It was while I was researching a book on baseball history that I first heard the story of Jackie Mitchell. As a teenage girl in 1931 Tennessee, Jackie learned to throw such an unhittable sinking fastball that she was signed by a previously all-male minor-league team, got to face Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game, and struck them both out! Perhaps inevitably, within a few days she and all other women were banned from baseball by its dictatorial commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. His grounds: The sport was “too strenuous” for women.
Unable to get these infuriating details out of my mind, I soon found myself determined to rewrite history. If I couldn’t give Jackie herself the career she deserved, at least I could create a character with similar skills and give her the chance to fight back. I decided to turn away from my baseball history books and write my first novel.
I called my heroine Ruby Thomas—“Diamond Ruby.” Once I decided to place her in 1920s New York City instead of Depression-Era Tennessee, the story came into sharp focus. I surrounded her with gangsters, rum-runners and Prohibition agents, Coney Island barkers, real-life characters including Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, and, above all, an avid tabloid press. I brought her face to face with the great influenza epidemic of 1918, the ravages of poverty, and other threats of a dangerous, uncaring city.
And before I knew it, Ruby started to feel three-dimensional to me, to become as real—at least in my mind—as Jackie Mitchell ever was. I felt like I was living inside that vanished world beside her, seeing what she saw, understanding what she felt. To me, the novel only worked because my creation existed in a living, breathing time and place.
I can’t speak for other writers of historical fiction, but for me that’s the key: You don’t fictionalize the history. You bring the fiction to life.
Joe Wallace, author of Diamond Ruby: A Novel (Released today – May 4, 2010, Touchstone) and many other books, has traveled extensively. However, he never lost one part of his New York upbringing: A love of baseball. Today he lives north of New York City with his family, not far from where he grew up. (Yankee country.) To read more about the author and the book click here.
IMAGE: Jackie Mitchell with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.