"The Chip Hilton Sports Series" by Clair Bee
When I reflexively chose the Chip Hilton baseball series written by Clair Bee as the book(s) that most influenced my love of baseball, I wasn’t sure why, I just knew viscerally it was right. As I tried to transport myself back in time, the reasons started to feel familiar. I now have nothing in common in a practical sense with the kid I was at nine years old, but I figured once a dreamer, always a dreamer. At least that might be a starting point, a mutual frame of reference. I needed to ask that nine-year-old pudgy kid what made Chip Hilton so memorable. His help was mandatory. How else could I understand its impact to this day?
I closed my eyes. Why did these books become such an important part of my life? By then, thanks to my mother, I was an avid reader, devouring several books at once. Lyric fragments from the standard, “The Way We Were,” helped. “Memories light the corners of my mind; scattered pictures. . . .” I looked out from our third-floor apartment window, waiting for the weekly lime-green library bus to park in front of P.S. 48, my East Bronx elementary school. Before it came to a full stop, I was running across the street. What made me use my already-worn library card to check out my first Chip Hilton book? Scattered pictures from the corners of my mind.
I think it was the name Chip that grabbed me first; Larry was so ordinary. My friends were Bruce, Stanley, Harold, and Alan. His were Soapy, Speed, Taps, and Biggie. Our gym and history teacher was tough Abe Baras, behind his back (very far behind) referred to as bare-ass. Chip was coached by Henry “Rock” Rockwell. Maybe it was the vivid Deco art, the bold colors of the dust jacket. It could’ve been the attention-grabbing, promise-of-excitement titles like Clutch Hitter!, Pitchers’ Duel, No-Hitter, or Fence Busters. Perhaps it was the vision of teenage boys wearing uniforms playing on real grass baseball fields. Nobody I knew had a baseball uniform; we played on concrete in the schoolyard or stickball in the street. We’d invent games and rules designed by configuration. A manhole cover was a base (usually second), tires of parked cars were first/third, a street sign was home. If none or some of those weren’t available, white chalk, an essential piece of equipment, determined “base path contour.”
I was already a huge baseball fan. We lived about 25 minutes from Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were mythic figures, clearly not of this earth. Yankee Stadium was analogous to a shrine. I listened intently on the radio, sometimes watching on a flickering black-and-white Admiral console TV, chewing my nails, pacing. I knew my body language and silent pleas affected the outcome of the game. It was up to me. I accepted this responsibility gravely, without complaint. I was needed.
My 10-block-radius world comprised my parents, some relatives, and teachers; all others were some amorphous mass called adults. There were my friends, a few big kids who were over 10, and some much older kids who lived in our building. They went to some vague place called high school. Girls were a strange, giggling, pointing lot, considered aliens even on alien planets. The teenagers never talked to me or my fourth-grade pals, except Mitch. We sometimes traded baseball cards, but he was a real oddity. He had red hair, batted lefty, and, strangest of all, actually rooted for the Detroit Tigers! He was constantly rhapsodizing about Al Kaline. I avoided him lest the proximity influence my Yankee mind-meld.
Then, magically, William “Chip” Hilton entered my life. He was a switch-hitting, tall, lanky, good-looking, grey-eyed blonde superstar pitcher for Valley Falls High School. He was also a great quarterback and the basketball team’s leading scorer. In addition, he was humble, honest, hardworking, polite, an excellent student, and immensely popular with peers and adults. And, there wasn’t any involvement with girls! I imagined a combination of a young James Stewart and Mickey Mantle. He was perfect. The fact he wasn’t an adult but relatable as a high school athlete fueled the possibility I could be like him—a role model that seemed within grasp if only in recurrent daydreams. I floated the idea in my mind of replying when asked my name. I’d say, “Larry, but everyone calls me Chip.” But I never put it out there. Ah well.
Clair Bee was an innovative, highly successful, nationally acclaimed basketball coach. He helmed the Long Island University Blackbirds (Brooklyn campus) for 18 seasons and served 13 years as athletic director at West Point. Vacationing in Cuba, he met a pretty fair novelist named Ernest Hemingway in a bar. He told Hemingway he wanted to be a writer and sought counsel. Should he go to school and take writing courses? “No,” Papa replied, “Just write every day.”
Author Clair Bee based Chip—the central character in his series of sports novels—on Seton Hall basketball player Bob Davies.
Bee took his advice and then some. From 1948 to 1966 he wrote 24 books under the Chip Hilton Sports Series banner; 2.2 million copies were sold. There were nine about baseball, eight with a football backdrop, and seven basketball themed. I don’t recall reading any of the basketball or football stories. I believe I read all nine baseball novels. Bee also utilized, perhaps subliminally, the essence of the classic “Hemingway Hero”—grace under pressure.
The plots were formulaic yet carefully layered. The sports narrative weaved in two to three subplots relevant to negative behavior, non-baseball aspects of life. Examples of how to adjust and deal with those motivated by revenge, jealousy, corruption, self-interest, bullying, even shoddy sports journalism. The drama and excitement of the Valley Falls H.S. Big Reds, later the State University Statesmen, were deftly interwoven. You didn’t get the sense you were being preached to. He never pandered. Bee always used adults to make thought-provoking points to his adolescent readership. Amid the vivid intensity of the games themselves, there would be psychological and insightful contextual messages.
In Clutch Hitter, two adult old friends are bemoaning and commiserating about how a poison-pen letter will prevent Chip from pitching in the state championship playoffs:
“Dave,” he said softly, “It’s pretty hard to take when something happens to mar a fine achievement, but there are things more important than baseball and sports championships. Some ideals that are almost as important as life itself—that are life itself.”
A Major League baseball scout, Perry Crane, is talking to Chip in Pitchers’ Duel about choosing between college or signing a Major League contract. Chip tells him he’s going to State University. Crane is pleased.
Everything will work out just the way you want it—if you want it badly enough! That’s one of the wonderful things about this great country—people can do almost anything they set out to do, providing it’s honest and they’re honest in their desires and are willing to pay the price in study and work.
Aside from using Chip as a message-driven model, Bee had an undeniable talent for dispensing gripping, visual prose. Late in the big game (there’s always a big game) the opposing team’s most dangerous hitter is up, glowering at Chip:
Working swiftly, he poured his fast one inside, just high enough and close enough to drive Shea back from the plate for ball one; he caught the outside corner with his slider to even the count; and he went ahead with a darting curve around the knees. Next, Chip drove a blinding fastball high outside for ball two and then looped the blooper right smack across the center of the plate. Shea didn’t even swing, he was still posing his war club on his shoulder when the umpire called him out.
Now tell me you don’t want to know what happens next.
Coach Clair Bee, shown here with his LIU Blackbirds, was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968.
In 1997 the NCAA created a Chip Hilton Player of the Year Award in Division I basketball. This is the only honorific I’m aware of for a major collegiate sport named after a fictional character. Perhaps some of our readers know of others. This symbol of distinction denotes in this order: outstanding character, humility, integrity, talent, and sportsmanship—on and off the court. I think it noteworthy talent is fourth.
In 1998, the Chip Hilton Sports Series was reissued and updated, changed in an attempt to contemporize and attract a new generation. Chip now uses a computer, watches ESPN, and has friends who are Latin and Asian. Purists objected. Personally, I don’t have a problem. The salient point is the excitement of the trials and tribulations of Chip and company. Plus, the depiction of the fine, well-intentioned citizens of bucolic Valley Falls and the counterpoint “villains” are intact. The mantra of “we can win if we all pull together” remain calm but proactive and the practice of self-sacrifice are loud and clear. Fair play, morality, and commitment still win over shortcuts, cynicism, and chicanery.
Several weeks ago I re-read Pitchers’ Duel and Clutch Hitter!. I could readily understand why I was so entranced. I also read both books in one sitting. I’d forgotten the plots and I’m not ashamed to admit I was caught up in the action. As alluded to earlier, once a dreamer, always a dreamer. We connected; he came through.
This essay made me think about kids today. Does their immersion in video games, smart phones with multitudinous visual apps, the plethora of DVDs, YouTube, and the Web ameliorate imagination and retard wonder? There is a constant barrage of images in their faces. Is this good or bad? Perhaps it spurs a foundation, a basis for a different kind of dream. I don’t know. I do know Chip Hilton brought me closer to that nine-year-old kid than I’ve been for a very long time. Yes, still “scattered pictures,” but in sharper focus.
My name is Lawrence. Most everybody calls me Larry. But I really wouldn’t mind if you called me Chip.
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