John Lardner, the son of Ring Lardner, a famous columnist and short-story writer, died at his typewriter at his apartment in lower Manhattan, working against deadline and having told Newsweek that he would be a day late with a piece about Franklin P. Adams, the poet and wit who had died just days before. Strewn at Lardner's feet were dozens of wadded-up pieces of paper, false starts to his column. Not a bad way for a writer to go, come to think of it. But John Lardner was only 47. His father had died at 48.
If the betting coup of Art Rooney, the late owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, hadn't found John Lardner, Lardner would have found it. His father, the short-story writer, couldn't have made it up. Rooney and a couple of pals spent a day at the old Empire City track in Yonkers, then moved on to Saratoga. Lardner wrote that Rooney profited by $256,000 in two days of action, although the figure may have been more, much more. Without that score, Rooney might not have been able to buy the Steelers. His henchmen were one Joseph Madden, a barkeep, and Buck Crouse, a boxing pug who had bats in his belfry.
Madden's real surname was Penzo, but he changed it because his saloon was in an Irish neighborhood. En route to Saratoga, in a clunker, Rooney and company broke down four times. "The car kept getting coughing spells," Lardner wrote. "Each time, they got out and pushed."
By all accounts, Lardner was a contrarian, but in the run-up to the epic Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, he embraced War Admiral, in queue with most of the Eastern press. He wrote: "I am one of the narrow-minded group which has seen War Admiral run too often to concede Seabiscuit a chance for anything but a seat in Congress this year."
It's a ghoulish exercise, perhaps, recalling people who have died while doing what they loved to do, but I am a ghoul at heart. Joseph La Croix, the owner of Unpredictable, winner of the 1982 San Miguel Stakes, rushed to the winner's circle at Santa Anita, collapsed and was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. He was 60. Sigmund Sommer, who made his money in construction and real estate, would have preferred to be at the race track, with his horses. He owned Sham, Secretariat's shadow, after buying him for $200,000 at Bull Hancock's dispersal sale. Sommer died in the trustees' room at Aqueduct, while watching the ninth race.
Bill Shirley, who had been sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, died on a dance floor in Spain. Bing Crosby was in Madrid, playing golf, when he died. He had won the match, and reportedly his last words were, "That was a great game of golf, fellas."
Harry Caray, the iconic baseball broadcaster, died on a dance floor in Palm Springs. One of his colleagues, Harry Kalas, was fatally stricken in his broadcast booth, while preparing for a game. Joe Hernandez, who had called 15,587 straight races at Santa Anita, collapsed in the booth during race No. 15,588 and never recovered.
There are no lessons to be learned from any of this. But I have been to Spain a few times, and liked the country so much that I hope to go back one of these days. When I do, I wlll not go dancing or play golf.