March 4 - Today's post contributed by Emily Arnold McCully
I have always loved baseball. I was good enough that the boys let me play with them. A good mimic, I developed a throwing arm by watching the pros. I never owned a proper mitt but there was always a right-handed one to borrow when I needed it. I loved catching the ball with a swift twist that cradled it in the sac between the thumb and forefinger of the mitt. Leather! Malleable, fragrant, durable. The ball was great, too, with its hard red stitching.
I threw and batted lefty, but could switch hit too, which supposedly confused the opposing pitcher. Pitching seemed the supreme skill, so I drew a strike zone on our garage door. Every afternoon after school I hurled my ball at it. Pretty soon, I hit the zone consistently and soon after that, I was pitching in most games.
The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn when I was a child, and I listened faithfully to their games on the radio. I can still name most of the greats on that team—not just Jackie Robinson.
Childhood ball playing inspired one autobiographical baseball book. Its protagonist was a mouse who practiced the way I did in order to make the team. My other baseball book, one of a series about a pair of zany grandmas, is called GRANDMAS AT BAT. That book and MOUSE PRACTICE were really just warm ups, waiting for Lizzie Murphy, aka Queen of the Diamond.
When an old friend in Providence, R.I., told me about her, I realized I had been handed my ideal heroine. It was news to me that a real life woman had actually played on professional baseball teams alongside men and the arrangement was accepted by everyone. It underscored the cyclical, even whimsical nature of women’s quest for equality, since that couldn’t happen today. Lizzie’s career was fairly long, but the most interesting part of it, for a picture purposes, was the beginning, when she asserted herself and demanded equality.
While I was working on the Lizzie Murphy story, I researched the life of a very different heroine - Ida M. Tarbell - who did not demand equality because she believed that women were inherently equal to men. For her, the crisis lay elsewhere. American democracy was threatened by the greed and corruption unleashed in the Gilded Age. Tarbell thought women could save it. She argued that they must devote themselves to raising children to be good citizens. Ironically, Tarbell was urging women to stay home at precisely the time Lizzie Murphy was out playing professional baseball.
Tarbell’s ideas about women were disturbing to me, but at the same time, I admired her great achievements as a “muckraker” (she preferred the title “historian”) and the way she made her way brilliantly in a man’s world. As I worked on her biography, I tried to get under her skin and understand the contradictions in her makeup.
Tarbell’s investigative journalism helped bring about important reform. Her story is relevant to our lives today. Money has corrupted public life much as it did a century ago. And as quaint as her ideas about women may seem to girls today, with all of their freedoms and opportunities, most people agreed with her in the very recent past.
Emily Arnold McCully has been creating children’s books for fifty years. Her stories often feature historical or fictional girls and women who challenge convention. MIRETTE ON THE HIGH WIRE was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1993. IDA M TARBEL was a finalist this year for the YALSA award for best nonfiction for teens.