They were mythic creatures, superb athletes with unbending courage, iron discipline and grit. They are frozen as in a tableau vivant—eternally 16 years old, handsome, likable, straightforward and well-built.
These were the heroes of the boys' sports books that were popular in the years spanning the two World Wars and that helped to shape generations of Americans. If we suffered crises of nerves as adults, became cynics and sinners, few of us ever entirely outgrew the ethic learned at an impressionable age.
Books such as For the Honor of the School, Frank Merriwell at Yale, Base-hall Joe of the Silver Stars, Garry Grayson's Football Rivals, Captain of the Nine and All-American purported realism, but in truth they were fables set in a Booth Tarkington landscape.
Their world was an American lost paradise of boyhood, porch gliders and rustling shade, girls who were "true-blue, plucky, with red hair and a nose not guiltless of freckles," and prep schools with playing fields "wide and free, the smell of early grass, the ripple of soft breeze...the damp give of springy turf." It was the twilight of a vanished innocence that had existed for only white, small-town, middle-class Americans.
Authors Edward Stratemeyer, Gilbert Patten, Ralph Henry Barbour, William Heyliger, Harold Sherman and John Tunis wrote mainly for that audience, but their hero was the American boy we all wanted to be. The books shaped us in that image, exhorting us to do the right thing and play the game.
Most of the books were hard-cover, usually cost 50¢ and were geared for boys between 10 and 16. They had no literary pretensions (though Barbour, Heyliger and Tunis were a cut above the rest) and were predictable morality tales about the efforts of youthful supermen. A typical protagonist was a vaguely upper-middle-class boy who lived in a town called Bentville and went to Hillfields prep.
The boys were provincials who shunned dudish clothes, despised "muckers and toadies" and avoided "low haunts." Their creed was Honor, Spirit, Fair Play, and they always stood up to bullies. They were sincere and humble and, above all, never quitters.
But they could be priggish. In a Barbour book, some boys refused to play the big game because the star back was on a football scholarship. And our paragons rarely distinguished themselves in class, looking down on grinds as unmanly.
The Baseball Joe Series took Joe Matson from sandlot to the majors in 14 action-packed books written by Stratemeyer under the pseudonym Lester Chad-wick. The characters' names were white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, save for Ike Levy, the shortstop, and Moe Russnak, the gambler. Like most of the genre's heroes, Joe was beset by gamblers.
"Russnak is a Jew," said Joe. "Not that I have anything against him because of his race. Our shortstop, Levy, is a Jew, and he's as fine a fellow as there is on the team. Cracking good ballplayer too. But this Russnak is a low, greasy specimen that makes a decent man feel a crawling in his spine whenever he looks at him."
He fit in perfectly with the stereotypes that filled the pages of the books. The blacks were of the "Yazzuh-Sho 'nuffFeets do yuh stuff" variety. Jews were often low comics or "oily Levantines." Dutchmen and Swedes were dumb and stubborn. Italians, all garlic and exotic customs. The Irish, comics and tipplers. Stutterers, fat boys and the effeminate were always good for a laugh—but not for our heroes. If it all sounds mean and contemptible, the books only reflected the America of those days.
We were asked to accept outlandish feats, and we did. In his final big-league year with a pitching average over .900 and batting better than .400, Joe mused about his goals for the season: "I want to lead the league in homers...lead the league in batting...lead the league in strikeouts...lead the league in base-stealing...lead the league in earned runs...lead the league in consecutive victories. I want, as captain, to have the Giants win more games than they've ever won before in a single season. That's number seven, the lucky number. Let's hope it brings me luck."
But Joe did not need luck. He did it all, even though as a pitcher he had only a fastball, inshoot, outshoot and "moist ball" (spit was a horrid word). What wonders might he have wrought with Frank Merriwell's "doubleshoot" that curved twice?
Garry Grayson (Stratemeyer writing as Elmer A. Dawson) lasted for 10 volumes and satisfied our appetite for play-by-play football. Like Baseball Joe and other protagonists, Garry was kidnapped, framed, tempted with bribes, trapped in burning barns and had his father threatened with ruin (Stratemeyer was a great one for weak fathers). But Garry always escaped or cleared his name just in time to score the winning touchdown.
Barbour produced some of the better boys' fiction. He was one of the few authors a 12-year-old of today might read without gagging. A typical Barbour book dealt with a new boy at a New England prep school and usually encompassed a year of competition in football, baseball, hockey, crew and track. Barbour's books were believable. There was no murder or mayhem, and no one sent the star a rattlesnake in a box. The climactic moment from The Spirit of the School is typical of his style. Hansel Dana is playing football for Beechcroft against Fairview:
"Five yards ahead of the nearest pursuer sped Hansel, running like a flash. Behind him, with outstretched, clutching hands, ran the Fairview right end.... Hansel crossed the 30-yard line. Dangerously near was the white boundary line, but he dared not edge farther toward the middle of the gridiron.... Another white line streak passed beneath him.... The goal line was in view.... His limbs ached and his breath threatened at every stride to fail him. He faltered near the 15-yard line but struggled on. The 10-yard line was almost underfoot, when he felt the shock of the tackle. Grimly, he hugged the ball, struggled to advance, managed to cross the goal...."
Is it any wonder that we read and believed in the spirit of the school in our little hearts? What if Ferry Hill and Excelsior Hall were mirages like Camelot? What if we played ragtag baseball and pickup touch, throwing our bodies about in pathetic imitation of the real thing? What if we realized too late that the books were a swindle? They gave us memories, and memories are the one paradise we can't be driven from. It was all like a dream. It was a dream.