Guide to Juvenile Baseball Books: Lester Chadwick

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"Lester Chadwick" was possibly a pseudonym for Howard R. Garis. In the Baseball Joe series, Chadwick chronicles the adventures of Joe Matson from the sandlots to prep school, the Ivy League, the minors, the majors, and on to a world tour and other adventures. Baseball Joe was a venture of the Stratemeyer Syndicate that also produced the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and many other series, and Garis was one of the most reliable producers in Stratemeyer's stable. Some sources, however, suggest that Stratemeyer himself wrote some of the Baseball Joe series. The authorship of the texts is in doubt, possibly collaborative or multiple, and given the structure of work in the pulp series world of the 1910s and 20s, possibly irrecoverable.


Meanwhile in a subplot, Joe foils some intellectual pirates who are intent on stealing Mr. Matson senior's patents for a new kind of corn reaper.


There's not very much baseball in this plodding preppy procedural, as most of the on-field action is subordinated to committee meetings. Suspenseful scenes include the smuggling of pies and soda pop into dorm rooms late at night, a snowball fight, a rescue from a burning building, and the unjust suspension of Joe, right before the big game, under suspicion of his complicity in toppling the school's sacred Statue of the Founder.


And then Joe drops out of Yale after his sophomore year to pursue a professional baseball career. This could never happen in a baseball juvenile 100 years later – not that pro baseball is despised in the 21st century, but that a publisher would never let a juvenile-book hero appear so cavalier about his education. But Joe has had his sights on the pros all along. He is helped out in this novel by a good deed done, Horatio-Alger fashion, for an older stranger (who turns out to be the head baseball coach at Yale). The bad deed overcome is rival pitcher Ford Weston's nefarious prank: Weston slathers a professor's front doorstep with red paint. The professor is upended, and the priceless Babylonian manuscripts he's carrying fall into the paint. "It seems that some learned high-brow society wrote on to borrow them, to prove or disprove something that happened in the time of Moses, and they had to be refused as the sheepskins are illegible. The powers that be tried to clean off the paint, but it took some of the lettering with it, and Prof. Hardee and some of his friends are wild over the loss. . . . It's a shame, too, for they are the only ones in the world of that particular dynasty" (165). Weston tries to pin the blame on Joe by having a feeble-minded youngster stash a can of red paint in Joe's closet, but the truth will out.


The main subplot here involves "Pop" Dutton, who has sunk from baseball stardom into low haunts and coarse habits. When unprejudiced Joe does Pop a good turn, Pop reciprocates by showing the young pitcher how to grip the "fadeaway." Much of the book is harmless good fun, though there is one gratuitous episode featuring a grotesquely caricatured black character, to remind us how pervasive racist "humor" was in the early 20th century.


Really, these struggles aren't particularly hard, given that Joe has no more problems handling major-league batters than Stephen Strasburg. But unlike Strasburg, Joe is at one point chloroformed, kidnapped, and set adrift in the marshes of New Jersey, so that's something.


"Ball twirler" must not have sounded like quite so louche an occupation back in 1916. Anyway, the main plot of this one is pretty boring, though a subplot about a madman who steals sidekick Reggie Varley's bearer bonds and then threatens to hurl an infant to his death (until Joe cold-cocks him with a frozen snowball) develops minor suspense, at least until the scene where Joe simply talks the lunatic into giving the bonds back.


Wow!


The book is a 246-page-long paean to the reserve clause, interrupted here and there by saving Lascar sailors from sharks, preventing mad Malays from running amok, joshing with slugging Chinese wrestlers, and waylaying deadly cobras.


In the height of the deadball era, it had been enough for Joe Matson to emulate the real-life feats of pitcher Christy Mathewson, but with the dawn of the lively 1920s, he had to take on elements of Babe Ruth (fictionalized thinly here as "Kid Rose" of the Yankees). The subplot elements are growing thin, consisting of the same old villains trying to maim or poison Joe, or to abduct his fiancée Mabel Varley.


Among the subplots are the usual jealous teammates, two nervous ballplayers trying to beat a federal rap, a millionaire who courts Joe's sister much to the chagrin of her fiancé, Giant pitcher Jim Barclay, and a rattlesnake in a box meant to give Jim and Joe their quietus.


And he does it. And it was worth while.

In this installment's subplot, shameless confidence men try to get Joe to throw the pennant, arguing that Pittsburgh or Chicago deserves a flag once in a while. 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. Fortunately, Joe begins the novel by saving the scientist's wife from a burning building, and once it's made clear that our hero was her deliverer, the scientist repents. The con men are foiled, and thrashed for their pains. Joe goes back to pitching no-hitters, starting triple plays, and scoring from first on singles to win the pennant.


You read that right, unfortunately. Club Owner breaks with the relatively harmless pattern of the earlier Baseball Joes, which, aside from some incidental and brief racism in Central League and World Tour, are for the most part devoid of ethnic prejudice. In Club Owner, the whole plot hinges on anti-Semitism. Moe Russnak, "a low, greasy specimen" (77) who "seemed like a huge toad" (101), wants to buy the Riverside nine for peculative purposes, while Joe simply wants to "put Riverside on the map." In the end, Joe as usual thrashes a number of his enemies, but Russnak turns out not to be worth thrashing: Joe disposes of him with a couple of slaps.

Club Owner is a departure from earlier titles in the series in another way: it includes quite a bit of inside-baseball stuff, as if the author(s) had recently learned about things like the hit-and-run play and felt impelled to include excurses on them in order to establish their credibility. The series was drawing to a close, and not in good condition.


Well, where do you go after that, and in the case of the Baseball Joe series, it was into oblivion. Pitching Wizard's mild formula is marred by the return of Moe Russnak, the "unscrupulous Jew" with a "black heart." Russnak is actually made more evil by contrast with mere crooked (Gentile) gamblers who conspire with him to kidnap Joe. The gamblers care only about money, while Russnak is a fiend from the worst depths of popular anti-Semitic imagination. Such viciousness is not typical of series-syndicate novels of this period (think of the Hardy Boys, which while being racist, sexist, and unenlightened, display a sort of mild multiculturalism in giving the lads Jewish and Italian chums). But for some reason, in the mid-to-late 20s, Baseball Joe's publishers figured that anti-Semitism would sell.