The Realism of Roy Tucker

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, Volume V (1990).


From what he says in his autobiography, A Measure of Independence, John R. Tunis had no particular interest in baseball. He does remember fondly attending baseball games in Boston at the age of ten or eleven, but the impulse to write about the sport came from his editor. In Florida getting material for his first baseball book, Tunis is accompanied by his brother Roberts, whom he describes as “a great fan and a student of the game, about which he knew far more than I did.” Nevertheless, Tunis eventually wrote nine books with a baseball setting, eight of them based on the Brooklyn Dodgers he chose to watch that spring in Florida “because the squad at the time was full of lively and interesting characters.”

Oddly, Roy Tucker, of all the characters in Tunis’s Brooklyn Dodger books for boys the most prominent, does not seem to be based on any of these lively and interesting characters. Tunis drew up a cast of characters in which he listed the equivalents of each character in The Kid from Tomkinsville. Roy Tucker has no name opposite his own; in fact, he is listed on the side of the page with the real people. Several names down the page occurs this entry: “Harold Reiser, the shortstop & his [Tucker’s] roommate … Harold Street.” Tucker is the protagonist in three of the eight books — The Kid from Tomkinsville (1940), World Series (1941), and The Kid Comes Back (1945); he has a strong supporting role in a fourth, Schoolboy Johnson (1958). In addition, he appears in at least five other Tunis books — in the tennis novel Champion’s Choice (1940), and in four other Brooklyn Dodger novels — Keystone Kids (1943), Rookie of the Year (1944), Highpockets (1948), and Young Razzle (1949).

Some of the best essays on Tunis’s fiction see Tucker as Tunis’s hero. Philip Bergen writes (in The SABR Review of Books, 1986) that “capturing the natural skill of Roy Hobbs with the All-American character of Jack Armstrong, Tucker is an ideal hero for a juvenile book though the adult reader will find him a bit low on human faults.” Adam Hammer writes (in Journal of Popular Culture, 1983) that “never in a Tunis novel will we find any other kind of athlete [than the star]. In fine heroic tradition Tunis isolates as the protagonists of his books, the standouts, the kid who makes not only good but best. Hammer lists Roy Tucker as one of these.

Some ten years before Hammer’s statement, Tunis had complained to Jerome Holtzman (in No Cheering in the Pres Box) that “you can say that my books have been read, but only by kids, really. Nobody has paid attention. They read but they don’t know what’s in it.” Earlier in the interview, he had said that “my heroes are the losers. All my books have been in that view. Every book I’ve ever written.”

Though this doesn’t seem to describe Roy Tucker either, there is a second critical tradition which asserts that Roy is presented realistically, rather than heroically. Ken Donelson (in American Writers for Children 1900-1960) speaks of The Kid from Tomkinsville as “far more realistic than Tunis’s earlier novels for boys and describes Tucker in The Kid as “a sandlot rookie who, through hard work and despite a number of disappointments, finally wins a place on the Brooklyn Dodgers.” William Jay Jacobs (in The Horn Book Magazine, 1967) commends Tunis for avoiding “the stereotyped, wooden sports-story character who deals only in black-and-white issues. His personalities are complex and credible.” Roy Tucker in World Series is his example of such a Tunis character. Richard Shereikis (in The Horn Book Magazine, 1977) presents Roy as a specific embodiment of “old fashioned virtues: persistence, hard work, sacrifice, commitment to the team.” I suspect that Tunis created at least two Roy Tuckers: the realistically portrayed protagonist of The Kid From Tomkinsville, World Series, and The Kid Comes Back, and the role model who appears briefly in several of Tunis’s other books. Neither Tucker is necessarily heroic.

The Kid from Tomkinsville defines the world of major league baseball and tells the story of Roy Tucker’s successful attempt to make a place for himself there. It is essentially a novel of character development. For Tunis, major league baseball is high-stress environment; he emphasizes the element of speed in the game and expands the meaning of speed from the pace of the game on the field to the suddenness of individual success and failure in the profession to the shortness of human life.

The novel concerns itself basically with how Roy Tucker is to survive in this stressful world. His education comes in two parts, and in both cases it is his manager, Dave Leonard, who is his teacher. First Leonard convinces him that he cannot allow himself to be discouraged. Leonard gives him a slogan for dealing with adversity: “only the game fish swim upstream.” This makes him resolute enough to keep his level of play up to major league standards. Leonard’s second lesson for Roy is that baseball is a team game. In an effort to get Roy out of a hitting slump, he tells him “you forgot that you were playing for Brooklyn and started playing for Tucker.” He concludes by telling Roy “baseball’s a team game and don’t ever forget it.” Thus Roy learns that individual effort needs to be thoroughly subordinated to the group’s goals for the success of either.

There is also an interesting tension in the book between the sport of baseball and the commercial activity that is professional baseball, a tension which remains unresolved in The Kid from Tomkinsville. It appears in Roy’s Tomkinsville employer’s initial reluctance and consequent enthusiasm for giving him an off-season job and it appears in Roy’s relation to both sportswriters and the owner of the Dodgers, ]ack MacManus. MacManus — former athlete, war hero, and successful entrepreneur — is clearly Roy’s idea of a successful man, an idea which doesn’t get challenged until the novel World Series.

One might think that Tucker’s first name would suggest his heroic nature, much as does that of the protagonist of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), Roy Hobbs. There are intriguing surface similarities between the two: both share the same first name, both begin their careers as phenomenal pitchers, both establish themselves as hard-hitting outfielders after accidents prevent their establishing themselves as pitchers.

But the differences are immerse and much more significant. Roy Hobbs is shot in the stomach; Roy Tucker slips in the shower. Roy Hobbs takes fifteen times longer than Roy Tucker to recover. The two become entirely different kinds of hard-hitting outfielders. Most importantly, Malamud attaches considerable symbolic importance to Hobbs’ first name: ‘He coulda been a king.” Hobbs is a tragic hero, Tucker the member of a team.

Roy does begin his career as a role model almost immediately with a brief appearance in Tunis’s tennis novel Champion’s Choice, which was published the same year as The Kid From Tomkinsville. Janet Johnson is advised that she needs to relax more in order to be successful in matches with first-rate opponents. Her manager asks her, “Why don’t you try what I read this rookie on the Dodgers did, what’s-his-name, Roy Tucker? Seems he was in a batting slump and all tightened up and things kept getting worse and worse, so every time he came to the plate he whistled.”

This “loosened him up.” When Janet tries this in a later match she is more successful. What she learns is this: “Tennis was not really a contest of strokes at all, but a contest of character.” After the match, a linesman remarks, ‘You know, I could have sworn I heard her whistling to herself that third set.”

Tunis published World Series, the sequel to Tomkinsville, the next year. Like The Kid, it is basically concerned with the development of Roy’s character, and as a consequence Roy is presented realistically, as a human with limitations he must work to overcome. During the course of the book Roy learns to deal with the commercial dimensions of professional baseball, to control himself both as a player and as a man, and to accept the wisdom of those in authority.

All through the book Roy has trouble keeping his mind on the games themselves and away from the large sums of World Series money he’ll earn. He also faces distractions from an external source: companies who bid for his endorsement of their products. Even after he is beaned in the opening game of the Series, requests for endorsements pour into his hospital room.

In these heightened circumstances, Roy has trouble controlling himself and finally physically attacks a reporter. His manager Dave Leonard convinces him that he must apologize because “without publicity baseball would be dead.” Commerce here provides a context for self-control. And Dave Leonard is Roy’s, and ultimately the book’s, hero. Leonard is rumored to have to win the World Series in order to keep his job, everyone assuming, as Roy realizes, that there is “no room for sentiment in baseball. Baseball is a business.” In order to be properly heroic, Dave must play as well as manage. He assumes the catching duties himself because of the starter’s injury, and both his play and his managing bring the team victory. His play is excellent, even though he is plagued by age and injury, but it’s his leadership which is decisive. Tunis catches this in a wonderful image.

“At the plate Dave held up one clenched fist, turning slowly from left to right, waving it at Jerry and Karl, then at Harry and Swanson in deep center, then at Ed and Red and himself, pulling them up onward, knitting them together as a team.”

Having learned the importance of being a part of a team and the heroic nature of those who lead, Roy becomes a minor character in Tunis’s next two Brooklyn Dodger novels Keystone Kids and Rookie of the Year. These primarily concern Spike Russell’s career as manager of the Dodgers, but Roy plays an important exemplary role in both books.

Roy immediately helps Spike and Bob Russell acclimatize themselves at the beginning of Keystone Kids. Tunis introduces him as “someone with a round frank face’ who is immediately welcoming. Later he is referred to as “old reliable Roy Tucker who was always to be depended upon.” In the controversy over the value of Jewish catcher Jocko Klein which threatens to tear the team apart, Roy is on the side of the older men and the manager (Spike Russell), even though he is specifically described as young. He tries unsuccessfully to convince Spike’s brother Bob to let up on Klein and give him a chance. He tells Bob that as a rookie he had the same problems as Klein. Later, when Bob enters the stands to fight the Philadelphia fans, Roy joins in, “death in his eyes, armed with a formidable looking fungo stick.” In all these instances, Roy provides a touchstone for the right way to behave.

His role in Rookie of the Year is smaller, though still important. His presence on the team is maintained through some eighteen references during the course of the book. The most significant of these portray Roy as an exemplary ballplayer and occur in the first pages of the book. He exemplifies the sort of baseball the Dodgers play at its best. As it has been all through this series of books, theirs is a game based on speed. What we learn about Roy right away is that he is fast and smart. First he beats out a hit to the infield, then he scores the winning run from second on a bunt. After the game, Spike Russell calls him “the fastest man in baseball.”

In The Kid Comes Back Roy is back at center stage and Tunis’s treatment of him is again realistic. Rather than being just a role model, he’s human again. The book’s first paragraph seems designed to instruct us of an anti-heroic stance. “Usually,” the book begins, “as they climbed into the waiting truck outside the Operations Tent, Roy thought, How romantic all this would be if only I weren’t going through it myself. Somehow that night it wasn’t even abstractly romantic. There was no romance in it, none whatever.”

The Kid Comes Back is the most highly focused of Tunis’s baseball books; Roy Tucker’s return takes center stage and holds it. There is almost no relief. The other two fully developed characters, Lester Young and Bones Hathaway, seem created to present alternate versions of Roy Tucker’s journey from war to peace with himself. Tucker is in no way idealized; the book is a piece of psychological realism.

The action begins in World War II, continues on the postwar Dodgers, and resolves itself in Roy Tucker’s mind. As the book begins, Roy’s plane is shot down over occupied France. Tunis describes occupied France in phases which resonate in terms of the distressed human spirit. This is “a world where things were upside down.” The crew of Roy’s plane finds itself “lost”; they are “shipwrecked in the skies, adrift, uncertain.” A psychology of disorder is asserted. Roy injures himself, but eventually finds his way back to the Allied forces, and in one especially significant moment he is interrogated by the Germans. He is threatened with torture, but does not talk, an apparently heroic stance. But Tunis does not allow us to admire him. He writes that “It was not courage that saved Roy. It was fear. For he was unable to move. Or speak. He sat rigid and silent, watching the knife.” Here Tunis states the psychological reality behind an apparently heroic action, and he also announces a concern with the nature of fear which continues throughout the book.

After the war Roy come home, but he really doesn’t in any spiritual sense; he isn’t at peace with himself. He thinks:

“We’re home! Cripes, I can’t somehow realize it. I can’t believe it’s me, that I’m home at last … What’m I gonna do? A ballplayer with a bum leg, what use is he to a club?”

This coming back to America is followed by a painful coming back from his war injury. His first appearances in a Dodger uniform are not successful, and he concludes that “I’m not right.” The next spring Roy looks in the mirror and sees “an ancient gent with an expression of pain upon his face.” “For the first time,” Tunis writes, “he saw himself as he was, for the first appreciated the extent of his physical handicap.” Then Roy’s leg becomes much worse, and he finds himself in the hospital.

The rehabilitation of Roy Tucker’s leg is the most vivid part of the book. “He was determined to come back,” and he does so largely alone. Tunis speaks of “his long journey through pain” and Roy has to learn to sit up in bed, to sit in a chair, “to learn to walk all over again.” Introduced to “a bloodless surgeon,” Roy is told that he can cure himself by exercise. His response is “Will I take those exercises! Will I! If I’m not a fighter, I’m nothing.” (Spike Russell says this about the Dodgers as a team later.)

He does the exercises with “a fervor almost religious,” having been told by the Doctor that “if you believe in yourself, I’m convinced you can do anything. It’s a problem of faith.” He finds “his speed returned, and only in his stopping and starting motions, the jerky movements, did he find himself slowed up. That, he realized, was mostly due to fear.”

Two other characters have significant roles in the book — Lester Young and Bones Hathaway. Each undergoes his own version of Roy’s comeback. Lester Young is introduced in conventionally heroic terms. Roy’s replacement in center field, he’s called Superman by wise coach Charlie Draper. Draper continues “that bird can play anywhere on a ballclub and do anything. Roy, it looks like we got ourselves another Babe Ruth. He hits the ball a country mile, he’s a better than average fielder, fast as Man O’ War, and they say he can pitch, too.”

He’s also nice; he welcomes Roy back and assures him that “we’ll need you plenty before this summer’s over.” This extraordinarily talented and pleasant (heroic, maybe) man runs into difficulties of his own. First he falls into a batting slump and Roy gives him some advice. He also tells him “I wasn’t a born hitter. I made myself, I taught myself to hit” in contrast with Lester’s more natural skills. Later, Spike Russell asks Young to move from center field to first base, and Young is unenthusiastic. Again there is a contrast with Roy who will return to his center-field position. Young is bewildered and disgusted. Spike tells him not to kid himself, “your trouble is it’s all been too easy.” Roy, he tells him, has “always had to fight. He’s been hurt, been laid off, and had to make good in spite of his injuries.” As a result, Tucker has a sort of iron in him Young doesn’t have. Spike’s speech transforms Young into a tryer.

If Young can be said to grow in this experience, Bones Hathaway’s is more in the nature of a return, like Roy Tucker’s. Roy hears Dodger owner Jack McManus tell Bones that he is lazy and coasting on his reputation. Hathaway is sent to Montreal to see if he can’t regain his prewar form. Tucker sees a relationship between their two situations.

“Bonesy must come back the hard way, just as I must do. He’s got to work things out, same as I have, to prove himself all over again. And it won’t be so easy for either of us, with these kids coming along.”

Toward the end of the season Hathaway reappears to pitch for Brooklyn in a crucial series. “It wasn’t the same Bonesy who had left them in the season; he was calmer and more deliberate … he had learned things during his exile in the minors.” Like Young he has grown.

Roy’s journey is not one of growth, as it was in The Kid from Tomkinsville and World Series, but of return to where he was; he’s already come back to a full sense of his membership in the team, to win the battle against this fear of reinjuring himself. He has already accomplished part of this; he has confidence in his speed. But he balks when Spike Russell asks him to take over at third base. Roy explains to Spike why he can’t do it, but to himself he is more succinct. There’s “one thing I can’t do. I won’t risk going through what I’ve been through the past two years.”

Tunis depicts Roy’s struggle during the game in which he finally agrees to play third base as follows:

‘The battle was on. Actually, there were two battles that afternoon at Ebbets Field; the one between the Dodgers and the Cardinals that the fans all saw, and the one they didn’t see — the battle Roy Tucker was fighting with himself. All his reason, his memory, his intelligence prevented him from taking over third base. But his instinct fought him every second. His instinct told him he was being a spectator when he should have been a competitor helping out his club in that hot spot in the infield.”

Taking over third, Roy finds he likes it: “he was at the nerve center of a ballclub. … He liked being in the heart of things. ” But he finds he can’t play the position properly. “Fear, or something stronger, that instinctive desire to protect his weakness which was now almost habit, kept him from making a sudden forward leap.” He imagines all his teammates thinking “that I’m scared; that I can’t take it, that I’m not the old Roy Tucker.” He is saved from this recalling that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This enables him to make a game-ending, dangerous catch and to become again “the old Roy Tucker.”

In the next two books, Highpockets and Young Razzle, Tunis seems gradually to lose interest in Roy Tucker. Though he is contrasted with Cecil “Highpockets” McDade, and serves as a role model in that book, his name is mentioned only seven times in Young Razzle and he plays no significant role.

Near the end of Highpockets, Cecil McDade looks at Roy Tucker and says “why can’t I be like him?’ and of course this is McDade’s problem. In the book’s first pages, Casey and one of the Dodger coaches talk about players who win ballgames. Casey proposes Tucker, and the coach complains about McDade: He’s not a team player. “He’s not playing for the Dodgers. He’s in there every minute playing for himself.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, Spike Russell mentions Roy as one of the difficult problems he has solved in the past, and this makes Roy more real. He also runs into the outfield wall, hurting himself badly. On this occasion he is called the fans’ “favorite member of the club.” By the time Roy returns to the team, McDade has learned enough to wonder why he can’t be like Roy. And this is what he shortly does. What McDade envies is “Roy’s evident delight at being with [the team] once more.” Shortly thereafter, McDade himself becomes part of the team.

In 1958, the year after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, at the age of 69, Tunis published a last Brooklyn Dodger novel, called Schoolboy Johnson. What, it is legitimate to wonder, made him come back to this subject after a nine-year absence? Perhaps the fact of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn inspired him, but there is no mention of that in the text. Most of the team is new, though inexplicably Red Allen (who gave way in an earlier novel to Lester Young at first base) and Karl Case (who was traded) are still at their positions. Spike Russell still manages. Roy Tucker, cut as an outfielder early in the year, returns to start at third base during the pennant drive. He’s forty years old.

Like Razzle, Schoolboy appears to pit youth against age, brashness against experience. Schoolboy Johnson, Dodger rookie pitcher, has all the talent he needs; what he learns in the course of the book is to control himself during game situations. He learns that he must constantly pass a test of character in order to be a successful baseball player. His teacher is one Speedy Mason, at the end of a successful major league career spent largely with the New York Giants. This fact, plus the fact that Speedy pitches a no-hitter for the Dodgers, suggests that Tunis is using the career of Sal Maglie as a basis for this character.

Roy Tucker is also a main character in the book, a fact that complicates the story considerably. Tunis uses him initially in his standard role as a secondary character, as a kind of ideal. “The guy’s a pro,” says one character. Spike Russell admires him because he’s capable both of “lifting a team and of being thoughtful. Roy is the Dodgers’ “best clutch hitter.” On the field he “misses nothing.” But he’s more important than just an “ideal” moving in the background, for he has trouble playing third base. Speedy Mason teaches Schoolboy Johnson how to pitch through errors by teammate and in each case the teammate who makes the error is Roy Tucker.

There’s another complicating thing about Roy Tucker in this book: he has a daughter. And since she is fully employed, and romantically interested in Schoolboy Johnson, she must be between 18 and 21 at the least. There has been no mention of her in any earlier book, nor any mention of her mother in earlier books or this one. She’s happily living in New York with her father. It is she — as well as Speedy Mason — who helps Schoolboy Johnson acquire the skills he needs to be a maior-league pitcher and an adult human being. Her feeling for Schoolboy require her to support him in discussions with her father, who has many reasons for thinking him a jerk. Again, what this does is humanize Roy, make him seem limited rather than omniscient. In addition to making errors in the field, he is wrong about Schoolboy. When he drives in the winning run in the pennant-clinching game, hardly any reader notices, for it has been his daughter’s advice and Speedy’s teaching which made Schoolboy Johnson and not Roy the hour’s hero.

Schoolboy Johnson is a bit too unfocused to be entirely successful, and it does seem that the earlier books in the series are better imagined. Tunis’s somewhat careless handling of details from book to book is also unsettling. But he does, it seems to me, create through the whole series a vivid and finally coherent character in Roy Tucker, by no means a conventional hero, but a role model in his exemplary play. And in his grimly determined response to various sorts of adversity, he is a rather realistically portrayed successful major league player and fully developed human in whom we’re always interested.