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Frank's Place: Youth sports novels offered heroes and lessons

It was a moment that almost certainly had inhabited R.J. Hunter's dreams for as long as he could hold a basketball.

It was a moment that almost certainly had inhabited R.J. Hunter's dreams for as long as he could hold a basketball.

The NCAA tournament. Time running out. His team trailing. A miracle required.

The desperately deep three-pointer the Georgia State guard sunk to upset Baylor in the final seconds of an NCAA opener Thursday was innocence on hardwood, a heartwarming scene enhanced by his hobbled coach-father's excited tumble from a stool.

That's exactly how Bronc Burnett would have done it.

Such heroics were routine for Burnett, a fictional high school baseball and football player who was the star of a series of young-adult sports books written between 1948 and 1967, books my elementary school librarian had the good sense to stock.

Guided by sportsmanship, decency, and an obsession with fundamentals - all served up in over-the-top portions - Bronc always saved the day for Sonora High.

The 27 Burnett books weren't great literature. Though our impressionable minds didn't recognize it at the time, they were corny and preachy, and, for adults, probably unreadable.

But that wasn't the point. For those of us who loved sports above all else, they were an easy gateway to future reading. They provided an accessible mythology for suburban kids, one whose unambiguous hero wore cleats.

Not surprisingly, given the era, they were Cold War fables with clearly drawn distinctions between heroes and villains. The bullying Slug Langenegger was the most memorable of the latter.

My friends and I consumed this corn with gusto, even though before too long many of us would retreat from the very values and culture the books so heavy-handedly fostered.

"Each installment of the Burnett series offers a morality play about sports and life - coping with criticism, for instance, or learning humility in the face of success," Sports Illustrated wrote in recalling the series. "Was America ever so innocent, baseball ever so pure?"

The plots varied little: Bronc encounters hardships and unfair hurdles. Bronc overcomes them with a burst of last-second glory.

One story line, which seemed perfectly plausible to a boy whose sports fantasies knew no bounds, had Burnett leading his high school team to victory over the New York Yankees.

Though it happened nearly a half-century after the publication of the last of these books, 1967's One Bounce Too Many, R.J. Hunter's shot renewed a curiosity about this fictional sports ghost and especially about the author who gave him life.

Who was Wilfred McCormick, and how did he become the muse for so many young sports fans?

McCormick, it turns out, was no Bronc Burnett. In fact, this prolific author, whose Burnett was the epitome of cool to his fans, appears to have been as square as a first-base bag.

According to a 1962 profile in a Rotary Club magazine, the man who would write 40 novels and 500 short stories on such manly topics as baseball, football, camping, and cowboys was the nerdy son of a Midwest dentist. A picture accompanying the article shows McCormick to be short, pudgy, balding, bespectacled, and pasty faced.

His family moved to New Mexico, where he began writing cheap Western adventures. But after World War II, his ambitions grew.

McCormick, like so many in those postwar years, felt the need to uphold the American way. He was going to write something more worthwhile than dime novels, something he hoped would inspire boys both to lead upstanding lives and to read more.

"[There is] far too much smut available on the newsstands today," he said in that 1962 interview. "I'll be doing them [young readers] a big favor. Because if they read a sports novel, invariably they become interested in reading other books."

You can find his books now at garage sales or on eBay. Otherwise, Bronc Burnett has disappeared. Neither the local Barnes & Noble nor the Chester County Library had any on hand.

But the genre hasn't vanished.

Since the early 1900s, such books have served as introductions to more sophisticated reading for many American kids who find sports more compelling than their schools' curricula.

Generations of early 20th-century readers grew up on the fictional exploits of Frank Merriwell, whose very name was meant to catalog American virtues - frankness, a sunny demeanor, and good health.

The wholesome Merriwell was an all-around all-American from Yale featured not only in novels but on the radio, in comic strips, and on film.

He was followed by updated boy sports clones like Burnett and Chip Hilton, the star of a series authored by Hall of Fame basketball coach Clair Bee. And even today, in our more cynical and knowledgeable age, these books live on.

New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica has written several best-sellers for kids that, except for the increased grittiness the 21st century permits, are obvious literary descendants of the Merriwell, Burnett, and Hilton series. So have dozens of other contemporary writers.

"These novels [present] memorable character studies, relationships, a sense of time and place," wrote Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children's Literature Research Collection at the University of Minnesota, in trying to pinpoint their enduring appeal.

Besides, she advised parents, if a child's not terribly interested in reading, Bronc Burnett is going to work better than Anna Karenina.

"Reading is not about showboating: reading the most books, the most pages, racking up the numbers," Von Drasek noted. "It's about patience, waiting for the right pitch, the book that comes right to you, and knocking that one out of the park."

Just like Bronc Burnett always did in the ninth inning of the championship game.