The Kid from Tomkinsville
In the early and uncertain spring of 1940, John R. Tunis traveled to Clearwater, Florida, to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training. Tunis was then fifty years old, eking out a precarious living as a freelance writer. Since 1925, he had been writing short sports articles for The New Yorker at fifty dollars a pop, as well as pieces for other magazines.
Tennis and track had been Tunis’s sports while he worked his way through Harvard, but baseball was his early love. In his memoir, A Measure of Independence (1964), Tunis recalls his grandfather taking him and his brother Roberts to see the Boston Nationals play the Brooklyn Superbas in 1900 or 1901.1 Tunis was then eleven or twelve, and his heroes became Billy Hamilton and Fred Tenney, Boston’s center fielder and first baseman. Tunis’s grandfather “believed that baseball was part of our heritage as young Americans,” and encouraged the boys to follow the games in the newspapers. Tunis wrote, “The American League was being formed then; we boys followed its fortunes with the contempt it deserved. Even today  I prefer to watch the New York Mets fumble around with the Houston Colts than to see a game of the impeccable Yankees.”2
Tunis had also written two sports novels for “juveniles” about a Harvard track star, Iron Duke (1938) and The Duke Decides (1939). By “the winter of 1940, the winter of the Phony War in Europe,” the two boys’ books, were selling steadily and bringing in about $1,200 per year. Tunis thought that if he could “hold out until eight or ten were published, a fairly consistent income was in sight.” His editor at Harcourt Brace, Mrs. Hamilton, “surely the only Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar, who had regular seats behind the plate at the Polo Grounds,” advanced Tunis $200 to pay his way to the Florida training camps to get background for a baseball novel.3
Tunis chose the Dodgers’ camp in Clearwater “because the squad at that time was full of lively and interesting characters, starting with Leo Durocher, the manager, and also because they were obvious pennant contenders that season.”4 During the thirties, the Dodgers had been a lovable collection of zanies and ne’er-do-wells popularly known as the “Daffiness Boys.” Now under the dynamic leadership of their new general manager, Larry MacPhail, and Leo Durocher, the new field manager, the Dodgers had brought in established stars and recruited young talent. Perhaps the novelist in Tunis sensed the fresh breeze blowing through Brooklyn.
Tunis described his methods in Florida:
While my brother was sleeping late and enjoying the beach at Clearwater that March, I rose early to work on some article that was ordered and was almost due. By eleven each morning, it was time to leave with the bus load of players and coaches for the ball park. There I hung around until they quit practice at three or after, talking with them whenever possible, taking constant notes, wondering whether this outfielder might be a possible character, or that incident when a coach chastised a player for not trying, a believable incident in a book. All the time watching them, the veterans, the rookies, the regulars, the older men, the coaches; seeing the pitchers take their last laps around the field and come into the showers soaking wet with sweat, weary with exhaustion.5
Tunis began work on the The Kid from Tomkinsville immediately after returning from Clearwater.6 He made rapid progress, and the volume was duly published in 1940. Yet Tunis fretted, “I was writing, writing, but who wanted drivel about sports when men were dying under bombs in Coventry and Cologne.”7 Although he worried about London in the Battle of Britain and feared ominous new terms in the newspapers such as “concentration camps,” The Kid from Tomkinsville was destined for a life of its own, long surviving the dark times in which Tunis wrote it. It was the first of eight novels Tunis would eventually write about a fictionalized Brooklyn Dodgers team, and the one that is best remembered.
Three of the Dodger novels form a closely...