Joseph Wallace's 'Diamond Ruby,' inspired by female ballplayer Jackie Mitchell
By Joseph Wallace
Touchstone. 464 pp. Paperback, $16
One spring afternoon in 1913, Ruby Thomas's parents take her to Ebbets Field to see Brooklyn play the Yankees. From the moment she snags a foul ball off the bat of Casey Stengel, the heroine of Joseph Wallace's lively and entertaining first novel knows what she wants to do.
The home-schooled daughter of a suffragist Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father, Ruby is something of a loner from the outset. Because of her unusually long arms, other children call her "Monkey Girl." Early in her childhood, she erects walls around herself to protect her feelings. But when Ruby throws a baseball, she is transported to a realm of her own: "Everything else -- the movement of the grass in the wind, a flock of pigeons flying on whistling wings overhead, the sound of a distant trolley rattling along its track on Ocean Avenue -- fell away, and all she saw was her target, a tiny knothole about three feet off the ground in the apple tree's gnarled trunk."
At 13, Ruby is orphaned by the Spanish influenza epidemic, which also leaves her responsible for the care of her brother's two young daughters. For the next four years, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Prohibition-era New York, hunting squirrels by throwing stones at them.
Ruby's fortunes seem to improve when she lands a job throwing baseballs against rubes at the Birdcage, a Coney Island sideshow equipped with a primitive forerunner of a radar gun. Her luck doesn't last, though. She quickly realizes that the show is a front for a rum-running operation. Her employer threatens to kill her and her nieces if she breathes a word of his illegal activities.
But Ruby catches a real break when she's offered a chance to pitch for the Brooklyn Typhoons, a ragtag minor league outfit of "castoffs, has-beens and never-weres." Not surprisingly, she shines in her new role. With the support of a blind friend, a sympathetic catcher, women's rights advocates and none other than Babe Ruth, the phenomenal little lefty becomes a huge draw. Arrangements are made for a postseason exhibition game in which Ruby will face the Babe himself. Soon, however, she receives death threats from the Klan and a Chicago mobster who wants her to begin deliberately losing games. As if all this weren't enough, baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, demands that Ruby retire from the game or be barred from all professional leagues for life. "Baseball," he explains, "is far too strenuous a pursuit for women."
As Samuel Johnson wryly remarked of Milton's "Paradise Lost," few readers would wish "Diamond Ruby" much longer. The arc of the main story doesn't emerge until about page 200, when Ruby signs on with the Typhoons. Parts of the novel are repetitious; other sections are wordy and tell more than they show.
At the same time, "Diamond Ruby" is more than just a baseball novel. The story is inspired by the short career of Jackie Mitchell, who, after striking out Ruth and Lou Gehrig, was barred from organized baseball in 1931. Wallace includes all sorts of colorful characters and fascinating social history, from the memorable Dempsey-Firpo fight at the Polo Grounds to the wondrous atmosphere of Coney Island, with "the smells of frying food and horse dung, the tang of salt from the nearby ocean, the lights of the Ferris wheels and roller coasters, the sounds of carousel music and the murmur of the crowds over on the Boardwalk."
At its heart, "Diamond Ruby" is the story of an unassuming, courageous young woman who uses the national pastime to become a pioneering heroine in a man's world. For all her athleticism, Ruby is a woman first, a ballplayer second. As she tells Landis when he pronounces the game too strenuous for her, "Most women would fall on their knees and pray to trade their labors for mine."
Mosher is the author of 10 novels, including the recently released "Walking to Gatlinburg."