Diamond Ruby: A Novel
Simon and Schuster
List price: $16.00; Amazon price: $10.88
[Editor’s Note: This review appeared in Dan’s Papers on July 1, 2010.]
Joseph Wallace’s debut novel, Diamond Ruby, would make a terrific movie. It has all the elements: a historically interesting setting (Brooklyn in the 1920s) a savvy, talented teenage heroine and baseball. Throw in a few shady characters, the Ku Klux Klan along with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, and you have a blockbuster.
Wallace, an author of four non-fiction books (four on baseball), was inspired by the true story of Jackie Mitchell, a teenage girl and player for the all-male Chattanooga Lookouts in the all-male minors, who could throw a baseball hard and fast enough to strike out both Babe Ruth (four pitches) and Lou Gehrig (three pitches). What would have been a soaring career in the game came to crashing halt thanks to baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis banned Mitchell-and all women-on the premise that the game was “too strenuous” for them.
Taking parts of this story, Wallace created the engrossing Diamond Ruby. Set a year before the Great War, we meet Ruby Thomas and her family at a baseball game at Ebbetts Field. Ruby’s early fascination with baseball is triggered by catching one of Casey Stengel’s foul balls. She later discovers one afternoon while playing with Stengel’s ball that her extra long arms (the neighborhood kids call her ‘monkey girl’) and her strength provided her with an incredible ability to throw a speedy and hard ball.
Baseball is set aside for several years, and life goes on for Ruby and her family until tragedy strikes three times with the loss of her brother, mother and father from the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic; her sister-in-law’s untimely death in the Malbone Street train wreck; and her widowed brother’s acute depression and alcoholism. By the time she’s 14, Ruby has become the primary provider for her nieces and her brother. However, with her pitching skills and sharp eye, Ruby manages to kill squirrels and birds to feed the family, but it’s not enough.
With the idea that her arms are freakishly long, Ruby offers herself as sideshow attraction at Coney Island, but the carnival’s owner is not overly impressed until he sees her throw a ball, and from there Ruby Thomas becomes Diamond Ruby-a major draw, but also a target of thugs, and the Klan. When the sideshow’s owner unexpectedly dies, his partner, (who also dabbles in rum-running) takes over and works Ruby to the point of exhaustion. With the help of some wealthy friends, Ruby escapes and is later hired to be the pitcher for the Brooklyn Typhoons. All seems well, until she finds herself embroiled with the underworld.
Some readers might be put off by the narrative tone of the book, which comes across as more young adult. Brooklyn, New York City and baseball history buffs will appreciate how beautifully Wallace weaves fact with fiction. The true gem of Diamond Ruby, though, is getting readers who have little or no interest in baseball intrigued with the physics of pitching. Who would have thought that throwing a ball could involve so much strategy and tactics? (Obviously this reviewer has no knowledge of baseball).
Wallace expertly weaves in celebrity with bigger than life (even in real life) characters like Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and even Judge Landis. These historical figures are scene stealers, but although they appear in fiction, Wallace justly portrays them as they actually were: Landis, the autocratic and uncompromising commissioner; Dempsey, who was generous to a fault; and Ruth who addressed everyone as “kid,” and who had a soft spot for children.
Diamond Ruby is absorbing, fast-moving, and a hard to put down story, but it’s not perfect. Dialogue at times seems a bit stilted. Ruby’s young nieces are precocious and act older than their presumed ages. Wallace also introduces characters who have key supporting roles in the story, then disappear. Readers might want more answers concerning the relationship between Ruby’s friend Helen and her beau Paul. And in the case of Ruby’s brother, Nick, his story peters out too early within the narrative.
In spite of these distractions, how can you go wrong with a story that features real life sports heroes, a pretty and smart heroine, gangsters, Coney Island, and America’s national past time? Like the Wazier of Wham, Wallace has hit it out of the park with Diamond Ruby.