A Glorious Figure of Young Manhood
July 8, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
If baseball remains, however tenuously, our national pastime, then Joe Matson, the eponymous hero of Lester Chadwick’s Baseball Joe series, remains our all-American man: an “everyday country-boy” with a can-do attitude, an unimpeachable sense of right and wrong, and a fucking cannon-arm. Chadwick’s sequence of boys’ novels, published from 1912 to 1928, follows Joe on a Horatio Alger–esque journey from small-town schoolyard star to World Series slugger. Spoiler alert: Joe wins. Joe always wins.
With their cheery illustrations and gee-whiz spirit, the Baseball Joe novels emblematize a brand of wish fulfillment that stands at a far remove from the young-adult fiction of today: there’s no dystopia here, nor even a whiff of the supernatural, unless you count Joe’s otherworldly batting average. What we have instead is the distillate of dozens of summers spent dreaming in baseball diamonds, redolent not of beer and nuts but of Wonder Bread and whole milk and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver.
Or so it seems. Turns out the Baseball Joe books had some dark subplots, though you’d never know it to look at their publisher’s catalog, which supplies breathless titles with curiously terse synopses:
BASEBALL JOE OF THE SILVER STARS
or The Rivals of Riverside
Joe is an everyday country boy who loves to play baseball and particularly to pitch.
BASEBALL JOE ON THE SCHOOL NINE
or Pitching for the Blue Banner
Joe’s great ambition was to go to boarding school and play on the school team.
BASEBALL JOE AT YALE
or Pitching for the College Championship
Joe goes to Yale University. In his second year he becomes a varsity pitcher and pitches in several big games.
BASEBALL JOE IN THE CENTRAL LEAGUE
or Making Good as a Professional Pitcher
From Yale college to a baseball league of our Central States.
BASEBALL JOE IN THE BIG LEAGUE
or A Young Pitcher’s Hardest Struggles
From the Central League Joe goes to the St. Louis Nationals.
BASEBALL JOE ON THE GIANTS
or Making Good as a Twirler in the Metropolis
Joe was traded to the Giants and became their mainstay.
BASEBALL JOE IN THE WORLD SERIES
or Pitching for the Championship
What Joe did to win the series will thrill the most jaded reader.
Fortunately for us, Tim Morris, of the University of Texas, has compiled a guide to the Baseball Joe books as part of a study of juvenile baseball fiction—a once-booming subgenre. And so we come to discover the sensational undertones of Silver Stars, in which “Joe foils some intellectual pirates who are intent on stealing Mr. Matson Sr.’s patents for a new kind of corn reaper”; In the Big League, in which “Joe is at one point chloroformed, kidnapped, and set adrift in the marshes of New Jersey”; and Champion of the League, in which “shameless confidence men try to get Joe to throw the pennant … when Joe turns them down, the con men commission a mad scientist to invent a ray gun that will drain the power from Joe’s pitching arm.” What’s this? Slider-pitching, dinger-hitting Joe is more than a mere sportsman. He’s a kind of also-ran action hero.
For adrenaline junkies like Baseball Joe, too much is never enough. That’s the dark side of the all-American fantasy—it’s not sufficient for a young man to content himself with immense athletic talents and an unlikely trajectory toward major-league superstardom. This is America, god damn it! We need more! He must also stop patent thieves, survive involuntary anesthetization in the Garden State, and thwart mad scientists for hire.
These passages, alternately charming and depressing, are the best parts of the Baseball Joe books; there are any number of dubious scenarios in which Joe’s athletic prowess is the only thing that can save the day. For a quick sample, look to the purple prose of On the School Nine, wherein it falls to Baseball Joe to save a man in a burning factory, “perched on the ledge of what had once been the clock tower,” by pitching him a ball of cord:
Joe hesitated a moment. Everything would depend on his one throw, because there was no chance to get another ball of cord, and if this one went wide it would fall into the fire and be rendered useless.
The fire was increasing, for all the chemicals in the tank on the wagon had been used, and no fresh supply was available. Below the tower on which the man stood, the flames raged and crackled. Even the tower itself was ablaze a little and at times the smoke hid the man from view momentarily …
“He’ll never do it,” murmured Hiram Shell.
“If he does he’s a better pitcher than I’ll ever be,” admitted Frank Brown.
Suddenly Joe threw. The white ball was plainly visible as it sailed through the air, unwinding as it mounted upward. On and on it went, Joe, no less than every one in the crowd, watching it with eager eyes. And as for the man on the tower he eagerly stretched out his hands to catch the ball of cord, on which his life now depended …
Straight and true it went, as swift and as direct a ball as Baseball Joe had ever delivered. Straight and true—on and on and then—
Into the hands of the anxiously waiting man went the ball of cord. Eagerly he clutched it, while the crowd set up a great cheer.
“That’s the stuff!” yelled a man in Joe’s ear. “You sure are one good pitcher, my boy!”
And this is why baseball must remain a vital aspect of American culture; no child raised on soccer or football could be expected to chuck a life-saving fastball.