What speaks to a boy more than sports? A book about sports, of course.
I should know. At age 8, I read my first Tunis novel. By age 10, I’d read them all. In my 20s, I revisited my childhood favorite — the first book in the series, “The Kid from Tomkinsville” — and found it held up admirably.
John R. Tunis (1889-1975) is not a name to conjure with these days, but in his time, he was the leading writer of teen sports stories. He surely had the credentials: in the late 1920s, he covered sports for a New York newspaper, then moved on to cover tennis for NBC. And then he moved into fiction, starting with “The Kid from Tomkinsville,” published in 1940. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. To buy the sequel, “World Series,” click here. To buy “Rookie of the Year,” click here.]
The Kid is Roy Tucker, a pitcher from a little town in Connecticut. He’s working at MacKenzie’s drug store “on the corner of South Main” and pitching local ball when a scout from the Brooklyn Dodgers shows up to watch another player. He ends up signing Roy.
Roy’s parents are dead, and he’s living with his grandmother, and a big winter storm blows the roof off her farmhouse — that first check from the Dodgers comes in handy. At Spring Training, Roy continues to be the Good Kid; he hopes to impress the manager enough to be sent to some farm club so he can give his grandmother more money than he’d be getting at the drug store.
There’s a veteran catcher at spring training — Dave Leonard, hoping to hang on so he can make $12,500 for a few seasons until his insurance kicks in. Dave gives Roy a few magic tips, among them:
“Son, an old umpire once give me some dope when I was breaking in like you. Oh, yeah, I thought I was hot stuff, but they soon showed me I didn’t have an idea what it was all about. Just when I got convinced I was a flop and waiting for that pink slip in the mail box, this old fella took me aside in the lobby of the hotel one night. Old George Connors, I never forgot. So I pass it along to you and don’t you forget it either. ‘Courage,’ says this old-timer. ‘Courage is all life. Courage is all baseball. And baseball is all life; that’s why it gets under your skin.’”
Roy has courage, and soon enough Roy has technique. And Roy becomes a rookie sensation, first in spring training and then in the regular season. But after a game, some players are horsing around in the showers. Someone bumps Roy. He falls, lands on his arm, and suddenly the career of the phenom who has won 16 games is a row is over.
Baseball’s a funny game, full of life lessons you can’t see when they’re coming at you. Dave Leonard gets cut from the team. Then the player-manager gets killed in a car crash, and Dave is brought back to manage the slumping Dodgers. He knows Roy is a natural hitter, so he keeps him on the team and uses him as a pinch hitter. And Roy has great success — in a single season, he’s on his second career.
Then comes the inevitable slump. Roy’s ready to quit. Dave gives him a tough-love lecture: “Only the game fish swim upstream.” And Roy, reinvigorated, embarks on yet another comeback.
The baseball scenes are as exciting as great newspaper reports of hotly contested games. There are passages that take you inside the game of baseball, and then deeper, into the minds of the men who play it. Does it matter that this book is set in the late 1930s, and Joe DiMaggio is a feared opponent and Roy’s grandmother still uses coal in her oven? Not at all — anyone who loves baseball will be rooting for Roy so fervently that this might as well be non-fiction. (As Tunis puts it in a note at the start of the book, “The author wishes to state that all the characters in this book were drawn from real life.”)
It’s the blend of utter fantasy — a rookie who helps lead the Dodgers into a World Series against the Yankees — and no-nonsense realism that earns this series a permanent place in baseball literature. If you’ve got a kid who cares about baseball, “The Kid from Tomkinsville” is a gift from God; it will set him (or her) on the path of more great Tunis novels.
And if you are looking for respite from this jaded world of ours — if you’re nostalgic for the crack of the bat and the snap of ball against leather and the look of raked dirt against pristine grass — these books will revive you like no others I know.
By Jesse Kornbluth
Originally posted on Head Butler
Photo: Flickr/Peter Miller