Linda Sunshine plays shortstop for the Chicago Eagles, the first woman to become a major leaguer. Her manager, the star pitcher and some of her other teammates don’t like the idea. At all.
Yet, for her — as for them — baseball is more than a living. It’s more than a game.
“Ever since I can remember,” she tells sportswriter Neal Vanderlin, “I’ve wanted to be a baseball player.”
So what does she like best about baseball?
“Everything! The way it all fits together. You know — that the ball doesn’t score, people do. That the team with the ball can’t score, the team without the ball can. That there’s no time limit. That the diamonds and field and fences all fit together, and the runner’s speed and the fielder’s speed and the speed of the ball in flight.”
In Barbara Gregorich’s “She’s on First,” Linda is the first woman to take the field as a player, but her rookie season is also a test. And, depending on how she does, other women may or may not have the chance to follow in her spike tracks.
Sort of like a female Jackie Robinson.
Indeed, when Al Mowerinski, the former Eagles player who now owns the team, decides to take a turn as a new style Branch Rickey, he calls Linda into his office. What kind of response, he asks, is she likely to get from other players and the fans?
“I guess,” she says, “I’d have a lot of problems. Like Jackie Robinson did…More than he did.”
In fact, early in the season, Vanderlin, a staunch fan of the effort, writes a column praising Mowerinski and skewering many of Linda’s teammates.
“Instead of being proud that [Mowerinski] a former baseball player (a former Chicago Eagle, a member of the Eagles’ last world championship team) has taken the lead in the struggle for equality, a lead that surpasses Branch Rickey’s hiring of Jackie Robinson, the male players on the Eagles are acting like children, throwing temper tantrums over a childish privilege (keeping baseball for the boys) that has been taken away from them.”
Is that true? Is the hiring of Linda something that surpasses Rickey’s decision to put Robinson at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947?
Well, think about it. Robinson broke the color barrier 65 years ago, and now the major leagues are awash with African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics from virtually every nation in the Americas.
But no big league team has ever attempted to put a woman on the field as a player.
“She’s on First” is a fun, energetic novel that is jam-packed with love and knowledge of baseball. It’s also very thoughtful, delving into the ways in which Linda’s task is similar to Robinson’s (such as whether to be permitted to stay at the same hotel as the men) and others in which it’s more difficult (such as questions of romance, violence and showers).
Does her task surpass Robinson’s?
Consider that “She’s on First,” re-issued in 2010, was first published in 1987. At that point, four decades had passed since Robinson walked on the field, and nothing had been done to let women into the batter’s box.
Today, it’s a quarter century since the playful novel was published, and, still, no women players.
Not even a discussion of women players.
One shame and a greater shame
So, a woman can be a mayor, but not play baseball? A woman can run a corporation, but not run the bases?
A woman can campaign so well that she nearly wins her party’s nomination for president, but can’t take part in a major league team’s campaign for a World Series victory? A woman can serve as a soldier defending the nation, but can’t defend against the bunt?
Anyone who loves baseball looks back on the color line as a great shame of the game.
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have seen Cool Papa Bell come to bat against Walter Johnson? Or Josh Gibson hitting fourth for the Yankees behind Lou Gehrig? Or Buck Leonard battling Ted Williams for the batting crown?
Because those great black players had the Negro Leagues as a baseball outlet, we know of their exploits and their greatness. They had a chance to show it on the field, albeit in a segregated setting.
But women? Forget it. Aside from some short-lived attempts during World War II and more recently to establish women’s baseball leagues, the female equivalent of Cool Papa Bell or Babe Ruth hasn’t had the chance to play ball. Sure, there’s women’s softball, but come on!
“She’s on First” doesn’t preach. It’s not shrill. Nonetheless, it makes its case.
It’s a shame women can’t play in the major league. A real shame. A shame that surpasses the color barrier than Jackie Robinson broke.
Will it take a full century after Robinson before baseball does right by women?
Patrick T. Reardon