Ornery H.L. Mencken loved base­ball

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Joseph C. Goulden

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.

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