Tag Archives: Babe Ruth

Dreams

Talk about a dream.   Try to make it real.   You wake up in the night with a fear so real.   Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”

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.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

This book was purchased.   Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel, which happens to be about baseball.

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Number 9

The book Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero was released on March 16, 2010.   Here is an excerpt from this book written by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (Touchstone, $26.99, 432 pages).

October 1, 1961

The savviest photographers got the two money shots.   The first, taken from behind and near the Yankee dugout, was of Roger Maris making solid contact over the plate on a 2-0 fastball by Tracy Stallard.   The left-handed pull hitter is exhibiting his much praised swing with extended bat and arms parallel to the ground, his left hand turning over, his right leg straight and left leg flexed, his right foot pointing toward third base and his left one perpendicular to the ground, his muscles in his face, neck, and upper arms tense, and his hips rotating.

The second picture, taken from the front, was of Maris, one breath later.   With, surprisingly, still-seated fans behind him, he is completing his pivot, releasing the bat with his left hand, and watching with hopeful eyes the flight of his historic home run into Yankee Stadium’s parked right-field stands.   But even the award winners among them missed something quite extraordinary that took place seconds later.   Fortunately, one of the greatest, if most neglected, visual metaphors in sports history would be preserved on celluloid.

Having completed what his bedridden Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle always called the “greatest sports feat I ever saw,” the new single-season home run champion dropped his bat and ran down the baseline.   He rounded first at the same time nineteen-year-old Sal Durante held up the 61st home run ball in his right hand; another ecstatic young male fan leaped into the field; and the clearly dejected Red Sox pitcher concocted an upbeat postgame response to the media (“I’ll now make some money on the banquet circuit!”).

As he neared second base, Maris suddenly escaped dark shadows and moved into the bright, warm sunlight.   Just like that, he had finally found a slice of heaven after a long season he’d sum up as “sheer hell.”   In Roger Maris’s version of hell, he was the prey in a daily media feeding frenzy, lost his privacy, shed some hair, received hate mail by the bundle, experienced vicious heckling from even home fans, and having arrived in New York from Kansas City only twenty-two months before, was treated by the Yankees organization like an outsider, an ugly duckling in a pond of swans.   His blow on the last day of the season was a telling response to all that nonsense.

Maris ran as he always did after a home run – head down and at a measured pace, exhibiting nothing offensively ostentatious or celebratory, nothing to indicate he was circling the bases one time more in a season than anyone else in history.   He was pounded on the back by joyous third-base coach Frank Crosetti as he came down the homestretch.   Crossing home plate, he was greeted by on-deck batter Yogi Berra, then bat boy Frank Prudenti, and, finally, the anonymous Zelig-like fan.   Then he made his way into the dugout – at least he tried to.   Several Yankees formed a barricade and turned Maris around and pushed him upward so he could acknowledge the standing ovation.

He reluctantly inched back up the steps, stretching his neck as if he were a turtle warily emerging from its shell.   He dutifully waved his cap and gave his teammates a pleading look, hoping they would agree that he had been out there too long already.   They urged him to stay put and allow the fans to shower him with the adulation that had been missing all year.   So he waved his hat some more and smiled sheepishly.

The television camera zoomed in, and everyone could see that during his sunlit jaunt around the bases, he had, amazingly, been transformed.   With the burden of unreasonable expectations suddenly lifted and the knowledge that not one more dopey reporter would ask, “Are you going to break Babe Ruth’s record, Rog?”  the strain in his face and haunted look in his eyes had vanished.   He no longer looked double his twenty-seven years and on the verge of a meltdown.

Baseball fans would, in their mind’s eye, freeze-frame forever this image of the young, cheery innocent with the trademark blond crew cut who had just claimed sports’ most revered record.   For that one moment Maris believed all the bad stuff was behind him.   For that one brief moment, he felt free.   In reality, it was the calm before an even more vicious storm…

 

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Man on Spikes

Spring training has begun, which also means that the corresponding flooding is about to occur:  flooding of the market with baseball books, that is.   Though greats like Roger Angell (The Summer Game), Roger Kahn (The Boys of Summer), and Thomas Boswell (Why Time Begins on Opening Day) have chronicled the hold that baseball has on the American psyche with some of the finest writing this country has ever seen, it is not uncommon for critics to dismiss most baseball writing as something less than literature – classics such as Marc Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly or W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, notwithstanding.

If a younger generation of readers is unfamiliar with the names mentioned above, they are probably even less familiar with a man by the name of Eliot Asinof, who penned the book Man on Spikes.   In this book, Asinof, who is most noted for Eight Men Out, an account of the infamous Black Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series, tells the story of Mike Kutner through the eyes of the people he encounters on his journey through the minor leagues – a journey interrupted by World War II.

Set in the 1930s, Mike’s love of the game is met with resentment from his coalminer father, who would rather see Mike contribute to the family income than play baseball.   Now that Babe Ruth has burst on the scene, Mike’s street-smarts, fielding prowess, and knowledge of the game are underappreciated, and the scout who signs Mike faces ridicule.   Along the way, the reader encounters – among myriad other characters – a ruthless minor league manager and a black player trying to crack the color barrier.

First published in 1955, Man on Spikes had been out of print until it was finally reissued in 1998.   The new edition features a forward by Marvin Miller, the former Executive Director of the Major League Player’s Association, and a preface by Asinof, who reveals that Mike’s story is based on that of his old childhood friend.

When the urge hits this spring, instead of picking up the latest picture book of minor league ballparks or some insightful account of what was going through your favorite team’s manager’s mind in the seventh inning of a game from last season’s pennant race, go back in time and acquaint yourself with the story of Mike Kutner.   No baseball fan could possibly regret it.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books and Mr. Moyer..  

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