The Head Butler Thinks Spring — and Baseball

The weather is warming, and it's gotten the Head Butler, a.k.a. Jesse Kornbluth, thinking about baseball. Kornbluth says John Tunis' book, The Kid from Tomkinsville, is just the thing to get people into a baseball mood.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It's April and baseball season is just getting underway. Our head butler, Jesse Kornbluth, is here again. And he's found some books that will get us all in a baseball sort of mood. Welcome back, Jesse.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Great to be here, Debbie. Batter up.

ELLIOTT: Tell us your choice for this weekend.

KORNBLUTH: Well, this is a series of books. And I read them first when I was nine years old. I think I probably read them again at 10, 11, 12, 13, 14. I read them every couple of years because they're not kids' books as such, they're just great sports stories. And these are the sports novels - the baseball novels of John R. Tunis.

And now I'm dating myself and I'm dating anyone who is of a certain generation in this audience, because kids don't know about Tunis and old guys do because Tunis was the sports fiction writer of his time. He covered sports for a New York newspaper, covered tennis for NBC, and then starting in 1940, he wrote these baseball novels.

ELLIOTT: Which is your favorite book in the series?

KORNBLUTH: Well, you really need to start in order, which would be, "The Kid from Tomkinsville." The kid, in this case, is Roy Tucker, and he's a pitcher from a little town in Connecticut. His parents are dead. He lives with his grandmother. He gets found for spring training. And the next thing you know, he's a phenomenal pitcher and starting for the World Series team. And then, of course, things happen.

ELLIOTT: So what's it like reading those books again as an adult? Does it take you back to your childhood?

KORNBLUTH: No. No. Almost nothing would make me want to come back to my childhood. I mean, there isn't a drug strong enough. What it does make me do is appreciate really good writing and also the idea of telling kids the truth. You know, here, people get killed in car accidents. You know, people get drunk. Teammates don't like each other. People stay on another year just to collect their miserable salary because they have kids to educate. You know, you really see the game stripped raw.

ELLIOTT: And not shielding a young reader from reality?

KORNBLUTH: No, I mean, I could read you a tiny bit from "High Pockets," for example. Shall I?

ELLIOTT: That would be great. Yes.

KORNBLUTH: (Reading) When a championship club slips in the early stages of a pennant race, its supporters make all kinds of allowances. They think of the run of injuries, the loss of the key man, or else they blame the weather in Florida during spring training, forgetting that the March weather in Florida is much the same for every club there.

When, however, the team that won the pennant the previous season is fighting to stay in fourth place in June, the fans are less indulgent. Sports writers start speculating in print. The club doesn't draw so well, and the mob at home begins to grumble, or they take it out on some particular player. Rarely do they go after an old favorite. Usually, they pick on a rookie and a newcomer to the ballpark.

When the Dodgers returned home at the beginning of July, the Wolves were on high pockets with deep-throated yowls.

Nice, huh?

ELLIOTT: Nice.

KORNBLUTH: And, of course, they have reason to be on high pockets, because "High Pockets" have said, gee, Brooklyn - the team he plays for - is like any team. I play for money, I will play for the most money, I don't care.

ELLIOTT: Now that's a selection from John R. Tunis' "High Pockets."

KORNBLUTH: Right, and that's about, you know, a really bad guy, but there's also great, great wisdom here. Here's a little bit of this gritty wisdom from "The Kid from Tomkinsville," and this comes from the catcher who's trying to hang on so he can make $12,500 until his insurance kicks in. And he says:

(Reading) Son, an old umpire once gave me some dope when I was breaking in like you. Oh yeah, I thought I was hot stuff, but they soon showed me I didn't have an idea what it was all about. Just when I got convinced I was a flop and waiting for that pink slip in the mailbox, this old fella took me aside in the lobby of the hotel one night - old George Connors, I never forgot. So I pass it along to you and don't you forget it either. Courage, says this old-timer, courage is all life. Courage is all baseball, and baseball is all life. That's why it gets under your skin.

ELLIOTT: Jesse Kornbluth, our head butler, reading from John R. Tunis' "The Kid from Tomkinsville." Jesse, do you think baseball has the same poetic power today as it did when he was writing about it back in the '40s?

KORNBLUTH: Absolutely. I mean, right now, I am besotted with Alex Rodriguez. I am so concerned that Mariano Rivera proved he was human and let someone win a game against him. I am - I watch the Yankee pitching struggles, you know, as if it were a soap opera. And I love to read the sports pages, of course, because the sports pages are where you read the best writing in any newspaper.

ELLIOTT: The baseball novels of John R. Tunis are available in paperback. Jesse Kornbluth is our head butler, and you can find more recommendations on his Web site, headbutler.com. Thanks, Jesse.

KORNBLUTH: Always a pleasure, Deb. Thanks.

ELLIOTT: Play ball.

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