This article was written by Leverett T. Smith Jr.
This article was published in The SABR Review of Books
This article was originally published in The SABR Review of Books, Vol. 1 (1986).
Who reads baseball juveniles? It’s pretty sure the kids still do; those series books in the shelves at Braswell Memorial Library here in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, look pretty well-thumbed to me. I’m hoping that adults do, too, or that they will. There’s a kid in each of us still capable of enjoying them, and an adult who is also interested both in the quality of the book and in what these books say to kids. What I’ve tried to do here is first establish what kind of book a baseball juvenile is, then say a little about how and where they can be found (this is not always easy), and then make a few specific recommendations. I’ll append a list of the best books and articles I know of on the subject.
Baseball juveniles emerge in the late 1890s as a late and seldom used subject matter in dime novels. Gilbert Patten’s Frank Merriwell books are the first successful version of the baseball juvenile. A particularly glorious essay on these books by Patten, Ralph Henry Barbour, and William Heyliger is Robert Cantwell’s “A Sneering Laugh With The Bases Loaded,” published in Sports Illustrated in 1962. Cantwell relishes the sheer unreality of this formula fiction and deplores the later advance of realism in baseball juveniles. Much of the other commentary has not been on baseball juveniles as such, but more generally on sports juveniles. And there has been a concern for the sort of book they are. Sports juveniles have been compared to folktales, fables, and myths in their ability to communicate values to the reader. Michael Oriard, in his book on American sports fiction, Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980 (1982), makes the largest claims for juvenile sports fiction, asserting that both athlete-hero formula stories and myths come from the same source. He says that
The formulaic character of the athlete-hero and his enormous appeal to his juvenile audience and to the adult popular mind indicate that the sources of that formula may be the same sources that spontaneously produce mythic symbols . . . . heroic myths are allegories of the process of maturation. Juvenile fiction is fundamentally concerned with the same process.
At less exalted moments than this, Oriard identifies the “greatest value of popular, particularly formulaic, literature” as its ability to distill “many of the most pressing concerns of our culture into virtually pure forms. ” Another scholar of the literature of sports in the United States, Christian Messenger, while not as excited as Oriard about the possibilities of the significance of formulaic literature, sees the dime novel as functioning as “a barometer for a set of safe, conventional ideas concerning personal morality and public success. ” Even at this least estimate, we seem to have, in our baseball juveniles, rather a significant form of popular literature. Though both Messenger and Oriard are primarily interested in the sports juvenile as a way of looking at the adult sports novel, which developed later, and many who write about sports juveniles consider that only those produced during the years before World War I are worth consideration, actually sports and baseball—juveniles continue to be produced right up to the present. But Oriard and Messenger consider the changes in the genre since World War I to be of little significance. Oriard states that “today… the athlete-hero is remarkably similar to his earliest appearances on the American scene. ” Likewise, the plot remains the same, with its inevitable conclusion in the final Big Game, inevitably won by the correct team. Oriard tells us that “Frank Merriwell became a model for a tradition of juvenile sports literature that continues to the present,” and like Cantwell, he characterizes more recent heroes as “somewhat more realistic Frank Merriwells. ” Messenger finds only a change of scene after the glory years of the school sports story, which he places before World
War I. He writes that then Owen Johnson concluded his critique of Yale in 1911 and Gilbert Pattern relinquished control of the Merriwell series in 1913, they left Ralph Henry Barbour and a host of newcomers to shift the focus of the school sport story to high school and state university environments which rejected the movement of sport in the nation as well.
Others have attempted to keep a focus on juvenile sports fiction up to the present, and from these we can get a sense of the way they have changed since World War I. Walter Evans’ article in the Journal of Positive Culture is representative of these. He thinks there are two different sorts of juvenile sports fiction: the school sports story, in which an outsider makes himself part of the group through athletic prowess, and the series sports story, in which the hero’s abilities are acknowledged from the beginning. Both, he finds, are “dependent on successful integration into society for their resolution. ” Later, Evans elaborates on this motif of “successful integration.”
The integration motif mirrors the young boy’s drive to understand and become an accepted part of society beyond the family. The reading of sports stories is a learning experience in which the outside world is reduced to insiders and outsiders, and the means of becoming an insider—conformity to the code is demonstrated through the integration of the boy-hero, the outsider, the little brother figure, and the poor sport. Boys spend much of their lives learning to become functioning elements of society; sports fiction indicates that conformity to an established mode of behavior is more crucial to integration than academic success, physical dimensions, age, class, or other factors.
This notion of integration into a successful group is a central continuity of juvenile sports fiction, but there are others. Ordinarily the same cast of characters (boy-hero, outsider, little brother figure, poor sport) inhabits each book, and there is a “sportsman’s code”—a devotion to athletics and to purity (painful modesty, great loyalty, and devotion to the needs of the team)—which informs each book.
These are large continuities; what about changes in the formula? Messenger, for instance, sees schoolboy society opening up to more middle-class environments like high schools and state universities. Evans notices this, too, and in addition he finds that adults, and particularly adult villains, become more important. Both he and Oriard find occasional involvement in serious social issues in later juvenile Sports fiction. In looking at baseball juveniles, I can add more. First, there is the new sub-genre of the Little League baseball novel, as practiced particularly by Matt Christopher. Secondly, because of its early identification as a professional sport, baseball does not lend itself particularly well to the school sports novel. There always have been school sports novels focused on baseball, but early on, there began to be an emphasis on the professional game as a setting. Lester Chadwick’s Baseball Joe series, for instance, begins with Joe as a schoolboy, but quickly graduates him to professional baseball. This often leads to modifications in Evans’ “sportsman’s code, ” something formulated more with schoolboy stories in mind. Finally, there is another change that comes because of the history of children’s books. Sports have become a subject matter for children’s books which are not formula stories, so we now have a category of “serious” children’s books which are not simply formulaic. In addition, there is a new kind of children’s book written specifically for a teenage audience. Generally called “problem” novels, for their insistence on regarding growing up as a difficult process, some of these now have a baseball setting. Formula stories set in schools, Little Leagues, in professional leagues, as well as serious stories with baseball settings: these are the sorts of books which can be found. Where do we find them? Very seldom in our local bookstores. Written mostly for school children, they tend to be sold to libraries rather than bookstores. I try to spend one day a month browsing in second-hand bookstores, and one of the first things I do is look among the juveniles for stories with a baseball setting. The library is another good place to find these books, though Rocky Mount’s library has only one baseball juvenile published before 1960. To get these older books is somewhat difficult unless you have a good research library handy. Most serious readers know that hard-to-get books can be gotten, if your local library doesn’t have them, through interlibrary loan. Unfortunately, this is not always true of juvenile books; librarians have traditionally viewed juvenile literature as not significant enough to order through interlibrary loan. My suggestion here is that you remind yourself and the librarian that you are not just an interested reader but a researcher. Show the librarian your SABR card; adopt a serious mien. This has worked for me. But it helps to have a librarian friend, or to be one yourself.
There is no foolproof bibliographic source for looking up material for baseball juveniles. Children’s literature bibliographies, often organized by subject matter, are also very selective, often listing only one or two novels by an author of baseball juveniles. The best sources I’ve found are Anton Grobani’s Guide to Baseball Literature (1975) and Michael Oriard’s Dreaming of Heroes (1982). Grobani’s contains a section called “Fiction, ” under which juveniles are listed. He makes no effort to distinguish between juveniles and adult novels, and occasionally his listings are incomplete, but he is a reliable place to start. Authors are listed chronologically by the date of their first baseball novel. Oriard’s Dreaming of Heroes contains a “Checklist of American Sports Fiction. ” As in Grobani, there is no focus here on baseball juveniles, but if the reader has some idea whom he is looking for, it is a useful checklist. It is more current than Grobani’s and Oriard has had the benefit of using Grobani’s. It helps to remember that Oriard lists all sports fiction, not just baseball fiction, for each author.
I enjoy reading formula fiction, but I more enjoy reading fiction which manipulates formula to develop character and to test systems of value. Many recent baseball juveniles seem to be doing just that. Here are some I have found in Braswell Memorial Library: Bill J. Carol’s High Fly to Center, Robert Lipsyte’s Jock and Jill, Leonard Everett Fisher’s Noonan: A Novel About Baseball, ESP, and Time days, and Martin Quigley’s The Original Coloured House of David. These all run strange changes on the traditional juvenile formula and force us toward questions of character and value. Bill Carol’s High Fly to Center (1972) is a story of Little League baseball in which the characters are unusually interesting. Not only is Little League action kept to a minimum, but most of the conventions of the juvenile formula are ignored. lt is important, for instance, that there is no Big Game. At the beginning of the book the principal character, Mickey Ortega, finds his family requires him to leave his Little League team to participate in the family vacation. Because he thinks of himself as a future major leaguer and of his Little League experience as crucial to that, he runs away from his vacationing family, hoping to rejoin his team. He never makes it. Two things happen: he loses his wallet, but meets a young man in Phoenix who has career plans just as set as his but whose earning power has been inhibited by a stickball incident. A shoeshine boy, Charley Johnson, has one hand in a cast. Mickey helps him rather than trying to rejoin his team. Meanwhile, his sister who is trying to follow him, has become lost in the woods. The moment he learns this, Mickey gets in touch with his parents and helps find his sister. The vacation is resumed with Charley in attendance as Mickey decides his family and friendships are more important now than a possible major-league career. He has matured. The relationships between Mickey and his sister and Mickey and Charley are well-drawn and present clear value conflicts not entirely resolved by Mickey’s decision that, right now, family and friendship are more important than baseball. There is not much description of baseball in the book; I don’t know why it’s called High Fly to Center, but it’s a thoughtful book about how baseball dreams can affect one’s life.
Robert Lipsyte’s Jock and Jill (1982) is a modern and ironic treatment of the traditional juvenile sports novel with its Big Game ending. It’s a problem novel, meant for teenagers, and its title nicely suggests Lipsyte’s meaning—that events will have a disastrous conclusion, and that because of sports. The hero’s name is Jack, of course, Jack Ryder, who is star pitcher for his high school team. Jack is looking forward to the championship game in Yankee Stadium, the inevitable Big Game. However, unlike his predecessors in baseball juveniles, this hero needs cortisone shots and greenies to keep his arm well and his energy level up. In the weeks before the game, he is jolted out of his routine by an involvement with Jillian, a young lady undergoing psychiatric treatment. In the course of their adventures they meet Hector, a former gang leader who has developed a social conscience, and when Hector is arrested just before the big game at Yankee Stadium, Jack and Jill seize the stadium during the game to protest Hector’s arrest. At the end of the book, conventional order is restored. Jill is sent away for more psychiatric treatment and Jack is reunited with his cheerleader girlfriend, Kristie. Jack however, looks at the sports world with clearer eyes; instead of the final athletic triumph, we have personal growth in a complex world.
Leonard Everett Fisher’s Noonan: A Novel About Baseball, ESP, and Tirrie Ways (1978) has presented us with another vision of baseball and America, this one not so positive. This novel also satirizes the juvenile sports story formula, by involving itself in things other than the Big Game: there is time travel, and a fully developed vision of the future of professional baseball. The plot involves Johnny Noonan, a 14-year-old pitcher, who is hit on the head by a foul ball in 1896; he wakes up in 1996 and finds that he has the power to will the baseball where he wants it to go (a handy power for a pitcher to have). Returning to 1896, he finds he still has this power. He pitches an inning and a half against the Cincinnati Reds and stuns them. But in this Big Game, things go awry; the game is rained out, and all parties agree not to report Johnny’s curious pitches. When he starts another game, he finds he has lost his powers. At the book’s end, Johnny is back sweeping up his father’s saloon, and the owner of the team he played for has been committed to a mental hospital.
At the heart of the novel is a vision of baseball as played in the future: electronic equipment has taken the place of umpires, there are no fans at the games anymore (except in Chicago, where at Wrigley Field all is the same), and the games are played in ball studios and fans watch on television. Players are recruited from all over the world, and many of them do a little spying on the side. Each team must have a linguist, so that communication among the players is possible. Fisher’s vision of the future of baseball is not a nice one: baseball in 1996 is called “the tedious symbol of the new malaise” of American society.
Perhaps the best of these recent books is Martin Quigley’s The Original Coloured House of David (1981). In it we meet in fiction the “phonograph needle pitch” Quigley describes at the beginning of The Crooked Pitch: The Curveball in American Baseball History. I like the book because it treats both baseball and humanity in a serious, realistic way without pretension. Like most juveniles, it’s the story of a young man’s growth into manhood. In Dreaming of Heroes, Oriard says that all juvenile sports fiction stops short of the hero’s achieving maturity; he says that the athlete-hero is “for all his benevolent virtues … essentially a self- centered hero . . . no real maturity is achieved in his allegory of maturity—the athlete-hero remains a child.” In Quigley’s novel, the hero grows out of his self-centeredness, completes his mythic journey, and returns home. In the book, Timmy (who finally earns the right to be called Tim) Nelson is frustrated by the events of the Fourth of July in his hometown in rural Minnesota in the 1920s, and as a result, he contrives to join the touring Original Coloured House of David baseball team in its travels through rural Minnesota and North Dakota. He becomes Speedy Deefy, a deaf-and-dumb albino Negro, and experiences the horrors of racial prejudice. The black ballplayers are vividly portrayed, particularly Mr. Tetley, leader of the team and “a man of considerable erudition” who is a kind of wisdom figure, who is given to such pronouncements as “that’s what we’re made of—flesh and blood and the stories we know.” Tim helps this group get through their schedule of games; he has replaced a player who fell sick on the Fourth of July in Tim’s hometown. He gets to know all the team as human beings and helps the sick player to die. By the time the Big Game (in which he is roughly treated as a pitcher but which the team wins) has ended, he has learned enough about himself and humanity to participate as a man in the feast that blacks and whites attend together at the book’s end.
Readers do need to beware of baseball juveniles. Many writers do not take the composition of baseball juveniles seriously. As a consequence, they do not take the trouble to report the games accurately, just as they do not take the trouble to create real characters. I have run across four instances in which the losers in the Big Game get four outs in the last inning. But, increasingly, writers of juvenile books are taking more care and reporting both the games and the people who play them more accurately. Those of us who are happy with the sheer unreality of the early baseball formula stories still have a great deal to read, though it is not always easy to find. Those of us who like serious fiction, for children as well as adults, are beginning to have a lot to choose from, too.
Cantwell, Robert. “A Sneering Laugh With The Bases Loaded. ” Sports Illustrated, v. 16, April 23, 1962, p. 67-76.
Carol, Bill J. High Fly to Center. Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1972.
Evans, Walter. “The All-American Boys: A Study of Boys’ Sports Fiction, ” Journal of Popular Culture VI:1, Summer, 1972.
Fisher, Leonard Everett. Noonan: A Novel About Baseball, ESP, and Time Warps. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1978.
Grobani, Anton. Guide to Baseball Literature. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1975.
Lipsyte, Robert. Jock and Jill. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
Messenger, Christian. Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. “Sport in the Dime Novel. ” Journal of American Culture 1:3, Fall, 1978.
Oriard, Michael. “The Athlete-Hero and American Ideals. ” Journal of American Culture 1:3, Fall 1978. Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-i 980. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982.
Quigley, Martin. The Crooked Pitch: To Curveball in American Baseball History. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1984.
Quigley, Martin. The Original Coloured House of David. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1981.
Tunis, John R. All-American. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc. 1942.
Tunis, John R. Keystone Kids. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1943.
Tunis, John R. The Kid From Tomkinsville. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940.
Tunis, John R. Yen! Wildcats! New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1944.