“This story was told to the author by a person whose expressed wish is that he remain anonymous. Every word in it is true (so he said), except the names have been changed to protect the innocent (and not so innocent).”
— Author’s Note for Matt Christopher’s “The Kid Who Only Hit Homers.”
The thing I remember most was how small his office was. All his life, he said, he wrote his books in the smallest room in the house. He could not really explain why. At that point in his life, Matt Christopher was 71 years old, and he had written 78 books for children. He would write at least 25 more in the last years of his life.
Matt had been reluctant to see me, as I recall, reluctant because he preferred to be anonymous. His books, he said, spoke for him. And, he insisted, that he had nothing interesting to say beyond those books. When I told him that I had grown up reading his books, that they had been an inspiration, he melted.
“OK,” he told me, “but I think you’ll find that I’ve lived a rather dull life.”
It was not a dull life. Matt Christopher had been a good baseball player as a young man, good enough to play some Class C ball in Smiths Falls, Ontario in 1937. No one who played Class C ball in Smiths Falls can be said to have lived a dull life. Matt hit .143 in 56 at-bats, according to Baseball Reference, and then did what .143 hitters do: He got a job, or several jobs, and finally settled in at General Electric in Ithaca, N.Y.
That was the time when he fell in love with writing. It wasn’t sportswriting, at least not at first, and he certainly wasn’t writing for children then. He wrote hard-bitten detective stories. It took three years for him to get his first one published in something called “Detective Story Magazine.” The story was called “ The Missing Finger Points.” It took almost as long to get the second one published.
But he was relentless; he worked all day and typed during his lunch break and at night. “Other people could have become better writers than I am,” he would say. “I was just more determined to become a writer.”
He wrote short stories, countless short stories, several novels that weren’t published. He wrote science fiction, horror, detective stories, you name it. Then over Thanksgiving in 1952 he came up with this idea for a children’s baseball book. He called it “The Lucky Bat;” it was about a boy who had moved to a new town and wanted only to play baseball with the other kids. Matt Christopher wrote often about the outsider, the kid who just moved into town, the underdog who wanted only to be good enough to play ball with the other kids. Matt told me that, in a way, every book of fiction he ever wrote was a little bit about him.
Anyway, “The Lucky Bat,” launched his career. His next book was “Baseball Pals.” And so on.
Later he wrote “The Year Mom won the Pennant,” and “No Arm in Left Field,” and “Shortstop from Tokyo” and “Stealing Home,” and “Catcher with the Glass Arm,” and so many more that, he conceded, he sometimes couldn’t remember just from the title what the book was actually about.
“What was your favorite?” he asked me after a while.
“The Kid Who Only Hit Homers,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Mine too.”
The hero in “The Kid Who Only Hit Homers,” is a boy of undisclosed age, probably 13 or so, with the unlikely name of Sylvester Coddmeyer III. As we meet him, he is swinging and missing at a pitch. “Just meet it,” his coach shouts out. “You’re trying to kill it.”
Sylvester Coddmeyer III is one of those kids who lives for baseball. Maybe you know someone like him. He reads about baseball, watches baseball, dreams about baseball. But he cannot play. Fly balls elude him. Fastballs rush by. He has decided, as the story begins, to give up playing baseball and so he does not sign up for the team. The next day, though, he sits in the stands and watches his old team play. When a former teammate asks him why he’s not out there playing, he says it just isn’t important to him.
“Why did you lie to the boy, Syl?” asks a mysterious man named George Baruth.
Blending baseball and fantasy is a mixed bag. In many ways, the fit should be just right — baseball is sort of dreamy, there’s a childlike wonder about it, the game connects deeply and richly to the past, it feels like baseball fiction should be natural.*
*I did not mean this as a pun, but I like it.
And yet, I have to say, most baseball fiction doesn’t do much for me. Maybe it’s like that ball and wall theory about comedy, that you only get the bounce if you have a hard surface to throw the ball against. Maybe baseball is too soft a wall for great fiction. I don’t know. People disagree with me. I’ve read some very good baseball fiction for sure — The Universal Baseball Association, The Natural, The Great American Novel, Shoeless Joe Comes to Iowa, The Celebrant, etc. — but most of the books people recommend (and I won’t say any of the book’s names because, realistically, it’s probably my failing ) just don’t do anything for me. It’s almost like real baseball, true baseball, is good enough for me.
This was true even when I was a kid.
But something about “The Kid Who Hit Homers” grabbed me. Maybe it was the name of the ghostly George Baruth. In re-reading the book, it’s obvious that he is Babe Ruth — George “Babe” Ruth — but I don’t think I caught that as a kid because I wasn’t that sharp when I was a kid. When I first read it, he was just this mysterious stranger who gave Sylvester these baseball powers.
“Mr. Baruth,” Syl asks, “how come you picked me out to help? Aren’t there other kids who are better?”
“Why should I try to help someone who is better?” Mr. Baruth asked. “I saw that you really loved baseball and tried your best to play.”
And so for one magical summer, Sylvester Coddmeyer III hit a home run every time he swung the bat. It was a bit like Barry Bonds in 2001. In fact, it was actually A LOT like Barry Bonds in 2001 in that it included some late season intentional walks. My favorite part looking back is Sylvester’s reaction to the intentional walk: “Sylvester didn’t care. He didn’t get out, that was the important thing.”
How about Matt Christopher injecting some on-base percentage gospel into The Kid Who Only Hit Homers?
Yes, of course, it’s corny and and sentimental; at one point, Sylvester has a chance to sign an endorsement deal that would help his family pay bills, and he decides it isn’t right for him to take the money. But every part of it spoke to me when I was nine or 10, whenever I read it. The idea of someone hitting a home run every time up spoke to me. The idea of a ghostly baseball player from the past teaching a kid with limited athletic ability to become a superstar spoke to me.
And looking back, I suppose, the idea of words transporting me was the biggest thing of all. I was not a reader as a kid. Reading equaled school reading, boring books about boring stuff and boring people and boring boring boring. The thing that “The Kid Who Only Hit Homers,” … and Alfred Slote’s “Hang Tough Paul Mather,” … and Stephen Meader’s “Sparkplug of the Hornets” … those books and others did not feel like reading. They opened me up to something, I don’t know, the possibility of words, the power of storytelling, something that I’ve held on to all these years.
Who knows what will turn a life inside out?
I told Matt Christopher what he meant to me on the day that I saw him. He could not have been nicer; he even seemed just a little bit sad when I had to go. He asked me to stop by sometime just to talk a little baseball. I never did because … I just never did. My life took me in a different direction. There isn’t enough time in life, I suppose.
But I remember that day, remember walking away feeling good because up to that point I’m not sure he really knew just how much his books had meant to kids like me. He’d gotten many letters, of course, but I sensed I was just about the first real fan he’d met and talked with. In his last years, he got a bit more recognition, did a few more interviews, became better known.
He died 20 years ago September, but there are still Matt Christopher books coming out — the family trademarked the name and so the family has commissioned various books like “On the field with — Venus and Serena Williams” or “You Lucky Dog.” I haven’t read any of them but I hope kids still do, especially those kids who don’t like to read.
If you go to Matt Christopher’s website and click on the About the Author page, you will see a link to a story that ran in the York Observer almost 30 years ago. That’s my story. I grimace a little bit looking at it; I can still feel the awkwardness of a 21-year-old kid who wanted to write that story better than I knew how to write. But I think Matt and his wife liked it, and that makes me happy. Before I left that day, we talked a little bit about The Kid Who Only Hit Homers, and why it was his favorite book. If I remember right, he said it was because it was the story of a kid who really wanted to play baseball but couldn’t … and then, magically, he could. Something in that idea touched him. It touched me too.
“Wait,” he said before he left, “I want to give you something.”
He gave me a signed book, his latest one, I think it was about motocross. It seems to have been lost in the many moves made since; I haven’t seen it in a long time. But it doesn’t matter. Later I opened up the book and saw that he had left this inside: