Paul Mather in . . . The Nagging Question

May 21, 2008
Early in Hang Tough, Paul Mather, three kids in little league uniforms stop on their way to a game to talk to two brothers who have just moved to town. The younger of the brothers starts bragging about his older brother’s pitching abilities. The three uniformed boys are skeptical, and when the older brother at first refuses to show them what he can do, they begin to mock him. He holds the ball they’ve handed to him. It feels good in his hands. Too good.

I was reading this scene on the subway this morning. I’d read it dozens of times before. Even so, I started to get tears in my eyes.

By this point in the novel, it has become clear that the older boy, Paul Mather, lives for baseball. But there have been hints of a serious medical problem. He’s not supposed to be playing any baseball, not until he gets permission from a new doctor, a specialist the family has moved across the country to be near.

I didn’t think of Hang Tough, Paul Mather during Jon Lester’s no-hitter two nights ago, but the connection between the real and fictional pitchers began to dawn on me the following morning as I listened to an interview with Lester’s father. Until that point I’d resisted the cancer-survivor angle because Lester himself expressed a desire to move beyond it. But Lester’s father marveling about a no-hitter his son threw in high school conjured images of the star pitcher as a kid, the kind of pitcher who might have thrown three no-hitters in little league, just like Paul Mather. And Lester’s father saying that the only thing that mattered was that his son was healthy and cancer-free made me think of Paul Mather’s father, whose melancholy, seemingly overprotective presence provides the novel with an ominous tone long before the word cancer is ever mentioned.

The most telling scene involving the father is the scene that I started describing above. In the end, Paul gives in to the temptation of the ball that feels so good in his hands. He starts pitching, just lobbing it at first, but soon he unleashes his entire awe-inspiring arsenal. He stops when his blazing pitches have made his catcher’s hand red and swollen, but he’s on the brink of going even farther, of walking off with the boys to their game. His father stops him by calling his name and telling him to come back inside. But what’s telling about the scene is that his father, according to a feeling Paul gets, had “been standing there for some time watching.”

He wants to protect his son, keep his son from hurting himself, yet he can see the joy his son is getting from playing the game he was made to play. Below is Paul himself describing that joy, from just after unleashing a breaking ball so nasty the catcher couldn’t handle it.

Monk came back with the ball. He held it. “I guess I’ve seen enough.”

“No, you haven’t,” I said.

I was bitten. It had been a long time since I had pitched, and I wasn’t going to stop now. I hadn’t wanted it to start up again, but now that it had started, I wanted it to go on and on and on . . .

I was beginning to feel in the groove. I was sweating. Sweat lubricates a pitcher. It gets all his moving parts working together. I was beginning to get a rhythm. It was like I hadn’t taken a year’s break at all. This was what it was all about. This was what you lived for and why you lived.

I first read the Hang Tough, Paul Mather when I was eight or nine years old. I’d read other baseball books before—in fact, other than Spiderman and Fantastic Four comics, baseball books were all that I ever read—but I hadn’t fallen in love with any of those books. Hang Tough, Paul Mather was the first. The story’s striking familiarity drew me in instantly. Like me, Paul Mather was one of two brothers. Like me, he was an outsider, part of a family that was new to their town. Like me, nothing was more important to Paul Mather than baseball. But the vital difference in our life stories was what drew me in even further. Here was a boy who lived for baseball who was having baseball taken away.

The book was so important to me that after I lost the copy I had as a child I bought another copy somewhere. But some years after that, my aunt, an elementary school librarian a few towns away from the town where I grew up, found a book with my name in it in a pile of books the library was giving away. The favorite book of my childhood had found its way back to me.

What was your favorite book as a child?



  1. 1.  Encyclopedia Brown, and Williams’ The Science of Hitting. That’s all I remember reading in elementary school.

  2. 2.  Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn, and The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. I loved Andrew Henry’s treehouses and forts.

  3. 3.  Between the approximate ages of 7 and 9, I devoured all hundred-and-something Hardy Boys books as if I were a wino and they were Boone’s Farm.

  4. 4.  Nice cursive, Josh.

    My favorite book from childhood, with the exception of Matt Christopher’s entire sports-themed catalog, was “Alvin’s Swap Shop” by Clifford B. Hicks.

    I’d read that one tonight if I had a copy.

  5. 5.  1 : My brother and I had Williams’ book, too, which I was fascinated by, even though I couldn’t really make heads or tails of it.

    1 and 3 : I didn’t read Encyclopedia Brown, for some reason, but I read plenty of Hardy Boys. I’ve got Joe Meno’s recent novel, The Boy Detective Fails, on deck. I think it plays around with that genre.

    4 : If you look hard you can see, below the signature, the faint remnants of me practicing my name (“Jos”). That “s” after the “o” always gave me trouble.

  6. 6.  Amazing that your aunt found your copy, dude. You’ve shared some positively eerie experiences with us.

    I loved the Slote baseball books. Somewhere in the back of my closet, I still have my collection of those Camelot oversized paperbacks with the colored covers — red for Paul Mather, blue for Jake, yellow for The Biggest Victory, etc. Hard to say whether Paul Mather or Jake was my favorite: you already cited one of the most gripping passages in the former, and the latter was equally indelible, with the cries of “12 in two!”, the rain coming down faster and faster, and “To answer your question, Jake, you scored.”

    When I wasn’t reading the Slote baseball books (or the Alvin Fernalds, the Encyclopedia Browns, or Ball Four), I’d try to figure out an Arborville All-Star team. I could spend hours weighing Danny Gargan against Tony Spain at shortstop, and whether using players from opposing teams was allowed.

  7. 7.  Matt Kemp and James Loney are on pace to become the 26th and 27th players since World War II to finish a season with 100 RBI and fewer than 15 home runs. Kemp’s on pace for 11 HR and 106 RBI, Loney 14 HR and 103 RBI.

  8. 8.  Doh… sorry, that was meant for Dodger Thoughts.

  9. 9.  4 I read a lot of the Matt Christophers, but they never had the same impact on me as Slote’s books.

    Somewhere, I do have an old, small, paperback copy of Alvin’s Swap Shop. Ah, Alvin’s Magnificent Brain. Which reminds me: I also loved the Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald.

  10. 10.  Oops, did you mean that for the DT thread, Eric?

    It’s eerie, Josh, but I’d forgotten all about this book, alas, and then got shivers when you reminded me of it. As much as I loved baseball I didn’t read that many baseball books as a kid but this was one I loved. I sometimes also read nonfiction baseball books aimed at kids, including one on Jackie Robinson I used for a book report.

    I also loved: Encyclopedia Brown (I’m obviously not the only one here); Beverly Cleary books like The Mouse and the Motorcycle; The Cricket in Times Square; The Phantom Toolbooth; Wrinkle in Time; and I read the hell out of all the Tintin comics, and then ten times more.

  11. 11.  I’m sort of embarrassed to say, but I read Lord of the Rings about 10 times between ages 10 and 12. I also devoured sports books, but have never heard of the Paul Mather book/series.

  12. 12.  I read a (and loved) a lot of the same books as PTBNL, but that’s less a coincidence and more of a factor of where I lived … in the same house as he. I saw someone mentioning the Great Brain books and thought, wow! … and then realized that it was my brother who posted a second time…. 🙂

    I’m not sure if Jake comes to mind because we’re starting with an Alfred Slote example, but my passion for baseball was strong, and books about kids playing ball were certainly favorites. I’m sure our family copy was very well worn, and I have no idea where those books are now. Maybe they are in the boxes in my garage that my parents unloaded on me a few years back.

    I read almost all the same books that 10 underdog mentions, too. I guess the reading lists for kids weren’t that deep.

  13. 13.  I too read all the Encyclopedia Brown books. You learned a lot of life lessons in those. Such as: If you ever sell a fake Civil War sword, make sure the engraving doesn’t say “Presented at the First Battle of Bull Run.”

    I also liked the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” mysteries.

  14. 14.  12 I’m pretty sure I’ve got those Slotes, Bro. I’ll check.

    10 As Brent said, you hit a lot of my faves too… and you reminded me of a classic, Thank You, Jackie Robinson by Barbara Cohen — worth reading at any age.

  15. 15.  The book I was probably weaned on more than any other — and this is for real young kids, four, five years old — was “The Value of Courage,” a picture book about Jackie Robinson by somebody named Spencer Johnson. You can buy it used for 1 cent (!) on Amazon and I’d recommend it for anyone with kids that age.

  16. 16.  Kid Brother by Lawrence Keating


    Treasure At First Base by Eleanor Clymer

    check them out on Amazon

  17. 17.  I liked a lot of the books already mentioned.
    Was I the only boy in the world who liked “Harriet the Spy”?

    I remember reading either “Harriet” or its follow-up “The Long Summer” in the car, coming across an unfamiliar word and asking my parents what “menstruating” meant.
    I think they both groaned.

  18. 18.  Lots of Hardy Boys for me as well. The only others that I remember clearly are the Chronicles of Narnia and Across Five Aprils. There was some Choose Your Own Adventure books sprinkled in there as well. Also there was this series of biographies that I read like a fiend. The ones I remember are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jim Thorpe. I think there was an Abe Lincoln one too (he was an awesome point guard back in the day).

  19. 19.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

  20. 20.  I’m appreciating all these titles, especially the ones I don’t know.

    9 : I read a lot of the Great Brain books. Right after I fell off a cliff in Utah (see serial tale in the JR Richard/Bob Watson), I limped into a Utah bookstore and re-bought a copy of the first one.

    11 : My brother read the Lord of the Rings books constantly.

    17 : I loved Harriet the Spy. I even walked around town looking through windows to spy on people for a while.

  21. 21.  In fifth grade, my school had a book fair. I thought biology was kind of cool that year, so I bought a book that I thought was about the human body. It was The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury. I spent the next many years reading every sci-fi anthology I could get my hands on. Almost exclusively short stories – I never warmed up to sci-fi novels in nearly the same way.

  22. 22.  While I was waiting at the dentist’s a few years back my eye was caught by a real classic — “Make Way For Ducklings.” Boy reading that as I waited really made my day.

    I devoured most of the Hardy Boys books (and vainly attempted to read them in order as I checked them out of the library).

    I still call on Encyclopedia Brown to solve vexing problems at work but my reference is lost on the twenty-somethings (as was another reference to Sherman, Mr. Peabody and the Way-Back Machine).

  23. 23.  17 The last “Harriet the Spy” book was all about her friend Sport. I read that one first and loved it most.

    The Harriet the Spy movie was also quite good.

    I too read Matt Christopher, Beverly Clearly, Encyclopedia Brown, and every Hardy Boys book until they started releasing the “case files” books. Then it got too strange. Iola was alive in one series, and dead in the other.

    For anyone (like me) with a younger brother, I hope you got to read Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing and Superfudge.

  24. 24.  23 : Judy Blume rules. Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing and Superfudge were great, but I think my favorite was Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, which provided vital puberty-survival help.

  25. 25.  Not sure of the best, but lots of Hardy Boys, cheesy sports biographies, Choose Yr Own Adventures, and the aforementioned Judy Blume, which I devoured upon discovering. I had read all of the books, with the notable exception of one called “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret”. This eager and certainly naive 4th grade boy came away bewildered, and more than a bit terrified of what ever it was they were talking about…

    i also had a copy of Jack Lang’s New York Mets history that firmly cemented my devotion to the Amazins’ by my ninth birthday.

    Just found a copy of the Great American Flipping and Trading Baseball Card book. Fascinating and wonderful.

  26. 26.  I read all the Matt Christopher books, and then I got into the choose-your-own-way books about baseball and football. A little later I started reading non-fiction, like Who’s on Third (a history of the White Sox), Ball Four, Jay Johnstone’s books, and a set of narrow black books that had histories of each of the NFL teams.

    We had to write to an author in about third grade, and my teacher wouldn’t let me write to any of the sports authors. I chose the woman who wrote the Pippi Longstocking books. She never wrote back, so my teacher told me she was dead. According to Wikipedia, she didn’t die until 20 years after my third grade.

  27. 27.  Good question.

    I guess it kind of depends on what you mean by “child”.

    I was definitely an Encyclopedia Brown guy, and a Hardy Boys guy. I remember as a youngish boy riding my bike to the library to borrow Steven King and Ian Fleming books for Boy Scout camp.

    I remember most clearly “Baseball: An Illustrated History” which had a photo in it of Don Zimmer diving for a grounder. I remember thinking, “Don Zimmer was a PLAYER?”

  28. 28.  Like so many here, my favorites were Choose your own Adventure and Encyclopedia Brown.

    13 You cited a classic, as always, don’t trust a guy named Bugs Meany, especially when he is selling a coin dated “B.C.”

  29. 29.  You had to grow up in the ’80s, but I loved the Lone Wolf series of gamebooks.

    Looking back, though, it’s just warmed-over Tolkien with some uncomfortable stereotypes (as the bad guys had this unusual tendency to be “swarthy” or “dark-skinned.”)

  30. 30.  oh man, Bugs Meany! now there’s a memory jog…Encyclopedia Brown is a character I’ve not thought of in ages, but he was definitely key summer reading, as was Gordon Korman. I think I read the whole Macdonald Hall series in one summer along w/ Losing Joe’s Place and Live at Nickaninny. Must’ve been the summer after I lived in Ontario for a year, the whole summer camp/private school in the woods made a whole lot more sense once I’d lived out there. I imagine if I’d only read them while living in BC, there would not have been quite the same comprehension of the concepts at hand.

  31. 31.  Somewhere in the 1st-3rd grade time, I read through the entire Betsy and Eddie books by Carolyn Haywood. Must’ve been 15 or so books. But my favorite book was a Lou Gehrig bio discovered in the school library, written sometime before 1966, with b&w pictures.

  32. 32.  I remember reading The Witches by Roald Dahl in second grade and how I looked at older women a little skeptically afterwards. Still stands up.

    In fifth grade I got a complete Sherlock Holmes reader with all the novels, short stories, and some commentary and contemporary news stories in the margins. I read it over and over through high school.

  33. 33.  I loved reading the “Strange But True…” baseball and football books, and I remember reading biographies of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in my grade school library, but my absolute favorite book, which I read over and over again was “The Baseball Life of Sandy Koufax” by George Vecsey.

  34. 34.  I memorized a couple of the old Golden Books before I learned to read: “Wrong Way Howie Learns to Slide” and “Davy Plays Football.” As I got older, I used “Flying Aces of World War I” as book report material from Grades 3 -7.

  35. 35.  It was all about “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” for me. Every chubby kid’s dream.

  36. 36.  First, I think it’s so cool that you got your original book back. Two books that come to mind for me were “Basil of Baker Street” and a children’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, which I read over and over again. So many others, of course, but those came to mind first.

  37. 37.  Having grown up in Portland, I can’t pick just one Beverly Cleary title. Ramona Quimby remains my hero, though.

    Favorite single book? THE TOOTHPASTE MILLIONAIRE by Jean Merrill (who also wrote the highly excellent PUSHCART WAR). I still think of it as my primer on somewhat progressive capitalism. And oh, the recipes! Make your own toothpaste and stick it to The Man.

    I was reading a lot of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News as a kid and rarely could commit to a monograph, but THE BRONX ZOO stands out my favorite early baseball book. If my parents knew anything about the content, they would have stripped me of privileges and possibly headed off my steep descent into sick bastard-hood. Well, maybe just delayed it, but still. I can’t look at a cake to this day without looking around for Sparky Lyle.

  38. 38.  It took me a while to summon this, but I finally put my finger on the fantasy series I really liked (and I think, read twice, at least): The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. The Disney folks made one or two of them into cartoon-movies, which I thought was lame of them given how dark the books were. I mean, there was this Black Cauldron that was used to create army of undead warriors by throwing dead soldiers inside it who would come back to life, unable to be “killed”. Very dark for kids, but very cool.

  39. 39.  37 : I remember The Pushcart War. The illustrator, Ronnie Solbert, (and maybe the author, too, I forget) lived in Central Vermont. My mom was friends with her, I think, or at least knew her.

  40. 40.  I remember reading “Matt Gargan’s Boy” by Slote a bunch of times in my youth. Loved that book.

  41. 41.  40 : Yeah, me too. Somehow I never read “Jake” by Slote, which has been mentioned by previous commenters. I love the idea of an Arborville All-Star team (see 6 ).

  42. 42.  I forgot to mention Bronx Zoo, too, of course. My parents bought it for me at a used book store in Pismo Beach, CA. It happened to be the first book that I ever read that had curse words in it. I’ll never forget telling my father (who never curses) that he shouldn’t get so “pissed off”, a phrase that I already knew about but felt bold enough to say after Sparky used it to describe some Pinella/Mr. October altercation. My dad looked at me as if I had killed someone.

    Great book, great memories. I remember more about 1978 baseball than any other year because of Bronx Zoo and Statis-Pro Baseball.

  43. 43.  As people continue to ponder old books, I hope they can also take a minute and chime in on a “where has all the magic gone” discussion-starter recently posted by Lonnie Smith for President in the comments of the recent Dock Ellis post (scroll down main Cardboard Gods page or click on the Dock Ellis link in the Texas Rangers group in the sidebar).

  44. 44.  1) The Hobbit
    2) Watership Down
    3) The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book

  45. 45.  Jupiter Jones was the lead investigator of the Three Investigators in that Alfred Hitchcock series of books. I read those, but never got into the Hardy Boys. They will always be associated with the TV series for me and liking Shaun Cassidy was something for the girls in my class, not the guys.

    There was a WWII book about a Navy Ensign who goes on some recon mission with Marines to an island occupied by the Japanese. On the way, the sub they were on sinks. I forget the name of that book, but I liked it. It was for older kids, because the ensign died in the end.

    Y A Tittle put his name on some book that someone probably ghost wrote. Not a fave, but I remember it. I also recall some football book that talked about RC Owens blocking a field goal at the goalpost, Georgia Tech beating Cumberland 222-o, Whizzer White’s career and other stories from the game’s past.

  46. 46.  I was a voracious reader and spent most of my school time reading instead of studying or listening. I think I only did 3 things growing up. Reading fiction, playing baseball, or talking to girls.
    In elementary school I read every possible baseball fiction book. From 12 on it was Science Fiction and Robert Heinlein was my favorite author of my favorite book “Stranger in a Strange Land”.

  47. 47.  Let’s see, Matt Christopher for baseball, lots of Beverly Cleary, and the Hardy Boys too, and eventually on to Tolkein. My folks bought Okrent’s “Ultimate Baseball Book” for me at some point and I loved the essays and the photographs, especially all those great 19th century team portraits. Growing up with that book probably helped to develop my unhealthy interest in baseball history more than any other factor.

    I haven’t seen the Chip Hilton books mentioned yet, although I only read them as hand-me-downs from my father. Most of them, at least the best ones, were about basketball. Each book was guaranteed to conclude with Chip shaking off an injury to lead State in a miraculous comeback in the big game, which invariably took place at the Cow Palace. Chip Hilton wound up at the Cow Palace in the same way that the Hardy Boys ALWAYS had to rescue their fat friend from a band of smugglers. Taking a look those books now, the best part is the back cover, showing the author signing autographs for a crowd of grinning boys with the caption “Clair Bee knows what makes boys tick!”

  48. 48.  I loved the Hitchcock Three Investigators’ Series.

    The Great Brain books were very special to me. I used to daydream about meeting the brothers from those books.

    I’ll second (or third or fourth) the vote for Judy Blume. Not just for girls.

    But I think the book that affected me the most deeply was Roald Dahl’s “Danny, The Champion of the World.” I don’t know how many other people have read it. Its definitely one of Dahl’s lesser known children’s titles. I won’t try to recap the plot, but just relate that the book explores the father/son relationship in ways that are totally unexpected. Having been particularly close to my dad both as a child and an adult, and having lost him earlier this year to cancer, its a book that means a lot to me. And it definitely holds up being re-read as an adult.

  49. 49.  Good post Josh, even if it is about a Sawk (I give him his props).

    My favorite books as a kid were “The Secret Little Leaguer” by Don Creighton, which about a kid who has artsy parents who don’t like sports and he plays baseball on the sly, only to become the best player on the team and “Strange But True Baseball Stories” by Furman Bisher (which I’ve got a hard back copy of).

  50. 51.  The submarine movie you’re looking for was called Up Periscope. It was made into a movie starring James Garner. That and Flight Deck were two of my personal favorites.

  51. 52.  51

    Finally limped out to DVD about a year and a half ago. Cool FX.

  52. 53.  I’m simply amazed that you all remember the names of the books and the authors. The Hardy Boys were great, my favorite baseball fiction was a series written about a major league team. Each book would be about a player on the team and the team actually aged just like in real life. They had to be written in the 40’s or 50’s. Anybody have a clue what they were?

  53. 54.  I hope Josh does not mind but I find this group to be about as knowledable as any that I can find. So with his indulgence I’m looking for information on a short movie which I think was made in the late 60’s.

    1969 I saw a movie in school that I thought was written/produced by the Jim Henson of Muppet fame but I’ve never been able to match him up with the movie.

    It is about a ping pong ball who gets kicked out of the hopper for not being good enough and then goes on a journey. Does anyone have any information on this little movie? When I lived in DC my 5th grade teacher showed it to us. In 6th grade they had us goto the auditorium so everyone could watch it. It was just one of those strange things that you don’t forget but I’ve never been able to find any information about it.

  54. 55.  54 I think the movie you’re thinking of is called “Why Man Creates.”
    Read the summaries here and see if they don’t match what you have in mind:



    I would love to see an entire thread here about educational movies, though this might not be the place.

  55. 56.  64cardinals:

    It was actually another Robb White book called “The Survivor.” Your clues allowed me to figure out what it was.

  56. 57.  64cardinals:

    It was actually another Robb White book called “The Survivor.” Your clues allowed me to figure out what it was.

  57. 58.  55
    Thank you so much. After reading the Wiki I started remembering the other parts of the movie. This has bugged me for 30 years, strange how I could only remember the ping pong sequence and didn’t realize it was just a small part of a bigger movie.

  58. 59.  58 I have a similar problem with a book I read probably in 2nd grade. The only thing I can remember about it is a kid who finds that, by putting his teeth together in a certain orientation, his fillings touch and he can get radio signals inside of his head. I don’t remember anything else except the pure, overwhelming sensation that that would be SO COOL if I could have that happen to me.

    Another book I just now thought of was something along the lines of “Strange But True Sports Stories”. It was the size of The Hardball Times Annual, approximately, and had large, vivid illustrations. The stories it told were of the famous Georgia Tech 222-0 game and Eddie Feigner and his Court and stories like that. I remember reading it obsessively, especially when home sick from school.

  59. 60.  when i was ten, i read the old man and the sea, which blew me away. i loved the passages about baseball, even if it was about the yankees.

    that year i also read moby dick. when i went to college and took freshman english, moby dick was on the reading list, so i asked my parents to mail me my copy from home so i could skim it and not have to buy a new copy at the bookstore. turns out i had read the readers digest condensed version. and like woody allen in zelig, i still haven’t finished the real book.

  60. 61.  Hey spudrph,

    Smiled when I read your (now six month old) post, since I loved that same book – it’s “Fat Men From Space” by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. I liked that book so much I checked out his other books. FMFS has a sequel called “Slaves of Speigel”, and “Lizard Music” was pretty good too.

    I’m 36 years old with two kids and last year my Mom gave me the fantastic Christmas present of my two favorite books from when I was about 5 years old – “What Do People Do All Day” and “Busy Busy World”, both by Richard Scarry, so I can read them to my kids. The only bummer is that for WDPDAD for some reason they edited out the final two pages that show the big picnic with all the characters in the book. I’m guessing there’s probably something politically incorrect that they’ve cut out. Scarry would have some stereotypes in there every now and then. Another one I liked that my Dad must have read to me about a 1000 times was “The Cat’s Quizzer” by Dr. Seuss.

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