Ornery H.L. Mencken loved baseball
As baseball season thunders down upon us — Go Nats! — let us pause to give loud huzzahs to the Library of America and the Washington writer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, first for defying self-appointed literary censors, and also for revealing the hidden love of the national pastime by none other than Baltimore’s famed scourge of bunkum, H.L. Mencken.
For more than a decade now, political correctness thugs have worked mightily to expunge Mencken from the American literary experience. Mencken’s supposed sin? He used many words now on the no-no list in his private diaries, published more than a decade ago. Thereafter, the hounds of Hades bayed after the man’s hide. Poltroons at the National Press Club even stripped Mencken’s name from a room in their library. As I commented at the time, Mencken was publishing black writers in his American Mercury at a time when the press club was as segregated as the Alabama legislature. Ah, media righteousness: a profession unwilling to recognize its own hypocrisies and flaws.
Given the calumny directed at Mencken, the volume at hand is a major breach of the attempted blackout. It is an expansion of the trilogy published by Mencken in the early 1940s — “Boyhood Days,” “Newspaper Days” and “Heathen Days.”
These books were a thumping literary and financial success. And Mencken, in private, kept adding to them, via some 200 pages of material that provides frank and unvarnished commentary on his career and the people he encountered. The papers were sealed at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore for 25 years after his death. Ms. Rodgers, the premier Mencken biographer, gained access to them for her 2005 work, “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.” Now the original “Days” are reprinted, along with Mencken’s previously unpublished addenda.
The pages reveal the wisdom of Mencken’s discretion in writing about contemporaries. He was particularly biting in comments on women, including the wives of friends and colleagues, all of whom seemed (to Mencken, at least) to be lacking in intelligence. Of a prominent actor’s wife, he opined that she was “extraordinarily vain, shallow and stupid.” Even after a subsequent marriage, she is “hollow and trashy,” as well as “egotistical and bossy.” He names a colleague who (apparently) impregnated a young prostitute. He wrote of an editor of the Baltimore Herald who blackmailed merchants into buying ads lest he publish a spurious story about how a defective tunnel threatened to collapse their stores and kill customers.
Mencken names the “member of a prominent Maryland family” who “got the title of Bishop of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of his habit of wearing a Christian Endeavor pin on his frequent visits to bawdy-houses and his equally strange habit of trying to convert the inmates to Methodism. He was a solemn fellow and not too bright.”
Mencken also reveals, in roundabout fashion, that he knew far more about Baltimore bawdy houses and various actresses than appeared in the original books. As a young soldier in Baltimore in the 1950s, I was fortunate to befriend Mencken’s brother August, a retired railroad construction engineer who lived in the old family home at 1524 Hollins Street.
After considerable tippling one evening, I asked August about his brother’s relations with women, given that he was a lively fellow who did not marry until 1930, at age 50 (to Sara Haardt, who died in 1935). August snorted, then laughed. “Women, Henry had a’plenty,” he said. But H.L. Mencken also adhered to a self-imposed rule. He would not “sully the memory of his mother” by bringing women who were not his wife into her former home. August also said, rather vaguely, that his brother “had written a sort of diary about the dollies.” Such a paper has not emerged from the Pratt Library archives, although in interviews Ms. Rodgers, the editor of the current book, has alluded to “other materials” that remain under seal.
Now, back to baseball. As he related in “Boyhood Days,” Mencken aspired to be a pitcher on his sandlot team “but nothing came of it, for I had little speed and no control at all.” So he was relegated to the outfield, “or, as it was then called, the farm.” He “worked his way up to short-stop until a sizzler gave my left little finger a terrific clout, and I was out of the game for weeks. The finger remains slightly cauliflowered to this day — another reason, perhaps, why I have never made much of a shine as a piano virtuoso.”
Thanks to the supplement, we now know that Mencken’s love of baseball continued. “Despite my early abandonment of baseball it left indelible marks upon me. … I still think that it is the best game ever invented. It calls for skill, it rewards hard practice, it offers quick action, its plays are nearly always clear and obvious, and it offers little opening for brute force. Compared to football, which resembles a combat of gorillas, it is a game for gentlemen.
“How great an impression it made on me in my boyhood is shown by the fact that when I am trying to sleep at night I never count the traditional sheep, but always pitch a baseball. The scene is Oriole Park, and I see the green sward, the packed grandstand, and the long shafts of the setting sun as clearly as if I were back in 1892.
“After half a dozen magnificent curves, all of which cause the batter to fan absurdly, I fall asleep.”
The next time insomnia troubles me, I intend to go to the pitcher’s mound at Nationals Park and ...
H.L. MENCKEN: THE DAYS TRILOGY By H.L. Mencken Edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Life-long baseball fan Joseph Goulden has written 18 non-fiction books.