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A utopian book about golf envisioned a more inclusive society

In an out-of-print book from 1929, talking golf balls and an unlikely young hero are emissaries from a kinder world.

An illustration by author Valrie McMahan from her children's book "Bumps: The Golf Ball Kids and the Little Caddie," published in 1929.University of Rochester Library

In the history of children’s literature about golf, there are such masterworks as “Joey Gets the Golf Bug” (1961), “Paddington Holes Out” (1977), “Arnold Palmer and the Golfin’ Dolphin” (1984), and the not-to-be-missed “Tick Tees Off” (1985) and “Pigs on the Ball” (1998). But because I am an aficionado of early golf history in America, the title that sent me tumbling down the rabbit hole was “Bumps: The Golf Ball Kids and the Little Caddie,” an exceedingly rare illustrated book from 1929.

In “Bumps,” an 88-page book for young readers written and illustrated by Valrie McMahan, a boy named Freckles caddies for a humorless fellow named Mr. Golf. When Mr. Golf goes to the clubhouse for a sandwich, Freckles rests under a tree and is awakened by “Bumpsies,” golf balls brought to mischievous life by a magic fairy. Because they are as dimpled as Freckles is freckled, the Bumpsies help make the boy feel better about himself.


There are also high jinks. Freckles chases the Bumpsies around the golf course, but they are faster and duck into holes for safety. (Bill Murray, are you there?) Mr. Golf returns from his lunch and, hearing about the Bumpsies, thinks Freckles must’ve been dreaming. Mr. Golf resumes playing and the Bumpsies, invisible to his eye, sabotage his game. Mr. Golf — perhaps an early precursor to Ted Knight’s dyspeptic “Caddyshack” character Judge Elihu Smails — blames it all on the fair Freckles.

The story might end there but for two facts: Freckles is an effeminate child, not a typical rough-and-tumble boy hero. McMahan’s illustrations show him with delicate features, flushed cheeks, and painted lips. And the book was published by The Roycrofters, a press that was part of a 19th-century American utopian movement that espoused, among other notions, a vision of a world in which boys like Freckles were cherished, not shunned.


Established by Elbert Hubbard, a visionary writer, artist, philosopher, and reformer, Roycroft was one of the many reformist communities of workers and artists that made up part of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. Hubbard founded the community in 1895, in East Aurora, N.Y., a village near Buffalo. Adherents like author McMahan were known as Roycrofters. The work and philosophy of the group, based in part on Hubbard’s writings, favored women’s rights and racial equality and saw the trades and the arts as the means to a dignified life.

Elbert Hubbard (left) with John D. Rockefeller Sr. (center) and an unidentified man on the links c. 1907.The Roycroft Campus Museum

Into the age of inclusion and consent, of #MeToo, and of calling out toxic masculinity, let us welcome Freckles, created nearly a century ago and befriended by kind-hearted golf balls who accept that he is different from other boys. Was this deliberate, I have wondered. Had McMahan written a book for young readers about including effeminate boys in our culture? When many societies prized overt masculinity and viewed homosexuality as a threat to the social order, could McMahan have created children’s literature with an ethic of liberty and justice for all?

It’s not a stretch.

Many of the communities in the American utopian movement were described in the literature of their day as homosocial, which in today’s parlance would be called same-sex. The utopian vision included a joyful new amorous world that defied traditional sexual boundaries. Not far from Roycroft, and long before Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar in an erotic sacrifice during the Summer of Love, John Humphrey Noyes, who founded the Oneida community, coined the term “free love” and practiced a form of group marriage.


There’s still another reason why “Bumps” might have been an early call for a more tolerant and equal society. McMahan also wrote books featuring Fan, Fannie, Ginger, and Little Stitches — humanized baseballs. In one book from 1928, two baseballs from a team of “white boys” and one from a “colored team” are transformed into children by the Good Fairy and sent out into the world to learn some life lessons. It is the “colored” ball that is “the Protector” of Fan and Fannie, the white balls. This during the era of Jim Crow.

McMahan’s books are like a window through which we can look back on an America that was even then grappling with issues of race, gender, and sexual equality. Authors like her were creating literature meant to bring on a world of freedom and tolerance and belonging for everyone.

What becomes of the fair Freckles? Those Bumpsies do all sorts of good deeds and influence others to do nice things for the boy. But Mr. Golf is just too mean to do anything nice for Freckles, and golf caddying is a profession some boys outgrow. Our hero’s odyssey sees Freckles marshaling the help of the Bumpsies for a put-upon fellow caddie named Teddy. The boys attend business school at night, graduate, and win jobs of their choice — Freckles as a jeweler, Teddy in dry goods. Our little morality tale ends with the magic fairy pronouncing, “So, you see children, how much happier we are when we are good and kind to every one!”


Freckles and Teddy on the links in an illustration from "Bumps: The Golf Ball Kids and the Little Caddie."University of Rochester Library

The pandemic has renewed the stick and ball game in a way we hope puts an end to the no-blacks-no-gays-no-Jews era of golf in America. The elitism of country club life, already fading, no longer owns the heart and soul of the game. A new democratic spirit is in the air. At the club where I play, ladies’ night is always sold out. At the range, there’s a long line of people taking lessons. Reservations are up more than 40 percent over last year, as more of us look to be outside and enjoy “a good walk, spoiled,” as has been said of golf by some on whom its charms are lost.

In this new era, let’s recognize our past too: The American utopians who sought to organize societies in which everyone, including boys like Freckles, has a place.

Mark G. Wagner writes on the history of golf in America. His work has appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Northeast Golf. He is founding and current director of the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement at Worcester State University.