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A Woman in the Majors? A review of She's On First reissue

If I could put my finger on the exact time and place when a nugget of belief that women could play baseball first revealed itself in my psyche, it was about the seventh inning, Tuesday, June 16, 1998. I sat in my season seats, practically the only one there, huddled under my umbrella at Veterans Stadium, waiting out a rain delay and reading Barbara Gregorich’s novel, She’s On First.

As a diehard Phillies fan, I had experienced disappointment and heartbreak, but also a stubborn pride that I was a “true” fan, one who’s there whether the team is winning or losing. That day, at that time, the Phils were losing against the Pirates, 7-1, and most of the people who’d come out were gone or wandering around the stinky concourse, but I stayed. I would show those impudent boys and men who told me in ways subtle and not so that I would never know what it was like to really play the game because I was a “girl.” As it turned out, I would eventually prove them wrong in ways I couldn’t have foreseen at the time.

My first copy of She’s On First was a 1988 paperback reprint of the original hardback first edition in 1987 by Contemporary Books Inc. I obtained one of those first editions in 2007 after I couldn’t find the paperback and assumed my parrots had chewed it to pieces. Well, they’d chewed the cover from the paperback, but the inside was still intact. Now both these editions sit with a third--the reissue of She’s On First, published this year by Philbar Books.

So, let’s be honest, I’m a total fan of this book for many different reasons, so this review will be favorable, but I like the latest edition the best for two: the cover and the additional scene in chapter three. However, I’ll get to those differences, and all my reasons, later.

The novel relates the story of a woman achieving what no woman has so far: playing baseball on a major league team. The story is seen through the eyes of a crusty old scout, a team owner, a reporter, and the woman herself.

The book begins as scout Timothy Michael Curry is tricked by Chicago Eagles owner Al Mowerinski into watching a Little League game. Curry easily picks out the best player there, but there’s one problem, at least for him. The team’s best is a girl, Linda Sunshine, and even worse for Curry, Mowerinski knew it. About 10 years later, Curry again scouts Sunshine, this time while she’s playing for a college team. Sometime soon after, Mowerinski signs her into the Eagles organization.

And this is where Sunshine begins to get “scuffed” on double-A and triple-A teams. The determined young woman must endure physical and psychological challenges from coaches, teammates, and other players while she tries to hone her already advanced baseball skills. Some players and her first coach have problems with her being there, but other teammates welcome her glove and bat. Her second coach treats her as he would any other player. During this time, she also meets Eagles beat reporter Neal Vanderlin, who appears to be the only writer who wants to treat her fairly.

After Sunshine helps both the double- and triple-A teams gain first place, Mowerinski brings her up to his major league Eagles. There, despite threats of a players’ strike, members of her own team calling for other team pitchers to “bean” her, and fans’ constant heckling and trash-throwing, Sunshine connects for her first hit, a single, and performs admirably on defense. However, her trials are not over. The team’s best pitcher hates her and makes life as difficult for her as he can, making demands of the owner, starting brawls, and near season’s end eventually getting her alone in Mowerinski’s office and attacking her. Despite all that, she keeps up her high level of play.

In the end, however, it’s Mowerinski who has potentially the most explosive—and disruptive—knowledge of all concerning Sunshine. And it’s Vanderlin and, interestingly enough, Curry who become her biggest advocates, in their own ways urging her to stay and play despite everything she learns.

I like this book for many reasons. Gregorich’s major characters are not placards for “equal rights” or “men are dogs.” These men and Sunshine live and breathe, cuss and swear and spit, and play baseball down and dirty. The author deftly moves in and out of the characters’ perspectives without confusing the reader. Her sense of baseball history is intuitive; she apparently used the experiences of Jackie Robinson to show that the first female major league player would have to endure, sadly, the same abuse. She adds in historical facts about women playing the game that are central to the story and not intrusive. Her baseball sense is keen; her descriptions sound like what fans would hear from the best play-by-play announcers.

The third edition’s cover is, I believe, better. Although the first edition and the paperback both had a colorful drawing of a smiling, pigtailed young woman with a glove and ball and a stadium in the background, which was okay, I did not like the cover blurb: “There’s mayhem in the major leagues when the season opens with a woman shortstop. Will baseball ever be the same?” That was absolutely annoying to me. The third edition’s cover has the legs of a person safely reaching first base with no commentary. It’s simple; it’s baseball.

Also, I like the inclusion of an incident in the third chapter that wasn’t in the original or paperback. During Sunshine’s double-A experience, she plays in a game umpired by a female, who also receives mockery from Sunshine’s coach and the players. Female umpires have been calling balls and strikes in the minors for decades, so while unusual, it wasn’t unheard of, but I guess the previous publisher must have thought the inclusion of yet another baseball woman would be too much for readers.

However, my biggest reason for reading this book over and over and recommending it to everyone I know is the premise of a talented, skilled, hardworking, determined young woman making it to a major league team. Even though She’s On First is fiction, for me over the years it provided a lifeline and led me to find the Philadelphia Women’s Baseball League, to play the game I’ve loved all my life, and to work on a manuscript describing the many women in our country and throughout the world who are doing what most Americans don’t think they can do: play baseball. Soon, I believe, the major leagues will see a real Linda Sunshine, and I can’t wait.

Oh, by the way, the Phillies won that game, scoring seven runs in the bottom of the ninth. The walk off homer, a three-run pinch hit shot, came from the bat of one of my favorite players, a scrappy catcher in (at the time) a big man’s game, Mike Lieberthal.

Looking back on it, I realize it must have been an omen.

Barbara Gregorich is the author of Woman at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball and the children’s books Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner.

She’s On First can be purchased at amazon.com.

This review was originally blogged on OpenSalon.com.

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