The Legacy of Matt Christopher

There was the solid sound of wood meeting horsehide, and then the horsehide shooting out to deep left center field, rising steadily and then falling…falling far beyond the fence for a home run.

If you were born between 1980 and 1995 and either liked sports or reading, you read Matt Christopher. One of the most prolific authors of the 20th century, Christopher wrote more than 130 sports books for kids.

What better way to examine—to celebrate—Christopher’s brilliance than to review two of his seminal works, The Kid Who Only Hit Homers and The Fox Steals Home? Because let’s face it, while Christopher wrote about every sport under the sun, at his core he was a baseball writer.

First published in 1972 (my paperback copy was printed in 1986), The Kid Who Only Hit Homers was as important a baseball book as Ball Four, released two years prior. Of Christopher’s books, it’s my favorite. I’m not alone. From Christopher’s personal website (emphasis mine): “Out of all the books I’ve written, my favorite is The Kid Who Only Hit Homers. It’s a fantasy, but the main character in it could be real. There are a lot of boys who would love to play baseball but, for some reason, cannot.”

The novel’s protagonist is Sylvester Coddmyer III—hey, the long ball deserves a long name—an awkward boy who goes from junior high school team cast-off to, well, the kid who only hits homers. How does he do it? The same way McGwire, Bonds, and Sosa got their unnatural power—through conversations with a figment of his imagination.

The Ghost of Babe Ruth George Baruth turns Sylvester into an unstoppable force—in 27 at bats over nine games, he hits 24 home runs. Syl’s numbers are off the charts:

  • .926 batting average (25 hits in 27 at bats)
  • At least 40 runs batted in
  • A home run every 1.125 at bats
  • 3.629 slugging percentage

Only 16 MLB players have hit four home runs in a game; Sylvester did it twice in his short season. His long balls power his team, the Hooper Redbirds, to a first place finish; their 7-3 record could have been even better if not for Syl’s DNP: stomach ache for a key midseason game.

Christopher writes the baseball scenes in gripping detail. After 20 straight home runs, you might think it would be boring and predictable to read about No. 21. WRONG. Christopher keeps the plot fresh by examining Sylvester’s off-field life as well. Syl’s dad is always travelling, a detail borrowed by The Sandlot writers for that film’s loser-turned-ballplayer. His mother is concerned with Syl’s eating habits—he’s not overweight, but he often overeats and consumes his food too quickly. She’s a multi-dimensional character for sure.

The Kid Who Only Hit Homers is not without flaws. Christopher incorrectly defines “tagging up,” for example. The cover art is inaccurate—the batter depicted is not only helmetless but wearing jersey No. 35; Sylvester is shown wearing No. 5 in multiple illustrations within the book. And I think there’s a reason I’ve never come across the phrase “jumping codfish!” before reading this book. The ending is abrupt, but that’s a Christopher staple. For first-time readers, though, it can be jarring.

But these are minor criticisms. The Kid Who Only Hit Homers is a work of genius that still resonates today. When an unheralded major league hitter goes on a home run tear—a la Shane Spencer or Mike Jacobs—who doesn’t think of Sylvester Coddmyer III?

Christopher was ahead of his time, presenting a Moneyball-style player in Coddmyer: After drawing a walk in his first plate appearance that doesn’t result in a home run, the Redbird fans are incensed. Sylvester shrugs it off: “He didn’t get out, that was the important thing,” Christopher writes. On-base percentage! Billy Beane!

While The Kid Who Only Hit Homers deals with power, The Fox Steals Home (1978) is about speed. Bobby Canfield is a better player than pre-Baruth Sylvester, but has to rely on old-fashioned hard work to develop his skill, which is base stealing. Already a decent speedster, after working with his father (more about him later), Bobby becomes the Rickey Henderson of the local Little League.

He steals 10 bases in 12 tries over the four games covered in the book; in the last inning of the last game—SPOILER ALERT—he swipes second and third before fulfilling the title’s prophecy. At one point, after getting the steal sign from his third base coach, Bobby says to himself, “Grease your joints and gas up your tank, Bobby. You’re going to move!” My stomach hurts from laughter just thinking about Jose Reyes saying this to himself, in Spanish, before swiping a bag. Other dialogue is more outdated: see the use of “Pooshwah!”

Christopher spends more time off the field in this novel than in most of his works, but the narrative remains riveting. Bobby’s parents are divorced and he only gets to see his dad on weekends. The dynamic between Bobby and his parents is realistic yet original, complicated yet relatable. Even secondary characters—Bobby’s rival, Walter Wilson, and Bobby’s grandpa, to name two—are well developed.

Christopher even steps outside his comfort zone to pen a near-fatal scene on the high seas. He navigates these waters deftly.

These are just two of Christopher’s many classics. Catcher with a Glass Arm, The Submarine Pitch, and Little Lefty are equally memorable baseball books. The Great Quarterback Switch, Johnny Long Legs, and Ice Magic showed he could take on other sports with similar success. Christopher passed away in 1997 at the age of 80, but I’m told that today’s youngsters still read his books.

I’m not joking when I say Christopher was a huge influence on my decision to pursue sportswriting. Before you can write, you have to read, and Christopher got me excited about reading. I’m certainly not the only one. And getting a bunch of otherwise uninterested kids to read is a feat more impressive than Sylvester’s home run streak.

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