AN ETERNITY AGO, when I was in the 7th grade, I picked up and read my first book by John R. Tunis. It was The Kid from Tomkinsville, the story of Roy Tucker and the Brooklyn Dodgers and their struggle to overcome mediocrity.
Certain books stick with you. I never quite forgot the Kid, or his teammates -- Razzle Nugent, the flawed star of the pitching staff; Fat Stuff Foster, the aging relief pitcher; Karl Case, the veteran outfielder; Harry Street, the brash rookie shortstop; and Dave Leonard, the shrewd, kindly old catcher who becomes the team's manager. Thirteen years later, sitting on a Navy troop transport in the Mediterranean, I found a copy in the ship's library and read it again. I still liked the story.
Roy Tucker comes from a farm in Connecticut. He lives there in the off-season with his grandmother, who listens to the games on the radio and drinks strong, hot tea when the games get tense. In Tunis' hands the Dodgers are a metaphor for all that is good about baseball. But this is baseball as it was before ballplayers were overnight millionaires. In the offseason, Tucker goes back to his job working at Mr. MacKenzie's drugstore. Tucker is the kind of man who turns down a cigarette endorsement because he doesn't smoke.
In his rookie season, Tucker begins as a pitcher -- one who can hit, but a pitcher nonetheless. He wins his first 15 starts, including a no-hitter, before a senseless accident in the clubhouse leaves him washed up as a pitcher. He has a go at being a pinch-hitter without success.
Tucker goes home for the winter not knowing whether his career in baseball is over or not, but determined to make himself into a hitter. He practices every day for an hour, a painful process of changing his swing. A contract comes for him. He goes to spring training and makes the team as the right fielder.
And the saga goes on. World Series picks up where The Kid from Tomkinsville leaves off -- with Roy Tucker's unconscious body being hauled off the field at the Polo Grounds after he has crashed into the right-field wall to rob Bill Murphy of a home run that would have won the pennant for the Giants.
TUNIS' BOOKS have drifted in and out of print. The Kid from Tomkinsville and World Series are two of four being reissued by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich ($4.95 each). The other two, Rookie of the Year and Keystone Kids, will be reissued in the fall. Others may follow. More than anything else, Tunis' characters have character. That's what makes them memorable. The Dodgers (these are the real Dodgers we're talking about here, the ones that played in Brooklyn in Ebbets Field; and they played the real Giants, the ones who played in the Polo Grounds) are not, as Tunis renders them, the best team in baseball -- not in terms of raw ability, at any rate. His stories are about average people pushing themselves to the limit of their capabilities, and sometimes beyond. The heroes are refreshingly imperfect: Tucker suffers from bouts of depression, doubt and self-pity. Nugent has a drinking problem.
These flaws don't detract from the characters; they just make them more believable.
Tunis himself was a man with a history. Educated at Harvard, he didn't write his first sports book for children until he was 49. Their air of authenticity reflects painstaking research. His books also reflect something else: an infusion of values and a point of view. John R. Tunis was a man who saw more than games in sports. That may be one reason why the Daughters of the American Revolution sought to have his books -- along with those of Eleanor Roosevelt -- blacklisted in the 1950s. Tunis injected values into his stories. These books may be almost 50 years old, but they're not outdated. Certain qualities never go out of style -- courage, perseverance, consideration, loyalty, to name a few. These are the qualities that Tunis' characters have in abundance. And although it's been decades since Tunis wrote these books, baseball is a timeless sport and the qualities that make it great don't change or diminish with age.
Nor is anything forced or improbable about Tunis' plots -- certainly not more improbable than Boston's Dave Henderson hitting a home run in the 9th inning with the California Angels one pitch away from winning the American League pennant or the way the Red Sox managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the World Series.
The only way these books turn out to be out of sync with the '80s is in their failure to worship at the altars of Victory-At-Any-Cost, of me-first selfishness, and of fixation with money. :: Lawrence Meyer is an editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section.