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January 1&15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Another Look At
[This essay first appeared, in a slightly different form, in the April 1, 1990, issue of Booklist, on the occasion of the reprinting of several John R. Tunis novels. Fortunately, the Tunis baseball books have continued to be reprinted regularly over the succeeding 24 years.]
For many boys in the 1950s, the most romantic words in the English language were center field. As the years passed, our sense of romance changed a bit (for one thing, Willie Mays got old), but the allure of center field never left us completely. Speed and power—the yin and yang of baseball—come together in all the great centerfielders: DiMaggio, Mays, Mantle, Snider, and . . . Roy Tucker, the Kid from Tomkinsville, the hero of John R. Tunis’ wonderful baseball books, which were written in the 1940s and hungrily inhaled by hordes of hero-crazy kids, both boys and girls, for years afterward. Remarkably, Tunis’ books have stayed in print more or less since publication, with new paperback editions appearing at regular intervals with updated, contemporary-looking covers. Off the field, baseball has gone through multiple traumas since its glory days in the 1940 and ’50s—strikes, steroids, and all the rest—making it all the more comforting that we fans, young and old, can still lose ourselves in the thankfully circumscribed world of Tunis’ Brooklyn Dodgers, where nearly all the action takes places between the white lines.
If to reread Tunis after multiple decades is, in a sense, to rekindle passion, what of reading him for the first time? Can the Kid from Tomkinsville stir the same dreams in the baseball-crazed youth of the twenty-first century as he did in those of the mid-twentieth century? Probably not, but only because each generation has a right to its own dreams, not because the Kid has lost a step. No, the Kid is definitely back again (if he ever really left), and baseball fans of all ages, whatever their dreams, will recognize him for what he is: the real deal.
It’s details that make the Kid and his teammates real. Whether it’s Roy patrolling center, or feisty shortstop-manager Spike Russell fielding a hot one in the hole, or temperamental rookie Bones Hathaway pitching himself out of trouble, Tunis writes about ballplayers, not metaphors. The best baseball books, whether intended for adults or kids, are always those that pay the closest attention to the game. When Tunis was writing his books for young people, the idea of the baseball novel as a serious literary endeavor had not yet been born; in fact, it’s a pretty good bet that the very writers who have contributed to that now-thriving subgenre—from Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth through W. P. Kinsella and so many others—spent some portion of their youth reading John R. Tunis. Nursed on Tunis’ baseball stories, they set out to write baseball novels. And younger writers like Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding, 2011) have followed in their wake.
Too often, though, when a would-be serious writer writes about baseball today, it’s usually a way of writing about lost innocence, or the purity of youth, or a search for one kind of grail or another. These are often fine books, but, in the end, not many of them have much to do with bats and balls. Most critics, of course, love this kind of thing; there’s nothing like a medium-speed metaphor served up right across the heart of the plate. How many times has a glowing review of another baseball novel begun, “This book is about more than just baseball; it’s about life in America.” Well, John R. Tunis’ novels are about more than just life in America; they’re about baseball.
Tunis holds up because he gets it right on the field. Pick almost any passage of game analysis or play-by-play description. It might be Spike Russell and brother Bob, in Keystone Kids, turning a game-saving double play, or it might be Roy Tucker, in The Kid from Tomkinsville, putting his knowledge of pitching to good advantage in learning to play the outfield after an arm injury forced him to change positions. Wherever your eyes stop, one thing remains the same: the author’s respect for the game. The facts are always right—if the third baseman bats right-handed on page 14, he’ll still be right-handed on page 196—but, more than that, it’s the way Tunis loves the minutiae of baseball that makes his descriptive writing sparkle, not with flowery rhapsody about the boys of summer, but with the dead-solid precision that is the essence of sport.
Here’s Roy Tucker, in The Kid Comes Back, trying to score on a sacrifice fly: “On a play of this kind, most runners put their heads down and go. Not Roy Tucker . . . as he charged toward home he kept his eyes on the catcher. Seeing the receiver’s position, he instantly saw that a straight slide would be sure death. So ignoring a possible injury, he hurled himself forward, rolling toward the right side of the platter, reaching for it with outstretched arms. Above was the catcher, slashing around, lunging for him in vain.” If you’re a fan of a certain sadly advanced age, you can almost hear Dizzy Dean on the NBC Game of the Week, in the late, great fifties, drawling, “And Tucker has slud into home with the go-ahead run.”
The only time Tunis gets in trouble is when he leaves the field; away from the white lines, he can’t resist the temptation to indulge in the inevitably deadening Author’s Message, proving that the specter of social significance haunted fiction for young people in the 1940s just as it does today. You see it most in The Kid Comes Back, where the first 100 pages find Roy in occupied France dodging Nazis. Just imagine a voice-over in which the Kid is lecturing his young fans: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of one ball club or one center fielder don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Not now. Here’s looking at you, kids.” Fortunately, the Kid comes back to Brooklyn, rather than running off with Captain Renault, and Tunis is able to climb down from his soapbox and get on with the game.
Occasionally, Tunis can leave the field without going all gooey—as in Keystone Kids, which treats the prejudice encountered by the team’s Jewish catcher with remarkable sensitivity (the book was written only a few years before Jackie Robinson arrived on the real-life Dodgers). On the whole, though, one needs to remember when reading Tunis that we’re not dealing with the real world or with real ballplayers. After all, Tunis was writing nearly 30 years before Jim Bouton’s Ball Four told us what ballplayers were like off the field. You won’t find Roy Tucker pounding Bud or chasing cocktail waitresses, but try not to hold that against him. Tunis’ characters never really take their uniforms off. He gives us ballplayers the way we imagined them when we were kids. I understood that Willie Mays couldn’t live at the ballpark and that he had to eat and sleep (and do some other things I knew nothing about), but I never thought he had his mind on anything but the game. Mine rarely was then, after all, so how could his be? Yes, I was wrong, and yes, the Tunis books did nothing to set me straight. So what.
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