Literary notes: A boy learns to love books

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first_imgIt’s strange how moments that seem inconsequential at the time can be remembered forever.When I was 8 years old, there was a book fair in the library at Murray Avenue Elementary School. My parents gave me money to buy a book. An enthusiastic baseball fan, I came home with a copy of “Mystery at the Ball Park.” In truth, there were times when I got a bit bored rereading “Mystery at the Ball Park” and “Pitchers’ Duel.” Some passions of our youth — like Hostess Sno Balls and Twinkies — seem less attractive as we age. After finishing the books, I had no desire to immerse myself in all of the other Mel Martin and Chip Hilton epics as I’d done decades ago. What was once high drama seems simplistic to me now.But as I reread “Mystery at the Ball Park” and “Pitchers’ Duel,” literary characters who had been lost for decades emerged from the shadows of my mind. Plot twists brought back fond memories as I read them. And I gave thanks to Andrew Svenson and Clair Bee for bringing Mel Martin and Chip Hilton into my life and inspiring a young boy’s love of reading.Thomas Hauser’s new email address is [email protected] His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. I didn’t know it but my life was about to change.“Mystery at the Ball Park” was the first of six “Mel Martin baseball stories” written by John R. Cooper and published between 1947 and 1953. Each of the books combined baseball with amateur detective work. Subsequent titles in the series included “The Southpaw’s Secret,” “The Phantom Homer,” “First Base Jinx,” “The Fighting Shortstop” and “The College League Mystery.”The books were originally published in hardcover. I read them all in paperback. They were the first books that I recall reading on my own initiative and marked the start of reading on my own for pleasure. They led me from “The Taxi That Hurried” and “Horton Hatches the Egg” to young adult reading.A year or two later, I turned to Chip Hilton.The Chip Hilton series includes 23 books written by Clair Bee that were published between 1948 and 1966. Bee died in 1983 at age 87. A 24th book based on a partial manuscript he left behind was published in 2002.HAUSER: A history of the mouthpiece in boxingIn the early Chip Hilton books, Chip stars in baseball, football and basketball for Valley Falls High School. Then he goes to college. One of the books — “Hoop Crazy,” published in 1950 — was forward-looking for its time in that it centered on the issue of a black player who wants to join the school’s all-white basketball team.An article written by Jack McCallum for Sports Illustrated in 1980 celebrated Chip Hilton with the observation, “The Hilton series was the last of its kind, the final representative of what might be called the Frank Merriwell genre. Gilbert Patten began writing Merriwell stories in 1896 for a publisher of dime novels and nickel magazines. During the first twenty years of [the twentieth] century, his stories were more widely read than any others for boys, and ‘Merriwell finish’ entered the language as a stock description for a dramatic ending to a game.”I have a clear recollection of giving an oral book report on “Pitchers’ Duel” (the sixth book in the Chip Hilton series) to my class in sixth grade.Here I should add that Chip Hilton was so popular that the NCAA created and, from 1997 through 2011, gave out a “Chip Hilton Player of the Year Award” to the Division I men’s basketball player who best demonstrated outstanding personal character on and off the court. The first recipient of the award was Tim Duncan. Think about that for a moment. A major award named after — not John Wooden, Vince Lombardi or Walter Payton, but — a literary creation.Recently, I decided to revisit Mel Martin and Chip Hilton. As a first step, I thought I should learn a bit about the authors.Surprise! There was no “John R. Cooper.” That author credit was one of many pseudonyms used by Andrew Svenson, who wrote the first two books in the Mel Martin series and then turned writing duties over to a successor. The reason for Svenson’s departure was that he received an offer from the Stratemeyer Syndicate (which packaged the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins) to become one of several authors writing Hardy Boys mysteries under the pen-name Franklin W. Dixon. Svenson also wrote all of the books in “The Happy Hollisters” series under the pseudonym Jerry West.I still have my original copy of “Mystery at the Ball Park.” When I took it off a shelf and opened the brittle yellowing pages, I was surprised by its length: 208 pages. I began to read.Mel Martin is 16 years old and a junior at Westwood High School, located in a little town situated along a peaceful river. Mel’s father died several years earlier, so Mel and his younger brother live with their mother and paternal grandmother. Robbie Smith, Mel’s uncle, was a big league pitcher in his younger days and is now a sporting goods salesman.Mel is Westwood High School’s best pitcher. Other characters include the Wright twins (first baseman Lefty Wright and catcher Righty Wright), outfielder Hobart “Speed” Ball and coach Frederick “Pop” Korn.As the plot unfolds, Coach Korn is ill with an undisclosed ailment. A mystery man named Mister McCloud filters in an out of the story and seems like a really bad guy. Mister McCloud has a sallow complexion and a scar that cuts across his brow above unfriendly close-set eyes. There’s another bad guy who’s “a greasy looking fellow with a big bulb-like nose.” Then Coach Korn is hospitalized, and Mr. Wilbur (the school principle) announces that the mysterious Mr. McCloud will coach the team.HAUSER: Key moments that changed the ring walk in boxingMcCloud is openly hostile toward Mel and seeks to undermine the team through blatantly poor strategic decisions. At one point, Mel gets an anonymous threatening telephone call as he seeks to unravel the mystery of what turns out to be a series of home robberies and a real estate swindle. The call is particularly troubling since, soon after Mel receives it, he and his dog are knocked unconscious by a club-wielding thug. The book’s climactic moment comes in the championship game with Westwood trailing 4-3 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, a man on base, and Mel Martin at the plate.”He rubbed his sweaty hands with dust and looked toward the pitcher,” Svenson a/k/a Cooper wrote. “The deep shadow from his cap covered the intense expression on his face. He waited out the pitches. Two balls and then a strike. The next pitch came perfectly. The ball spun fast but the curve broke too late. Mel lashed out. When the bat connected, the boy snapped with his wrists and followed through with tremendous power. Over the leftfield wall sailed the ball.”Unlike Svenson, Clair Bee wrote under his own name. And for good reason. From 1931 through 1951, Bee was head basketball coach at Long Island University. During that time, his teams won two National Invitational Tournament championships (at a time when the NIT was a big deal) and once reeled off 43 victories in a row. He later coached the Baltimore Bullets in the fledgling National Basketball Association for two seasons.The Chip Hilton books are written at a more sophisticated level than the Mel Martin series. In “Pitchers’ Duel,” William “Chip” Hilton is the star pitcher and best hitter for Valley Falls High School. Mary Hilton is Chip’s mother. Chip’s father died a long time ago under circumstances that I assume were explained earlier in the series (this is book No. 7).Chip and first baseman Biggie Cohen have big league potential. Coach Hank Rockwell is a wise steadying influence. But he has passed retirement age and unscrupulous forces are trying to force him out of his job. The team also includes Chip’s best friends: shortstop Speed Morris, catcher Soapy Smith and outfielder Red Schwartz. Mayor Mark Condon, chief of police Boiler Cowles and Sheriff Early Birks are corrupt local politicians. Peck Weaver and Buck Adams are illicit gamblers in league with the corrupt politicians. Muddy Waters is an ill-intentioned sportswriter for the local newspaper and frequently attacks both Chip and Coach Rockwell in his columns.Led by Hilton, the Big Reds of Valley High School battle back from midseason adversity to qualify for the state championship tournament. Then, shortly before the championship game, Chip signs an autograph for a man who says it’s for his sick son. However, in reality, the folded-over piece of paper Chip has signed is a contract that purports to bind him to a minor league baseball team. It’s a dastardly plot concocted by the gamblers to render Chip ineligible for the big game.Chip misses the first 8 1/2 innings of the championship game while things are being sorted out. During that time, Valley Falls falls behind 7-0 but rallies with four runs in the top of the ninth to tie the score at nine runs apiece. Salem High then loads the bases in the bottom of the ninth. There are two outs with a 3-balls-2-strikes count on the batter when the newly-vindicated Chip races onto the field, takes over on the mound, and picks the runner off second base to send the game into extra innings.Now the pitchers’ duel begins. Neither team scores again through the 18th inning. Then, in the bottom of the 19th, a wind-blown pop-up puts a Salem runner on third base. But that quirk of fate is nothing compared to the tragedy that follows.Spoiler Alert: One of the things that separated Chip Hilton from most young-adult literary sports stars of his era was that Chip’s team sometimes lost the big game. With a runner on third, Salem opts for a squeeze play that succeeds when the bunt goes into foul territory, hits a pebble, careens crazily into fair territory, and spins slowly to a stop allowing the winning run to score.After the game, Coach Rockwell consoles his team with the words, “It’s all right, kids. You were great. You can’t win all the time. Someone has to lose. And since it had to be us, let’s be good sports about it and take it with our heads and our chins up. Right now, I want to shake hands with every one of you. I’m proud to have been your coach.”And Chip’s mother tells him, “It was just a game, Chip. One of many you’ve been through and one of many more you’ll go through when you go to college. You can’t expect to win all the time. The other team likes to win a championship too once in a while.”last_img

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