Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

August 2, 2010

A Baseball Phenom on the Boardwalk

Writer Joseph E. Wallace invents Diamond Ruby, a Stephen Strasburg-Jackie Mitchell hybrid who dominates 1920s batters in old New York.

Tom Flynn

This summer, if you want to get to know baseball fans in a question or less, ask them what they think of Stephen Strasburg. If they mention the Hall of Fame, they're impulsive. If they mention David Clyde, they're a little world-weary, and a lot older than Strasburg. If they don't know who Strasburg is, keep moving. What most people will offer when asked is their measure of the 21-year-old on the mound, then some guesstimate of what his future holds.

Joseph Wallace. Photo by Sharon AvRutick.
"Ruby and her family are created, but it was incredibly important for me to put them in the real world, the way it really happened."

Joseph Wallace. Photo by Sharon AvRutick.

In a fictional Brooklyn of the 1920s, not too distant from the real Brooklyn of the era, a teenage girl named "Diamond" Ruby Thomas wowed the crowds on the Coney Island Boardwalk just as Strasburg wows the baseball world today. Author Joseph E. Wallace, in his first novel Diamond Ruby, has the nonfiction background to delve into a genre riddled with well-intentioned shipwrecks—baseball fiction—and give footing to an early-20th century New York rife with perils for a hurler who doesn't fit the image of what the times, or the town, expected of its ballplayers.

In the following interview, which was conducted via phone and has been edited for clarity, Wallace tells Gelf about the real-life inspiration for Ruby, the pleasures of digging through old newspapers to immerse himself in old New York, and what sort of reception baseball would give to a female pitcher today.

Gelf Magazine: The cover story of a recent issue of Sports Illustrated was "Pitchers Rule" and focused on the return to prominence of pitching in the major leagues. I'd guess that anyone who can write at length about a pitcher, albeit a fictional one, as you did with Diamond Ruby, would feel pretty good about that.

Joseph Wallace: Yes, because I really like balance in the game. I was 10 years old in 1968, which was the pinnacle of that pitchers' era, and I remember thinking that the average score of a baseball game was kind of like that of a soccer game today: 2-1 was pretty typical. So I was thrilled to find out a few years later that that's not the way baseball had always been. I love the idea that there have been so many no-hitters and near no-hitters this year, but I also enjoy a slugfest. So, it seems like we've gotten back to balance this year and to what is more like, to me, real baseball.

Gelf Magazine: You can recall 1968 but many fans can't even recall any pitching-dominant era. Hitters have ruled the game for nearly two decades.

Joseph Wallace: The subtext may be that one of the reasons that pitchers are resuming their dominance is that the game is cleaner than it has been, and if that's evidence that there's effectiveness in the drug testing, then that's very encouraging. Smaller ballparks and better training partially explained all the runs, but it never seemed to explain everything. The idea that we have what feels like perfect games coming up every week or two is part of why I love baseball. It still shows you things that haven't been done before still happen all the time, and I think that's what makes it a great game.

Gelf Magazine: What are the odds that the last out of a would-be perfect game gets ruined on a blown call on a play involving the pitcher?

Joseph Wallace: Right, how likely is that? I was blown away. It's like the cliché of locking a million monkeys in a room with typewriters; one of them will eventually end up writing Hamlet. If you pile on 162 games a year multiplied by the number of teams, anything can happen.
Nobody's ever again going to win 500 games, because we don't play baseball that way anymore, but beyond that, anything that can possibly happen—like a perfect game blown on a final play involving a pitcher—will, if you're a fan for long enough.

Gelf Magazine: Much of Diamond Ruby takes place in the 1920s. It makes sense that as time passes there's a greater tendency to summate eras in a few words or through a few events: the 1920s as the Roaring Twenties, or the 1930s as the Great Depression era, for example. We do the same thing with societal movements. The KKK—which you include in the book—is almost uniformly depicted now as a Southern phenomenon. Yet in your story the hero, Ruby Thomas, struggles with abject poverty in the '20s and the KKK is right there in Brooklyn.

Joseph Wallace: I settled on the year 1923 as a focal point in the book for a couple of obvious reasons. One reason was the opening of the Coney Island Boardwalk. Yankee Stadium also opened that year. In my research I started going day-by-day through the newspapers at the New York Public Library; they had at least six different New York newspapers in their microfilm archives. I went through each one of them from the late winter through the fall and the World Series to get a three-dimensional picture of what the time was like. It made that world real to me, and then I could put my character in it in a three-dimensional way.
The sheer number of things that, as a historian/baseball historian, I had no clue about included the KKK being so prominent and having infiltrated the police department in New York. It was completely unexpected, but once I knew it was there I had this girl—Diamond Ruby—as a tremendous pitcher stepping outside the usual bounds. She is half-Catholic, half-Jewish—would she have been noticed in New York if the KKK was so prominent there? Very likely, yes. So much happened in that era, but as you said we reduce periods of time to a single image, and although maybe not inaccurate, it never tells the whole story.

Gelf Magazine: By using the vehicle of fiction you asked 1,000 "What if?" questions. If there were a girl in the 1920s who could throw as hard as Ruby, what really would have happened? There are people who would have been excited about it. Some would have been taken aback, and some would have been potentially violent towards her. Think of 1973 and 1974, when Hank Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth's home-run record and received death threats. Ruby does get threats of violence in the book and she's left to wonder if that's simply par for the course for a person who steps into a higher level of celebrity, or a real threat because of specifically who she is and what's she's trying to do.

Joseph Wallace: Each step of the way I had to test the water, and say, "OK, What do I think the reaction to Ruby would be?"

Gelf Magazine: Since it's fiction you don't know how her career will progress, or even if it will progress—for a variety of reasons that I'll leave for the readers.

Joseph Wallace: It was an unstable situation and all the people who think a girl shouldn't be throwing a baseball, even in the minor leagues, weren't going away easily, so it was likely to stay unstable.

Gelf Magazine: In 1919, Kennesaw Mountain Landis comes in and "cleaned up" baseball after the Black Sox incident. What was the downside of Landis stepping in? Landis appears in your book and he has a significant impact on the plot line. There was a significant impact on the real-life "Diamond Rubys," too, who didn't fit the judge's image of what baseball was supposed to look like. We don't often think of the downside of so much power being in the hands of Landis, but if we look back in history, he wielded his power absolutely.

Joseph Wallace: A major inspiration for Diamond Ruby was the real-life Jackie Mitchell, who pitched for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association. The Lookouts had a working relationship with the major leagues, but the vast majority of minor leagues were independent. You could question what authority Judge Landis had over some low-level minor league [as he did in the book], but he made pronouncements and every men's team in the entire country followed them. That's a level of power that no one has anymore. He not only had it but he exercised it with abandon.
I made Landis more of a villain because I needed him as a villain, but baseball might have collapsed if he hadn't come in and been a stick in the mud, but incredibly honest. The fact is that the color barrier didn't get broken until he finally died. He was so determined that baseball be a sport for white men, who he felt were honest white men. Landis's pronouncement banning Jackie Mitchell from baseball was a clear example of someone who was just going to have no tolerance for baseball that didn't look the way that he thought it should look.

Gelf Magazine: Coincidentally, I have a bit of a family connection to your story on a couple of points. My grandfather was playing for the same Chattanooga Lookouts in 1919, the year that Landis was called in to clean up the game. I remember when reading about the Lookouts in old newspapers, noticing the Reds and White Sox in first place over in the major-league section. I thought, "I know what happens here." Landis jumps into that story and he jumps into yours as well.
On a related note, Jackie Mitchell played for Joe Engel, who ran the Lookouts. Your character Colonel Fielding has some similarities to him.

Joseph Wallace: Someone relatively recently asked me if Colonel Fielding was based directly on Joe Engel. He wasn't. I'd known about Joe Engel and knew he was a showman, a lot like Bill Veeck. My character Fielding would do some attractions like Engel, but he was more a struggling owner trying to fill seats, whereas Engel always liked to stir the pot.
Another character that I enjoyed creating was that of Chase, the gambler/gangster who arrives on the scene as Ruby gains notoriety. My favorite scenes to write were the ones in which Ruby and he would sort of verbally fence, yet he clearly enjoys her company. Chase goes off about how completely unfair it is that you can't make a dishonest living anymore on baseball with Landis on the scene. There must have been a lot people who considered themselves "collateral damage" in that they would never think of fixing the World Series but they were making some easy money in some little towns. And suddenly this guy comes in and he sweeps them out with a broom.

Gelf Magazine: Chase was interesting because he was a character you almost liked, but he was a cold-hearted killer as well. He drew out Ruby's pragmatism and morality, and you saw when they were in contradiction and when they were in alignment.

Joseph Wallace: She's smarter because of him; he leaves her these challenges, puzzles for her to figure out. She's growing up because she's across the table from him. There's some level of respect—not liking him, but respect that goes in both directions.
Here's Ruby at 18 years old, but in a lot of ways a lot wiser. Not unbelievably wiser, but wise in the way of someone who almost did starve to death, as she did early in the book; you have no choice but to learn how the world works, or you won't survive when faced with that.

Gelf Magazine: Talking about some of the hardships that open the book—1918-1919 is often thought of exclusively as the World War I era. The 1918 flu epidemic—at least until recently with the H1N1 scare—is lost in that. To have so much loss in the book as a result of the epidemic, but to include it and have it be plausible, was a risk.

Joseph Wallace: I did a lot of research on 1918, much as I did with 1923. Books on the epidemic tend to focus globally, but in reading through the New York newspapers, every single detail that I give in the book is true. There were countless horrifying flu cases, and then the Gillespie Company explosion that destroyed towns in New Jersey followed by the Malbone Street train wreck. You wonder, "How could we possibly have forgotten?" It was a long time ago, but it wasn't a thousand years ago. These were at the time seemingly September 11-scale disasters, each one of them, and they happened within months of one another. I wondered how I could not have known about them.
Ruby and her family are created, but it was incredibly important for me to put them in the real world, the way it really happened.

Gelf Magazine: There's no way that you can "dip your toes," so to speak, into the 1918 flu epidemic, for example, and it was an important aspect of showing where Ruby's character had come from.

Joseph Wallace: That was important. It really is a survival story.

Gelf Magazine: An obvious question that I've left until last. What do you think the reaction would be to a prominent professional female pitcher today? We all know that anti-Semitism and sexism existed in earnest 80 years ago, and we'd like to think it's diminished now, but truth be told there would certainly be a reaction, not all positive, to a woman pitcher now if she were to rise through the ranks.

Joseph Wallace: I think it would be tremendously controversial. It would be front-page news, as much as 80 years ago, oddly. And I think there would be comments online and people calling in to WFAN or ESPN. I tend to believe she would be allowed to move up to the level of her ability but boy, it would be a struggle. It would be as wearing and emotionally difficult in this era as you could imagine.

Gelf Magazine: I'll play a little devil's advocate. There would definitely be resistance. My hope would be that it would buckle under a larger trend for people to be accepting and pretty excited about it.

Joseph Wallace: I think I agree with that. In an odd way, I think the noise would be not from the players nor the managers but from the peanut gallery, the noisiest parts of our society, the talk shows. I would like to believe that the pleasure of something new and different and exciting would affect the players around her and there would be a lot of support from the team she was on. I do think we believe that we live in a different era [from Mitchell's], but it would be wrangled over endlessly and we'd certainly hear from the uglier segments of society, as well.
I adore baseball, but boy, it takes a long time for some of these changes to happen. I hope we get the chance to see what actually happens. We started out by saying that baseball always shows us something that we haven't seen before. That would be a great way for it to do so.

Related in Gelf: Jennifer Ring called for more opportunities for women in baseball.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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