Guide to Baseball Fiction: Matt Christopher
Matt Christopher (1917-1997) is probably the most prolific author of juvenile sports novels. Below are some of his baseball titles.
Christopher wrote for different age groups. Titles in black below are intermediate/young adult novels; titles in orange are the "Peach Street Mudders" series of "Springboard" first chapter books, and titles in green are junior readers for younger children.
- All-Star Fever. Illustrated by Anna Dewdney. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. A youth-league player must deal with the stress of worrying about making the league All-Star team, and must also deal with the responsibility of owning a new bicycle.
Routine character-building type of story.
- Catcher With a Glass Arm. Illustrated by Foster Caddell. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964. A youth-league catcher has a sort of mental block against throwing the ball, and his problems are compounded when he is beaned and develops fear at the plate. The father of his most bitter rival on the team coaches him out of his fears.
Brisk and lively use of what would become some of Christopher's major themes.
- The Catcher's Mask. Illustrated by Bert Dodson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. A youth-league catcher has problems and blames them on his mask; they disappear when he finds a yard-sale mask with a Hall of Famer's initials on it.
Another change rung on the theme of jump-starting a kid's self-confidence.
- Centerfield Ballhawk. Illustrated by Ellen Beier. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992. A young ballplayer overcomes various anxieties about his hitting, finally realizing that his unique talent as a fielder makes him valuable to his team.
Interesting for its management of the theme of a boy struggling to live up to his father's expectations.
- The Diamond Champs. Illustrated by Larry Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977. When an eccentric coach assembles a team of misfit youth ballplayers, the kids begin to wonder if he might be a criminal.
Well, he isn't.
- The Dog That Pitched a No-Hitter. Illustrated by Daniel Vasconcellos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. Mike, who can communicate telepathically with his dog Harry, is coached by the savvy canine through this pitching masterpiece.
Nicely illustrated early reader.
- The Dog That Stole Home. Illustrated by Daniel Vasconcellos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. Mike teams again with his dog Harry and steals home to score the winning run in a youth-league game--with the dog pacing him.
Entertaining junior reader.
- Double Play at Short. Illustrated by Karen Meyer. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. A star shortstop for a youth-league team seems assured of making the county all-star squad, till a new girl on another team starts to burn up the league with her play--and she looks awfully familiar; can she be his long-lost twin sister, separated from him at birth?
A weird and wonderful story, mixing baseball action and family romance.
- The Fox Steals Home. Illustrated by Larry Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978. A youth-league player is distracted by issues swirling around his parents' divorce; however, concentrating on the key skill of base-stealing, and coached by his father and his maternal grandfather, he becomes a formidable baserunning threat.
Deliberate intervention in social themes that stops just short of didacticism; an intelligent look at divorce from the child's perspective.
- The Hit-Away Kid. Illustrated by George Ulrich. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. A youth-league ballplayer learns the value of honesty and teamwork.
- The Kid Who Only Hit Homers. Illustrated by Harvey Kidder. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972. A junior high school baseball player can't hit or catch to save his life until he meets a mysterious man named George Baruth; then, he can't do anything except hit home runs.
A book that has become a juvenile archetype, mostly because it follows the classic pattern for a magical baseball story, wherein the hero succeeds through magic and then, forced to fall back on his own resources, learns to believe in himself, not the magic. Its sequel is not as lively. See Allison & Hill for a precursor.
- Look Who's Playing First Base. Illustrated by Harvey Kidder. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. Russian first baseman Yuri Dotzen is the new kid on the block, welcomed by some teammates and opponents but suspected by others of being a Communist.
Christopher, as always, fosters tolerance, but most of this novel is game action, with the social message on low simmer in the background.
- The Lucky Baseball Bat. Illustrated by Dee deRosa. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991 revision of 1954. A boy given a "lucky" bat makes new friends and becomes a star; but is the bat the source of his power, or himself?
Mixes the new-kid-fits-in theme with the theme of the lucky charm that turns out to be a placebo. The 1954 original was Christopher's first juvenile book.
- Man Out at First. Illustrated by Ellen Beier. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. A youth ballplayer overcomes the anxiety brought on by being hit by an errant throw.
Slighter than its other peer volumes.
- Miracle at the Plate. Illustrated by Foster Caddell. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967. A youth-league outfielder can wallop the ball, but is all left feet in the garden.
This book never develops a strong "hook." I sense that Christopher perhaps wanted to write about a mildly retarded protagonist, but got either coy or distracted. Much of the book is taken up with two near-random subplots: concern over two pets (a chihuahua and a falcon) and an inexplicable vacation in Idaho.
- No Arm in Left Field. Illustrated by Byron Goto. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. New in town, outfielder Terry Delaney is hampered by his weak throwing arm and by the racial prejudice of the shortstop on his team.
Forthright anti-racist themes characterize this story, which also features a sympathetic long-haired character in bell-bottoms who drives a dune buggy.
- Pressure Play. Illustrated by Karin Lidbeck. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. A star shortstop is distracted during a big championship series by his hobby (splicing together tapes of old horror movies); he snaps back to attention and leads his team to triumph.
Lame by comparison to some of Christopher's other stories; seems to lose its own concentration, as its protagonist does.
- Return of the Home Run Kid. Illustrated by Paul Casale. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992. The protagonist of The Kid Who Only Hit Homers is back in a slump, is helped by another mysterious ghostly mentor, and then must decide whether or not he can trust this new "friend."
Not as effective as the original.
- Shortstop from Tokyo. Illustrated by Harvey Kidder. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. A shortstop for a youth-league team has to adjust when a young star from Japan comes and starts to share the position.
The book is much less about its title character than about its American protagonist and his growth toward tolerance, which is accomplished in a strange and almost begrudging way.
- The Spy on Third Base. Illustrated by George Ulrich. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. The title character is so good at predicting events in ball games that a local reporter suggests that he is psychic.
The book resolves its central issue--one surrounding a kid who feels exceptional and therefore self-conscious, but learns to deal with it--in a decidedly strange way.
- Stealing Home. (2004). See Mantell.
- Stranger in Right Field. Illustrated by Bert Dodson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. [A Peach Street Mudders Story] Modestly-talented right fielder for the Mudders is given a new kid to mentor.
Tolerance for the new kid is a favorite Christopher theme, but what if the new kid is about to take your job away?
- The Submarine Pitch. Illustrated by Larry Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976. A boy learns to pitch underhanded, encouraged by a friend he later learns is dying.
Curious and disjointed novel, sort like of Bang the Drum Slowly reworked as a children's chapter book.
- Supercharged Infield. Illustrated by Julie Downing. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. One by one, the players on a girls' softball infield are transformed into soulless perfect ballplayers; only Penny, the protagonist, is left unaffected to figure out what horror is swallowing up her teammates.
The Kid Who Only Hit Homers crossed bizarrely with themes from Ira Levin's Stepford Wives. This novel is highly intriguing. Christopher's first with a girl protagonist, it culminates in the girls returning to normal--and happily losing their final game as their natural old selves.
- Too Hot to Handle. Illustrated by Wendy Wassink. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. A youth-league third baseman copes with being the least-talented member of a famous baseball family, and wins the approval of a crotchety neighbor lady who hates sports.
That's a lot for one youth novel, and the story eventually abandons its main baseball plot to concentrate on its social subplot.
- The Year Mom Won the Pennant. Illustrated by Foster Caddell. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968. When none of the Thunderballs' dads can coach the team, a player's mom volunteers.
The title sort of eliminates any suspense about what the team does under Mom's leadership . . . a subplot concerns a rich teammate's inability to fit in because he is too privileged.
- Zero's Slider. Illustrated by Molly Delaney. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. A pitcher for the Peach Street Mudders learns a new pitch, gets some quality time with his unemployed uncle, and finds a new coach for the club.
Archetypal kid-in-search-of-a-dad baseball story.