High school senior Jill Cafferty had been well aware that she was likely to be the first female baseball player drafted into the majors this year—but she didn’t expect to be scooped up by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third round. If she’d been picked past the tenth round, she’d have declined the offer and headed off to Stanford—but the third round it is, so she defers college and enters the world of professional sports.
It’s a book not just for sports fans, but for process nerds. There’s plenty about baseball culture and about straight-up playing the game, but it also tells the lesser-known story of what happens between being drafted and actually playing in the majors. It talks about training regimens; about warm-ups and cool-downs; about the tradition and culture within the clubhouse and about the difference between teasing and abuse. It gives us details about getting a uniform tailored and about how a team comprised of people from around the world overcomes language barriers; it shows us how team managers actually manage their players, and it shows us the importance of optics and the press, about baseball not just as a sport, but as a business, and about players not just as athletes, but as celebrities.
And, of course, it’s about all of that through the lens of Big Change—through the lens of what it would mean to introduce a female player into that largely male world. While this book has some weaknesses—which I’ll get to—it’s really, really strong on that last point:
Mostly, the people cheered and shouted encouraging things, although there were also quite a few catcalls of the “Go back to softball!” variety, and some exceedingly profane and obscene remarks, along with—yes—people holding protest signs. Because, of course, her very existence on the planet was already desecrating baseball.
Because Jill has been an up-and-comer for years, she’s very familiar with getting pushback, and she’s impressively levelheaded and cool in dealing with it. She’s a military kid, unfailingly polite even in the face of red-faced abusive advice from “fans,” and that steadiness, that maturity, that calm, will undoubtedly feel unbelievable to some readers. But it should be noted that although she’s now dealing with a higher-level of celebrity than ever before, she’s gotten there gradually, and so it makes sense that she wouldn’t make the rookie mistakes that someone entirely new to the limelight would.
Less explicable, though, is how so many of her word choices and so much of the phrasing in her interior monologues and observations make her sound more middle-aged than teen:
Her aunt smiled, which made her look much younger than she normally did in her chic power suits, with her hair up.
There’s quite a lot of ableist language in here—“gimpy” and “cripple” are both used—which isn’t surprising in a largely-jock community, but which is somewhat surprising coming from Jill, whose best friend is physically disabled and dealing with the long term aftermath of a car accident. Those terms included, much of this book reads like a teen novel from the 1970s or 1980s—which isn’t necessarily a craft weakness or a flaw, but is certainly jarring.
I make it a general rule to avoid commenting on things that AREN’T in a book, to confine myself entirely to what’s on the page. But it did seem striking, given the parallels, that there was no mention of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947—unless there was a subtle nod that I missed. Like Robinson, she navigates being The Only One In The Room—she is expected to speak for all other female baseball players, and because of her ground-breaking position, her success or failure will be attached to any and every other woman who shares her same dream:
“It’s supposed to be the American pastime,” she said. “Maybe it’s time to let the other fifty percent of the population actually get a chance to play, if they want. And the fact that I was terrible out there tonight has nothing to do with what any other female player might do on some different night.”
It’s not a perfect book. But it’s a meaty one, and one that deals with multiple issues, to varying levels of success. At the very least, it will spur lots of conversation and thought, and it’s one that some readers will feel like they’ve been waiting their whole lives to read.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.