Commentary Magazine

A Boy's Own Author

Taste in reading, like taste in food, tends to be formed early and changed seldom. Despite all the therapeutically salutary effects that Bruno Bettelheim claims fairy tales have on children, my own recollection is that, when read to me by my father, they bored the Doctor Dentons off me. I do not wish to exaggerate the sapience of my early childhood, but I do not think I lent much credence to stories about witches, spiders, and giants. I considered Hansel and Gretel dopes for letting themselves be so easily taken in; and as for Jack and the Beanstalk, I felt that anyone dumb enough to trade a live cow for a mess of beans had whatever trouble he encountered coming to him. I preferred Robin Hood, with his heroism and battles against injustice. I was also nuts about Bible stories, read to me by my father in a children’s version, which featured blood and thunder—like those of Abraham and Isaac, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath—and in which something serious was at stake. Right out of the chute, then, my tastes in literature ran to realism, and to realism, now more than forty-five years later, they still chiefly run.

For someone given a rather nice literary start in life by a thoughtful father, I never read much on my own once I was in school and hence I suppose it could be said that I dropped the ball. More precisely, once in school I picked up the ball, becoming a kid who played almost full time whatever ball game was in season. There were other fine distractions: radio programs, the movies, comic books. A company that produced comic-book versions of such classic adventure stories as The Swiss Family Robinson, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Tom Brown’s School Days was then flourishing. For minor racketeers such as yours truly, who already had too many strenuous demands on his time to allow for the reading of books, these were extremely useful as fodder for the classroom exercise known as book reports. Somewhere between the ages of nine and twelve I believe I read two books, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and The Black Stallion. I hugely enjoyed both, yet did not do anything to search out others. My case was similar, I suppose, to that of Nancy Mitford’s father, Lord Redesdale, who claimed to have read only one book in his life, Jack London’s White Fang. “It’s so frightfully good,” he is reported to have announced, “I’ve never bothered to read another.” For my part, I never bothered to find out if the authors of Hans Brinker and The Black Stallion had written other books; and to this day, in fact, I do not know their names.

Most children, I suspect, are inchoate New Critics, in that they are mainly interested in stories and poems, the work itself, and not in the man or woman who wrote it or the conditions of its composition. I must have heard the names of Dickens and Shakespeare, and possibly that of Mark Twain, but the first author who had a distinct existence for me when I was a boy was a man, still very much alive when I began to read his books in my thirteenth year (1950), named John R. Tunis. I don’t believe anyone recommended a Tunis book to me; mine was not a crowd in which that sort of thing went on. (If there were any readers among the boys I ran with, they would have to have been closet cases.) But I do remember slipping a volume, bright red and trimmed in black, off one of the lower shelves of the library of the Daniel Boone Public Elementary School, my attention having been caught by its title, which was All-American. It was, as I had hoped, a story about football, high-school football; better still, among its characters, though not its protagonist, was a Jewish halfback named Meyer Goldman. It had lots of action, prejudice and snobbery, drawings by an illustrator named Hans Walleen, a fit moral—and the whole thing was brought in at under two hundred and fifty pages. I lapped it up in a single sitting.

Over the next year or so I scrambled to locate every book by John R. Tunis that I could find. He had written a few nonfiction books, I discovered, though I took a pass on those and read only his novels and then only those novels in which sports played a central role. I read him on football, I read him on basketball, I read him on baseball (more on baseball than on any other sport), I read him on track, and I read him on tennis, a sport I had myself just begun to take up in a fairly serious way. I lived a good deal of the time between my thirteenth and fourteenth year in a world of John R. Tunis’s imagining—that is, I imagined myself a character in one or another of Tunis’s novels. “‘Pock’ went the big serve, and Joe Epstein strode to the net.”

John R. Tunis’s novels were about a good deal besides sports—he was, as I have discovered on rereading a number of them, almost relentlessly preaching, a true and full-time message man—but it was the subject of sports that snared me. In his autobiography Sidney Hook reports that, during his early years as an elementary-school teacher, he was able to teach a class of mentally delinquent boys the rudiments of arithmetic and geography by demonstrating the use of arithmetic in compiling baseball batting averages and the use of geography in determining the location of big-league teams. My own mental delinquency was not quite so considerable as that, but the truth is that sports was all I cared to read about. The sports section was the only portion of the newspaper that interested me. Apart from thumbing through the pages of each week’s Life, the only magazine I read was a monthly called Sport, and this I read with the intensity of a full-court press, cover to cover, the letters from readers, up and down the masthead, the whole thing. Among the editors were men with such names as Al Silverman and Ed Fitzgerald (please note the locker-room familiarity of Al and Ed, no Allans or Edwards permitted). The magazine contained profiles of contemporary athletes. “Yogi likes plenty of pizza in the off-season,” a characteristic line from Sport might run, “and can usually be found hanging out at his friend Phil Rizzuto’s bowling alley.” The magazine also carried splendid historical pieces, under the rubric of “The Sport Classic,” about such legendary figures as Jim Thorpe (The Carlisle Indian), Ty Cobb (The Georgia Peach), Jack Dempsey (The Manassa Mauler), and Bill Tilden (Big Bill, who, it was later to be revealed, liked plenty of boys in the off-season). There was also a Sport Quiz, which tested your knowledge of all sports, past and present. It was the only test on which I ever cared passionately about doing well.

In me John R. Tunis had an ideal reader—but not, I hasten to add, in me alone, for thousands of boys similarly hooked on sports read him with something like the same ardor. Tunis published his first novel for boys in 1938, when he was fortynine-years old, and from the outset generations have read him and, apparently, still do.1 It is to Tunis I owe my first knowledge that reading can be as intense a pleasure as any that life has to offer. This dawned on me when, to my own youthful astonishment, I stayed home one sunny summer afternoon with a Tunis novel, preferring, in this amazing instance, to read about baseball when I could have actually been playing it.

An audience of youngsters is a tough audience to crack. Tunis knew this very well. In his autobiography, A Measure of Independence (1964), written when he was seventy-five, he addressed the question directly:

A book written for my audience doesn’t have to be merely as good as a book for adults; it must—or should be—better. Not only does youth deserve the best, but also no youths read a book because it is on the best-seller list. There is no best-seller list. Nor do they read it because it has a huge advertising budget, or is well reviewed; they read it for one reason alone, they want to. They find it says something to them in an area they know and understand. These readers are important, perhaps the most important in the country today.

What, I wonder, did John R. Tunis’s novels say to me when I first read them at thirteen? What did I think when, early in the novel All-American, I read the following sentence: “After all, it was something to have a father who had played football, who understood these things”? The man in question, Robert Perry, who is the father of the young hero of the novel, played, moreover, at Yale, has a high position in a bank, and sends his son to pick up his resoled golf shoes. My own father left school in Montreal to come to Chicago at seventeen, worked in the costume jewelry business with men with such names as Sidney Ginsberg, Abe Levine, and Manny Dubinsky, and owned business shoes only. “Two different worlds,” the old song runs, “we come from two different worlds.”



The world John R. Tunis wrote about—small-town, Gentile, very American—was one about which I had the kind of intense curiosity available only to those who felt themselves ultimately excluded from it. What I did not know at the time, having no interest in authors apart from their ability to deliver an interesting story, was that so, in a way, was Tunis excluded from the kind of life he wrote about. Tunis was not a Jew, nor the son of immigrants, but he did grow up without a father and in highly unusual circumstances. His father’s was a wealthy New York family, of Dutch descent, who had done extremely well in various kinds of speculation around the time of the Civil War. In the view of his family, Tunis’s father made two crucial mistakes: the first was to leave the Episcopalian Church to become a (Harvard-trained) Unitarian minister; the second was to marry a woman, three or so years older than he, whose father was a waiter. Tunis’s father was disowned for this latter act; no Tunis appeared at his wedding in New York. Even though he later returned to Episcopalianism, when he died of Bright’s Disease—John was then seven, his brother five—no member of the Tunis family put in an appearance at the funeral.

In no John R. Tunis novel I have read—and, now, reread—does a mother figure as more than a sweet but mild pain in the neck. A mother in these books is generally someone who reminds a boy to take along his jacket or not to forget his galoshes. But in a case of art refusing to imitate life, John R. Tunis’s own mother was a completely formidable woman, the chief influence in her two sons’ lives, John’s guide and critic and inspiration. After her young husband’s death, she alone, quite without outside help, held her family together, kept up standards, and provided a model for her sons, both of whom loved her without qualification.

Caroline Roberts Tunis had gone to Normal College in New York (later Hunter College). When her husband died, she took a job first at the Brearley School for girls on the East Side of Manhattan. But before long she moved with her boys and her retired father—whom she never referred to as a waiter but always as a “steward”—to Cambridge, Massachusetts, principally, Tunis reports in his autobiography, because she wanted her sons to be near Harvard. “My mother had two articles of faith; first, that we should be brought up in the church of our father (Episcopalian), and second, attend Harvard, his college.” Through her deceased husband’s churchly connections, she arranged, with the help of Reverend Endicott Peabody, rector of Groton, to open an eating house for former students of Groton now at Harvard. This went quite well until 1904 when a student named Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his fellow Grotonians against the idea of walking all the way to Mrs. Tunis’s establishment in cold weather. Tunis’s mother then turned to substitute teaching along with teaching immigrants the English language at night, and continued to teach until her retirement.

She was a Teddy Roosevelt Republican—her son John’s one serious dissent from his mother was to become a liberal Democrat—a woman who believed in hard work, self-improvement, and the importance of culture. She read only serious books, usually with a critical eye; had reams of poetry stored in her memory; was often off to a concert or the opera; and read and argued with the editorials in the Boston Evening Transcript. In later life, she offered a running critical commentary on her son’s books and articles—and later life lasted a good while, since she died at ninety-two. (Tunis himself died in 1975, at eighty-six.) “At ninety,” she wrote to her son, “one does not get around as easily as at eighty-five. I find myself inclined to give in these days, instead of urging myself on as I once did.” Perhaps the main reason John R. Tunis never included a mother figure like his own in any of his novels is that he did not have to, for his mother’s spirit and idealism reign in everything he wrote.

Although Tunis grew up fatherless, without the security of money, written off by his father’s wealthy family (who did later provide funds for him and his brother to attend college), he maintains in his autobiography that, despite all this, “never did we feel sorry for ourselves, for there was nothing to feel sorry about.” One is ready to believe that, especially with so gallant a woman as his mother around, yet it must have been difficult watching her returning exhausted from cooking for other boys or from a double load of teaching. A boy growing up without a father, no matter how strong his mother, remains half an orphan; and this, too, could not have been easy. In many of Tunis’s novels, the father is the moral center of the book, the figure whom a young man can turn to for balanced thought, perspective, good guidance. Where the father fails—as he does, notably, in Yea! Wildcats!, one of Tunis’s Indiana high-school basketball novels—the coach steps in to play this role. But over many an adolescent crisis—physical courage, sportsmanship, masculine honor—a boy can only turn to a man for help.

It would be pushing things to say that Tunis grew up like Stephen Crane’s Maggie, a child of the streets, but it is true to say that, had his father not been disowned by his family, Tunis and his brother would have gone to a school like Groton rather than had their mother cook for the boys who went there. Still, there were much worse streets to grow up on than those in Cambridge around the turn of the century. Once when he and his brother were out playing, their ball hit a carriage containing the baby of Professor Irving Babbitt, who complained to the police. Babbitt lived across the street, and the Cambridge Public Library, which was a big item in Tunis’s life, was not far away. A few blocks distant were the thirty clay tennis courts of Jarvis Field, used by Harvard students but also available to the Tunis boys, who hung around hoping to be asked to fill in for someone else’s missing doubles partner.



Sport was Tunis’s passion as a boy, and he would later, of course, make a living out of writing about it. His grandfather taught him to read—to study is perhaps more precise—the sports pages in the daily newspaper. It was this same grandfather, his mother’s father, who took him and his brother to their first major-league baseball game, which happened to be played in a National League park and thus left him a National League fan for life. (American or National League is one of those choices a sports-minded boy makes early in life and rarely departs from.) His mother was puzzled by her son’s passion for games, but did nothing to interfere with it. Tunis, ever the moralist, maintains that as an adolescent he may never have learned the disciplines of working and saving, but he did acquire the disciplines of sport, which meant, among other things, “how to accept defeat, a lesson most Americans hate to accept, although defeat comes to us all in the end and we had better be ready for it.”

Tennis appears to have been Tunis’s own best sport. Although he claims his brother was a more natural athlete than he—better coordinated, more stylish—he himself must have been a player of high competence. He played tennis for Harvard and, while working as a journalist abroad, he mentions playing in what sound like fairly serious second-line tournaments in Europe. Tennis was in any case the sport that lit him aflame with an excitement that went beyond the sport itself. In A Measure of Independence he tells how, in his fourteenth year, in 1903, he and his brother trekked out to the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline to see the American national champion William A. Larned play a Davis Cup match against Laurie Doherty, representing England, who had won at Wimbledon. The Tunis boys had no money for a ticket of admission, so instead they watched the match sitting atop the huge barrels of a brewery wagon parked just outside the court. Tunis describes what he saw:

I can still see Larned storming the net behind his powerful service, and Doherty passing him with an elegant backhand down the line, feet apart, his racket high in the air, poised in his follow-through like Mercury himself. Those fluid strokes, the crisp punched volleys of Larned, the classical purity of Doherty’s shots off the ground, the attacks and ripostes of the two nervous men gave me, without my knowledge at the time, a feeling for art and beauty that was to be mine forever. This scene of grace and movement at Longwood that afternoon reached into me, touched my inner self, changed me for good. I was a boy no longer.

In this handsome paragraph, Tunis hints at a relationship between sport and art that I have never seen discussed. When he remarks that watching these two tennis players gave him “a feeling for art and beauty that was to be mine forever,” he reminds me that sports provided my own first glimpses of mastery over materials, economy of execution, and elegance, which are among the qualities shared by the superior athlete and the artist. The superior artist is of course a figure of greater importance than the superior athlete, for what he creates has a chance to endure, but in the form, power of innovation, and authority of the athlete I, for one (and I suspect there have been thousands like me), had my first blessed inkling of what art can do. That there is an artistic component to the athlete is a point never pushed but always subtly in the background of Tunis’s sports novels for boys, though I cannot say that I myself picked up on it at thirteen.



Despite his mother’s intellectual earnestness, Tunis was far from being a good student, and claims to have “possessed no intellectual disciplines, being ignorant, lazy, and uninterested.” In 1907 this did not prevent him from being admitted to Harvard, at a tuition fee—parents of today will be dismayed to learn—of $90, with the single condition that he take something called English A that sounds suspiciously like a remedial course. By his own reckoning, Tunis did not make very much of the intellectual opportunities at Harvard. He ran cross-country in the autumn, played tennis in the spring, and whenever possible sneaked off to the theater or a concert in Boston.

His closest friend when he entered Harvard was Conrad Aiken, the poet and critic, who, once at Harvard, began to move among such intellectually serious undergraduates as T.S. Eliot and Walter Lippmann. John Hall Wheelock, Van Wyck Brooks, Robert Benchley, and Norman Foerster were undergraduates at Harvard when Tunis was there, but he never saw them. He did become friends with a student whom he describes as “a worse runner than myself” named Frederick Lewis Allen, who later became editor of Harper’s, for which Tunis wrote articles in the 1930’s. (Joseph Kennedy, Sr., who was a year behind Tunis at Harvard, roomed across the hall from him.) The crucial—to hear him tell it, the only—intellectual experience of his Harvard days was hearing William Jennings Bryan speak at Sanders Theater; the Great Commoner’s speech that afternoon turned him away from his Republican heritage and into a Democrat of strong populist-liberal strain.

In 1936, in the midst of the Depression, Tunis produced a book entitled Was College Worth While? that was timed to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of his own class of 1911 and which turned out to be a strong attack on the hidebound nature of most Harvard men. Surveying his own class, he noted that “we are practically barren of leaders of public life” and that only “a small minority . . . appear to have done any original thinking in their field”; and he ends by saying that the chief ambition of this same class of men, “if their record tells the truth, is to vote the Republican ticket, to keep out of the bread line, and to break 100 at golf.” (In an interview given to Jerome Holtzman when Tunis was eighty-four, this was changed to “break 80 at golf.”) He eased the stringency of his criticism of Harvard a few years later, when, in 1938, he published a novel entitled Iron Duke, about a boy from Waterloo, Iowa, who comes east to Harvard and feels left out, nearly flunks out, but finally wins out though not on Harvard’s rather snobbish terms but on his own: he becomes a track star, he makes the Dean’s List, he turns down membership in an exclusive undergraduate club.

This book, Iron Duke, written when he was forty-nine, changed John R. Tunis’s career. He had written novels before, but this was the first work he produced that was sold, in the trade lingo, as a “juvenile.” When he learned that this was how Alfred Harcourt, the founder of Harcourt, Brace, planned to sell his book, Tunis was astounded—“shocked, rocked, deflated,” he reports in his autobiography—for he did not write it as a book for young readers. The book sold more than 60,000 copies and twenty-five years after its publication was still bringing in respectable royalties. “I continued writing these so-called boys’ books,” Tunis told Jerome Holtzman, “but I’ve never considered them that.” Perhaps herein is the secret of the success of Tunis’s books for young readers: an absolute absence of condescension in their composition.

Until Iron Duke, Tunis was a free-lance, turning out as many as two books a year, picking up magazine pieces where he could, covering European tennis tournaments in the summers for American newspapers, knocking out roughly 2,000 words a day six days a week—doing, in short, all the dog work of the sadly misnamed free-lance. For a time he wrote sports pieces for Harold Ross at the New Yorker, usually for $50 apiece and, as late as the early 1930’s, $200 for a longish profile. Of Ross, Tunis wrote: “Curiously Ross knew less about sport than any male American I ever met.” (This has a familiar ring; other writers have remarked that Harold Ross was equally ignorant about culture and politics; all he seemed to know, apparently, was what a New Yorker piece on any given subject ought to read like.) Tunis tells about the time that Ross, being strapped for cash, offered Tunis sixty shares of New Yorker stock in lieu of payment he owed him for pieces. He would have taken it, too, had he not met Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, returning from lunch at the Algonquin, who told him that the magazine’s future looked shaky and to go for the cash. He took Crowninshield’s bad advice, later determining that, with stock splits and dividends, this little disaster on 44th Street cost him somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars.

Although Tunis had begun to sell fiction to Collier’s and to write nonfiction pieces for the Saturday Evening Post, his (so-called) “so-called boys books” eventually took him off the freelancer’s financial treadmill; they are also the chief reason for the endurance of such fame as Tunis still has. Of these books, Tunis, toward the end of his life, said, “They can be read by adults.” Having just read—in most instances, reread—nine of them, I would say that the remark requires some qualification. Tunis’s books can be read by an adult, but then an adult can also eat a bag of gum drops. It is probably a good idea for an adult not to do either too often. Still, I found Tunis’s books highly readable and, for personal reasons, very moving.



To return to the books one loved in one’s youth is to risk disappointment—in both the books and in oneself when young. I should not care ever to return to Willard Motley’s Knock On Any Door, which at age sixteen I stayed awake through an entire night reading in the Brown Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, while on the road working with my father. John Dos Passos’s USA, which thrilled me the first time around at nineteen, many years later seemed, well, a bit hokey. As for John R. Tunis’s books, there is nothing junky, or sickening, or second-rate about them. They do suffer from want of a very high level of complexity, but then I hardly expected Jamesian subtlety. In fact, upon rereading them I am rather proud of my thirteen-year-old self for thinking as well of them as I did. Although my memory of myself is that of a fairly frivolous, genial goof-off, perhaps after all I was rather more serious than I remember.

I say this because, I now realize, the Tunis books are pretty serious, and I was utterly absorbed in them. All the novels I then read—and now have reread—are about sports, but they are only ostensibly about sports. Sports is the subject; other matters make up the theme. And even when sports is being discussed, things peripheral to the game itself loom interestingly large. Soon after The Kid from Tomkinsville (1940), which is probably Tunis’s best baseball novel, gets going, Tunis invites his readers to consider the situation of the thirty-eight-year-old catcher Dave Leonard, on his way to spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers. At thirty-eight, Leonard’s mind is very much on staying with the club and even more on his future. He is making $12,500 (the year is 1940), which is a good salary. But he is a family man. “Twelve-five,” he thinks. “They don’t pay salaries like that to rookie catchers at any rate. Nor to veterans either, for long.” Still, at his age, an age when most businessmen are just getting going, he is coming to the end of the line. “Twelve-five, yep, sounds like a lot of money. But he needed three years before some of his insurance came due and the load lightened.”

What did I think of this when I first read it at thirteen? Why should a kid of thirteen give a rat’s rump about the financial problems of an old guy of thirty-eight? I cannot recall exactly, but my guess is that I loved such passages in Tunis. For one thing, there was the realism of it (the son of parents who had come through the Depression, I had heard often enough how tough it could be to make a living); for another, it was fine to have such adult—such real—problems up for discussion. Material of this kind took you behind the scenes; it treated you, as a reader, like a grownup, which was a genuine compliment, especially since at thirteen, you probably thought of yourself as a grownup anyway.

Tunis’s books are studded with such stuff. In Yea! Wildcats! (1944) he tells you about the corrupt way that tickets are parceled out for the state high-school basketball tournaments in Indiana. The coach in that novel refuses to get tickets for anyone, an independent stand that, like all such stands in Tunis, comes to cost him dearly. Sometimes the presentation of inside material is conjoined with Tunis’s own strong views. Although he had worked as a journalist himself, Tunis did not much care for the general run of the breed: he took them to be paid kibitzers whose self-appointed job was to spread dissension among athletes, increase pressure on everyone, and make trouble generally. In Rookie of the Year (1944), another of his baseball books, he sets out the various techniques that sports writers use to sniff out a story, and leaves them with the grandeur of, say, a third-class hotel house dick. “An ounce of curiosity plus a pound of brass coupled with the sensitivity of a rhino and the pertinacity of a tiger,” he writes in Rookie of the Year, “that’s what makes a reporter.” I am not certain what I made of that formulation at thirteen, but at fifty it seems to me quite on target.

Of course, how ballplayers feel about night games, the outside pressures on managers and coaches, the conditions of tournament tennis—none of this would have made much impression if John R. Tunis were not extremely good at telling a story. And telling a story, in a sports novel, largely means being able to describe action. This Tunis can do exceedingly well. He has a commanding sense of pace; he knows when to describe a game sketchily and when to go into intricate detail. He has a nice sense of proportion, which prevents him from ever allowing his heroes to become supermen, and hence unbelievable, on the field. He is excellent at describing tennis, good at football, a bit less sure of himself at basketball, and perhaps best of all at baseball. He has the knack of instructing while describing without making a reader feel as if he were being talked down to. Narrating a doubleplay in Keystone Kids (1943), for example, Tunis writes:

The two boys were off together. Both were near the ball, on top of it almost, so fast that either could have stabbed for it. But Bob suddenly realized his brother was the one to make the play, and as he neared the bag sheered away to clear the path for the throw. Spike picked up the ball a few feet from the base, and in one continuous motion touched the bag and hurled the ball to first in time to nab the fastest runner in baseball. Only an expert could have felt their understanding, their coordination as they made that decision in the fraction of a second when the ball roared toward them. The two men in the box behind the dugout missed nothing. They looked at each other. Base hits, they knew, were a matter of feet. Doubleplays were a matter of inches.

John R. Tunis, as they say about superior infielders, could pick it.



I suppose a boy of thirteen reading Tunis today might miss an item or two of a factual kind. Such a boy, a habitual reader of today’s sports pages, might be mildly amused at the relatively small sums ballplayers then earned (there is talk in one of the Tunis novels about a World Series winner’s share of $6,000 per player and endorsements earning only $250). There is a real possibility that he might miss references to such then-living figures as Grantland Rice, Al Schacht, and Hank Greenberg. Will he know that the defensive shift used against the character Cecil McDade in the novel Highpockets (1948) is based on the shift used on Ted Williams; or that an announcer named Snazzy Beane is based on Dizzy Dean; or that Jack McManus, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the baseball novels, is loosely based on Larry McPhail? Then there are distinctly time-bound references to the Quiz Kids, the Aldrich family, Fred Allen (not the Harper’s editor, the radio comic). Such a boy might be puzzled by the period slang—“Thunderation!,” one character thinks, and the phrase “That was something like!” occurs repeatedly—or by the corny nicknames Tunis is in the habit of assigning his ballplayers: Spike and Bones and Razzle and Rats and Fat Stuff. A young boy today, rising from his personal computer, might be put off by any or all of this.

But it would be a pity if he were, for he would miss a great deal. Not least, he would miss Tunis’s teaching, which is to say his moral instructions, which is to say his message(s). Recounting his own methods of composition in his books for boys, Tunis writes that the story must be told “simply, quickly, effectively,” and that “when you allow a ‘message’ to take over, you are lost.” He also remarks in his autobiography, apropos of the George Alfred Henty Rollo books he read in his own youth: “As boys have ever done—and thank God, ever will—we skipped the culture and the moralizing and gulped down the accounts of life in distant lands.” Nothing of any of this applies to Tunis’s own books, which taken together have more messages than Western Union. True, the messages in Tunis are generally artfully mixed with the action of the stories, but I know that I picked them up when young, and if I had not, so plain are they, I would have to have been declared a moral dyslexic.

Tunis’s many messages divide into general and particular categories. In the general category, there are the lessons that sport teaches: the need for discipline, for the willingness to subsume one’s own selfish interests in the greater good of the team, for the courage to come back from defeat. In The Kid from Tomkinsville, when the Dodgers come from well behind to make a stretch drive for the pennant, even the fans of the rival New York Giants at the Polo Grounds are impressed. “Because,” Tunis writes, “sport offers no more inspiring spectacle than the man or the team who comes back, who takes the cracks of fate and pulls them together to rise once more.” Highpockets is about a great natural athlete who turns from being a selfish loner, out only to compile impressive statistics that will earn him a larger salary, to become a team player. “‘That’s the trouble with this country nowadays,’” an older player and coach tells him after he comes around, “‘everyone out for himself, aiming to hit the long ball over the fence.’”

The sense of a team is the great moment in Tunis novels; it is one of the overarching ideas in all his work. This applied to life as well as to sports. When a child is operated on in Highpockets, medicine, too, turns out to be “a sort of team, y’see.” And what was this almost mystical entity, a team? “It was everything in sport and in life, yet nothing you touch or see or feel or even explain to someone else. A team was like an individual, a character, fashioned by work and suffering and disappointment and sympathy and understanding, perhaps not least of all by defeat.” What Tunis is addressing here is character in its collective sense; in his novels the molding of character is always an individual matter, with a high-school athlete or professional ballplayer put through the test. Character, in Tunis, is won through discipline, through perseverance, through learning from defeat. This is a very old-fashioned notion. John R. Tunis taught me to believe in it when I was a boy. The odd thing is, I still do believe in it.



On the particular side, Tunis’s messages tended to be those of the old-style liberal, the hater of snobbery and prejudice. All-American, a novel written in 1942 when the defeat of Hitler was far from certain, turns out to be a book about American democracy. In it a quarterback named Ronald Perry transfers from a prep school called the Academy to a public school called Abraham Lincoln High. Many are this book’s messages, a number of them delivered by the public-school principal: “In this school, Ronald, every pupil has to be responsible for himself. That’s one of the principles of a democracy, isn’t it?” Several are the book’s conflicts, the concluding one occurring when Abraham Lincoln High’s football team learns that, after winning their conference, Ned LeRoy, their fine Negro end, cannot travel with the team to an intersectional game in Miami because of Southern segregation policy. The team, led by Ronald, decides not to play without Ned and so the trip is canceled, much to the consternation of the town’s leading citizens. In Tunis’s novels about high-school athletes, adults almost invariably are wrong when they take too keen an interest in high-school sports, interfering in a way that turns out to be detrimental to the boys and to the sport itself. A notable exception is Hooks Barnum, the coach of Ridgewood High, in Go, Team, Go! (1954), whose coaching and character have a salubrious effect on the team, “as the character of a good man always does in sport.” But in the main the message is that left to themselves, youngsters have fairly good instincts about fair play, and so they ought, in fact, to be left to themselves.

In Keystone Kids, Tunis takes on the subject of anti-Semitism in telling the story of Jocko Klein, the rookie catcher of the Dodgers, who is taunted by his own teammates as well as by opposing teams for being a Jew. Helping Jocko fight off the anti-Semitism of his own teammates is the young Southern manager of the Dodgers, Spike Russell, who himself does not exactly possess an advanced degree in social work from the University of Chicago. Instead he has an instinctual sense of the unfairness of singling out a man in this way, a feeling that anti-Semitism is tearing apart not only the man but the team, and the strong belief that it cannot be allowed to go on. He offers some crude advice to Jocko—“You gotta think of yourself as a catcher, not as a Jew”—and some that turns out to be important to him: “Boy, you gotta take it in this game same as you gotta take it in life. Get me? Understand. . . . Don’t quit.” And—need I say it?—Jocko does not quit; he eventually faces down his chief tormentor; the team finally unites and returns to the business at hand, which is winning the National League pennant.

Later in the same novel, Tunis runs through the ethnic origins, and offers potted histories, of the ancestors of the various members of the Dodgers, extending his notion of the concept of the team into a metaphor for America itself which not even so unliterary a kid as I could have missed. My guess is that, when I first came across it, I was much moved. It reads strangely today, nearly thirty years after it was written and after the great efflorescence of ethnic pride that has swept this country in recent decades. Reading it now, I am still moved, even though the dream of America as a team made up of very different people—a dream that was also at the center of Tunis’s vision as a writer—seems rather tattered and fading.

“Don’t quit,” Spike Russell tells Jocko Klein, in what may be John R. Tunis’s essential message. It is the message that he apparently took from his own life. Of the difficulties of his own early freelancing days, he writes in his autobiography: “Often I stumbled and fell; but usually got up, bruised and sore, and went on. It wasn’t courage but stupidity that kept me going. . . . How many times in life when talent is lacking, sheer persistence pays off.” I believe that, too. On rereading him now in my middle life, I find that there is not much at the heart of John R. Tunis’s books for boys that I do not still believe. Whether I originally acquired these beliefs from him, or whether I had first to hack my way through jungles of intellectual obfuscation before returning to them, I do not know. But of the influences that helped form me, I now think of the books of John R. Tunis as a very real one.

“Highpockets had learned something,” Tunis writes. “There’s no easy way to a boy’s heart. Like everything else, you have to work for it.” John R. Tunis did, and he still has mine.




1 Although most of Tunis’s books are now out of print, four of his baseball novels have recently been reissued by Gulliver Books/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: The Kid from Tomkinsville, 278 pp., $4.95; World Series, 248 pp., $4.95; Keystone Kids, 239 pp., $4.95; Rookie of the Year, 220 pp., $4.95.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

Pin It on Pinterest