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Jack McCallum
January 07, 1980
Out of print, but enduring, are the 23 novels by legendary coach Clair Bee about the equally legendary Chip Hilton
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January 07, 1980

A Hero For All Times

Out of print, but enduring, are the 23 novels by legendary coach Clair Bee about the equally legendary Chip Hilton

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William "Chip" Hilton felt as though all the scrubs and half the varsity were using him for a pillow. He could scarcely breathe, but in spite of his discomfort, he felt a glow of satisfaction. The football was safely cradled against his ribs.

These were the first of some one million words that Clair Bee wrote in his series of Chip Hilton books for boys. Touchdown Pass. Book One. I began reading it on Christmas Day 1959, when I was 10.

Ah, Chip, where have you gone, you and your great natural talent? And where's Speed Morris, your mercurial sidekick with the beat-up jalopy? And Soapy Smith, your redheaded, joking-through-thick-and-thin comrade? And Biggie Cohen, the first baseman with ham hocks for hands?

And where, oh where, is Hank Rockwell, that tough but warmhearted coach of football, basketball, baseball and life's lessons, a man who was equal parts Rockne, Landry, Shula and saint.

Excuse me, please. Very out of date of me to be pining for storybook characters. Unhealthy. Suppose my sons were to find out? But they were there once—alive on the pages and in my imagination. Now they're gone, and I watch Jimmy the Greek on TV. Coach Hank Rockwell would not have liked Jimmy the Greek. Would have reminded him of the "element" that Chip and Rockwell had to deal with in Pitchers' Duel (Book Six).

The time has come to reveal who I am. I think of myself as the world's greatest expert on Chip Hilton books, which might not get me a tumble in The New York Review of Books or a table at Elaine's, but at least it means something to people my age. A college friend once challenged my supremacy during a late-night literary discussion that was fueled, as I recall, by a case of Colt .45. The clincher was this: he could name the "touchdown twins" in Triple Threat Trouble (Book 18), but he didn't know which twin ran to the left (Eddie Aker) and which to the right (Jack Jacobs). I did. My title was secure.

My generation, born in the late 1940s, was the last to buy (or ask for) the Hilton books that Bee cranked out in the 1940s and '50s. We were the last of a breed, too, because the Hilton series was the last of its kind, the final representative of what might be called the Frank Merriwell genre, which is now deader than the d.a. haircut. Under the name Burt L. Standish, Gilbert Patten began writing Merriwell stories in 1896 for Street & Smith, a leading publisher of dime novels and nickel magazines. During the first 20 years of this century, his stories were more widely read than any others for boys, and "Merriwell finish" entered the language as a stock description for a dramatic ending to a game.

After Frank Merriwell became "too old," Patten embarked on a Dick Merriwell series, made possible by the discovery of Frank's half brother, a contrivance that would have made James Fenimore Cooper cringe. Similar series followed (Dink Stover by Owen Johnson was one of the most popular), including the Gary Grayson and Baseball Joe books churned out by the Stratemeyer syndicate, which later produced the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and other successful juvenile novels. The Hilton books and the 11-volume Bronc Burnett series, written by Wilfred McCormick, were the last of the athletic breed that started with Frank Merriwell.

You can't get Chip Hilton books anymore. The 1979 edition of Books in Print lists only one title by Clair Bee, and that is Make the Team in Basketball, one of 19 technical books on sport also written by the former Long Island University basketball coach. The Strand Book Store in New York City, which specializes in out-of-print volumes, has none of the Hilton series on its shelves. Bee himself used to have about 500 Hilton books lying around, but after years of lending them out here and there, he doesn't even own a complete set. About the only place to find a Hilton book now is at a flea market, among old National Geographies.

I therefore sense the importance of the moment. This may be the last piece ever written about the Chip Hilton books. It may also be the first, because Chip never spawned a cottage industry of nostalgic scholarship like that which grew out of the Merriwell stories. Grosset & Dunlap, which published Chip Hilton and Bronc Burnett and a lot of other juvenile sports fiction, no longer employs any of the editors who worked on the Hilton books, can't remember who they were and, frankly, doesn't seem to care very much. Obviously, Bee doesn't mean as much to Grosset & Dun-lap as Ernest Hemingway does to Scribners. And no one at G&D seems able to explain precisely why Chip Hilton and boys' sports books in general are a dead issue while the Hardy Boys, abetted by their TV series, are thriving to the tune of $5 million in sales each year. To be fair, it must be admitted that Dave Lande, vice-president of special marketing for G&D, does have a theory. "Kids don't read sports fiction anymore," he says, "because they get real athletes on television. Their interest today is in the stars. The real-life stars. Like O. J. Simpson, people like that. They don't want to read fiction."

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