“Sports writing then was wonky and serious, but Damon Runyon was amused above all else.”

From a Wall Street Journal column by Max Watman about the book “I Got the Horse Right Here: Damon Runyon on Horse Racing”:

Damon Runyon wrote his first piece about horse racing in 1922, and led with an anecdote about boxing. Jim Reisler, the editor of a new collection of Runyon’s work as a turf hack, suggests that perhaps he was nervous, and so fell back upon that which he knew.

Yet Runyon was bringing to the typewriter his own particular sensibility, in which heroes and villains were not isolated characters reducible to their roles….In the pages of “I Got the Horse Right Here” you will find yourself in gambling halls and hotels, perusing potential color schemes for racing silks and learning the multigenerational tale of the concessions ownership at Saratoga.

Sports writing at the time was wonky, detailed and serious, but Runyon was amused above all else….

Consider that concessions business. On Aug. 18, 1933, Runyon introduces us to the grandchild of Harry Stevens, the man who may (or may not) have invented the hot dog on a cold New York Giants opening day in April 1901. “A stout youth, with nice blond hair and pink cheeks, and a cheery, affable manner that reminds you, vaguely, of someone you know may be seen dashing at regular intervals from one end of the racing premises here to the other.” Runyon continues: “Now he is making an end-run around the mob of bookmakers in the clubhouse, now plunging through the throng under the grandstand, and now hot footing for the $1 enclosure, which is more exclusive than the sacred precincts of the upper clubhouse stand itself.”…

Before we know it we are wrapped up in a story about how Harry Stevens came into his first substantial sum of money, when William C. Whitney, “former Secretary of the Treasury, founder of the present Whitney clan that is so powerful in racing, was the big gun of Saratoga racing.” After volunteering to do some investing for Stevens, Whitney asked Harry “how much money have you got?” Stevens gave him $25,000 or $30,000.

He heard no more of the matter for some time. For so long, that he commenced worrying a little, as that kind of money wasn’t hay to Harry the First in those days. Then one day, William C. Whitney came along, handed Harry a slip of paper, and said, nonchalantly: “There, Harry, that’s what became of your money.”

And Harry the First found himself with a check calling for $215,000….

Damon Runyon’s journalistic legacy has been overtaken by the technicolor crooning and the patter of “Guys and Dolls,” the musical out of his short stories, in which desperate gamblers, flophouse habitués, hustlers and Salvation Army missionaries are transformed into characters in a lighthearted romance. What’s at stake in this fictional world isn’t prison, poverty and early onset decrepitude, but whether or not the wedding bells will ring. Comedy, in other words. The denizens of Runyon’s Broadway will get exactly what they have coming to them. The set ups are perfect, and the underdog comes out on top. Lady Luck does not, in fact, blow on some other guy’s dice.

The rhythm and music of Runyon’s prose is careful, and he mastered an idiosyncratic voice to which he adhered with religiosity. His fiction takes place within a cordoned-off world that is reminiscent of—but in no way an accurate representation of—a vanished, hyper-specific milieu. The journalism is qualitatively different, but there is a lot of crossover between Runyon’s fiction and his reportage, particularly in the constructed sense of community….

Damon Runyon was, at his core, a newspaperman. His grandfather ran a printing business in Kansas, and his father learned that trade and worked printing newspapers there and in Colorado. Runyon grew up in those print shops. His father’s name was Runyan with an “a.” In an early byline, a typo changed it to an “o” and Runyon liked that, so he kept it.

That was hardly the total of his self-fashioning, as we read in the introduction to this collection. A young Runyon once handed in a story to the sports editor at Hearst’s New York American named Harry Cashman. Cashman took a pencil to the byline, changing “Alfred Damon Runyon” to “Damon Runyon.” Of course Runyon was made by newspapers. How could the story go otherwise?

Max Watman is the author of “Race Day,” “Chasing the White Dog” and “Harvest: Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food.”

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