1915 for The Chicago Tribune and again in 1931 for The Saturday Evening Post. In the 1915 version, the ballplayer “proceeded to light himself up the minute the club got in town,” and the attack is owed to his drunkenness and a personal vendetta with the reporters. In the later version, the man is furious with Ring for denying him a hit by ruling an error on South Bend’s first baseman. In neither version does Ring reveal the ballplayer’s name, nor the date upon which the attack occurred. Combing box scores, several guys played third for Grand Rapids against South Bend in 1906. “Once in a while,” claims his grandson James Lardner in the foreword to the anthology The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner, “a sense of historical duty caused him to tell a story straight.” In the mystery of the vengeful third baseman, unfortunately, no amount of microfilm at the library will dispute that posterity fell second to the virtues of a good story.

An important clue can be found in a year-in-review piece Ring wrote for The South Bend Daily Times on January 1, 1907. In the article, which features everything from Notre Dame football to chess and checkers to Chief McWeeny’s bowling process, Ring describes one unnamed South Bend ballplayer who had emerged as a “villain” halfway through the once promising season. When the ballplayer is “found guilty” of bad behavior he is “sent to the reformatory at Grand Rapids,” where he plays the rest of the season. This “Grand Rapids prisoner” visits South Bend “on parole” only twice, when Grand Rapids is in town to play, and on both occasions “proved that he had entirely reformed and was leading a model life.” Ring’s sarcasm would have only worked if his readers could easily grasp whatever “crimes” existed in the subtext. And here’s the key thing: only one Central Leaguer played the first half of the season with South Bend and the second half with Grand Rapids. He was a third baseman.

* * *

On a spring Saturday in 1885 all of Connellsville, Pennsylvania—a small, suddenly booming coal town straddling the Youghiogheny River about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh—packs into the Palace Skating Rink for the races. An 11-year-old boy named Isaac “Ike” Francis tears around the circuit on his wooden-wheeled skates. His family must be in the crowd—his carpenter father, a veteran of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and his mother, who will bear nine children. Mere months ago, a horse trampled Ike’s foot in the democratic parade, but here he is, racing against adults. Across three hours he gains nearly 40 miles, good enough for second place. His prize is a silver pair of roller skates. Does he feel pride at the accomplishment? Or is he angry, dejected, to have been so good for so long but not quite good enough in the end? Almost getting there will be a motif in his life to come, sometimes due to misfortune, sometimes self-sabotage.

Ike leaves school after the seventh grade. He makes a name for himself locally with an independent ballclub called the Connellsville Bartenders. He works on the railroad as a brakeman. In 1896, he’s sentenced to a year in Pittsburgh’s Western State Penitentiary, charged with assault and battery. I don’t know who he beat up. Does he dream of baseball from his narrow cell? Perhaps the inmates play catch when they’re allowed time outside.

Ike seems to have turned his life around by 1899. He has offers to play for various semipro teams, but he “made his star,” according to one paper, playing infield for the ballclub in Homestead, Pennsylvania (where he’s teammates with Rube Waddell, the future Hall-of-Famer and famously eccentric alcoholic known for being distracted by firetrucks and puppies while pitching). He meets Marie Maloney—20, already widowed, the daughter of Irish immigrants—and they marry, settling there in Homestead. By 1900, Ike’s a professional, signed by Rochester of the Eastern League, a high-level minor league one rung beneath the Majors. He’s a utility infielder this first summer as Rochester wins the pennant, and the club expects him to take over at third the following season. Imagine the swell of hope in Ike’s and Marie’s lives that offseason.

In Homestead, Ike spends the winter months working in a restaurant called MacBroom’s. About a month before he’s due to report back to Rochester, however, he fights with a coworker in the kitchen and has his wrist slashed with a butcher’s knife. When he arrives in Rochester and can’t play, the club releases him. He finds a home for part of the summer, playing with the low-level Ilion Typewriters, and by 1902 he’s back with Rochester. A paper calls him “the Human Firecracker” and he gets off to a roaring start. By midseason, however, he’s playing poorly. The team slumps, and the fans turn on him. He’s blamed for the team’s decline—this initiates a pattern that repeats itself across the remaining years of his career—and Rochester cuts him loose. “Francis certainly has the best arm in the Eastern League,” one paper claims, “but his judgment and disposition render the arm of small importance.” Other papers take more personal shots—The Toronto Star, declares that one’s face is his fortune and thus Ike is “a poor man.”

Nobody, in any of the negative press, seems aware of the tragedy Ike had endured before the 1902 season started: Marie, suffering from nephritis, had passed away in January. She was 24 years old. I’m able to find only two mentions of her death in historical records: a single, four-sentence blurb in a Pennsylvania newspaper, of which two sentences are about her husband and baseball, and an entry in her hospital’s registry of deaths, in which her name is misspelled.

After Ike’s fall out with Rochester, he catches on with league rival Buffalo, where they love him at first and where he seems to make the most of his second chance. He plays shortstop down the stretch, with defense routinely described as brilliant. “Ike Francis has got more power in his elbow than any other man playing short in the Eastern League,” The Buffalo News claims. He remains in upstate New York during the winter, no one to go home to in Pennsylvania. The local newspapers continue to write glowing stories about his “arm of iron” and hype his potential. Buffalo’s manager believes that Ike is “the best ball player in the Eastern League.” In rare photographs, he places his hands on his knees and glowers, dark-eyed, at the camera, his woolen uniform snug around broad shoulders and thick legs. In play and looks he’s compared to Major League superstar Honus Wagner.

His romance with Buffalo, however, doesn’t last long. By midseason, “the fiery infielder” is often out of the lineup with undisclosed injuries or is benched due to poor play. There are frequent reports of other clubs attempting to sign him, and Ike accuses Buffalo management of preventing a deal with Toronto that would have gotten him a $25 raise. One article mentions Ike throwing bottles into the crowd. Matters become so bitter that Buffalo finally releases him in June. The Eastern League club in Providence signs him, and the pattern starts all over again. First basemen’s hands are “black and blue” because when Ike throws across the diamond “he shoots ‘em over to kill.” But soon enough, Ike has to find a new home yet again. He escapes to the upstart Pacific Coast League (PCL).

Out west, he plays for the Portland, Oregon, team. At this time, the PCL is known as the “outlaw league,” an unsanctioned organization that seems to suit Ike well—he’s hitting over .300 into autumn and his play at third causes “the ladies considerable elation,” according to The Oregon Daily. West coast newspapers compare him to future Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Collins. Back east, the news remains fixated on him, blaming Ike every time a good player from Rochester or Buffalo or Toronto defects to the PCL. In Pennsylvania, the papers anticipate that Ike “may be found in the National or American Leagues next season.”

But out west, Ike’s fortunes have already begun to turn. He fights with police at a train station. He argues with teammates and the manager on the field, incurring fines. The budding star that PCL fans had loved suddenly becomes “more ornamental than useful” at third base, and when Portland finally releases him in July of 1904 The San Francisco Examiner reports Ike’s manager as saying he “played consistently stupid ball.” For Ike’s part, he tells papers he is “done with the coast” and heads east again. Toronto, back in the Eastern League, gives him a last chance, but after half a season they, too, have soured on one another.

Ike comes to the Central League in 1905, signing with the ballclub in Evansville, Indiana. The Evansville papers celebrate him, a “big fellow, speedy, hard hitting and always in the game.” Another paper: “It is certain he will equal the expectations that have been formed of him.” But by 1906, Evansville has traded Ike to South Bend, where he starts a new year alongside a rookie reporter for The South Bend Daily Times named Ring Lardner. South Bend—true to the now predictable pattern—releases Ike in June. The papers accuse him of “bad form” and “indifferent ball” and “flopping,” intimating that he sought his own release with a better contract waiting in the wings. Grand Rapids quickly signs him. Ike makes news right away with the Michigan club when, during a road trip to his original Central League berth in Evansville, the fans antagonize him to the point where he fields a ball at third and, instead of throwing to first, he pivots and fires into the crowd with the intent to injure his critics. He’s arrested at the game and the Grand Rapids manager has to bail him out of jail before the team departs town. Ike’s first return to South Bend occurs right after this, for the July 4 series, where I believe he attacks Ring Lardner in the same fashion.

Each season of his career, Ike’s troubles tend to arise around midsummer. I wonder how much his probable drinking plays into this, sapping his talents while amplifying his belligerence. In Ring Lardner’s first account of the attack, he introduces his assailant thusly: “But for his insatiable thirst for something stronger, this man would have been in a big league—a star in it, too.” Drinking, in the words of famed contemporary sportswriter Pat Jordan, “was an old minor-leaguers’ curse.” Jordan, speaking of a once promising player he had known, describes how minor league lives existed entirely between ballparks and bars, town to town. For some, “it was a trap they could never escape even long after they left the game.” Tommy Corcoran, a contemporary of Ike Francis’s and shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, made national news in 1906 when he stated that ballplayers weren’t qualified for much else after baseball, except for perhaps “the saloon business.”

I can’t say which version of Ring Lardner’s story is true—that is, which motive led Ike to attack Ring. Was Ike drunk? Was he exacting revenge for Ring’s ruling the day before, when he’d given South Bend’s first baseman an error instead of awarding Ike a hit? It’s possible that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But I will offer this: during Grand Rapids first game at South Bend, Ike reaches base on an error by first baseman Buck Connors. The South Bend Daily Times write-up describes how Connors “stuck one paw up and muffed a fly which he could have glommed with both mitts.” It was an inconsequential play in the game. I read this as a young reporter’s subtle attempt to justify the ruling he’d made in his other job as official scorekeeper.

* * *

I’ve learned quite a bit about Ike Francis—about as much as there is to learn about an obscure minor leaguer who played ball more than a century ago. But it’s still, somehow, nothing. As the poet Matthew Olzmann writes, “Most of history gets forgotten, a foul ball sailing into the dark.” I believe Ike must have dreamed of Marie while he brooded in the saloons of South Bend and Grand Rapids and Canton and Wheeling. And when did it begin to dawn on him that he’d squandered his once Big League potential? As his grief boiled, did he run from it or throw his hard fists at the other barflies? Did he find reason to attack reporters, those ink-stained wretches who’d disparaged him for so long, without ever trying to understand him?

“Well,” the great-grand-niece of Ike Francis tells me, “I don’t know much about him. I know he was a baseball player.”

We’re speaking over the phone. Her name is Mary Ellen (66), and she lives in Pittsburgh. Court TV babbles in the background of our call. Mary Ellen buried her partner during COVID, and has been more or less retired since the pandemic. She used to work at an Eat-N-Park, tending to the salad bar and buffet, and at a personal care facility as a housekeeper. Now she helps care for a neighbor and she watches her grandkids. On my computer screen I’m looking at her profile picture, her high school yearbook photo. In it, she smiles, long hair parted around her young face. Time is tactile between the image and the sound of her voice.

Ike Francis had been her great-grandfather’s brother, and he’d died before Mary Ellen was born. But she never knew her family history while she was a child. It wasn’t something that people talked about. As she grew up she became interested in her ancestry, in trying to find out where she had come from. She spent hours and hours in libraries, poring over microfilm archives. She and her brother went cemetery to cemetery, reading gravestones. The digitization of so many records has been a blessing. She stays up until the small hours of the morning, researching, looking for discrepancies. She’ll find benign lies and chuckle, saying, Who were you trying to bullshit?

Her grandkids come into the room while we’re talking and they tease her once she tells them she’s talking to someone she met through

“They think I’m nuts,” she says to me. “I just tell them, This is what I like. Get over it.”

Mary Ellen is a delight.

I try to explain why I’m interested in her ancestor, how I think he attacked one of the most famous baseball writers of all time. I tell her some of the things I’ve learned, that Ike had been in prison and then arrested other times. “That sounds about right,” she says, chuckling. And when I tell her of the suggestions that he was frequently drunk, she says that would make sense, too. In her family, drinking is “a bit of a hand-me-down.”

After Ike and Grand Rapids tire of each other, in 1909—a longer duration than any other in his career—he returns home to Connellsville and plays a season for the Cokers, the local, low-tier club. His game is much diminished, and his vaunted arm strength finally wanes, as he misses time with “crossed ligaments” in his elbow, and then he calls it quits. He remains in Connellsville for the rest of his life. He never remarries. He dies in 1943, ill at the state hospital. He spent his final years living in a room at the local Elks club, and working as the club’s steward and bartender. Mary Ellen points out that in the 1920 Federal Census, Ike’s occupation is “showman,” but neither of us know what that means. It’s interesting because there is a lone mention way back in 1902 of Ike entertaining fans during a “field day” with “acrobatic feats.” I don’t know what to say about that. Reality is always more complicated than we might imagine.

“Do you like baseball?” I ask Mary Ellen.

“When Roberto Clemente died,” she says, “my interest in sports went out the window.”

I’m drawn to the mystery of Ring Lardner’s assailant and the details of Ike Francis’s life for reasons I find difficult to define. It’s a sense of something essential hidden away, a small secret part of what made us who we are. It makes me think of those scientists who comb the soil of the Amazon for evidence of ancient civilizations, where nothing else remains but the quality of the earth those vanished people fertilized. The world of the Central League went into the ground with World War I, in both literal and figurative ways. Even Jack Keefe, the Central League narrator of Ring Lardner’s short stories, finds himself eventually in the trenches of France. As the regional minor leagues died out, so-called industrial leagues began to proliferate—semipro organizations of ballclubs populated by workers at factories in New York and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. This world, too, was as complex as any before, and like all the others it ultimately goes into the ground itself. It is left to memory, and often not even that.

Mary Ellen’s grandchildren chortle in the background, on the other end of the line. I ask her why she spends so much time researching her family. What’s meaningful in all that effort? She’s found more than 2,800 different people in her family tree. “Just think of that!” she says, with an exalted kind of whisper. Her voice oversaturates my imagination, a bright light on raw film. It’s the possibility in all those lives, I think. It’s the forever knowledge that those individuals existed, that they had lived, as we do now, in our own brief turns around the bases.

Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel, The Infinite, was a finalist for the 2017 Crook’s Corner Book Prize while also being named among the best books of 2016 by Southern Living Magazine, Writer’s Bone, and WBUR’s On Point Radio. He studied English at the University of Notre Dame and holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans.