Of all the bold Americans who have appeared on the sporting scene, none ever aroused the admiration or left so enduring an impression as one who never really existed: Frank Merriwell of Fardale Academy, Yale College and the world at large. The hero of the most widely read juvenile saga ever published, his very name is synonymous with the spectacular in sports. From 1896 to 1914 he performed unmatchable feats of derring-do in Tip Top Weekly. He was a whiz at boxing, baseball (his "double shoot," which curved in both directions, was always good in the clutch), football, hockey, lacrosse, crew, track, shooting, bicycle racing, billiards, golf—in fact, any sport he deigned to play. No matter what plots the villains hatched, Frank always emerged triumphant. The schemers—sneaky Roland Ditson, swaggering Herbert Hammerswell, the son of "a pompous, vain, conceited, narrow-minded, back-number politician," and the rest of their ilk—were routed.
Frank Merriwell, in the words of his creator, Gilbert Patten, stood for truth, faith, justice, the triumph of right, mother, home, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, the love of alma mater, duty, sacrifice, retribution and strength of soul as well as body. Frank was manly; he had "sand." He was tolerant. Although he neither smoked nor drank—"Frank had proven that it was not necessary for a man to drink at Yale in order to be esteemed a good fellow"—he gladly "blew off" his chums to fizz at Morey's while he quaffed ginger ale. He was honest. When some prankish classmates stole a turkey from a farmer's coop, Frank risked capture by staying behind to nail a $5 bill to the roost. "Have all the sport you like over it," he told his laughing friends, "but I feel easy in my mind."
Above all, Frank was modest. As a freshman in a boarding house on York Street, he tolerated Spartan furnishings, but as a sophomore in South Middle he did up his rooms with souvenirs of his adventures in South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. On the floor were grizzly bear and tiger skin rugs; on the walls, bows and arrows, pistols and "a heavy ax, the blade of which was rusty and stained with blood"; and, as a final touch, away up near the ceiling, "safely out of reach." a strange knife, tipped with green, in a glass case with the sign, THE SNAKE KNIFE OF THE PAMPAS, POISON! Frank's friends—Bart Hodge, Jack Diamond, Bruce Browning and the rest of the crowd—were wont to meet there once or twice a week for "jolly gatherings," but whenever anyone asked about the unusual decor, which "elicited no small amount of surprise." Frank would sigh, "What's the use of talking about what one has done? It's not that which counts here."
Such a hero could dazzle any generation. Among his admirers were Stanley Ketchel, Franklin P. Adams, Jess Willard, Floyd Gibbons, Jack Dempsey, Jerry Giesler, Fredric March, Christy Mathewson, Woodrow Wilson, Babe Ruth, Al Smith and Wendell Willkie. George Jean Nathan was so moved by Merriwell that he laid aside his acerbic pen to plead for a biography of Patten, and Westbrook Pegler recently lamented that Patten had never received the Pulitzer prize. "When I read Hemingway, Jack London and Skinny Caldwell of Tobacco Road, all fellows with scant respect for womanhood, nor reticence in matters which never should be mentioned in mixed company," Pegler wrote, "I pine for the fresh clear nobility which walked in gleaming armor even though dens of infamy flourished in all big cities and unwary daughters of our farmers vanished into Kansas City with straw suitcases."
There is no counting the number of youngsters Merriwell inspired. Clarence E. Mulford, the author of the Hop-along Cassidy stories, read Merriwell, and so did Dan Parker, the vigilant sports editor of the
New York Mirror. "Every kid that would look at TV now read Merriwell," Parker says. "A lot of us thought he was real. He certainly couldn't have helped but give people the idea it was good to have clean sports. I got the idea Yale wouldn't be caught doing anything not true blue, but I couldn't say the same for Harvard."
Even today the nostalgic demand for Merriwell is so strong that Charles Bragin, a Brooklyn bookseller who specializes in dime novels, asks $3,500 for a complete run of Tip Top, 986 copies all told. Dime Novel Round-up, a monthly magazine devoted to oldtime popular literature, gives over column after column to Merriwell minutiae, and its editor, Edward T. LeBlanc of Fall River, Mass., is such an enthusiast that he currently is compiling a plot synopsis of each issue of Tip Top. So far, he has read his way through the first 375. Another contributor, J. P. Guinon of Little Rock, Ark., has analyzed the letters column that ran in Tip Top for almost 20 years. In New York, the Friends of Frank Merriwell, an informal society, meets over the luncheon table in the name of fair play. Started by Joseph Graham, an insurance executive who is fond of introducing himself as "the president and beloved founder," the society has the motto, "No bullies or toadies allowed." One member, a reporter on
The New York Times
, was banished not long ago after a daily-double notation was found on the back of his membership card.
For the past two years, Harry Felsenstein, a New York label manufacturer, has been seeing one publisher after another in an effort to get the Merriwell stories republished. "They teach a sense of values that is missing today," Felsenstein says. "Whenever I went out to play baseball or football, I thought of myself as Frank Merriwell, and I found myself performing stunts I didn't think I was capable of, like making sensational catches, one-handed sensational catches. I always came through, advancing the runner. I never struck out. On the track team, in the last few yards, I always seemed to surge forward. Fantastic!"
The flame burns brightest at Yale, where Merriwell's legend has hung over the campus for more than half a century. Any number of students have gone to Yale because of him, ranging from the athletic to the intellectual, from Eddie Eagan, class of '21, Olympic light heavyweight champion and onetime chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, to Jan Deutsch, '55, now law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. One of the most brilliant students ever to enroll at Yale, Deutsch entered when he was only 16 on a Ford Foundation scholarship. After graduating with a 94 average, he got an M.A. from Cambridge and in June of 1962 became the first student in Yale history to receive, simultaneously, an LL.B. from the law school and a Ph.D. in political science from the graduate school. "As a small boy, I loved to listen to the radio series about Frank Merriwell at Yale," Deutsch says. "There was never any doubt about where I wanted to go." Merriwell was the boyhood hero of Jordan Olivar, the Yale football coach. In fact, at the start of the 1962 season, Olivar had two Merriwell novels in his desk. "If I had him today, he'd be quarterback," Olivar says.
Edwin Foster Blair, a New York lawyer and Yale fellow, recalls that when he was a tackle on the undefeated, untied team of 1923, a player who did something spectacular was asked, "Who do you think you are, Frank Merriwell?" The closest any real-life Yale athlete has come to Merriwell was Albie Booth, who won eight varsity letters and captained the football and basketball teams. (He turned down the baseball captaincy "to give someone else a chance.") As a sophomore, Booth almost singlehandedly defeated Army and Chris Cagle in a football game Army was winning 13-0. Booth went in and scored three touchdowns, the last on a 65-yard punt return through the entire Cadet team. He kicked all the extra points as Yale won 21-13. In 1932 Booth made his sporting farewell by hitting a bases-loaded homer in the ninth to beat Harvard 4-3. Sportswriters invariably called him Frank Merriwell.
It is ironic that Gilbert Patten not only never attended Yale (or any college, for that matter) but had his play hissed off the stage by Yale students during its New Haven tryout. For 17 years Patten, under the pen name of "Burt L. Standish," ground out 20,000 words a week on Merriwell. It was mentally taxing and physically arduous. He bruised his typing fingers so badly that he had to hire a secretary. He walked furiously as he dictated. When he walked slowly, the narrative came hard. The faster he walked, the better it flowed. One morning he attached a pedometer to his leg and clocked four and a quarter miles in three hours.