New York City in the 1920s was like a vast ocean swirling with treacherous currents: It was far easier to drown than to stay afloat. But young Ruby Thomas, newly responsible for her two nieces after a devastating tragedy, is determined to keep her family safe. She’s got street smarts, boundless determination, and one great skill: the ability to throw a ball as hard as the greatest pitchers in baseball-mad city.
Vividly portraying everything from Coney Island sideshows to the brand-new Yankee Stadium, Diamond Ruby chronicles the life and times of a girl who rises from utter poverty to the kind of renown only the Roaring Twenties can bring. But fame comes with a price, and Ruby must protect her family from Prohibition rum-runners, the Ku Klux Klan, and the gangster underworld. A sweeping epic whose breathtaking climax features a showdown with the great Babe Ruth, Diamond Ruby is filled with adventure, suspense, and characters you will never forget.
A few years back, I was at the National Baseball Hall of Fame researching my book Grand Old Game when I stumbled on a curious picture. It showed a slightly built teenage girl in a baggy uniform with short sleeves and knee-high socks, shaking hands with one of the most famous men of all time: Babe Ruth. Another all-timer, Lou Gehrig, stood grinning beside the Babe.
I soon found that the girl was named Jackie Mitchell. In the early 1930s she was such a phenom that she was signed to the Chattanooga Lookouts, an otherwise all-male team. Even more impressively, her fame spread widely enough that the mighty New York Yankees visited Tennessee specifically so their big sluggers could face the teenage hurler.
First, Jackie took on Ruth…and struck him out. Gehrig was next, and he fanned on three pitches.
What did Jackie Mitchell do as an encore to this amazing feat? The answer is: Very little. Just a few days later, the Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned Jackie and all women from professional baseball on the ridiculous grounds that the game was “too strenuous” for them. Of course, the truth was he couldn’t stand the idea that there was a female pitcher who might strike out the game’s greatest (male) sluggers.
My character of Ruby differs greatly from Jackie Mitchell in nearly every detail other than a powerful throwing arm. I was inspired to create Ruby, however, by the injustice done to Jackie eighty years ago. I wanted to have Ruby face threats that Jackie never did—the KKK, rum-runners, gamblers—but I also wanted to give her the chance to overcome the dictates of the male baseball establishment that stymied Jackie…and that prevented us from ever seeing what the real girl with the powerful left arm was capable of.
In tribute to the pioneer who inspired Ruby, I dedicated Diamond Ruby in part to Jackie Mitchell.
When I was deciding where I wanted to set Diamond Ruby, the choice was obvious. Where else but New York City, especially Brooklyn? New York was exactly the sort of place that would notice, lionize, and threaten a teenage girl with a fearsome throwing arm. A baseball-mad city with a dozen daily newspapers? Perfect.
But when should the book take place? That was a tougher question. Jackie Mitchell, the girl who inspired me to create Ruby, had her brief brush with fame during the Great Depression of the 1930s. I wanted to set my story earlier, though, in the go-go 1920s, when Ruby would have had the chance to achieve the fame that she (and Jackie) deserved.
It didn’t take me long to decide on 1923 as the perfect year for Diamond Ruby. What a year that was in New York City and the United States! It saw the opening of Yankee Stadium and the Coney Island Boardwalk, a flowering of women’s rights to equal that of the 1960s, the death of President Warren Harding, a surge to power by the Ku Klux Klan (even in Brooklyn), spectacular battles between Prohibition agents and rum-runners in yachts off Long Island’s Jones Beach, a championship boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds that riveted the entire country, and Babe Ruth’s Yankees’ first-ever World Series victory.
Ruby fit right in. As I wrote the book, I kept having the oddest sensation: That had she really existed, everything that happens to her in the book—the teenagers who looked up to her, the men who sought to dominate and exploit her, the celebrities who welcomed her into their world—would, in fact, have happened. The only thing wrong with the picture was that Ruby wasn’t in it. So I fixed things to make sure she was!
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