Bookshelf review: Diamond Ruby: A Novel

August 13, 2010

by Joseph Wallace. Touchstone, 2010.

Wallace, who’s known more for his coffee table books (The Baseball Anthology: 125 Years of Stories, Poems, Articles, Photographs, Drawings, Interviews, Cartoons, and Other Memorabilia; Grand Old Game: 365 Days of Baseball; World Series: An Opinionated Chronicle; and The Autobiography of Baseball: The Inside Story from the Stars Who Played the Game, as well as non-baseball titles), makes his first foray into fiction with this historical novel about a young girl with a special talent.

Based on the life of Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a 1931 exhibition game, Diamond Ruby“freakishly” long arms — the neighborhood kids taunted her with calls of “Monkey Girl” —  enable her to toss the old pill at high rates of speed with great degrees of accuracy. Economic desperation forces her to put that skill to use  on the carny circuit at Coney Island, and later, as a result, on the mound for the Brooklyn Typhoons, an independent team.

Some appreciate her skills for their own sake, while other seek to exploit her to make money, including the carnival bosses and even the avuncular owner of the Typhoons. Still others see Ruby as a threat, an emasculating presence; women should not be in a position to show up men and upset the natural order of things. So says the KKK (Ruby has Jewish ancestry), right-wing newspapermen, her own teammates, and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, commissioner of baseball, who wants to ban Ruby. (Like Troy Soos with his Mickey Rawlings history/mystery novels, Wallace incorporates real-life personalities, such as Landis, Babe Ruth, and others, into his narrative.)

In addition to winning over her fellow Typhoons, she serves as surrogate parent for her two young nieces; several members of the family died during the great flu epidemic of 1918 and the girls’ father is something of a alcoholic ne’er-do-well. Add to that the violent gamblers who want her to throw games, and Ruby has a lot on her plate.

This could have been a trite rendition, but Wallace keeps the reader guessing for the most part, right up until the final pages. Ruby is a smart and resourceful heroine, which makes the book appropriate for young adults as well as fans of early 19th-century baseball.

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