Book Review: Diamond Ruby

Diamond Ruby: A Novel By Joseph Wallace

Touchstone, 2010

List Price: $16.00

The seeds for “Diamond Ruby” were planted in history, more than 70 years ago. In a 1931 exhibition game between the Chattanooga Lookouts and New York Yankees, a 16-year-old girl named Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on a combined total of seven pitches. For her troubles she was rewarded with a ban by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Joseph Wallace, intrigued by Mitchell’s story, borrowed her fastball and spirit for Ruby Thomas, the plucky heroine of his new novel. Ruby’s story, however, is not Jackie Mitchell’s story. In fact, Wallace set the tale in early 1920s Brooklyn, giving Ruby a shot at the Babe nearly a decade before Jackie’s 15 minutes of fame occurred.

The long-armed Ruby endures a traumatic childhood, straight out of a Dickens tale. Just when you think she’s been kicked enough, along comes another tragedy. The 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic takes her brother and parents. Her sister-in-law, who had inherited the role as family backbone, dies in a subway crash. Her older brother turns to the bottle, saddling the teenage Ruby with raising her two young nieces. At her lowest point, after modeling in provocative poses for a seedy photographer, she wonders to what depths she must sink to feed her family.

It isn’t her body she must sell—just her arm. Ruby hooks on with a sideshow in Coney Island where men pay money to try to throw harder than the girl. They almost never do. Though the hours are grueling and the 300-plus fastballs a day take a toll on her arm, Ruby has found a way to survive. Her legend grows after a reporter profiles her rare talent in the newspaper. Local ballplayers, including the Babe himself, drop by on occasion to test their mettle or hide out away from the crowds.

But villains are lurking everywhere. When the kindly man who runs the carnival dies, his evil partner seizes power, increasing Ruby’s hours to squeeze extra dollars out of her act. After Ruby stumbles onto his secret rum-smuggling operation, he beats her and her nieces. Ruby escapes the boardwalk after receiving an offer to pitch for the minor league Brooklyn Typhoons, who are desperate for a drawing card. But a new host of baddies awaits. The Ku Klux Klan is outraged by a Jewish woman playing in a men’s league. And gamblers threaten her family and friends if the unbeatable Ruby doesn’t lose on command.

Wallace casts Landis as the ultimate kink in Ruby’s budding career. The commissioner threatens to ban the girl from playing ball, claiming “baseball is far too strenuous a pursuit for a woman.” (This was the logic he used in barring Jackie Mitchell.) The antipathy between Landis and the gamblers presents the narrowest of openings for Ruby to salvage her career and ensure her family’s safety.

In Ruby, Wallace has crafted a street-smart, battle-tested survivor. It helps to have friends in high places, like Ruth and boxing legend Jack Dempsey. But Ruby picks her way through the underbelly of 1923 New York, generally keeping her own counsel, burdening her acquaintances only when she can identify a specific danger.

Wallace incorporated more than names when he borrowed famous personages. He researched Landis, Ruth, and Dempsey and keeps them in character throughout. He also did his homework on New York of the era, particularly his hometown Brooklyn. The 1918 epidemic happened, as detailed here. The subway tragedy that kills Ruby’s sister-in-law, the munitions explosion that threatens her family home, and the rise of the KKK are all appropriated from the history books. It’s as though he’s photoshopped Ruby into a portrait of Prohibition-era New York.

Obviously, the city didn’t really witness a fire-balling female pitcher in its minor league ranks. But Wallace keeps things credible, with realistic game action, entertainingly detailed. While Ruby is talented, he didn’t build an ersatz invincible superhero.

The steady stream of evil doers, including nearly an entire police force in the pocket of rum runners, borders on cartoonish at times. But they give the story, like many that originated in print and on radio in the era in which it’s set, no shortage of cliff-hangers and conflict. In fact, it might make for a tense radio drama: “Tune in next week to see how Ruby handles the bookies.”

Like most good baseball novels, there’s a lot more to “Diamond Ruby” than baseball. One needn’t be a fan of the sport to appreciate Ruby or the world Wallace crafted around her. The book is chock full of strong women, which should make it popular with a half of the reading population that ordinarily skips baseball books. They’ll embrace it for the bold characters and fine storytelling.

Wallace opened the doors to creativity by not tying himself too closely to Jackie Mitchell’s story. Ruby does, of course, get to face off against Ruth. Was she as successful as Mitchell? Well, the outcome of their confrontation isn’t nearly as important as the fact that they were able to meet on a field in the first place. And at least in this world, the heroine is permitted to continue pursuing her dream long after their showdown.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

Majors | #2010 #Book Guide

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