Arts & Culture

The Yiderati: “Diamond Ruby” Author Joseph Wallace Guest Blogs Pt. 3

  Joseph Wallace is the author of the novel Diamond Ruby.  He has been blogging over the last week for Jewcy on 3 subjects we asked him to expound upon.  The first one was on the topic "Old Time Brooklyn," … Read More

By / July 22, 2010

 

Joseph Wallace is the author of the novel Diamond Ruby.  He has been blogging over the last week for Jewcy on 3 subjects we asked him to expound upon.  The first one was on the topic "Old Time Brooklyn," then he discussed making the transition from non-fiction writing to fiction, and today he wraps it up with baseball and our cultural history. 

One of my favorite photographs resides in the collection of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It shows a youthful Babe Ruth standing beside the grandstand railings of a ballpark. He is grinning down at a girl of perhaps twelve, who is wearing a simple dress and looking back up at him. A sign the Babe is carrying identifies the locale as Los Angeles, which Ruth visited in 1923. On the surface, there’s nothing special about this image. Babe Ruth may have been the single most-photographed person in history, and the Hall of Fame possesses countless shots of him with the public. He loved interacting with his fans, especially children. Two things make the photo stand out. First is the expression of frank adoration on the girl’s face. Even at a distance, she seems almost dazzled by what her eyes are beholding. The second is the date and location of the photograph. Living in L.A., the girl would almost certainly never have seen Babe Ruth in person before. In the age before television, when movies were still young, she likely would never even have glimpsed him on film. To her-to nearly everyone who lived outside New York-the great Babe Ruth was an almost-mythical figure, a creature of sports reports and grainy black-and-white photos. Seeing him in person would have been akin to seeing a Greek god in the flesh. It wasn’t until I started writing Diamond Ruby, my first novel, that I truly understood exactly how large baseball loomed in the public imagination before the age of television. Babe Ruth was a colossus, and though he may have been the biggest of all, he was far from alone. All the big stars of the era-from Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson to Nap Lajoie and Honus Wagner-were part of the nation’s daily currency in a way that no individual athlete could possibly be today. So it finally made sense to me how nearly every cultural upheaval was reflected in-or even led by-changes in baseball. For example, the arrival and gradual assimilation of waves of immigrants showed up early on the diamond, where ballclubs saw influxes of Irish, Italian, Polish and others, who gradually went from being unwelcome in nice hotels to being the celebrities they’re since remained. Obviously, baseball and race relations are inextricably woven together, together forming a huge part of our collective memory of the twentieth century. For decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, the presence of the Negro Leagues, which featured ballplayers who were clearly as good as the white stars, served as a daily reminder of the injustices of racial prejudice. It is also impossible to understate the importance of Hank Greenberg, not the first Jewish ballplayer but the first true star, to Jews in the United States. He was theirs in a way that no previous slugger could have been, slaying stereotypes just as Jackie did. Less well known is the clash between baseball and women’s rights, but it’s there too. The true story that inspired Diamond Ruby concerns Jackie Mitchell, a teenage girl with enough pitching talent to be signed by a (male) minor league team in 1931, to get the chance to face Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game, to strike them both out…and to get banned from baseball (along with all women) by the commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, just days later. If that doesn’t serve as an object lesson in women’s attempt to break through various glass ceilings, nothing does. Today, the world of sports, and of entertainment in general, is so fragmented and omnipresent that nothing can have that sort of impact. But we should never forget that it wasn’t always so. For better and sometimes worse, baseball was gigantic, and so were its players. They meant something. They helped set America’s course in the last century. And you can see it all in the face of the girl looking up at Babe Ruth in Los Angeles in 1923.