Diamond Ruby: A Novel by Joseph Wallace (Touchstone, $16.00, 480 pages)
Ruby Thomas can throw a baseball hard – harder than most major league pitchers. But, in the 1920s, the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, popularized in the film A League of Their Own, did not yet exist, and the legal protections for female athletes afforded by 1972′s Title IX legislation were a very long way off.
In Joseph Wallace’s Diamond Ruby, an outbreak of the Spanish Influenza virus devastates Ruby’s family, and – as a very young girl – she must assume responsibility for the care of her two young nieces. Needing to make money, she becomes a sideshow performer at an amusement park. News of Ruby’s remarkable prowess travels quickly, but under the iron fist of her abusive boss, Ruby is essentially enslaved with no ready escape.
Two great athletes, Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, check out Ruby’s show and befriend her. Gamblers and booze smugglers have their own designs on how to use her for their own means. Eventually, the owner of a professional start-up league spots her. His plan is to sign her for her promotional value to help the league become profitable. Nearly everyone wants to control Ruby and make money off of her, except a friend who takes her in during her time of greatest need, a law enforcement official who looks out for her, and, ironically, many of the athletes in the story whose respect she comes to earn.
Throughout the book, Ruby is frazzled by trying to devise ways to break free from the powerful men who want to use her for their own gain, coping with threats of the Ku Klux Klan who torment her because she is half Jewish, and experiencing the prejudice of the men who run organized baseball. She does all this while dutifully supporting and protecting her nieces. All she really wants to have is the joy of doing what she loves most – the opportunity to pitch on her own terms.
The story starts out a bit slowly as the tale of Ruby’s impoverished childhood and series of misfortunes unfolds. For a while it is difficult to discern exactly what to make of the story beyond the fact that the only luck for Ruby is bad luck. However, when things get going in the second half of the book, the reader will be glad they stuck with it. Things move rapidly and the pages turn easily.
The improbable convergences of events that bring the story to a close are cleverly constructed. The ending is both heartwarming and hilarious.
This book was purchased. Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel, which happens to be about baseball.