Chip Hilton Sports Series by Clair Bee
I have been asked many times why a book called Fourth Down Showdown showed
up in my Amazon.com author listings, with my name listed after you navigated to the book’s specific sales page. Eventually,
n ot because I was disowning any association, but to make it more clear, I asked that Amazon specify that I was not one
of the authors, but that I had written the afterword.
Yeah, I’m a Chip Hilton nut.
For the uninitiated — you poor souls —
Chip was the Hardy Boys of sports. Former Long Island University coach Clair Bee wrote them, and they came from the same publisher
as the Hardys and Nancy Drew. A true nut knows that the first 19 of the 23 original Hilton books came out in dust jacket versions
before the switchover to picture covers, and that the final four came out only in picture cover. The 23rd book, Hungry
Hurler, had such a limited press run as the original series lost popularity, it now is the Holy Grail of kids' books,
and it's roughly a $250 eBay book now, depending on condition, after going for over $500 in the early days of the auction
There are many of us Hilton nuts out there. We wouldn’t have to rent the Las Vegas Convention Center to hold
a gathering, but we could fill up a Dave and Buster’s somewhere and talk about Chip, Valley Falls High, State U., and
even that pert State Drug cashier, Mitzi Savrill.
where Chip’s mom worked, how she became a widow, where No-Hitter was set, and even which two books were “out
of order” in the original series — because Chip played his senior season of high school basketball before he played
his senior season of football.
Most of us have full sets of the original books, either saved from our youths — our moms didn’t
give them away with our baseball cards — or obtained in trips to used book stores, or from eBay and other online
outlets. The online shopping is great, but also took a bit of fun out of it. Part of the enjoyment used to be locating
and visiting all the used book stores around the country in our travels and pouncing when we spotted a "Chip."
Even after I filled out my collection, I continued to attempt to upgrade — mainly to give myself an excuse to continue
Our wives indulge us; I tell mine it’s better than being one of these fantasy league nuts. For what it’s
worth, prices have come down in recent years after many Hilton fans rebuilt their sets and stopped bidding against each
of us nuts contributed “blurbs,” afterwords and prefaces for the modernized paperback editions that came out
in the late 1990s, but again are out of print.
My afterword ran in Fourth Down Showdown and a “blurbed” comment
from it (a sample is above) ran on the back of many of the books in the new paperback series.
Another nut is Sports lllustrated
writer Jack McCallum, who had written a landmark SI piece on Bee and Chip in the late 1970s. One time, Jack and I
went out to dinner with some colleagues in Las Vegas — a Portland-Lakers playoff game was moved there in the wake of
the Rodney King unrest — and we went into such depth in talking abut the Hilton books, everyone thought we were crazy
and escaped us to hit the relative sanity of the craps tables.
communicated with Bee’s daughter, Cynthia, years ago. At the time, she and her husband, Randy, were schoolteachers in
Indonesia. Randy now is the basketball sports information director at Texas Tech. Bobby Knight was another Chip nut who met
Bee late in his life and remained loyal to the family. Randy and Cynthia began rewriting the original Chips for modern kids
and the original 23 came out in the revised paperback editions. Clair Bee's 24th manuscript, Fiery Fullback, which
wasn't published, also was issued, both in a "classic" hardback and an updated paperback. In the paperbacks,
typewriters became computers and the cast was diversified, and everything was updated as much as possible, yet they remained
faithful to the originals. There were some dilemmas involved, primarily because Chip’s three-sport participation and
success is made virtually impossible in this era of overlapping seasons. As long as they were considered updated fables
and aren’t subjected to line-by-line cynical scrutiny, they were fine. But they're also out of print now, too, and also
available at the usual used and online outlets. (Beware of confusion between the two versions.)
the originals confirms that baseball stories tend to hold up the best, and the baseball books in the revised series reflect
that. All Hilton nuts have their favorites, but mine always has been Clutch Hitter (above, picture cover version),
about Chip playing summer baseball for a steel company team after his junior year of high school. Some don’t like that
because it takes him out of his more familiar Valley Falls High and State U. settings and his familiar cast of buddies is
largely absent, but I’m willing to overlook that.
I hope that in 20 years
or so, those writers’ now-young devotees will be arguing with the fanaticism of Chip Hilton nuts, who pride themselves
on knowing not just Chip’s real first name — but “Fats” Ohlsen’s and “Fireball”
John R Tunis
As a kid, I also read
the excellent series of books by John R. Tunis, who was best known as a tennnis writer, but had eclectic interests and had
a far-reaching career as a freelance journalist and commentator. He got into writing for kids accidentally; in his autobiography,
he confessed that he was crushed when he was told his novel about Harvard runner Jim Wellington — Iron Duke
— would be published as “a juvenile.” He ended up writing about 20 “juveniles” for various age
groups, including a remarkable 1939 sequel about Wellington running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Most of his books were terrific, and the best ones hold up stunningly well and frequently have been
published in “classic” editions. The best-known are his books about the Kid From Tomkinsville — Roy Tucker
— and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and one even deals with Tucker’s World War II service and his return to the big leagues.
Some of his “stand-alone” books were excellent, too, including A City for Lincoln and Go, Team, Go
about high school basketball; All-American, about high school football; and the one he called his best, His Enemy,
His Friend about soccer immediately after World War II. (It’s hard to explain, but it’s masterful.)
I’ve also collected
some of Tunis “non-juvenile” books and got a kick out of his rants against the influence of alumni and boosters
in college sports — and this was over 80 years ago! — and the threat to the purity of sports by the looming taint
of professionalism. And I even found a copy of his first novel, American Girl, which came out in 1929. It’s
modeled after tennis star Helen Wills. The film rights sold about 20 years later, and this is what he says in his autobiography
about the experience: “I made the mistake every writer does, and went to the picture. A professional author who sees
his book made into a Hollywood film by persons whose one aim is to remain solvent has the same feeling as a mother who finds
her son in prison garb: What have I done to deserve this?” I’ve remembered that in my limited dealings in the
Hollywood world and it’s one of the reasons I was more than willing to write an adaptation of Third Down and a War
to Go myself and why I winced when read someone else’s attempt to write a script incorporating Horns, Hogs,
and Nixon Coming material.
So Tunis is the example of the accomplished writer branching out, into “juvenile” works,
and I still consider him a shining — if crotchety — example as I keep kicking around trying the genre.
One of my inspirations died Thursday.
compliment you can give an author is to hand a book to a friend and say: “Read this.”
friend will say, “What is it?”
And you say, “Shut up and read it.”
Since discovering novelist Jon Hassler, I’ve had that conversation — or variations thereof
— with friends dozens of times. I still remember coming across a new paperback copy of Hassler’s novel, Staggerford,
on the “local authors” table at a bookstore in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport while heading home from covering
the World Series. (I remember the incident vividly, but don’t know if it was 1987 or 1991.) At the time, I had no idea
who Hassler was, but the book looked interesting to me, as did the “blurb” on the cover from a Los Angeles Times
review that proclaimed Hassler an author “good enough to restore your faith in fiction.”
Staggerford was published as a hardback in 1978 and had disappointing sales, even after
being the rare first novel to get a New York Times review — and from Joyce Carol Oates, no less, who did the
public a great disservice with her lukewarm review that delayed Hassler’s acceptance as a great novelist. Believe me,
I understand how a soundbite quote from one lukewarm review, the one exception among otherwise rave reviews from journalists,
fellow writers and the general public, can haunt an author.
I devoured Staggerford
and loved it for its subtlety, sardonic humor and human touch. I’ve given away perhaps 20 copies of Staggerford,
whether a rare copy of the hardback or paperback copies I’ve bought at St. Vincent de Paul for 25 cents. I’ve
recommended it to many others. I’ve hooked family and friends on Hassler. Since buying that first copy of Staggerford,
I first filled in my collection of his works up to that time, and then bought every one of his later books when they came
Staggerford became such a cult favorite, Hassler
a few years ago published his journal from the time as, My Staggerford Journal. It is a must read for every would-be
or new author.
end of the book, where he finds remainder copies of the hardback at a store for something like $1 apiece, gathers them up
and then attempts to write a check to pay for them, brings a smile. The hardback now is very, very valuable.
Years before any of my books were published, I wrote him a fan letter. I was astounded when I got
a note back, and he said he was familiar with my work in The Sporting News, where I was working at the time. He even
mentioned a story I had written. He might have done some quick research and was just being nice, but I still was flattered.
We stayed in touch, not frequently, but intermittently and casually as he split time between Minnesota and Florida, and he
even tried to get his publisher and editor to consider publishing my novel, The Witch’s Season. The novel remains
unpublished for a lot of reasons, some of them complicated, although it drew initial movie interest when the manuscript was
being passed around. The screenplay version I was commissioned to write still is floating around. Boy, do I have stories…
I attended a Hassler appearance at the Tattered Cover in 1995 (for Rookery Blues) and and
we had a nice talk. During the question-and-answer session, I had the nerve to ask what anyone who has read Staggerford
wants to know: Why did he end it the way he did? I figured anyone at the Rookery Blues signing had read Staggerford.
He sent me the above postcard in 1995 shortly after the TC signing. Eventually,
of course, I turned to non-fiction — and got published. And when I’ve made my three Tattered Cover signing appearances,
I’ve always thought of Hassler. I still have the note he sent me congratulating me on the publication of Horns,
Hogs, and Nixon Coming. He was ill by then and couldn’t write longhand.
I keep reading (and re-reading) Hassler’s books. I’m probably up to 10 times
for Staggerford. I filled out a hardback collection. I’ve come to decide that Simon’s Night,
his second book, is at least on a par with Staggerford. (It takes a mature outlook to truly appreciate it.) I loved
the original Staggerford trilogy, which also included A Green Journey and Dear James. Whenever
I visit a bookstore, whether a chain or an independent, I check the fiction section to see if it has a copy of Staggerford,
either the mass market paperback or trade paperback. Not all good stores always have it; but all stores that have it are good
stores. Unfortunately, more stores now stock his later Staggerford sequels, The Staggerford Flood, The Staggerford
Murders and (the best of the three) The New Woman. There’s nothing wrong with them, but the earlier books
are far better vehicles for being introduced to Hassler and provide context and background for the final sequels.
Start with Staggerford.
Thanks, Mr. Hassler.
Here’s the obituary.
Jon Hassler dies
By JEFF BAENEN
Associated Press Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Author Jon Hassler, who chronicled the foibles of small-town
life in “Staggerford,” “Grand Opening” and other novels after starting his career late in life, has
died. He was 74.
who suffered from a longtime neurological disorder, died early Thursday at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, said family
friend Nick Hayes. Hassler had been in home hospice care since the holidays and entered the hospital on Monday, Hayes said.
his deteriorating health, Hassler continued work on a book, “Jay O’Malley,” until his death, Hayes said.
In a 1995 interview,
Hassler told The Associated Press that he liked writing about misfits. “You can’t write a novel about somebody
who’s perfectly happy,” he said.
Hassler was born in Minneapolis in March 30, 1933, and grew up in the small north-central
Minnesota town of Staples, where his father owned a grocery store.
He graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville in 1955 before receiving a master’s from
the University of North Dakota. He spent years teaching before launching his writing career at 37. He didn’t publish
his first novel, “Staggerford,” a semi-autobiographical story about a high school teacher in a small town, until
seven years later. Hassler’s other works include “Simon’s Night,” 1979; “The Love Hunter,”
1981; “A Green Journey,” 1986; “Grand Opening,” 1987; “North of Hope,” 1990; and “Dear
Bookshelf also includes...
All writers have a "favorites" bookshelf or two. Mine are
here in my den. Other books -- very good books, books I love -- are in other shelves, or storage bins, or boxes. These
are the fiction authors whose books I love and re-read. In addition to the works of the writers above, the authors
on my "favorites" shelves include:
-- Terry Kay. Among them, To Dance With the White Dog, Shadow
Song, Taking Lottie Home, The Book of Marie and the non-fiction essays of Special Kay. A former newspaper
sportswriter and theater critic, he also has written the wonderful screenplay adaptation of White Dog, and the
film starred Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Esther Rolle. I've been an admirer of his thoughtful fiction for many, many
years, and I most recently caught up with his list and read his terrific The Book of Marie, which while
not a sequel is an outgrowth of his earlier book, The Runaway. I found myself going right
back through it a second time to check for what I "missed" and to have the perspective of knowing how it turned
out without having cheated. It especially resonated with me because its characters, major and minor, often
reminded me of folks in my past. And for those of you who have read it: I'm convinced Marie knew that was Cole at The
-- Pat Conroy. (My favorite always will be The Great Santini.)
-- Garrison Keillor.
-- Mark Harris. (The "Author" Wiggen baseball
Wouk (the World War II novels).
-- Joseph Heller. (My father, the WWII pilot, annually read Catch-22. I'm up to about five times.)
-- Richard Russo.
-- Michael and Jeff Shaara.
-- Roy MacGregor, for The
Last Season, the greatest hockey novel of all time.