Presented below is a review of Tunis’ series of 8 novels about a fictional edition of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bruce Baskin, a sports announcer, pr director, and writer, in a guest contribution to the blog, provides his thoughts on one of the earliest-ever sets of baseball novels, written almost entirely in the 1940s. Here’s Bruce’s review:
I grew up a Dodgers fan. Not THOSE Dodgers, the team men like Willie Davis, Steve Garvey and the immortal Billy Grabarkewitz played for when I was a kid. No, I’m talking about the team men like Razzle Nugent, Karl Case and the immortal Roy Tucker played for. The real Dodgers were created by Charles Ebbets over a century ago while the virtual Dodgers were authored by a guy named John R. Tunis, whose eight-book series is still in print seventy-five years after the first one, “The Kid from Tomkinsville,” was released in 1940.
I first discovered Tunis’ fictional Brooklyn Dodgers in the early Seventies, shortly after the Seattle Pilots had been stolen off to Milwaukee following one season. I was starved for any baseball I could wrap my brain around while my hometown was without even a minor league team for two long years. I can’t recall which Tunis book was the first I read, although I do remember it was in my middle school library, but it obviously had enough going for it to get me to read the others whenever I could find them. There was something about this team that drew me in, even though I knew I was reading fiction. Maybe it was the comfortable writing style of Tunis, a former athlete himself. Maybe it was how so many characters carried over from book to book or just that these Dodgers were usually in contention for a pennant. Whatever it was, I was hooked and that addiction has continued into my fifties. And I’m not alone.
A LOT of people have cited the Tunis books as being influential while they were growing up, ranging from Billy Crystal to Philip Roth to Charles Kuralt. It’s been speculated that Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs character in “The Natural” was drawn from Tunis’ Roy Tucker while Mark Harris’ series of novels involving pitcher Henry Wiggen was inspired by the Tunis series. It’s certain that millions of young people over the decades have grown up reading the Dodgers books and while the series has faded in prominence, all the books are easily obtained (more on that later).
Let’s go back in time and look at each of the eight Tunis Dodgers books in chronological order and maybe discover the thread that keeps kids reading them decades after their first release:
THE KID FROM TOMKINSVILLE (1940)
Anyone who explores this series MUST start with this one, the first of them all and the one that introduces a central character. Roy Tucker is a rookie pitcher by way of a Connecticut farm who becomes a star early before arm miseries sideline him and necessitate his conversion to the outfield. Roy is a rather taciturn sort by nature but nonetheless good-natured and popular with his teammates and manager Dave Leonard, himself a low-key figure who replaces player-manager Gabby Gus Spencer when Spencer is killed in a car accident. Roy is an integral part in nearly all the books in the series. Some of the dialogue is of the “gee whiz” variety, but that aspect lessens a bit as the series progresses, although it rarely gets trenchant.
Tunis admits to drawing his book’s characters from real life figures, and you can definitely see strains of Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher and Bill Terry in “The Kid…” Not the best of Tunis’ eight Dodgers books but it’s decent enough and a table-setter for the ones to follow.
WORLD SERIES (1941)
In some ways, this is an even better read than “The Kid from Tomkinsville” because Tunis keeps the story within the framework of a series (albeit the most important series of the season for all baseball) as opposed to two seasons in “The Kid…”
In “World Series” you get to see how a battered and bruised Roy Tucker handles his first postseason, although the novel also puts a lot of time in on Brooklyn manager Dave Leonard (who shows himself to be a lot more complex than in the first book). Tunis is very good at getting the feel of what baseball was like in the 1940’s, and “World Series” contains perhaps his best game-situation writing of all the novels, partly because he has so much more room to branch out in that direction. And the banquet scene is priceless, although GM Jack McManus (shades of Larry MacPhail) didn’t find it terribly amusing.
Very much a companion piece to “The Kid…” and it’s worth buying them together and reading them one after the other.
KEYSTONE KIDS (1943)
It’s hard to believe this book was released four years before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the real Dodgers in 1947 because “Keystone Kids” touches on many things that were dealt with when Robinson became the first black player in the majors. The de facto main characters, Bobby and Spike Russell, are a pair of young brothers who are middle infielders brought up from the minors to the Dodgers during the WWII era. Both encounter the usual difficulties that rookies face in the Tunis series, although Spike more than overcomes them to be named manager before the book ends.
The difference between this book and the others is another rookie, Jewish catcher Jocko Klein, who has to endure racial prejudice from opponents and even his own teammates, including Bobby Russell, before succeeding on the field and earning respect. This book and “The Kid Comes Back” are the two most socially relevant of the Tunis series. Any parent wishing to instill a sense of conscience in their kids could do worse than getting them a copy of “Keystone Kids.”
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR (1944)
Along with “Schoolboy Johnson,” this is the least among the eight Brooklyn Dodgers series written by John R. Tunis. Actually, there are a number of similarities between Bones Hathaway in this novel and the aforementioned Johnson: Both have great natural talent, both start strongly before hitting the skids in midseason and both are headstrong and somewhat egotistical.
In “Rookie of the Year,” however, Hathaway’s comeuppance comes as a result of one the few honorable things he does during the book’s first half. One neat thing about Tunis is that while the central figure in his stories is easily noticed, other people play major roles. In “World Series,” for instance, Brooklyn manager Dave Leonard is as important as Roy Tucker. In “Rookie of the Year,” Bones Hathaway fades away while manager Spike Russell assumes the spotlight.
In many ways, this book is as much about Spike’s coming of age as a manager as it is about Hathaway’s coming of age as a man. Again, not the strongest in the Dodger series but still a worthy read.
THE KID COMES BACK (1946)
One of the most interesting books in the Tunis series about the Brooklyn Dodgers, “The Kid Comes Back” is very unusual in that it’s not really about baseball so much as it is about courage. Roy Tucker (“The Kid from Tomkinsville”) serves in the U.S. Army during the Second World War in Europe, where he suffers an injury in battle. This book deals with what he goes through during the war effort, his stateside rehabilitation and his difficult return to major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Tunis, who also wrote “Silence Over Dunkirk,” is extremely effective at letting younger readers know what WWII was like. He also does a masterful job of painting a word picture of what it was like for veterans to come back to an America that had changed while they were gone. It wasn’t easy for most of them.
Of all the Tunis books, this is the best. The wide-eyed writing style of the first four books in the series is subdued here and a very strong storyline carries all the way through.
Another tome about another first-year player. This time, Cecil “Highpockets” McDade is a rookie center fielder from North Carolina who, though talented, has an inflated opinion of himself and is generally disliked by his Dodger teammates. An auto accident midway through the season changes everything, although not right away.
Of the latter four Tunis book in the Brooklyn series, this one is perhaps the best. The opening description of Braves Field in Boston is exceptional, right down to the smoke rising above the Charles River beyond the outfield fence. The reader gets to watch Highpockets grow up chapter by chapter, although he has a tougher time of it than Roy Tucker did in the first two books in the series. A good story and a good read that centers upon how a selfish young player whose halting friendship with a kid who gets Cecil to look inside himself.
Tunis maintains an amazing consistency throughout his Dodgers series, from the clack-clack-clackety-clack of the players’ spikes to the dialogue between people, especially the players. Expect nothing less here.
YOUNG RAZZLE (1949)
Although this book is considered part of John R. Tunis’ Brooklyn Dodger series, it’s really not quite within that description. The main character, Joe Nugent, is a young infielder whose father is pitching great Razzle Nugent of the Dodgers. Ol’ Raz is wrapping up his career with the Brooks and fading into the minors; son Joe has a smoldering resentment towards a father who never had much time for him while he was growing up. The book mostly concerns itself with Joe’s climb up the New York Yankees ladder and his effort to both come to grips with his father while trying to get out from under Raz’s shadow. You don’t get as much baseball and you miss the Dodger players from the previous novels, but “Young Razzle” is well worth reading for the message of reconciliation it carries. In that regard, baseball is a metaphor here much like the movie “Field of Dreams” was (but without the ghosts and the cornfield).
Sons and fathers alike can read this one and get something from it, but that “something” doesn’t happen in Brooklyn.
SCHOOLBOY JOHNSON (1958)
Not one of the stronger books in John R. Tunis’ eight-part Brooklyn Dodgers series. Tunis continues his penchant for centering his story around a rookie, as is the case in all the Dodger books except “World Series” and “The Kid Comes Back.” The designated rookie this time is a young pitcher named “Schoolboy” Johnson, who will remind fans of the young Don Drysdale. Similar to Bones Hathaway in “Rookie of the Year” and Cecil McDade in “Highpockets,” Johnson is full of himself and headstrong (neither of which endears him to his teammates). After a strong beginning, he starts getting batted around a bit and has to deal with self-doubt for the first time.
Again, not one Tunis’s better efforts because the ideas have previously been touched on more than once. However, the writing is solid. One interesting note is that the book first came out in 1958, the real Dodgers’ first year in LA. Try to find references to Brooklyn in this one. Worth having because it completes the series and isn’t a BAD book. We’ve just seen it before.
And there we have it. If there’s a common thread to the Tunis novels, besides the rookie angles, it’s usually that the protagonist in each is facing issues that make them look inside for answers. There’s no shock that most of the main characters are rookies, given that Tunis was writing primarily for a young audience and (in baseball terms) what’s younger than a rookie? While sometimes the answers seem too easily arrived at and things may be approached in an either/or fashion when life isn’t always that clear-cut, the stories themselves are easy to follow, they never pander to the young readers, fairness and respect are core themes throughout and Tunis was willing to take on social mores of his day at a time when there weren’t many authors of juvenile fiction doing that.
Tunis’ output was certainly not limited to these eight books. He wrote several other sports stories for a young audience as well as the World War II fiction, “Silence over Dunkirk,” which had nothing to do with sports. He also wrote commentaries on real-life sports, including a 1928 column in Harper’s titled “The Great God Football” about the commercialization of college football that would probably translate well today, but it’s the Dodgers series he’s best remembered for.
Whether you’re a long-ago Tunis fan wanting to reconnect with the series or someone wondering how these books have held up over time, it’s ridiculously easy to find any of them. Both Amazon and eBay have copies that can be bought used online for very little.
Like any book (or series of books), the Tunis Dodgers series is an acquired taste. The dialogue might be too dated or simplistic for some while the moral at the center of each story not “relative” enough for others. But Tunis must’ve been doing something right. Although it’s been nearly 40 years since his death, people are still reading his books even though the world has changed much since they were written.
Speaking for myself, I have a replica Brooklyn Dodgers cap that I often wear when I’m outside. Just like The Kid from Tomkinsville standing in right field would’ve done decades ago.
By Bruce Baskin (copyright 2015)