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December 3, 2009


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Below, Robert Hilburn --- author of CORNFLAKES WITH JOHN LENNON --- shares a tale of an unwanted gift, and how a mysterious baseball player changed his outlook on reading forever.

I wasn’t very happy the time one of my aunts sent me a book for Christmas rather than another passenger car for my new electric train set. I was in grade school in Los Angeles, and I didn’t have much interest in the book, even though there was a drawing of a baseball player on the cover. My reading matter leaned toward Plastic Man comic books or Mad Magazine. So I put the book in the closet.

Then one day a friend at school told me this great story about a pitcher on the Brooklyn Dodgers, Roy Tucker, who was so good he threw a no-hitter, only to hurt his arm and then battle his way back to the majors as a star slugger.

I was a big baseball fan and was surprised I hadn’t heard of this guy Tucker. I raced home and combed through my baseball bubble gum cards to see if I had a Roy Tucker card. When I couldn’t find him, I turned to my baseball history book but still, no Tucker.

I began to suspect that my friend had made up the whole story.

When I confronted him during recess the next day, he laughed. Tucker, he said, was a character in a book of fiction called THE KID FROM TOMKINSVILLE. He took me to the school library to show me the book by John R. Tunis, but it was checked out.

That evening I asked my mom to take me to the city library, and she was surprised because the only books I ever read were textbooks --- and that was begrudgingly.

“This is a baseball book,” I told her. “It’s by a writer named John R. Tunis.”

She looked at me quizzically and then headed to my closet. Beneath layers of baseball gloves, comic books, and shoes, she found the book my aunt had sent me: THE KID FROM TOMKINSVILLE.

I began reading the book that night and found myself racing home from school each day that week to read more --- even skipping my usual radio and TV shows.

This was long before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles; a time when the only chance to see a major league baseball game was on Saturday mornings.

But Tunis told such a dramatic story that you felt you were actually watching Roy Tucker on the mound and in the batter’s box. After I finished it, I went to the school library and found several more baseball books by Tunis, and I read them all. Each was like a little treasure. I felt this terrible void when I couldn’t find more. I tried to go back to listening to "The Lone Ranger" or "The Green Hornet" on the radio, but it wasn’t the same.

From that point on, I never looked back. I don’t know whatever happened to that electric train, but I held on to those John R. Tunis books for years.

And every Christmas, I’d look forward to more gifts from my aunt; books whose themes eventually went far beyond sports. They made me fall so in love with writing that I could think of nothing more exciting than someday sitting down at a typewriter myself.

-- Bob Hillburn

Tomorrow, Donna VanLiere shares a sweet story about reading to her daughter, while Rosalind Noonan reminisces about teaching hers the importance of goodwill during the holiday season.