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Ordinary courage

Loyalty defeats racism in writing professor’s first kids’ book

  • Richard Andersen of Montague in his home office.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Richard Andersen of Montague in his home office. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Illustrated by Gerald Purnell and written by author Richard Andersen of Montague, the children’s book “A Home Run for Bunny” was years in the making.

    Illustrated by Gerald Purnell and written by author Richard Andersen of Montague, the children’s book “A Home Run for Bunny” was years in the making.

  • Richard Andersen with his book "A Home Run For Bunny" in his Montague home.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Richard Andersen with his book "A Home Run For Bunny" in his Montague home. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Illustration by Gerald Purnell<br/>The text that accompanies this page reads, in part, “Long before anyone had ever heard of Jackie Robinson, a team of 15-year-olds from Springfield, Massachusetts, chose loyalty and respect over championships. Without swinging a bat, we’d hit a home run, not just for Bunny, but for everywhere.”

    Illustration by Gerald Purnell
    The text that accompanies this page reads, in part, “Long before anyone had ever heard of Jackie Robinson, a team of 15-year-olds from Springfield, Massachusetts, chose loyalty and respect over championships. Without swinging a bat, we’d hit a home run, not just for Bunny, but for everywhere.”

  • Richard Andersen of Montague in his home office.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Illustrated by Gerald Purnell and written by author Richard Andersen of Montague, the children’s book “A Home Run for Bunny” was years in the making.
  • Richard Andersen with his book "A Home Run For Bunny" in his Montague home.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Illustration by Gerald Purnell<br/>The text that accompanies this page reads, in part, “Long before anyone had ever heard of Jackie Robinson, a team of 15-year-olds from Springfield, Massachusetts, chose loyalty and respect over championships. Without swinging a bat, we’d hit a home run, not just for Bunny, but for everywhere.”

A writing teacher and the author of several books on the subject, Richard Andersen of Montague found writing and life lessons while creating his first children’s book.

The book is “A Home Run For Bunny,” an illustrated tale of bravery and solidarity in the face of racism set in Springfield and North Carolina.

Bunny is Ernest “Bunny” Taliaferro, since deceased, a talented young athlete and the star pitcher for an otherwise all-white Springfield summer league baseball team in the 1930s.

In 1934, Taliaferro pitched the American Legion Post 21 team to repeated victories, winning the New England Championship Series. All that stood between the team and the national tournament was the eastern regional championship in Gastonia, N.C.

The team was eager to show what they were made of in North Carolina, and were unprepared for the southern community’s reaction to the color of Taliaferro’s skin. The adults accompanying the Springfield team bridled at the immediate manifestations of prejudice and pushed back against racist hotel managers and complacent officials. Ultimately, the final decision was left up to the team of 15-year-olds when it became clear they would not be allowed to play if Taliaferro joined them on the field.

Led by team captain Tony King, the team members voted unanimously to go home empty-handed, forfeiting their chance to compete for a trip to the nationals. All this happened years before Jackie Robinson took the field as the first black professional baseball player in 1947.

Among the lessons Andersen learned in writing his book, and one he hopes children take away from the story, is that ordinary courage is possible and valuable.

Not everyone could take the field in front of a jeering crowd of thousands and hit ball after ball out of the park, as Taliaferro did at a practice in Gastonia, but everyone can refuse to collaborate with an unfair system.

“We can’t all be Bunny, but we can all be Tony Kings; we can all say ‘no, I’m not going to participate in this. I’m just not going to do it,’” Andersen said.

That’s not the only lesson Andersen learned in researching, writing, re-writing and endlessly revising his first children’s book.

A teacher of writing and literature at Springfield College and the author of 29 books, Andersen didn’t realize how much he didn’t know about writing books for children until he started pitching the manuscript to publishers.

The idea for the book had came easily. A former student bicycling through Forest Park in Springfield found a monument recently erected to the 1934 American Legion Post 21 team and called Andersen, thinking the story might appeal to him.

“As she read to me the words on the monument, I saw it as a children’s book, even though I’d never written one, and I found out later I didn’t know how to write one,” Andersen said.

“I thought, originally, ‘children’s book — what do you do? It’s a short story with small words, it’s easy.’ And that’s what I did, I wrote a short story with small words and I sent it out.”

The response was less than overwhelming.

Most publishers didn’t even acknowledge receipt, a handful replied with boilerplate rejections.

Andersen persevered in the face of the deafening silence and, 50 or 60 mailings later, heard back from an interested publisher in Washington state.

In the meantime, he peddled the story in other forms, as short stories and as an article for a baseball journal, all of which were accepted right away by various publishers.

He credits the short story publishers with two important lessons: choke up on the facts and ramp up the conflict.

Information in the early drafts buried the emotional aspects of the story and there wasn’t any conflict until the middle of the story, when the team reached Gastonia.

Andersen expunged much of the information and introduced low-level conflict from the very first sentence by imbuing his narrator with a jealousy the real boy may or may not have harbored for his more talented teammate.

Next, Andersen learned to adjust to rewrite after rewrite.

Publisher John Thompson had accepted the submission because his mother had picked it out of a pile of unsolicited manuscripts, thought it might be worth a shot and passed it on to an elementary school teacher. The class responded well, but the story had a way to go.

Andersen’s book was accepted just as the economy hit a slump and the next several years passed in endless editing.

“One of the things I found out right from the beginning, thanks to John Thompson, is that the text is virtually irrelevant,” Andersen said. “It’s not that important, it’s the illustrations that are important.”

In publishing for a young audience, the words come in a distant second.

Artist’s reception Sunday

Illustrator Gerald Purnell mined the story for the best images and translated those into pictures.

These are now the subject of an art exhibit on the Springfield College campus in celebration of Black History Month.

The exhibit runs from Jan. 27 to Feb. 20 in the William Blizzard Gallery, with a reception for both the artist and the author on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The Greenfield-based Amandla Chorus will perform.

The guest of honor is Tony King, now 96 and the former captain and sole surviving member of the 1934 team..

For directions to the gallery, located in Blake Hall on Logan Street in Springfield, visit springfieldcollege.edu/simpson.

At first, Andersen said he argued and negotiated the re-writes with Thompson, but after about 20 drafts, he threw in the towel and wrote whatever was suggested.

A word here and a sentence there gradually replaced everything Andersen had written alone.

“Now we’re at the point, now we’re at the 66th draft, this is it; whatever we agree on, this is the book,” he said.“I read what he had written and there was nothing left in the story, my whole voice was gone. It wasn’t a bad voice, it just wasn’t my voice.”

Rather than throwing up his hands and leaving the story to sink or swim — safe in the knowledge that he had nothing to do with it — Andersen took one last swing at the text.

“I went back to some of my original drafts and I took all the best stuff out of those, I restored my voice to it. I sent it to him and he said it was brilliant.”

The final book was a product of the publisher, the illustrator and himself, Andersen said, better than his solo effort but much closer to his original draft than any of the 60-plus in between. In the final revision, it was his text, but in a form digestible by children and also richly illustrated.

After its decision to stand by Taliaferro, the American Legion Post 21 baseball team sneaked out of North Carolina. They were shuttled to an abandoned train depot in private cars by locals who then left for fear of reprisals should the assistance they gave became known. The gravity and violence of the situation are the type of details Andersen saved for the novelization of the story, as yet unpublished. Geared toward an older audience, the novel includes a deeper treatment of Taliaferro’s character and the complexity of his emotions faced with the unaccustomed hatred.

These are the type of details that Andersen saved for his novelization of the story, which has yet to be unpublished.

The team was then picked up on a special stop by a passing train. Rolling into Springfield, the teammates were greeted as heroes.

Occurring 20 years before the Civil Rights Movement gained serious traction, Andersen attributes this reaction to native values in the state that gave birth to the American Revolution and the abolitionist movement.

“I don’t know that egalitarianism was always practiced widely in Springfield, or Massachusetts, but the ideology was there,” he said.

The following year, the local legion disbanded the team in protest of the national organization’s tolerance of racial discrimination. The team was revived in 2010, with an opening-season ceremony honoring the 1934 team.

According to Andersen, Taliaferro was offered several college scholarships, but he stayed in Springfield, playing Triple-A baseball for a number of years. He married his high school sweetheart and they raised six children, five of whom graduated from college. He died in 1967, the same day he turned 50.

Andersen himself isn’t a baseball fan, but he hopes children will take away from the story that there are things more important than winning. He quotes Judge Daniel Keyes, a member of the team who died in 2012 but gave Andersen his memoirs as material:

“It wasn’t just the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. If we’d gone ahead without Bunny, even if we had won the championship, no one would ever have heard of us.”

Published by Illumination Arts Publishing Co. of Bellevue, Wash., “A Home Run For Bunny” arrived on shelves in 2013. It can be found locally at the Montague Book Mill, Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Broadside Bookshop in Northampton or online via Amazon.com. The book is written for ages 5 and up.

Staff reporter Chris Curtis started at The Recorder in 2011. He covers Montague, Gill, Erving and Wendell. He can be reached at ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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