Every now and again in my career as an editor, I have come across a writer who thinks that they are Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare, by which I mean that they operate under the delusion that the little baseball doodads that they write will be remembered for more than three seconds after they stop doing them. It must be a pleasing delusion to feel so self-important, but it’s a blinding one. Better to believe, as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” and then have time prove you wrong than to assume the opposite and go through life under the misapprehension that there is a Hall of Fame for scribblers.
Yes, I am aware there is a so-called “writer’s wing” at Cooperstown. I will get back to that in a moment.
Several years ago, I saw a television editorial by Harlan Ellison, an excellent writer I would hope will be remembered. His theme was that a writer’s glory is fleeting (you can see the second half of it here, though the clip largely omits what I am about to discuss; I would also like to point out that the bowdlerizing of, believe it or not, Lassie he refers to in the video is also being done today with The Great Gatsby). In it, Ellison mourns the total obscurity of one Clarence Budington Kelland. He returned to Kelland in a 2008 interview with the Onion’s A.V. Club:
There is a philosophical point that should be made here, because it goes to the hubris of writers. [Sighs.] There's no point in saying less than your predecessors have said. Hemingway said, "You know, I'm in the ring with Dostoyevsky every time I sit down." And Jules Renard, he said, "Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none." So one can be misled by the approbation…
So if you begin to believe that posterity is going to look at you—and we have no way of knowing if it will. I mean, good God, does the name Clarence Budington Kelland mean anything to you?
AVC: Sorry, no.
HE: Nor to 10 out of every nine people that you'll meet. Clarence Budington Kelland was, during the '20s, '30s, '40s, and on into the '50s, the most popular writer in America. He had a serial—the height of success in America in those days for a freelance writer was to get a serial in Collier's or The Saturday Evening Post. Well, Clarence Budington Kelland just wrote—everything that was picked up by Collier's, The Post, they made into movies. He wrote Westerns, he wrote children's books. He wrote everything, and he made more money than the President of the United States. Today, you go to a library, you cannot find a Clarence Budington Kelland book! He was a pretty good writer. He was not William Faulkner, he was not Colette, but he certainly was a very good, decent writer. With the exception of one or two people whose names are common coin—Shakespeare, perhaps Faulkner—being well-known and being remembered is a mugg's game. There's no way of knowing whether you're going to wind up being Geoffrey Chaucer or Clarence Budington Kelland.
When Ellison first brought up Kelland it was in the pre-Wikipedia days, so I reached for an old edition of the Oxford Companion to American Literature I keep around the house for just such moments. Here is what it says:
Kelland, Clarence Budington (1881-1964), popular novelist whose works included Mark Tidd (1913), the first of a series of novels for boys, of the genre of Tom Sawyer; and novels for adults, most of them dealing with current fads and manners, such as Conflict (1920), Rhoda Fair (1925), Hard Money (1930), The Great Crooner (1933), Arizona (1939), and Dangerous Angel (1953); or detective fiction. His stories about a shrewd Yankee who pretends ingenuousness first appeared in Scattergood Baines (1921).
In a long and prolific career as a writer of fiction and short stories, he was published in many magazines. The Saturday Evening Post and The American Magazine were his best markets. He published about sixty novels; juveniles at first, then reprints of his magazine serials.
Although largely forgotten now, a small number of his stories achieved some recognition, including Opera Hat, serial from The American, which was the basis for the film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), a short-lived television series (1969–70), and another film Mr. Deeds (2002). One of his best-known characters was Scattergood Baines who was featured in six films from 1941–43, starring Guy Kibbee.
Kelland’s page at the Internet Movie Database lists 35 “story by” credits, including sound films starring Cary Grant, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Gary Cooper (the aforementioned Deeds), Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Lucille Ball, and Randolph Scott.
That’s a heck of a career, and what’s left of it? Well, you can get Scattergood Baines for free if you buy a Kindle. You want to be remembered, my fellow scribblers, you’d better aim higher.
Even for the famous, fame is fleeting. There is a Hall of Fame in the Bronx, New York that predates the baseball Hall of Fame and all the others. The idea was to honor great Americans in all walks of life. The custodians of this place ran out of money, interest, and awareness some time ago, and so it sits, largely unknown. They started with inductions in 1900 and held elections until 1976. They stopped because they ran out of money to buy the busts for the enshrined, although I am amused by the idea that perhaps it is because we haven’t produced anyone worth adding in the last 35 years.
There are 102 men and women memorialized with the words, “By wealth of thought, or else by mighty deed, They served mankind in noble character. In worldwide good they live forever more.” They are all listed at the link above; see how many you can identify on sight. I went 76-for-102, or .745, which isn’t great given that there are a great many gimmies in there, including 13 presidents.
The winners of the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award are far more obscure than even Kelland or my 26 missed U.S. Hall of Famers. It is pleasing to know that Ring Lardner and Damon Runyan are still read, and that there are those of us who still return to Red Smith, but how many of the remaining 58 names are still remembered or, more importantly, read today? Most of them meaning something to me, and probably to many of you, as a researcher and appreciator of old baseball books, but to the world beyond that small band of aficionados, they might as well never have lived.
This is one of the many reasons that I don’t get too exercised by who made the All-Star team and who didn’t, who called in sick and who came to play, or who won the glorified batting practice session that is the Home Run Derby. It’s not something that anyone can remember two minutes after it happened. Let’s name some All-Stars at random: Bill Walker, left-handed pitcher. Started the 1935 game for the National League. Burgess Whitehead was on the bench. He hit .263/.289/.305 that year. Sam West was a very good player, a center fielder, hit .299/.371/.425 in about 1800 career games. He made four All-Star teams, but he doesn’t sell very many jerseys these days. Let’s get close to the present day. The 1985 All-Star game: Glenn Wilson. People thought he was good for awhile because he drove in 100 runs once and had a good arm. Damaso Garcia. People thought he was good because—well, I can’t recall anyone thinking he was good, but I guess they must have. Phil Bradley: now there was an exciting player for awhile, sort of a Johnny Damon-style guy, but he was done at 30.
Just three years ago: Milton Bradley (starter!). Cristian Guzman. Joe Crede. When was the last time anyone thought about Joe Crede who was not a close friend or relative of Joe Crede’s? My purpose is not to dismiss or insult the man—he had 888 games at the major-league level, which is more than 99.9 percent of us will ever do—but did the All-Star citation do anything to mark Crede in memory? Nope. It came. It went. Look upon my works, ye mighty and forget what it is we were talking about.
You can undertake the same exercise with the Baseball Hall of Fame (How many people arrive at Cooperstown with an appreciation of Bobby Wallace? Or leave with one?), the Pulitzers (Edna Ferber was probably bigger than Clarence Kelland at one time, but is she read today?), or the Nobel Prize in Literature (they might rethink the whole Pearl S. Buck thing—I would be personally grateful). Glory is fleeting.
Part of our job as baseball writers, analysts, and historians, is to defend the underappreciated before history. That’s something I’m more than eager to do with a full season at hand, a series of seasons, or a career. Given half a season and some fan voting for a game that fewer watch every year and I’m less inclined to get excited, in the same way I am disinclined to think more of my work than it is or is meant to be. Some writers, concerned with posterity, will defend a half-sentence about Ron LeFlore like a mother bear defending her beer stash, but I’m more inclined to let these things take care of themselves. Posterity will or it won’t remember, and if it does it will be without reference to that sentence. And remember, when you get too hopeful, just think of Kelland, or one of those Spink award winners, or James Baldwin, All-Star pitcher in 2000. It wasn’t up to them, and it’s not up to you.