Is The Kid Who Only Hit Homers a fable about the value of teamwork? Or is it a tale of using magic to get ahead, in which Babe Ruth is to Sylvester Coddmyer III as the devil is to Robert Johnson? The book, Matt Christopher's 1972 chef d'oeuvre, introduced the world to young Sylvester Coddmyer III, the kid who only hits homers (mostly).
In a twist that seems shocking as a lesson for today's young readers—particularly in a post-reserve-clause world where being a star athlete means a whole 'nother level of fame—Syl embodies an idealized mediocrity. Depending on your reading, he's either hope for kids without natural talent or a lesson in the futility of battling that fate.
Here's the Christopher-style play-by-play: Syl is a kid who likes baseball but sucks at it. Like, really sucks. He decides not to sign up for the Hooper Junior High team, the Redbirds, because he knows he'll be bench-bound. He even pretends not to care—until a mysterious stranger, the very subtly named Mr. George Baruth, calls him out on the lie. Mr. Baruth promises to fix things. Sylvester joins the team and begins to hit homers. (It's magic. You can tell because the book's been challenged for removal from a school library for its mentions of the occult.)
When Sylvester gains notice, Baruth cautions him:
"But fame could be a dangerous thing. It could ruin one's life. The first taste of it is sweet. So you'd want more. It's human nature. But something bad could happen. Suppose your hitting dropped to rock bottom? People would laugh at you. Your own friends would mock you. You'd wish you'd never seen a baseball."
Mr. Baruth paused, took out a handkerchief, and wiped his face.
"Something else about it bothers me, too," he said.
"What, Mr. Baruth?"
"Well…me. What I did to make you into a great baseball hitter. You see, Syl," suddenly his eyes looked dim and sad, "I won't be around much longer. And, with me gone, you may not be hitting like you used to…"
Sure enough, Sylvester only goes 1-for-3 in his first game without Baruth in the stands—but it's not so bad after all:
Two runs scored and Sylvester reached second base for a double, the only hit he had made all season that wasn't a home run.
Both Jerry and Bobby got out, and that was it. The Indians won, 8 to 6.
He thought it was all over then. He thought the people had suddenly forgotten him. But they hadn't. They crowded around him, patting him on the back and shaking his hand while photographers snapped pictures like crazy.
Sylvester is then awarded a trophy for being the best athlete in Hooper history. On a superficial level, Sylvester's trophy is a prize for all the kids who don't hit only homers. Aside from a repeated lesson on the consequences of overindulgence (several times, Syl rewards himself with so much dessert that he's too sick to move), that's the ostensible moral to the story: You don't have to hit only homers.
But Syl's modesty, unfathomable though it may be today—and, speaking of unfathomable, way to let your son hang out unsupervised with a strange old man, Mrs. Coddmyer!—is not the real surprise here. The shocker is not that Sylvester is a reformed anti-Rudy, unwilling to join a team where he'd be on the bench (which is, let's be fair, a valid choice). It's that he's an anti-Dumbo.
Magic charms in children's literature are not supposed to be the only thing standing between success and failure. Dumbo only thought that his enchanted feather gave him the power to fly—the real enchantment was the confidence it gave him, to do what he could have done all along. Sylvester Coddmyer III, on the other hand, really can't play baseball before he meets Baruth.
Otherwise, the Coddmyer story sticks to literary norms. Sylvester is cut from the classic orphan-boy cloth: His father is a traveling salesman whose only contribution is to say that Sylvester is "more than he had bargained for"; his mother always wished for a daughter and, though she appears not to do any work beyond cooking dessert for her son, does not attend Sylvester's games.
Mr. Baruth is the adult who finally takes an interest in him. When Baruth is in the stands, watching, Sylvester has a reason to perform. The adult reader might suspect that Mr. Baruth's presence at Sylvester's side is the true magic, that his attention was all Sylvester needed to come into his own, that once the confidence was there the apparition would be unnecessary.
But it's much simpler than that: Mr. Baruth's powers are what make Sylvester good at baseball. Christopher, despite his pitch-by-pitch rundown of every game, glosses over practice sessions. Baruth gives some very basic instruction the first time he hits a few balls with Syl, and the boy, who couldn't touch a single pitch, begins to whack every ball that crosses the plate. Sylvester can't understand how it works, and with good reason.
Yet if you need a supernatural boost to be any good, there's not much point in practices, drills, and laps. In this world, for Sylvester Coddmyer III and all the other kids who are bad at baseball, the harsh truth is that, without magic, they will never be better than average. Even though hitting a double on your own is pretty good, trophies matter—and such trophies, unfortunately, are for kids who only hit homers.
Lily Rothman is a New York-based writer. You can follow her on twitter at @lilyrothman.