Sports has never been about, well, sports—at least not in fiction. Athleticism is moral worth. A slump is karma. Winning, losing: just metaphors. If the score's the only thing that matters, you might as well watch a real game.
Perhaps the ultimate arenas of sports morality are the stories aimed at sports-minded children. Little Giants is about persistence. The Mighty Ducks is about loyalty. Angels in the Outfield is about love. Those movies are classics for a reason, but they're also products of a value system that had long been in place—one that found its best expression, for 60 years, in the novels of Matt Christopher.
By 1997, when he died at 80, Matt Christopher had written more than 100 sports-themed books for young readers; his first, The Lucky Baseball Bat, was written 60 years ago this fall. And since his death, the books have not stopped. His sons Dale and Duane keep up his estate, and the franchise continues. Christopher was once a semi-pro baseball player, but his books have branched out from the big American games: a poster-format checklist for his fans includes titles that take on golf (Fairway Phenom), roller hockey (Inline Skater), and extreme sports (Snowboard Showdown, Skateboard Renegade).
Not that Matt Christopher books are the kind of childhood classics that earn adult respect. The Dog That Pitched a No-Hitter is no Tom Sawyer. It's no Harry Potter. It's not even Artemis Fowl. My own first interactions with Christopher's oeuvre came in the form of mocking descriptions from my mother, who read one after another aloud to my book-averse kid brother. Her impression—that the books boiled down to: "Timmy hit a single. He ran to first. Tommy came to bat. The first pitch was wild. He hit a single on the second pitch. Tommy ran to first and Timmy advanced to second"—was spot-on, but they were the only books my brother would tolerate. He wasn't the only fan. Christopher's books had sold six million copies at the time of his death.
And, of course, even though the books read like box scores, they're never just about the final tallies. Between the base hits there are life lessons, because that's how sports fiction works. This is the 15th anniversary of Christopher's death, and to mark the occasion we'll be giving one of his books a close read every few weeks. It'll be an opportunity either to regress to our childhoods or to think critically about what his books have taught three generations of American children. Maybe both.
We'll start with The Kid Who Only Hit Homers, which Christopher said was his favorite of his own books. It's also an apt choice. One of the reasons the author liked it was because regular boys could relate to the main character, Sylvester Coddmyer III, a boy who loves baseball but isn't very good at it until…well, no spoilers yet. We'll dive into the book in earnest on Wednesday. It's a very quick read, if you want to follow along with us.
Lily Rothman is a New York-based writer. You can follow her on twitter at @lilyrothman.