Like Rithmetic—Readin’ and Writin’ Adds Up

If adult readers dig deep enough into their past they’ll find a writer to whom they owe a debt of gratitude.

A bit overdue but I’m here today to say, “Thank you, John R. Tunis!”

A lousy little grade school student, I loved lunch, recess, and hated everything else, especially fifth period, which we called library.

Hey, for forty minutes a day you had to be quiet and read.

It was my habit to grab anything off the shelf that had pages, find a nice warm spot in the sun next to a window and eye-ball Jane Duncan who was outside playing right field in an older girl’s gym class.

So it wasn’t all bad. But then one day it got better. Taking a break from my fixation on Jane I happened to glance down at a book I’d randomly snared.

The Kid From Tomkinsville, by John R. Tunis.

Reading the dust jacket I learned that Roy Tucker would enter the big leagues (a place I still thought I might end up some day) and that this unsophisticated country boy (which I could also relate to) would be overwhelmed by the luxuries of professional baseball (ah, the dream!).  That he’d be taken under the wing of the Dodgers’ veteran catcher Dave Leonard (I happened to be a pretty fair Little League catcher) and that Roy would soon learn that he’d be facing a great deal of hard work if he ever hoped to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Then, just as Roy began to prove himself worthy to wear the Dodgers flannels, a freak accident would threaten to dash his hopes of leading the team to a winning season.

Hold on to your library cards! Robin Cairns had become a reader.

Hey, I’m not saying that I didn’t still grab an occasional peek just to see how Jane was doing out there in her little gym suit. But that was the moment.  I was in for the long haul from the first page of this book to the final page of Tunis’s very last novel.

This recent find, The Kid from Tomkinsville, just happened to be the first of Tunis’s baseball series—eight novels about the Brooklyn Dodgers. I would read them all, the Dodgers series, then on to the Iron Duke, All American and Keystone Kids.

I’ve since learned (thank you Wikipedia) that the The Kid from Tompkinsville is often cited by sportswriters and commentators as the book that inspired childhood reading.  So I was one of Tunis’s little page turners, one who would grow up to write a number of baseball pieces for Sports Illustrated and SI for Kids,  as well as two baseball books, including a novel called The Comeback Kids. Hmmm, interesting a novel with the word kids in the title!

Having trotted out the above creds, I do so well aware that mine are NOT Hall of Fame numbers when compared to other baseball writers who followed in Tunis’s footsteps. These minor accomplishments are—for me—just a confirmation that writers can and do influence writing and reading.

I mean how else do you explain the fact that I can still name the characters from the Tunis books, with Roy Tucker, the Tomkinsville protagonist a given (hell, the character influenced Bernard Malamud’s hero in The Natural), and that two of my favorites were the lesser known Razzle, a grizzled old pitcher, and Chiselbeak, the Dodgers clubhouse attendant.

So it was through Tunis’s books that I learned about writing—characters, character development, plotting, the setting—all about time and place. All the while these stories of his fueled my passion for sports and at this ripe old age baseball remains one of the great loves of my life.

According to our friends at Wikipedia, Tunis (December 7, 1889 —February 4, 1975) is considered by many to be the ‘inventor’ of the modern sports story. He was an American writer and broadcaster. Known for his juvenile sports novels he wrote short stories and non-fiction, including a weekly sports column for The New Yorker magazine.

After graduating from Harvard and serving in the Army during World War I, he began his writing career freelancing for American sports magazines. For the next two decades he wrote short stories and articles about sports and education for magazines including Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire.

And yet he never really considered himself a children’s writer. That said, all but one of his twenty-four books were published for juveniles and their success helped create the juvenile fiction book market in the 1940s.

Iron Duke received the New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Award for best juvenile novel and was named The Horn Book Magazine Best Book. The Child Study Association of America gave its Golden Scroll Award to Keystone Kids.

I’m positive that the awards were well deserved but more importantly (at least to me) John R. Tunis’s works—and I read them all several times—impacted my life in a way that far surpassed lunch and recess. Given my choice today I’ll take library—the homeroom of John R. Tunis and of reading, and writing.