An oldie but a goodie: John Tunis

June 24, 2013 · 0 comments

One author that frequently comes up in comments about who I neglected in 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die is John Tunis, who published  a series of books for younger reader about fictitious players for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The list includes:

  • The Kid from Tomkinsville, 1940
  • Keystone Kids, 1943
  • World Series, 1944
  • Rookie of the Year, 1944
  • The Kid Comes Back, 1946
  • Highpockets, 1948
  • Young Razzle, 1949
  • Schoolboy Johnson, 1958

Tunis also wrote novels about other sports, as well as non-fiction. I recently read Keystone Kids because of the anti-Semitic content. It is impossible to go through it without thinking of the recent feature bio-pic 42. It has been said you can’t compare the experiences of African-American and Jewish players because the latter group could always try to hide their religion, which the former obviously can’t hide the color of their skin. Nevertheless, Keystone Kids is a shocking commentary on anti-Jewish sentiment, especially given its publication during the midst of World War Two and the Holocaust. (Tunis was not Jewish, by the way.)

Of course, given its audience, Keystone is full of the Pollyanna-ish sentiment of cooperation and acceptance in this great land of ours. And, of course, there’s a happy ending, although I must say I’m glad the Jewish player did not hit the pennant-clinching home run. It was sufficient that he stood up to the bullies on his own team (in addition to the opposition) and finally did win that acceptance.

The subtitle for the 1987 Odyssey Classic version I read asks, “Will prejudice cost the team the season?” From the introduction by Bruce Brooks, another author of books for young people,

What a simple trap it is, too: Hey guys, says the author, here’s out new rookie catcher. Name of Klein, Jewish boy, hits for power, good arm. Can really help the club. Okay, fellahs–play ball.

But the ballplaying changes around the presence of Jocko Klein. Sure, he hits for power, chucks a good ball — but he’s Jewish. That changes everything, right?

Which leads me to ask an obvious question: Why did the character asking the introductions feel compelled to include that Klein is a “Jewish boy.” After all, neither of the real-life Kleins — Chuck, the Hall of Fame outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, or Lou, who played five years in the Majors before managing for parts of three more — were Jewish, so you couldn’t just go by the surname. (Then, too, the players start calling the rookie him “Buglenose,” another stereotype regarding the Jewish appearance.)

To read such a book now (Keystone was recently re-issued as an e-book by Open Road Media) , is a bit jarring. It’s like watching the classic film Gentlemen’s Agreement, in which an enterprising magazine writer has the brilliant idea of tearing the cover off anti-Semitism by pretending to be Jewish. For the most part (thank goodness), it’s hard for contemporary young people to fathom that this was the situation and that such conditions were practically considered the norm. Then again you have a Paula Deen situation, which is quite sad, regardless of those who would “excuse” her because she is a member of a generation and culture for whom such disparaging was considered the norm.

As I maintain on this blog, I do not include juvenile literature for the most part. There is too much duplication of subject matter and too much lesson-teaching for my adult interests, although it is practically a requirement of that genre. That said, my curiosity is piqued, and I will continue to explore the Tunis’ baseball oeuvre.

 

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