They loved a game they were only supposed to watch, perhaps more so than the men for whom they were substitutes. America forgot them after the war, but the lucky ones who saw them play still sing their praises: Belle Compton’s grace, Eugenia Sledge’s swing, the great summer of ’43. The women came from everywhere, Oregon to Great Neck, Waco to Wyoming, Atlanta to Los Angeles, Virginia to Chicago itself: the country was forging an army of Americans, and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League could be no less. They were housewives, girlfriends, teachers, accountants, riveters. They were athletes of the highest caliber, and they were gutsy, and they were proud of their uniforms.
That first year you could see what was coming at the tryouts at Wrigley Field. Three days of winnowing gave Stanhope Nixon four teams from sixty players, who all then went their separate ways, to Kenosha and Rockford, Racine and South Bend. Nixon was East Coast and old money, an industrialist making a gesture, and he was enjoying the publicity of aiding the war effort, all the way to a fat contract for the Nixon Nitration Works (back on its feet after exploding when many of his players were still little girls).
Stanhope Nixon, however, is incidental. It’s about these women, and the teams they forged and the game they played. The press, the scandals, the campaigning, the drama, all of it was something that happened around them. It was, at its heart, always about these women.
PART ONE: ROSTER
Guarnere, Betty (#22) — Second base
Betty loves the way lipstick feels on her mouth: a little greasy, a touch of perfume. She didn’t bring much from home, but her Rhapsody in Red, the color she’s stolen from Woolworth’s since 1931, that’s a necessity. Lipstick makes demands on you. You can’t just wear it. You have to control yourself. You have to know what to do with your mouth, to put it on without a mirror and to keep it from getting everywhere. That takes skill, and everyone knows you’ve got it when you do.
She picks up her silver tube off the bare vanity and pops it. She don’t need a mirror to put her lips on, but she likes having this one. Outside her room, the others are bustling, in and out of the hallway, some scrambling, some waiting around, some not even started. Betty still can’t get over that she’s got a room to herself. All this, and paid seventy-five a week? Not bad for a kid like her. This is making it. Coming from a matchbox, nine brothers and sisters and no money? She’s fine. She’s the baby. She knows how to be fine.
“Hey, you ready yet?” Babe is hanging off the door, looking grumpy. Betty concentrates on her lipstick.
“We got ten minutes. Settle down.”
Babe crosses her arms. “You really wearing that to practice?”
She presses her lips together. “Why not?”
Babe shrugs. “Shit, Betty, it’s baseball.”
She winks at Babe’s reflection. “Don’t mean I gotta choose.” She grimaces: nothing on her teeth.
Babe ain’t having it. “I’m waiting downstairs,” she announces, and stomps off.
Betty looks into the mirror again. She puts her shoulder back and gives her reflection a knowing smirk. Go get ‘em, Betty. You know it.
Her shoes are on. Her hair is brushed beneath her hat. She’s got all the buttons on her uniform lined up. Her glove is the last thing she takes off her vanity. She hops on her feet and doesn’t push the chair back in. “Let’s move it, ladies!” she barks down the hallway. “Grab your gear, let’s get going!” The Quaker gives her a puzzled look on the stairs. Betty sails past, grinning.
Powers, Darlene “Shifty” (#14) — Center field
She wants to be the first to see it. Not that it’s a new stadium, but it’ll be theirs. Wrigley Field was the first place she ever played with walls. The thought of playing where you don’t have to chase balls into creeks or pasture is strange, but exciting. She had trouble sleeping last night imagining their stadium. Now she’s nearly pressed against the window as the bus makes its way the short mile toward practice.
“What about you? Shifty, right?”
She turns. That Belle Compton is looking over her shoulder at her. She’s tall and blonde and she’s sharing Shifty’s seat. The other girls around them are all watching her. Belle wags her eyebrows. “Any thoughts on our coach?”
“I haven’t met him yet,” she says, and Belle chuckles.
“Who has? Pretty swell to have a former Yale all-star, though.” She winks, and the other girls laugh. Shifty doesn’t entirely know why.
“Yale?” someone says. “Are they known for baseball?”
Belle straightens in her seat, her expression sly. “They’re known for plenty, ladies.”
Shifty pauses. “I think it’s nice of Mr. Nixon to have his son coach us. We must be real good.”
“No question that we’re good,” crows the girl from Oregon, elbowing her friend. “Let’s hope he’s up to the job!”
Shifty smiles, politely, and when nobody else talks to her again, she turns back to the window.
It’s called Beyer Stadium. She feels her throat close up some as she stares at it. There’s already a sign over the ticket booth, Home of the Rockford Peaches! That’s her. Shifty thinks she’s dreaming still, even in the damp locker room, especially as they hurry up the steps and out onto their own home field.
Liebgott, Josephine “Joey” (#5) — Shortstop
She’s a tall woman, her own age, dressed in matronly athletic gear and holding every limb tightly. Her hair is thick and pulled close against her head. She glares down at them from a thin, severe face. Joey clenches her fist inside her glove. Beautiful. She’s a Jew.
“It is my job to look out for you whether you are on or off the field,” Mrs. Sobel is saying. “While you are Rockford Peaches, each and every one of you is under my watch. If you have any questions or concerns, you may always feel free to come to me for guidance. I am here to be your friend and mentor.”
“So our coach isn’t here?” someone asks from behind. Belatedly, the player raises her hand.
“Mr. Nixon sends his regrets.” A muscle in Mrs. Sobel’s jaw bulges. “He’ll be here first thing tomorrow.” She fingers the whistle hanging around her neck. “I will be leading the morning’s practice.” A few of the others stand up straighter, trying to look ready. Some look dubious. Joey knows she’s slouching. So what. Who is this to tell her how to train? She didn’t ride three days in third class for this.
Sobel sees it in their faces. She fishes up a pocket watch and squints back at them. “We will begin with a timed mile. I expect you all are fit and able to begin at once.” Some girls begin to limber up and stretch where they stand. Sobel’s whistle shrieks. “At once!” she yells, and tears off along the foul line.
“Ah, Jesus Christ,” Joey mutters, but she isn’t going to just stand there.
Muck, Wilhelmina “Scout” (#28) — Third base
It is not hyperbole to say that Scout’s legs are screaming right now. Some might consider it a blessing to spend the afternoon seated, indoors, in a clean change of clothes, but after Sobel’s regimen of sprints, relays, curl-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks and (her favorite) the run up and down the full height of the stadium seats (during which she took a magnificent tumble), Scout would rather be face-down in her pillow, possibly crying, and possibly also covered in ice.
And yet, here they all are, in a feat of endurance likened only to the Iditarod, listening to Sobel expound on the importance of table settings. At least Scout isn’t the only one who’s flagging. Harry’s eyes have completely glazed over, and Josie keeps shifting in her seat, trying to keep her head up. Gina, on the other hand, is rapt, and follows Sobel’s every word and movement. Scout has a feeling that Colonel Sink will soon have company in Gina’s repertoire of impressions.
“Miss Winters!” Sobel barks, and Ruth flattens her hands on her desk. Sobel folds her hands behind her back. “Tell me the means by which a lady should distinguish between the forks on her table, and in which order they are to be used.”
“We haven’t addressed that yet, ma’am,” Ruth says after a pause.
Sobel begins pacing. “Are you not a college graduate, Miss Winters? I should think any young woman with an education would have been instructed in these matters already.”
Scout is amazed that Ruth doesn’t yell: she wants to. “I beg your pardon,” Ruth says quietly. “I focused on academics in school.”
Sobel narrows her eyes. “As you say.” She continues lecturing on the social and personal implications of using the wrong silverware. Scout steals a glance at Ruth and, in the margins of her manners book, scribbles the retort.
Winters, Ruth (#17) — Starting pitcher
The food at dinner is rich, and though she is hungry, she has to leave portions of her plate uneaten. When the server comes around and collects the dishes, she dips her head and presses her knees together, embarrassed not to be cleaning up after herself. Under Mrs. Sobel’s watchful eye, they are all excused for the evening. Never has Ruth been so glad of having her own room. Today has left her harried and discomfited.
As they file out of the dining room, she reminds herself that adjusting to the WACs would also make demands on her. She would have been exhausted and full of army food, had she not listened to Mr. Strayer when he came through and saw her play. Everything takes time to prove itself. Even if she’s not fighting a war, there was a reason she got on that train to Chicago.
The girls fan out through the huge house, some sprawling into plush chairs, others running up the stairs, chattering like kids. Ruth notices Catherine at her shoulder, also strolling toward the dormitories. They exchange smiles, and Catherine says, “Quite a team we’ve got.”
Ruth glances below the banister, where Mrs. Sobel lingers, clasping her hands. “Very true.”
Catherine studies her as they climb. “You sound less certain.”
“No. It’s not the girls.” She looks at Catherine for a moment. In the few days they’ve been together, she’s proved to be a steady and levelheaded, a realist. Ruth breathes out slowly. “I’m not sure we’re being taken seriously.”
“Straighten yourself, Miss Guarnere!” Gina belts out from someone’s room. “The immigrant hunch has no place at this table!” Betty’s braying laugh rises above the others. Catherine raises her eyebrows.
“It’s just been one day. The first one is always a bit rough.”
Ruth nods, hoping to convince herself. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Malarkey, Donna (#13) — First base
The screen door crashes against the wood siding behind her. “Yipes!” She shakes out her shoulders and grins. “Chilly out here.”
Scout strolls out onto the back porch. “Smells like the Midwest, doesn’t it?”
Donna can’t disagree. Mornings in Oregon are piney and rich and wet; how many sunrises have greeted her through the tall trees by the river? Here the air is all grass and farm smells. Just beyond the careful landscaping around the house, open fields roll alongside the two-lane road. Scout walks to the top of the steps and peers at the coach house across the lawn. “No lights.”
Donna searches for some other sign of their coach. “Maybe he’s still sleeping.”
“Why aren’t we sleeping again?”
“Good question.” Donna hops down the stairs and heads for the driveway. Dewy grass brushes against her ankles. “No car either.”
Scout catches up and taps out a cigarette for herself. When she offers, Donna accepts: who is she to turn down a Lucky Strike? She digs out her lighter as they circle the house. “You think he’ll show up tomorrow?” she asks after her first puff.
Scout crooks an eyebrow. “Are you going anywhere if he doesn’t?”
“Fair enough.” Donna cranes her neck at the dark house. She takes one last chance, and jumps up onto the railing around the porch. She grips the column, peers toward the top floor and sighs. “Okay, half a pack says he’s here by tonight.” She drops down into the groundcover.
“Done,” says Scout. “Let’s hope I’m ponying up, huh?”
Perconte, Francis “Frankie” (#3) — Third base
Frankie stops at the entrance of the dugout. She waves Gina over and nods at home plate. “Get a load of this.”
Gina squints. All they can see is a nurse’s uniform and the back of a short, sensible haircut, but her voice carries, and their mystery woman is chewing Sobel out. Gina cants her head. “Can you tell what she’s saying?”
Frankie stashes a ball in her glove and steps out onto the field. She and Gina slip closer, making a show of passing the ball back and forth. Their relays slow down as they get closer. Sobel stands rigid and still, and her eye ain’t looking nowhere near the nurse’s. “You ought to know better!” she’s saying in a thick Southern accent. “If you were their coach, you’d know there’s a nurse or a doctor on the scene whenever and wherever you got practice. If something had happened, God forbid, you’d have had nobody.” Frankie looks at Gina, who whistles.
Babe appears behind Frankie’s shoulder. “What’s up?” She eyes the scene, unwilling to interrupt.
The nurse is going full steam. She gives no quarter, even as the rest of the team assembles on the field. “You should have called, or waited for someone. That was unnecessary endangerment of these players. You’re their chaperone. This must have been explained to you.”
“Ladies,” says Catherine, real quiet, “let’s start warming up.”
Dahlia, Little Miss Radcliffe College, comes up last. She looks around at everyone like a dope. “Is Nixon here?” Of course, her voice carries too.
Sobel’s head snaps up. “Peaches, begin your warm-ups!” she shouts, and marches toward them, elbows swinging. The nurse blinks, but recovers quick enough, and follows. Both of them look so murderous that Frankie just starts pounding her ball into her glove to keep her hands going.
“This is gonna be a trip,” she mutters.
“One for the books,” Gina mutters back.
Lipton, Catherine “Mama Lips” (#21) — Second base
“It’s nothing,” she hears Ruth saying as she comes near.
“That’s how you hurt it worse. Go easy on it, huh?”
Catherine pauses by the bench. Elaine Roe has fascinating hands: she works them over Ruth’s ankle, pressing and kneading with long, strong fingers. “Everything okay?” she asks, focusing up on Ruth.
“Yeah.” She shakes her head. “Just a little limp.”
Nurse Roe pulls Ruth’s grimy sock up. “You leave those slides to Guarnere,” she says. “Stay off that foot tonight. Can you do that for me?” Ruth nods and gives Catherine a rueful little smile. Nurse Roe pats her leg. “Should be better by tomorrow. All right.”
Catherine holds out a hand, and Ruth pulls herself up, holding in a wince as she puts her weight on her foot. Other players slouch and stagger into the locker room, some bartering for first use of the showers. Mrs. Sobel hurries out toward the bus, dabbing her forehead with a handkerchief. More than a few glares follow in her wake.
“Hey,” Catherine says to the group of girls nearest, “don’t worry about her. We just do our jobs and play well, that’s all we’re here for.”
Frankie spreads her hands. “What, so if we think nice thoughts, she’ll go away?”
Catherine dips her head. “All we need is focus.”
“Focus, huh.” Babe snorts. “This ain’t how you run a goddamn team. I may not have played all fancy before, but I know this ain’t it.”
She and Ruth exchange glances. Catherine sees that she knows the stakes here. “I’m sure Coach Nixon will be here tomorrow,” says Ruth.
“Coach Nixon!” Babe throws down her hat and turns to her locker. “Who cares? To hell with the son of a bitch.”
Compton, Lynne “Belle” (#18) — Catcher
Betty passes back the lighter and snorts. “Yeah, DiMaggio wouldn’t melt in your mouth.”
Belle barks a laugh as they walk. “What does that mean?”
Betty gestures with her cigarette. “I’m saying, Miss College Ball, just ‘cause you’re at home plate don’t mean we’re all looking at you.”
“Now who’s putting words in my mouth?” She takes a long drag off her smoke. “I’m just saying, a good catcher makes all the difference. You’re calling pitches, watching your opponent’s plays. It’s not just squatting in the dirt with the ump all up behind you.”
“I’ll stick with second, if you don’t mind.” Betty winks. “And I’m sure you don’t.”
It’s just Catherine in the upstairs lounge, actually browsing through the books in the walls. “You know those are decorative,” says Belle as they drop down onto the couch.
Catherine looks up from the thick volume in her hand. “They’ve got words in them,” she says, with that quiet, wry smile. Her face shifts as she tries not to wrinkle her nose. “Hey, you wouldn’t mind smoking outside, would you?”
Betty checks the front of her book and lifts her eyebrows. “Your fella Shakespeare don’t appreciate fine tobacco?”
Belle swats her and gets to her feet. “No problem. Come on, you been out here yet?” She nods at the French doors leading to the front balcony. Outside sit a trio of Adirondack chairs, swimming in sunlight. Betty shrugs and follows her out.
The view is fantastic, in a delightfully Midwestern way: fields and woodlands stretch out in all directions, interrupted by the occasional tall tree or barn. The ballpark is a mile off, where there’s plenty of town to surround it. That the landscape can change so quickly delights Belle no end.
Someone’s voice drifts out through an open window, not quite within view. Betty and Belle exchange glances, at once on high alert. They strain to discern the words, and head closer to the edge once the voice becomes clear.
“—Truly unprofessional, asking me to take this on. I’m a chaperone, not a drill sergeant. I told Colonel Sink, if he asks me to do one more—”
Webster, Dahlia (#16) — Pitcher
At dinner tonight I utterly failed to disabuse the others of the notion that I’m attending Harvard. I have to consider myself educated now: if no one is willing to understand the difference between Harvard and Radcliffe, it’s no use telling them about classes opening to women this fall. I’m frustrated enough sitting through Sobel’s absolutely elementary and condescending manners and hygiene “lessons.” It’s worse to realize how very much some of these girls need them. I knew this wouldn’t exactly be a Seven Sisters league, but I don’t see why I can’t excuse myself before I die of boredom or contact embarrassment, whichever one comes first.
Still, despite all that, I do find myself taken with the characters I’ve wound up with. We’re all fish out of water here. Despite being terrible at poker, I sat in on the game Harry Welsh hosted, which slowly but loudly evolved into some breed of South Philadelphia street gambling, despite Betty’s repeated assertions that “broads never play craps.” If we were supposed to bond, I think it may have worked, though I also think I learned more about Glenn Miller than I ever cared to know. Several of the girls have boyfriends in the service. Georgina Luz decreed that every time Kit or Phil or any of the others came up, the offenders would have to perform an act of the group’s choosing. If this sort of thing keeps up, I should invest in a camera.
Ramirez, Josefina “Josie” (#10) — Catcher
These rooms are stuffy. Josie grunts as she struggles with the window, but the sill is thick with old varnish and doesn’t budge.
“You’ll have to put in for a fan.” Belle nods sympathetically. “Good to know some problems are really universal.”
Josie steps back, looking for a latch she may have missed. “Universal how?”
Belle gestures. “You’re from California, you know what I mean.”
Josie looks at her. “From very different parts,” she says.
Belle laughs. “Santa Barbara’s not too far from L.A.” Josie shrugs and studies the window again. Belle seems to get twitchy in the quiet. She walks over to Josie’s dresser. “Wow, they sure went to town for you.” Josie glances at her: she picks up one of the many bottles of creams and ointments she’d been prescribed after recruitment, to ensure that she, like all the rest of them, was a lady. All the jars were exactly where they’d been set out when she arrived.
“Apparently I need a lot of taming,” she says wryly. Belle picks up a jar. Josie couldn’t even say which is which. She has oils for her hair, scrubs for her face, lotions for her skin, balm for her feet and hands, tweezers for her eyebrows and any number of other smelly concoctions she doesn’t want to look at.
Belle pulls an appreciative face. “This is nice stuff.”
Josie shrugs. “You’re welcome to it.”
“Oh, I can’t use this.” She sets the jar down again. “Hair serum? It’s all for someone more exotic than me.”
Josie pauses, and gives her that look. Her papa said it was a face to curdle milk. He and her brothers always knew they were in trouble when that look came out. Belle is playing with another bottle, and doesn’t notice.
Luz, Georgina “Gina” (#8) — Shortstop
Another fine morning at the home of your Rockford Peaches! Breakfast has been served, toilets have been completed, and all our eager young stars-in-the-making are excited for a new day at Beyer Field. In fact, they’re ready and raring to go, right on schedule. But what’s this? Their dutiful chaperone is nowhere to be found. Gee willickers, girls, what’s the scoop on that?
OUR PLUCKY HEROINE: Come on, Lorraine, let’s do the smart thing and drive off now.
LORRAINE: You know I can’t, and I told you to call me Gerald.
O.P.H.: Look, you drive us over there, I promise no one will ever know the difference. Here, I’ll show you.
HER PAL, SCOUT: Jesus, not too loud, Gina!
O.P.H.: “Loud? There will be no loudness on my field, ladies! I am your chaperone, the most important person on this team. Peaches play like professionals! And professionals do not dilly-dally! Miss Malarkey! Is that merriment I see? Three miles around the bases, right now! Forward and then backward! Don’t dawdle! The rest of you, pass those balls you’re holding!”
BETTY, a scoundrelette, raps on the window. Heavy footsteps hurry toward the bus. MRS. SOBEL appears! Ominous silence in place of ominous music.
SOBEL: Let’s get going.
Our plucky heroine once heard that discretion was the better part of valor, and so she watches and waits for her next move. Will today be the day their esteemed chaperone actually cracks? What will the Rockford Peaches have to endure once they hit the field? Will the dreaded running relays and timed crunches give way to actionable abuse? Stay tuned!
Welsh, Harriet “Harry” (#9) — First base
Harry thinks about the hip flask she has stashed in her locker. She thinks about twisting off the cap, and hearing the liquid sloshing inside. She thinks about tipping it back, and she thinks about that first hot flush of brandy that will fill her mouth, engulf her throat and hit her stomach as soon as she’s free of Mrs. Sobel.
They all have their ways of coping with running the stands. Every few steps, Gina mutters “Salt peanuts, salt peanuts!” to herself. Scout had been leading them in Andrews Sisters songs, but now they’ve all fallen into bloody-minded silence. Even Ruth, who usually keeps up a steady stream of encouragements, has set her jaw, her face schooled to near inscrutability. It’s poor cover for her rising temper.
“Eight days!” Sobel barks. “Are you ready, Peaches? Because I wouldn’t pay to see you play ball today!”
Harry curses her adorable peach-colored uniform, with its just-above-the-knee shirt, matching socks and belt, and bulls-eye of a team logo on her chest. She touches the back of the highest seat and makes the hairpin turn back down the aisle.
“Any player who does not touch every step will begin the run all over again!” screams Sobel. “We all pull our weight here!”
Harry grits her teeth and clenches her fists. Sweat pours off every inch of her body. She imagines the pleasure she would get out of passing a ball at full speed right to Sobel’s flapping mouth.
“There is no excuse for mediocrity!” Sobel shouts. “Heigh-ho, Silver!”
“For crying out loud,” Gina pants. Harry manages an open-mouthed huff of laughter. “Whoa,” says Gina, immediately after. Her eyes go wide. “Whoa whoa whoa!”
At once, Harry tries to skid to a stop. A man stands waiting at the bottom of the steps. The players spill into the stands, trying to not get trampled; Busby Berkeley couldn’t choreograph it better.
“What is this?” Sobel marches through the open aisle, elbows flying. “Why are you stopping? There is no excuse for disrupting—”
“If it’s a bad time,” says the man, “I can come back.
Sobel deflates, more out of shock than anything else. “Mr. Nixon,” she says weakly.
Harry, and every other Peach in the stands, stares at him. He’s a handsome fellow, about Harry’s own age, if she had to guess. Even with his clean shave and slicked back hair, there’s something untidy about him. (It would figure, of course: the man is three days late to his own first day at work.) Nixon stands there, a tailored jacket over his arm, looking nothing like someone who plays baseball.
“You’ve certainly kept them busy, Helen.”
Sobel is still staring at him. The muscles in her jaw and temples are twitching. “Colonel Sink?”
“He knows,” is all Nixon says. He drapes the jacket over the nearest seat and clasps his hands behind his back. “Ladies, my apologies. Family matters kept me at home, so I hope you’ll forgive me.” The team is silent, though plenty of significant looks fly back and forth. Nixon gives them all a languid smile. It seems, to Harry, something like self-defense.
Randleman, Devina “Able Grable” (#33) — Right field
Hard to say what you can believe, so many different stories going around. Some of the girls have to talk to think. Devina has cousins like that. Just means you listen closer to hear what they’re saying.
Joey Liebgott wasn’t mad before. She is now. What the hell kind of right does he have to waltz back in like he didn’t do nothing wrong?
You know what this is? Donna stabs the air with her cigarette. Nepotism. Straight-up nepotism. I don’t care if he’s Superman. It’s going to take a lot to get me to call him coach.
I heard Dahlia saying something, says Frankie. Apparently at Yale—
Devina tunes it out. Nothing to do but wait and find out, and to play like she was recruited to do.
“What about you?” Joey’s voice brings her out of her thoughts. They’re all looking at her. They don’t want answers. They want agreement.
No matter. She shrugs. “We ain’t a team because of hating the same person.”
Heffron, Edith “Babe” (#4) — Left field
She bends neatly in half from her perches on the edge of Betty’s mattress. “Maybe it was all a trick,” she muses, holding her stretch.
Betty, mid-stroke with her brush, gives Babe a look in the mirror. “The hell are you talking about?”
“Three days of Sobel,” she says. “You know, to show us how bad it could be. This Nixon guy can’t be worse than that stick-up-her-ass nag.”
“I’m gonna sock you in your mouth if you don’t shut your face about Sobel,” says Betty. “Or Nixon.” Babe starts to speak, but Betty twists around in her seat and points with her brush. “Don’t you have your own room? Go on, scram. I’m done with it.” There’s no real heat in her words, but Babe stands up anyway.
“Be good,” she says cheerfully on her way out.
“We’ll see!” Betty retorts. Babe shuts her door for her.
The hallways are quieter than they were half an hour ago: the fervor of the evening has given way to flat-out exhaustion. She passes Dahlia trundling away from the bathroom, toothbrush and toothpaste faithfully in hand. Below them, someone is coming up the stairs from the dark first floor. Babe stops at the railing and leans over to look. It’s the Quaker making the floorboards creak.
“It’s just me,” she says.
Babe crooks a half-smile at them both. “The last-to-bed club, huh?”
Ruth stops just below the landing. “I hope everyone here likes long days,” she says, so dryly Babe almost misses the fact that she’s joking at all.
Dahlia groans. “I like long sleeps better. I will see you two the morning.”
“Yeah,” says Babe. She looks between the two others. “Sleep good, I guess.”
“With our first game a week away?” Dahlia gives a small, wry huff. “Sure. No sweat.”
PART TWO: SWING BATTER
“So,” says Joey, looking around. “South Bend, huh?”
“Shut up,” sighs Dahlia. “Just please just shut up.”
Fourteen hours earlier
“What is that? Is that a newspaper?” Joey yanks the morning Tribune from Dahlia’s hands and deftly sidesteps her attempt to grab it back.
Dahlia scowls and holds out her hand. “I was reading that.”
“You reading about us? Get it out of here.” Joey tries to catch someone’s attention. “Betty, am I right?”
“Papers are full of shit, Web,” says Betty, adjusting an earring as she passes.
Dahlia makes another attempt for the paper, but Joey easily slips away. “Do you play basketball? You’re terrible at this.” She steals a glance at the headline and plants her feet. “Whoa, whoa, hang on.” She gives Dahlia a toothy grin. “War news, huh? ‘Nixons to Corrupt 30 More in South Bend’ — gosh, I hope I’m invited.”
“Oho! More pearl-clutching?” Gina scampers over and hovers at Joey’s shoulder.
Dahlia throws up her hands. “Oh, I see, so my cardinal sin was keeping the paper to myself.”
Gina winks. “Sharing helps the boys overseas, Dahlia. Just like buying war bonds.”
“Listen, listen!” Joey snorts. “‘Regrettable though it be that the sadly misled and misguided girls of Kenosha and Racine have already consorted to making a mockery of both sexes, male and female, we call upon leveler heads in Rockford and South Bend to abstain from this undignified display and remember their proper place in this country. We must not forget what sort of society our boys are fighting to defend.’”
Gina stabs the page. “This goes up on the bus. We need all the moral fiber we can get.”
Joey smirks. “I think Sobel’s got us covered.”
Gina lays her hand over her heart. “Our very own bran muffin of morality.”
Dahlia snatches her paper back. She rolls it up and sticks it under her arm, glowering. Ruth appears behind her, her toiletries bunched in one hand. “You girls packed?” Her eye falls on the newspaper. Dahlia pushes it further back, defiant. Ruth ignores it. “We pull out in twenty minutes.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Gina steps back to let her through. “Hey, you want to hear what—”
“Probably not,” says Ruth, pushing past. “But some other time.”
Joey watches her go, and turns to Gina. “What happens when you’ve got too much moral fiber?”
“I think they make suppositories,” Gina begins. Dahlia groans and stomps off to her room.
Josephine Dörthe Liebgott is the eldest of eight children. As her brothers and sisters get younger, their names get more and more American. Her folks came from Austria, and keep trying to leave it behind. They can’t get rid of it all, though. Joey’s ma can’t cook pork worth a goddamn. Joey’s pa kisses his fingers and pats the doorframe whenever he walks inside. They speak English all day, even at home, even when they fumble for words through their frustration. Nothing changes the fact that they were immigrants, though. Joey didn’t know a lullaby in English until she was ten.
The Liebgott kids were in Catholic school. Their parents wouldn’t stand for what passed for public education. When they got there, they didn’t know any of the nuns’ sayings or prayers. Joey was ashamed to be so ignorant. She didn’t know what her family did instead. The stray Yiddish in her parents’ talk, the quiet Saturdays, the songs they hummed while they were working, that didn’t feel like religion, or culture. The nuns were terrifying in their consistency. They had the world in its place. Joey learned their language like it was going out of style. Her kid brothers and sisters would never have to ask.
Through the door, Ruth watches Lorraine, a man no more than a kid, nurse his smoke outside. He spins the keys to the bus on one finger, watching Mrs. Sobel out of the corner of his eye. Every girl is noted and interrogated as to the contents of her bag before she’s allowed to board. Behind her, the seats are filling up in clusters. A roll of tape makes the rounds as cut-outs, photos, articles and anything else flat enough to stick goes up on the metal walls.
Belle pounds the seat as she passes, already full of pep. Ruth gives her a smile, but keeps watching Sobel, who is pointedly checking her wristwatch. Lorraine finishes his cigarette and flicks it away. He hurries away from Sobel’s disapproving look and climbs the steps up into the driver’s seat. Nixon appears just before they’re scheduled to pull out.
“Mr. Nixon,” Mrs. Sobel begins tartly.
“I know, I know.” With an after you gesture from him, Sobel boards and chooses a seat in no man’s land. Nixon pops up the steps and turns toward the aisle. “All right, listen up!” The conversational roar simmers down as all faces turn toward him. He grips the seat back on either side of him, one of which is Ruth’s. “We’re not stopping until Indiana, so if you get bored, be sure nothing you do to pass the time makes Mr. Lorraine runs us off the road. Myself, I like showtunes.” Ruth has time to note Mrs. Sobel’s expression of pinched horror before she turns around again. The rest of the girls cheer as the engine revs up and the bus pulls out of the driveway.
Nixon settles into the seat across from Ruth with a loud sigh. Behind them, Scout starts up a rousing chorus of “There’s No People Like Show People.” Ruth looks down at her handbag, and reaches for the paperback she’s stashed inside. When she glances up at Nixon, he’s crossed his arms and slouched into a corner, dozing.
His voice interrupts her about a hundred pages in. “I have to apologize.” Ruth looks up: he’s looking at her, his arms spread across the back of the seat.
She slips her finger between her pages and sets the book down. “For?”
He shrugs with one shoulder. “The pre-game social. My mother thinks it will render your sportsmanship more ladylike.”
Ruth pauses. “Can we expect the Blue Sox to be ladylike on the field?”
Nixon laughs, and pulls himself upright to cross his leg. “Chesty Puller is a good coach. He doesn’t go for showy. They’ll fight us for every inch, if he’s training them like I think he is.”
At the back, the chorus has forgotten or fudged enough verses to muddle on to another song, which may or may not be “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
Ruth watches him. “You don’t seem worried.”
“Why would I be worried?”
“They have a little head start on us.”
“Only three days. And you girls were doing fine.” Ruth’s silence must come across as commiseration. Nixon reaches into a pocket, pulls out a silver flask and unscrews the top. As soon as she smells it, she picks her book up again in a hurry.
“Frankie, there ain’t a thing on that seat. Sit your pretty ass down, all right?”
“I’m not ruining this dress,” says Frankie for the tenth time. She teeters on her knees, her skirt in her hands. “Babe had her shoes up here all the way from Rockford.”
“Yeah, clean shoes,” Babe interjects. “Jesus, Perco, live a little.”
“Ladies,” Sobel booms from the front of the bus. She gets to her feet and everyone falls silent. She watches them all suspiciously. “I expect you to behave yourselves here. Tonight we are guests, not opponents. If there is any conflict, you will come straight to me to resolve it.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Joey says with the rest. She scratches at a wiggly scab on her knee. “Hey Frankie, you ready to be a lady yet?”
“No slurping, no cussing, no being loud. Just like church.” She kicks the seat in front of her. “Guess I am. You?”
“Guess we’ll see.”
“I feel like I’m at a wedding,” mutters Belle as they trickle into the dining room.
“I never been to a wedding that looks like this,” Joey mutters back. The whole house is done up like it’s some Italian villa. The walls are a rich sea foam color, lit up by lamps in fancy sconces. The tables have white cloth napkins and china and everything. Each plate even has a name card.
“Courtesy of the Studebakers,” says one of the Blue Sox dryly. When Belle and Joey give her a look, she explains, “Mr. Nixon père knows the family, so they generously donated a spare summer home.”
Belle pulls an appreciative face. “That was nice of them.”
“I’m sure it was the least they could do.” The Blue Sox player puts out her hand. “Robin Leckie, center field. You’re Belle Compton, aren’t you.”
Belle laughs and shakes Robin’s hand. “I am. This is Joey Liebgott, shortstop.”
Robin nods. “Pleasure to meet you. If we’re not close at the table, I’ll see you at our officially sanctioned mingling hour.”
The places alternate between Peaches and Blue Sox. Most everyone winds up shooting uncomfortable looks at the closest familiar face. Joey has a demure redhead on one side and a girl who introduces herself as Runner on the other. She’s familiar to Joey, and when she opens her mouth, Joey remembers, because she chattered all the way through batting warm-ups at tryouts. Beautiful. Joey finds herself fidgeting almost as soon as she’s in her chair.
The other coach, an older-looking fellow, dings his fork against a glass and stands up. “Good evening, all. On behalf of the South Bend Blue Sox, I’d like to welcome our guests from Rockford, Mr. Lewis Nixon and his Peaches. We’re looking forward to a fine game tomorrow and excellent company tonight. Thank you for coming all this way.”
Nixon gets to his feet. “Thank you, Chesty.” He nods at the chaperone. “Mrs. Haney. We do appreciate your hospitality, and we’re looking forward to paying it back. It smells like the cook’s outdone herself, so I won’t hold up the food any longer.” As soon as Nixon’s in his chair again, servers appear through doors pushing carts with soup tureens.
“So, your coach finally showed.” Runner eyes Nixon as she drums her fingers. “You like him?”
“Of course we like him.” Joey frowns. “What do you mean, showed?” On the other side of her, the redhead sighs and shakes her head.
Runner has a huge, white smile. “You know how it is. Hoosier heard it that he was—”
“Willa, for God’s sake, be civil.” The redhead thins her lips. “Sorry, don’t mind her.” She’s got a long face and a wide mouth, and a Southern accent you could cut with a knife. Joey glances at her place card: Eugenia.
“Hey, no problem.” Joey picks up one of her many spoons and starts fiddling with it. “He’s all right. We’re both shortstops, so he’s got that going.”
Runner jumps in. “We like Puller. He runs us pretty ragged, but only because he knows we can do it.”
“Your legs crossed or something?” Runner blinks. Joey makes a show of putting her napkin on her lap. “Because I really don’t care how big it is.”
The server thrusts herself between them before she can get off a retort. Runner looks to Eugenia for backup, but Eugenia just shrugs. Across the table, Devina shakes her head at Joey, who smirks to herself into her bowl of soup.
“Certainly I’m glad I came. It’s better than going stir-crazy.” Rue Haldane sets her coffee back on its saucer. “Was there something else you were going to do?”
Ruth looks down at her own drink. “I was thinking about the Women’s Army Corps.”
“The WACs? You wouldn’t be the first.” Rue nods over Ruth’s shoulder: Betty is sagging with laughter against Gia Basilone. “She almost joined the Marines. Lucky thing we got her first.” Her eyes shift back onto Ruth. “It’s been a real experience so far, getting to know these girls.”
“I’ve never met anyone like them,” says Ruth. “Well, most of them.” She catches Catherine looking at her from across the room: her expression is guarded under a veneer of ease. Somewhere behind them, a voice is droning louder and louder.
“And the game, of course.” Rue smiles. “The game is perfect.” Her smile turns wry. “Of course, my bunch are going to walk all over your bunch, if I’m going to welcome you properly to our home field.” Ruth laughs.
“I suppose we’ll agree to— sorry, one moment.” She turns toward the droning voice: a sleepy-eyed Cajun girl is holding court, though only Joey seems to be listening. Judging by her expression, she’s more irritated than charmed. Dahlia and Robin Leckie are deep in conversation next to her; the rest are Blue Sox. A handsome blonde, her face rounder and younger than anyone else’s, sits perched on the arm of the couch, her knees pressed together.
“So then I said — wait, now, this is funny. I looked right at him, and I said, ‘Sweetheart, it’s just you and your chickens now.’ Yeah, he run off pretty quick after that.”
The blonde girl pinches the bridge of her nose. “Jesus Christ, Mariel. Are you still talking?”
The storyteller grins crooked, with half her mouth. “Hey, you just watch, little thing. I got twenty more in me.”
Rue’s lips twist. “Sidney.”
The blonde sits up immediately. “Yes ma’am?”
“In a chair, and watch your language. You know better.” The girl dips her head and sets out for another part of the room. The Cajun girl stares at them with an odd, wordless grin before tapping a Blue Sox player behind her. Rue chuckles. “What was it they said? ‘Every girl in this league will be a lady’?”
“More or less.” Ruth watches Joey slouch deeper into her seat. “What do you think of our odds?”
“No.” Dahlia shakes her head. “De Winter missed the point entirely. The whole reason Rebecca wouldn’t talk with him was that he was scared of her. He never stood up to her, because he expected this gentle, refined lady. That’s what he thought he was owed.”
“And I’m saying it’s two sides of the same coin. Wodehouse makes it funny, but his thesis is essentially the same.”
“You keep saying that, and I honestly have no idea where you’re pulling it from.”
Joey sinks further into the cushions. Dahila and Leckie have been staring into each other’s eyes and talking literature all goddamn night. Joey knows because while she’s been making the rounds, having her laughs, these two have been utterly ignoring everybody else.
“What book is this?” she interrupts, after sitting through one more of Mariel Shelton’s interminable stories that don’t make any sense.
Leckie and Dahlia stop and give her identical irritated looks. “Daphne Du Maurier,” says Leckie. “Rebecca.”
“Haven’t read it.” She shifts her hips and rests one arm against the back of the sofa, so her hand is right behind Dahlia’s head.
Dahlia leans away from it. “You read? For pleasure?” Everything about her telegraphs skepticism.
“Sure,” says Joey, aggressively cheery
Leckie puts on a game face. “What are your favorites?”
“Anything I can get my hands on, you know.” Joey ticks them off on one hand. “Dick Tracy, Doc Savage, the Shadow. I’m voracious.”
“Comics?” Leckie cants her head. “Isn’t that for grade school boys?”
Joey wags her eyebrows. “I dunno, isn’t baseball?”
Leckie looks at Dahlia. “I can’t argue with that.”
“No,” groans Dahlia, avoiding Joey.
Joey lifts her chin. “Listen, people read those. You can’t say that for everything.”
Leckie laughs. “You don’t have to write pulps to get read.”
“You don’t have to go to Harvard to read either.”
Dahlia winces. “Joey, please.”
“What?” She spreads her fingers. “We’re having a conversation. More than one person can do that.”
“Here’s what you do,” begins Leckie.
Joey immediately crosses her leg and leans on her knee, chin in hand. “What’s that?”
“Newspapers. Back home I do the sports column.”
Joey’s head snaps up. “Get out of here. They let you write sports?”
“Sure.” Leckie shrugs. It’s a triumphant shrug, like everything she’s ever done is easy. “Slap a man’s name on the column and nobody knows the difference.”
Dahlia grins. “Look at you.”
“Hang on.” Joey blinks. “This isn’t a problem for you?”
Leckie looks back at her. “Why would it be? I’m getting read, aren’t I?”
“You mean to tell me that you’re here, playing women’s professional baseball, first time this has ever happened, and you ain’t even got the pride to sign your own name on an article?” At that very moment the room hits a quiet lull. It always happens like that. Joey is past the point of caring.
Leckie’s mouth is a thin, irritated line. “It’s not like that.”
“Tell me what it’s like, because I don’t get it. I don’t get what it could be like to come all this way pretending you’re something you’re not, just so your readers don’t blow a gasket because the byline has a woman’s name.” Joey rises to her feet, her fists balled. “You know what, I rode a train almost four days to get here. You think I did that so I can come out, run around for a summer and then go back with nothing on me, like it never happened?”
“Hey, Joey.” Catherine puts a hand on her arm. She wrenches her shoulder away.
Dahlia’s jaw is clenched tight as a vise. Leckie has threaded her fingers together. She glares up at Joey from under furrowed brows.
“Screw this.” Joey picks up her skirt. “Give me some goddamn air.”
Mariel Shelton applauds, all by herself, as Joey leaves. “Home run, honeybee!” she calls after her.
Joey Liebgott is at peace with being a misfit. Her parents were rock-solid in their identities, because they knew who they weren’t going to be anymore. The nuns were as enviable in their certainty as they were terrifying. All Joey knew was that she was probably never going to be big, so she’d better be funny, and she’d better be capable. That left a lot of empty spaces to fill, and a lot of space where things could slip in and out.
She was a passable student, though she always made sure the younger Liebgotts did better. She took up cigarettes the year the stock market crashed, and she dropped out of school the first year Roosevelt won. Her parents were disappointed, but they accepted that the times left them no choice. Joey was fine with it. She went around Oakland cutting hair wherever she could. She stood on corners, she knocked on doors, she drifted from shop to shop, if such a shop was hiring. Some days, though, her mother fretted, so much that she slipped into German. Josephine, you need a boyfriend. How will you find someone to provide for you? You never think about husbands. Why can’t you be good, Josephine? You need to be realistic. You are not getting younger. You need to look for men. Men are more important than neighborhood pick-up games.
Her mother bawled like a baby the day she left. She felt like hell for that, but she still kept going.
The line for the washroom has grown since Ruth went in. Six or seven women crowd the narrow hallway as she pushes past. Some of the Blue Sox give her inquiring looks. The moment is brief, but it follows her, that odd feeling of being sized up.
She drifts back into the salon. At once, Nixon appears at her elbow, tumbler in hand. His hand has been full almost since their arrival. “D’you have a minute?” He keeps his eyes on the room. “I’d like to talk to you outside.”
She follows him out onto the front porch. Out in the driveway, Lorraine is circled up with some of the help, smoking and swapping jokes. Nixon sets his glass down on a deck chair and reaches into his jacket. He opens a new pack of cigarettes and taps one out. “So,” he says, slipping the smoke between his lips. “How ‘bout them Blue Sox?” He begins rifling through his pockets.
She glances over at the lit window nearby. Past the curtains, she can see Josie Ramirez vividly using her hands to tell a story. “They’re fine hosts.”
Nixon finds his lighter. “Now I say, ‘Let’s hope they lose gracefully.’ Let it be noted for the record.” The tip of his cigarette flares. “What’s your feel for them?”
“Is my father.”
Ruth watches him. “Why are you asking me this?”
He lifts his eyebrows. “You have an answer for me?” He reaches for his tumbler.
She thins her lips. “Haven’t you had enough?”
“Oh, Ruth.” He laughs, and holds the drink up. “You don’t know me enough for that.” He watches her as he sips.
She looks away and sighs. “Haldane.”
She nods. “Rue Haldane keeps them together. They listen to her.” Behind them, the door opens and slams shut. Dahlia stalks out, ignoring them both, and grips the guardrail farther down the porch. Ruth looks back to Nixon. “She thinks highly of Edna Jones.”
“It’s good to have good pitchers.” Nixon looks down at his shoes. “How about Rose Burgin? I heard her name a lot.”
“Catcher, pitcher and shortstop. I think they’ve put a lot into their infield. I’d tell our batters to hit as deep as possible.”
“Fine.” He picks up his glass again and takes a sip. “We have to be on our toes with defense, though. I’ve known Chesty Puller a long time. He’ll wear us down first if we’re not careful.”
Ruth looks off to the side for moment, thinking. “We’ll hit them hard and fast coming out, then. Stack the starting line-up with our most aggressive batters. We can go for an early lead and fend them off as long as we can.”
Nixon’s eyes crinkle. “Clear-eyed Quaker thinking, huh?”
Ruth crosses her arms. “I’m not a Quaker.”
Joey appears from around a corner. She maneuvers past the two of them and heads for Dahlia. Ruth looks back at Nixon. “Why are you asking me this?”
His mouth twists. “Because you were casing the place.”
“So,” says Joey, just within earshot. “South Bend, huh?” Dahlia gives her a despairing look.
If there’s anything Joey hates feeling, it’s vulnerable, and here on the field, standing with her hand over her heart, she feels it in spades. The seats are sparsely filled, and the spectators range from indifferent to hostile. The ones who aren’t staring into space are clustered together and laughing. Sweat is already beading at her temple and the sun is just getting started. Hell of a day for a ball game.
Joey swallows. She glances over at the Blue Sox line. Their faces are the same mix of dubious and stoic as the Peaches’. She twists a little more: Leckie is off at the far left end. Joey thinks she looks constipated. Maybe there is a God.
The speakers fizzle. “Please rise for our national anthem.” The lady who shuffles up to the microphone on the diamond is dressed for a dinner party, with huge pearls at her throat. Her distaste for the dust that threatens her shoes and skirt is clear. With a prim maneuver, she positions herself behind the microphone, clasps her hands together and belts out an operatic “Star Spangled Banner.” Joey’s heart turns over in her chest. They’re really doing this damn fool thing.
“Hey sweeties!” a man shouts from the stands. “Play ball, sweeties!” He turns toward the field and shakes his rump flirtatiously.
“If I had a ball on me,” Donna grumbles beside her.
“Goooood afternoon and welcome to our season opener here in South Bend, brought to you today by Nixon Nitration Works. Nixon Nitration Works: Doing our part at home and over there. Here are your starting line-ups. First off, all the way from Illinois, the Rockford Peaches! Leading off, shortstop Georgina Luz; batting second, second baseman Catherine Lipton; batting third, catcher Belle Compton; batting fourth, right fielder Devina Randleman; batting fifth, second baseman Betty Guarnere; batting sixth, pitcher Ruth Winters; batting seventh, left fielder Babe Heffron; batting eighth, first baseman Donna Malarkey; batting ninth, center fielder Darlene Powers.”
Joey heads into the dugout, drops onto the bench and hunches forward. Her knee starts to bounce almost at once. She watches Gina laugh her way up to the sidelines and mutters her own “Go kill ‘em, Luz.”
“Please welcome your home team to the diamond. Leading off is Jane Morgan, first base; batting second, shortstop Bess Leyden; batting third, Gia Basilone, third base; batting fourth, catcher Rue Haldane; batting fifth, center fielder Robin Leckie; batting sixth; second baseman Mariel Shelton; batting seventh, pitcher Edna Jones; batting eighth, right fielder Willa Conley; batting ninth, left fielder Sidney Phillips.” The crowd gives some anemic applause. Nixon is already up and pacing, his arms crossed as he watches.
“We’re in for a thrilling game today, ladies and gentleman, so buy some refreshments from our vendors to keep you going. We’ve got cracker jacks, peanuts, popcorn, pretzels and hot dogs just the way you like them, not to mention cool, refreshing lemonade!”
“You get ‘em, Gina!” yells Frankie, and starts clapping. Gina takes a moment to wink at the dugout, then strides up to the plate.
“Aaaaand here we go! Play hard, girls! Jones steps up to the mound. She’s assessing the situation. And... here’s the pitch!”
Gina’s bat cracks loud and hard against the ball: it flies fast and low right through the hole between first and second. She tears off for first base, but the Blue Sox outfielders are quick. Runner lobs the ball right into Morgan’s glove; Gina skids to a stop and strolls over to first base like a single was how she meant to play it. The crowd barely notices.
Belle whistles. “Looks like we have to play this game, ladies.”
“Good,” says Harry, and she grins. “Let’s have some fun.”
Joey is a good shortstop. She’s vicious and quick: a ball can snap from her hand like a grenade, and she’s known in Oakland for chasing down outs at all costs. She loves double plays most of all, the rapid-fire assault on the other team’s runs. She likes playing infield even more than batting, although she loves batting when she doesn’t miss. Usually she’s good for a single, maybe a double if the other team is sloppy. Once, though, once she hit a homer, and it wasn’t because the outfielders were scrambling: she actually knocked it out of the park. Her ma spent that whole week suspicious of her good mood. Joey laughed like an idiot when she explained it wasn’t because she’d been running around with somebody.
Nurse Roe plants herself by the dugout steps. “I want everyone drinking water,” she says sternly. “We got it, so don’t give yourself a reason to get dehydrated.” She looks to Nixon, standing beside her, but he’s staring at the scoreboard, tapping his mouth with his thumb. “Hey Ruth.” She reaches for Ruth’s elbow. “You keep an eye on them?” She nods at the line of players.
Ruth grips her bat. “Sure.” She turns toward the team. “Okay, everyone. We play smart, we can come out on top of this. Watch for holes in the infield, and don’t swing at the first thing they send you.”
After a moment, Belle raises her hand. “Anything else?”
Ruth hesitates. Nixon has barely said a word, and they need to start warming up batters. In that moment, Nixon turns and faces them.
“Their offense is strong: they hit hard where they think you’re not looking, and they run like hell to steal bases. There’s no way they’re keeping up that energy the whole game. We stop them cold and wear them down.” He stops abruptly, the observation over. The rest of the Peaches watch him, waiting for more, but Nixon seems to have run out of things to tell them.
His words crystallize for Ruth at once: the strategy falls into place with mathematical clarity. She looks out at the diamond, where the infielders are already waiting. “Make them run as much as possible. Hit for holes, make them chase balls, come at them quick and hard. Devina, if we can get a few deep hits, all the better. Keep the bases as full as you can.”
Nixon’s expression radiates relief. “Ruth’s got it. Any questions?” He pats her on the shoulder. “All right, lead by example. You’re up.”
The walk to the bullpen always fills her with a certain sense of calm. As she finds her mark, Rue gives her a nod. “Ruth, nice to see you.” She may be smiling behind her catcher’s mask.
Ruth keeps her bat low, and makes herself look at the pitcher like a batter, and not like another pitcher. Jones is patient and loose-limbed up at the mound. She and Rue seem to send signals by eye contact alone. Ruth lifts her bat and locks her sights on her.
The first ball comes outside the strike zone. She doesn’t budge. Jones is testing her, like she’s been testing everyone who comes to the plate. The second ball is just within reach: it could go foul, but Ruth swings. It connects with the end of her bat, and sails out well within the base lines. “Oh, would you look at that!” the announcer exclaims, but she’s already running. The left fielder scrambles to find the ball, and Ruth pounds over first and heads straight for second. She watches the outfielders set up the pass; her legs stretch and pump: closer—closer—faster—
She’s already on the plate when Shelton, the second baseman, catches the pass. She turns around, shakes her head and gives Ruth a lazy once-over. “Oh, sweetheart,” she drawls, grinning, “I been looking forward to you.” She hurls the ball back to Jones with a grunt. Ruth keeps her eyes on Babe moseying up to home plate. She could talk, but she could also miss her next chance to run. She keeps her right foot on the base, hovering.
Shelton bends her knees, in no visible hurry. “Hey,” she says, eyeballing the mound. “Hey, you tell Liebgott that Snafu says hi.” Ruth gives her a quizzical look, and Shelton smiles. “Me and her, we should talk sometime. I like her spunk.”
Ruth huffs to herself, and watches the pitch. “Will do.”
“All right, now.” Babe’s fly ball smacks right into Basilone’s glove, but Scout hits a solid line drive right up the center. “See you,” Shelton says, as Ruth bolts away.
Joey wipes the sweat from the bridge of her nose. The sun, at least, has fallen behind them now, so she’s not squinting into that anymore. The crowd might be suffering for it, but that would assume they were looking out at the field. She rests one fist in her glove, peering up at the stands. “Are they even watching this game? I’ve seen livelier crowds at a soup kitchen.”
“Jesus, would you watch the game, Joey?” Frankie shuffles over third base. Joey catches her stealing glances out too, though.
To Joey’s right, the scoreboard shows a two-run lead for the Peaches, with the Blue Sox down to their final out. Perconte raises herself on her toes to try and see who’s in the warm-up zone. “Shit,” she hisses. “Look who it is.”
Only one player on the other team has the heroic profile of Gia Basilone. She holds her bat with the precision of a weapon, rolling her wrist as she approaches the plate. “Jesus,” says Joey, and looks over at Dahlia. Joey is no real pitcher, though she’ll go in reserve if the team really needs one. No way would she want to go up against that. No way is it fun to get that clobbered, even if the crowd was friendly.
For her part, Dahlia’s been pitching well in the stretch. She watching Basilone take her place, and doesn’t hurry. Her shoulders are tight, but she rolls one and then the other, and cracks her neck. Josie’s free hand makes its arcane gesture, and Dahlia inclines her head. She takes her time, making Basilone wait. Basilone gives no indication that she minds.
The Blue Sox player at first base starts clapping. “Hey hey, Gia!” she bellows. “Bring me home! I want to see it!”
Harry paces nearby. “One more, Webster! You can do it!”
“Batting now is number 8, Gia Basilone, third base. She’s had a very good game today, folks. Dahlia Webster winding up for the pitch.”
Basilone doesn’t fall for Webster’s first two pitches, even when the ump calls one inside the strike zone. The outfielders are tense and trying not to roam. Nixon and Ruth both are watching from the sidelines. The crowd keeps on thinning, which gets Joey’s dander up. She waits, her knuckles sweating into her glove.
Dahlia throws a killer curveball. Basilone’s bat swings out and nails it. The ball goes far and deep. Her teammate on first whoops and heads around the bases. The outfielders scramble across the green, to the tune of a few weak cheers from the stands. The Blue Sox player charges over second and toward third, Basilone behind her. Joey dances with frustration. “Come on!” she yells. The first player pounds past her.
Dead center, Shifty comes to a halt; she stands there, neck craned, her arm virtually still. Basilone breezes past Joey, not watching. A moment later Shifty presses her glove to her chest, then, not moving from her spot, holds up the ball.
“It’s an out!” crows the announcer. “Powers puts the kibosh on Gia Basilone! South Bend, that’s a game! Rockford Peaches win 7-5!”
“Oh, hell,” Basilone pants. “Really?” She wanders back toward third, and holds out her hand. “Good game, ladies.”
Frankie beams, pumping her hand. “You too.”
A recording of an organ blares from the speakers as they all head in toward the diamond. Joey looks over at Catherine, coming in from second base. “Did we really just win? Goddamn.” Catherine grins and throws an arm around her shoulder. They join the line of players shaking hands and congratulating each other. She gets nothing from Mariel Shelton but a slow smile and a little too much eye contact.
Ruth and Haldane, the catcher, bring up their respective rears. “Let’s do this again,” Haldane says as they shake.
Joey doesn’t stick around for the rest. She heads back toward the dugout, where Nurse Roe shoves a cup of water at her. The other girls toast each other and dump the water over their faces and necks. Dahlia hangs back, out on the sidelines; Joey feels her eyes on the back of her neck. She tosses back her water, turns around and marches up the steps, right up to her. “Hey,” she says, and it startles them both a little, but so what. Joey nods, and holds out her hand. “That was some good pitching.”
Dahlia hesitates. Joey can see her bracing herself. “Thanks,” she says, uncertain.
“So,” Joey says, with a snaggletooth grin. “South Bend, huh?”
Dahlia laughs, taken off guard. “Yeah. Some place.”
She played hard today. She’s one of fifteen, and they just won a baseball game.
PART THREE: DEEP RIGHT
Things Scout has told fewer than three people, one of whom is either a priest or God:
1. She’s still a virgin, but the night before Phil left was a pretty close call.
2. She’s a little sorry about that.
3. She thinks it was worth it.
4. She had an offer for a good job in Buffalo, but if she was leaving Tonawanda, it might as well be for baseball.
5. She knows her parents worry about her out here.
6. Even with all its warts, she’s sure they shouldn’t.
Scout wraps her ankles around the counter stool. She leans on her elbows and peers through the window into the kitchen. Alton has his head bent over a fryer. His sleeves are rolled up, and his little white hat sits carelessly at the back of his head. If she pushes herself up on her elbows, she can just about see his shirt sticking to the small of his back above his belt. Smokey’s Diner has all the features, black-and-white tile and chrome edging and a fresh coat of paint on the walls, but this one is her favorite.
“Does he talk?” She looks to Donna for confirmation. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak.”
“Of course he does.” Donna steals one of Scout’s onion rings. “He has to.”
“No he doesn’t. What can he not get by without saying?”
Donna tilts her head. “‘Order up’?”
A plate slides across the order window. Alton appears just long enough to ding a bell: it’s still ringing after he’s retreated to his grill. Smokey appears and scoops up the plate. She nods as she passes. "Ladies, you doing okay?” She’s got a quick drawl, something deep Southern that Scout doesn’t know how to place.
“Settle a bet we’ve got?” Scout calls out.
“In a jiffy, sweetheart!”
“He talks,” Donna reaches for another onion ring. Scout smacks her hand away.
“She’d know if anyone does.” Scout picks up a French fry and tosses it at Donna, who catches it and stuffs it in her mouth.
Smokey returns, retying her apron. “Phwew! We got some strong opinions on coffee in here. What can I do for you girls?”
“So, about Alton.” Scout idly twirls her last onion ring. “Is he... I mean, does he talk?”
“Oh!” Smokey laughs. “Sure he talks. He’ll spin you a mean tall tale if you give him half a chance.” She rests a hand on one hip. “Hey, More!”
Alton ducks into the window. Scout takes in that long, solemn face, with its cowboy eyes and downturned mouth. Smokey twists at her waist. “Show these girls that wicked tongue of yours?”
He looks at them, first at Scout, then Donna. “You like your burgers all right?” Donna barks out a laugh. Alton looks at Smokey. “You’ve been spreading lies about me.”
“No lies, just sweetness and praise.” She winks at the two girls. “He can’t say a thing back while he’s on the clock.” Alton just shakes his head and moves off.
Scout turns to Donna. “Well, I owe you one. Defeat acknowledged.”
Donna just smirks and looks at Smokey. “What did you think we would ask?”
She wipes her hands on her apron. “Whether he’s available.”
“Are you joking?” Donna scoffs. “Not her. You haven’t heard all about handsome, brave, wonderful Sergeant Tanner, have you.”
“Oh, hush.” She draws herself up, the very picture of smugness. “Someday when you have a boyfriend of your own, you’ll understand.”
Smokey winks. “So long as it’s not Sticky Fingers back there. Trust me, you want somebody classier than him. He doesn’t.” Instinctively, Scout’s eye goes to Smokey’s fingers: her left hand has no ring on it.
Donna settles onto her forearms. “How’s business been?”
Smokey looks at them both, then shrugs. “I’ll be honest, it could use some picking up. Your crowds don’t much like us yet.”
Scout’s mouth twitches. “You may not have noticed, but they don’t like us much either.”
“You lose to Kenosha, I don’t like you much, and I’m feeding you.”
“Maybe we wouldn’t lose if we had a little more community support.”
Smokey steps behind the coffee machine and tosses out the grinds. “When I can afford a girl to cover me, you’re on. How about we both work on getting some seats filled, all right?”
Donna taps the counter with one finger. “I’ll scratch yours if you scratch mine?”
“It’s a deal,” says Scout at the same time.
The president of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce gestures at Nixon’s empty glass. “Can I top you off?”
“Why not.” Nixon holds it out, and the president pours. The fact that he’s being served VAT 69 hasn’t escaped his notice, nor that they’re dining on fine local china.
“Enough pleasantries.” The president sinks back into his chair. He’s a broad man with craggy features, hardly softened by a neat beard and tailored suit. “You know, of course, why I asked you to come.”
“Naturally.” Nixon sets aside his glass. “I know my father prevailed on Rockford to host us with mention of the economic incentives.”
“A sports team that people pay to see is good news for any town.” The president folds his hands. “We just aren’t seeing much spillover yet, Lewis.”
He nods. “Of course, we want more people at the games. The girls—”
“We would like more advertisements.” The president presses his thumbs together. “We appreciate your people bringing in the national companies, but we would like a greater local share.”
Nixon pauses. “I’ll speak with Colonel Sink. I’m sure that can be arranged. Call me tomorrow and make sure I follow through, all right?”
The president gives him a somewhat stern look. “We agreed to host this team because we plan on putting Rockford on the map, Lewis. We’re hard workers here. My people have a lot to offer.”
“Naturally,” says Nixon. “I had my choice of towns, and I’m confident in my decision to coach in Rockford.” The president seems to appreciate the easy lie.
“It doesn’t have to be all board rooms and ad rates, you know,” he says. “The town society would benefit from your attentions too.” He reaches for the decanter again. “The Sundstrands are having a dinner in a few days. I can get in touch with them. Why don’t you bring one of your girls, help us get to know you better?”
Nixon tilts his head. “Any of my girls?”
He shrugs. “I’ve no preference. I can’t tell one from the other.”
“We’ve got a home game coming up. I can get you prime home plate seats.”
“Give me a reason to come, and I’ll consider it.” The president smiles beneath his beard, and holds out the whiskey. “Nice try, though.”
“Give those here.” Donna holds out her hand and beckons. “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.”
Scout tosses the carton at her head, which bounces off Donna’s palm as she tries to block her face. She leans back into the crook of her elbow, staring up at the ceiling. When she glances down at her toes, she sees smoke rising from Donna’s lit end.
“So here’s my question.” Donna waves her cigarette toward Scout’s vanity. “Are any of those not of or from your boyfriend?”
“Sure.” Scout twists and studies the vanity. Framed photos spill over from the top of her dresser. Prints line the inside rim of her mirror. She points, though she knows Donna isn’t looking. “There’s one of my folks. And there’s my sister. And — wait, no, Phil was there. His elbow made it in.”
Donna snorts softly. “I just can’t believe you brought so many with you.”
“Eh.” She shrugs. “I didn’t want to wait for the mail.”
Donna smirks. “Pretty sure you would make a team, huh.”
“Hey, there’s tempting fate and then there’s just preparedness.” She wags her eyebrows. “I was being optimistic.”
Donna laughs. “That’s right, stay modest.”
“All right, you want a good one?” Scout rolls over Donna’s legs and off the bed. She snatches one framed picture off the desk and hands it over. Donna lifts her head, takes the photo and then pulls herself upright. “I took that,” says Scout proudly. “My dad put me on his shoulders and gave me the camera.”
Donna’s eyes are huge. “Where did you see Amelia Earhart?”
“She visited the Falls. Pretty neat, huh?”
Donna nods, and slips her cigarette back in her mouth. Scout knows that picture by heart, the blurry, gallant still of Amelia’s crinkling eyes and uneven grin. Donna hands it back. “No one ever comes to Astoria,” she says, a little ruefully.
“You will.” She presses one foot against Donna’s hip. “When you’re a big baseball star.”
Donna swats at her. “You are an optimist.”
She doesn’t answer, not just yet. She’s got that crowd below her again, everyone she knows shoulder to shoulder on a cold, wet April morning, jostling and jockeying for a glimpse of the woman who flies.
“All right, ladies, circle up!” Nixon turns toward the dugout and beckons Mrs. Sobel and the nurse. “You too.”
The girls assemble around him, sweating and dirty and grinning back and forth at each other. A camera would go crazy for a shot like this. Nixon checks for any missing faces. “You may have noticed that our games aren’t getting quite the attendance they deserve.”
“You kidding? The travesty at Kenosha got seen by too many.” Joey gets plenty of elbows and shaddaps for her trouble. Nixon’s mouth twitches.
“The people up at headquarters are looking to improve our numbers. I suggested we get some favorable media coverage, and they agreed. A reporter and photographer from LIFE Magazine are making the rounds to all the teams. We’re up for practice tomorrow.”
The hubbub comes at once. Catherine and Ruth shush them, but Gina pipes up. “You really want to let us loose at them? Is that wise?”
“I said the same thing to command, but they don’t listen to me.” One glance at Sobel’s face shows she’s thinking the same thing. He smiles. “We want to sell tickets, we’ve got to let people know what they’re missing. So dress nice, be your most charming selves, and if you need to keep quiet, you probably know who you are. Everyone good? All right, dismissed.”
Belle positively beams as she high-fives around. “Glossy faces on, Peaches!” she crows more than once. They all disappear into the locker room, buzzing with talk. Mrs. Sobel approaches him, her face tight.
“I will have to prepare them—” she begins.
“Fine,” he says. “Do what you need to do.” He pats her on the shoulder. “You be yourself too, Helen. Maybe they need a sidebar on chaperones.”
Places where Scout’s face has been published:
1) The Tonawanda News (church activities, various); one issue of The Niagara Gazette (first place, regional girls’ swimming competition, 1938)
2) Tonawanda High School yearbook, Tonawanda, NY, 1936-1940
3) Every available surface of her parents’ home
“You’re staring,” says Donna.
Scout finishes thumping her with her glove. “I am not staring.” Donna gives her a skeptical look as she rubs her chest. “Okay,” she admits, “a little. How could I not? I feel like a chump. They look like movie stars.”
She gestures at Patty Christenson, with her perfect figure, styled hair and brand name dress, bent over a notepad while Betty leans on her bat.
“If Betty doesn’t, you shouldn’t,” Donna points out. Scout chuckles to herself.
“—But South Philadelphia, you make do,” says Betty as they come within earshot. “You don’t have a ball, well, you make one. You don’t have a bat, you find a good stick. You want to play baseball, you just play. That’s all it is.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a real love for the sport,” says Patty Christenson. Her pencil scratches away at her pad. Sometimes the strokes are long and smooth, rather than quick scribbles. Scout steals a glance as they pass behind her. Most of Patty’s notepad seems to be filled with sketches—good ones, from the look of it.
“No more than any of these other girls,” Betty says at once. She waves Scout and Donna over. “Here, you ask ‘em.”
“About Betty?” Donna winks. “She’s a ballbreaker on the field.”
“What? It’s a word!” She glances nervously at Patty and smiles. “Hell, I heard Belle say it.”
Scout props her glove on her hip. “Oh, well, if Miss Belle Compton does it, surely it’s all right.”
Donna shakes her head, smiling. “Shut up.”
Betty laughs. “You’re embarrassing me.”
Patty watches them, barely holding back a grin. “We’ll clean it up for print.”
“Really, though. Are you actually listening to her?” Donna elbows Betty. “She can’t possibly have anything new to say.” Betty laughs and throws her elbow around Donna’s neck.
Patty watches them wrestle for a moment. “I’m charmed so far,” she says to Scout.
Scout shrugs. “We have that effect on people.”
She picks up her pencil again. “And you are?”
“Muck, Wilhelmina. Before you try to spell that, I just go by Scout.” She taps the side of her nose. “Experience.”
Patty smiles as she writes. “And where are you from?”
“Tonawanda, New York. I can spell that for you too. Non-locals never can.”
“I’ll give it a try.” She looks up. “Where is that? Upstate?”
Scout nods. “Just up from Niagara Falls. Far enough up to swim the river, but close enough to drag you a mile first.”
“You’re a long way from home.”
“Yeah.” Her eyes wander. They can’t settle on any one person. “Lots of us are.”
Frankie pushes through the diner door ahead of Scout. “Don’t you ever get sick of this place?”
Scout strokes her chin. “You know, I’ve been meaning to try the other diner across the street from the stadium. I’ve heard good things.”
Frankie shakes her head, laughing. “Yeah, okay, okay.” The team filters in behind them. Scout catches Smokey seeking out faces, counting them off.
“Hey.” Donna elbows her and nods at the counter. Alton is out from the kitchen, concentrating on the coffee maker. Donna hisses Gina’s name and beckons her over. “That’s the guy.”
“The guy?” Recognition dawns on Gina’s face. “Oh! That guy. Oh yes, hello, cowboy.”
Scout winks at her. “Isn’t he just?”
Donna bumps her shoulder with hers. “Hey, back off, you’ve got one already.”
“In what, Tunisia?” Gina scoffs. “Let the woman enjoy some scenery.”
Scout keeps watching Alton. “Come on.” She tugs on Donna’s sleeve and heads over for the counter. The three of them lean casually in front of him, barely containing giggles. He looks up at them with a slow, unhurried glance. Scout leans forward, smirking. “Hey, Alton. Cup of joe for four, what do you say?”
Alton’s mouth twitches. He holds up a long, bronzed arm and waves over their heads. With a dip of his head, he pushes back through the door into the kitchen. Gina sinks against the counter. “The sight of him up close, it’s almost too much.”
“Hey girls.” Smokey comes up behind them. She lays a hand on Scout and Donna’s shoulders, all smiles. “You got your whole team here. Think maybe you’d mind rounding ‘em up for a picture or two?”
Scout looks around. “Here?”
“If it’s all right.” She presses her order pad to her chest. “I’d love to have a big shot of y’all in here, since you come by so much.”
They exchange glances. “I don’t see why not,” says Donna.
Scout looks at her. “You think Coach would mind?”
“Come on,” says Gina. “It’s a picture.”
After a moment, Scout nods. “Sure.”
Smokey beams. “Great! Let’s do it here at the counter. I’ll be right back.” She hurries around them toward the kitchen. “Hey, Alton! Camera time, where’d you put it?” When she returns, most of the Peaches are out of their seats and milling around near the stools. “All right, all right,” says Smokey, raising her voice over the hubbub. “Sit yourselves down so I can see you all. Ruth, come on, get closer! Betty, you leaving that leg hanging out? We’re not that kind of establishment.”
Joey pats herself down. “Wait, hang on, I forgot my ‘Eat At Smokey’s’ shirt.”
Smokey points. “I like the way you think. Everyone ready?” She holds up the camera. “All right, everyone say ‘Peaches!’”
“Come on,” shouts Donna, after a few snaps, “let’s get you in here.”
Smokey laughs. “Me? Oh, go on.” She hands off the camera to Alton, and poses in the center, her arms around Belle and Shifty. “This is great,” she says, turning around. “Thanks so much, ladies. Free malteds on the house if you want one.” Amid the cheers, she turns back to Scout and Donna. “Thanks, you two. I wanted to get my picture in before y’all got too big for us.”
Donna scoffs. “Too big? Come on, what does that mean?”
“Means that lady reporter and her handsome photographer came in for a bite when they’d finished with you.” She lowers her voice, cheerfully conspiratorial. “Alton knows a guy. If we see that magazine before it hits the stands, we’ll let you know.”
She strolls off to take orders for malteds. Scout frowns. “Huh.”
Donna looks at her. “What?”
“Were we just used for publicity?” She chews her lip. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”
“Bus leaves in five minutes,” Ruth calls up the stairs. She taps her purse against the wooden rail. “Anyone who’s coming to the movies, now’s the time to come.”
“Miss Winters. Can I have you for a moment?”
She turns slowly, unwilling to show how startled she is. Sobel is directly behind her, without warning and a little close for comfort. “Certainly,” she says, puzzled.
Sobel gestures toward a side room. “They won’t leave without you.” Ruth hesitates, but leads the way in. The sitting room has comfortable chairs. Sobel ignores them. She rounds toward Ruth, her bearing lawyerly. “Miss Winters, an incident was relayed to me that gives me some concern. Rockford Peaches, quite out of uniform, carousing at that establishment you all frequent, without supervision.”
Ruth straightens. “I’m not sure I know what you’re referring to, ma’am.”
Sobel narrows her eyes. “Mrs. Evans was quite clear about what she saw.”
“Mrs. Sobel, if I may.” She grips the top of her purse. “That several of the girls enjoy relaxing at Smokey’s Diner, I am aware. I myself can vouch for their ice cream sundaes. But I’m certain none of them would associate with anyone who might cause them to embarrass the team or the league. The girls have a lot of pride.”
“It’s not pride we need, Miss Winters. It’s discretion.” Sobel arches a tweezed eyebrow. She lowers her voice. “I am only one woman, believe it or not, and there are fourteen others living under this roof besides you who need to be looked after — some of them from very unrefined backgrounds. You and I understand why good behavior helps keep us all secure in our positions, and that we need to look out for each other. Do I make myself understood?”
Ruth listens for what she’s really saying. After a moment, she dips her head. “Yes ma’am.”
“Good.” Sobel nods stiffly. She gestures toward the door.
They run into Harry as they emerge. Sobel hurries off outside, her shoulders tight. Harry pauses and watches her. She glances up at Ruth. “Everything ship-shape?”
Ruth tucks her purse under her arm. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
Frankie whips around in her seat and glares. “Come on, guys, quit it!”
“Quit what?” says Scout, holding her box of popcorn close. Down the row, Gina, Donna and Joey are all still singing the Merrie Melodies music. Frankie holds up a few kernels of popcorn, silhouetted against the credits from the Tom and Jerry cartoon.
“Maybe you think I’m stupid or something, I don’t know. What I’m saying is butter stains, so keep it off me.”
Scout gestures at the dark theater. “This room is filled with people who’ve got popcorn.”
Frankie points. “Don’t even start with me, Scout.”
“Shh!” hisses Catherine.
“Hey,” says a male voice behind them. Scout and Shifty turn around. A couple of rawboned teenagers grin awkwardly at them. “Are you with the Peaches?”
“Peaches all the way!” says another.
Scout twists around fully. “You’ve been to our games?”
“Every one!” the second boy blurts out.
“Ladies, shut up!” Betty barks.
“That’s all, folks!” Gina stammers, Porky Pig style, as the cartoon reel ends. Babe punches her on the shoulder, laughing softly. The screen flickers for a moment, and the newsreel begins. Scout settles back in her seat.
“God, I hate this music,” Dahlia says, a little too loud. Several hisses and one “Amen!” cut her off.
The title card comes up against an image of sand dunes and a single charging soldier: DESERT VICTORY. This should be a good one, Scout thinks. Everyone likes hearing about big victories, and Kraut surrender in North Africa hasn’t gotten old yet. She picks up a small cluster of popcorn and sets it on her tongue.
A new card comes up. In the making of this film four British army cameramen were killed, seven were wounded and six were captured by the enemy. The whole theater goes quiet. Something in Scout’s throat closes over. By the projector light, Donna takes one look at her, reaches out and squeezes her hand.
Peaches who know nobody fighting overseas:
It’s a long walk from the theater to Smokey’s. The bell above the front door fills the otherwise empty diner. Lively swing music hums in the radio perched by the counter. The announcer talks over the tail end of a number: That’s Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, live from the Aragon Ballroom with WGN Chicago— Smokey stands hunched over a table, wiping it down. She pauses when she sees them. “Hey, girls. Not your usual visiting hours.”
Donna glances at Scout. “We needed a burger.”
Smokey nods. “Then you sit yourselves wherever you want. Be with you in a minute.”
Scout points at a booth. “Sure,” says Donna, and follows her over. Scout drops down onto the seat. The cushion bounces a little. She looks down at the vinyl seat. It’s scuffed here and there, worn down. Donna watches her. “You doing all right?”
She shakes her head, dismissing it. “I’ll be fine once I’ve had something.”
“Woman cannot live by popcorn alone?”
Scout smiles wanly and sinks against the seat. “I do like this place,” she says, studying the diner. “I used to come to a place just like it, after my night classes.”
“Yeah?” Donna settles back. “The night classes for typing?”
“You got it.” They stay quiet. Donna looks at the pictures on the wall. Scout plays with her silverware.
Smokey passes by their table. Scout catches a glimpse of her hand: ripped cuticles and chipped nail polish. Without looking, Smokey drops a brown envelope on their table and keeps going. Donna opens her mouth, but Scout holds up a finger. She picks up her knife, carefully slips it through the edge of the envelope and shakes out the contents. A copy of LIFE Magazine tumbles out, cover side up.
Donna’s eyebrows shoot toward her hair. She slides out of her side of the booth; Scout makes room for her. “Holy shit,” she murmurs. The issue is dated tomorrow; on the cover, arm sky-high and both feet well off the ground, is Babe, leaping for a ball. Batter Up! the headline reads. Girls’ Baseball Is Ready to Swing! In the quiet, they hear the grill sizzling in the kitchen. “Holy shit,” Donna says again. “She’s going to flip her lid.”
“Aren’t we all,” Scout murmurs. She picks up the cover and, hardly daring to believe it’s real, begins to open it.
“Sorry about the wait.” Smokey smiles down at them, a pot of coffee in one hand. She’s blocking them from the rest of the diner. Scout shoves the magazine back into the envelope and sets it beside her on the seat. “Nice to see you,” Smokey says. Scout looks more closely at her face. She’s wearing a lot of makeup, but her eyes are puffy, and she’s got her weight on one foot.
Scout glances at Donna. “I don’t think we can stay long. They’ll be expecting us at the house.”
“I hear you. Lot of work for us all tomorrow.” Smokey flips to a new page in her pad. “Something to eat? Or just coffee?” She pours them a cup each. As Scout looks past her, she spots a new photo on the wall tucked in with the others. The moment comes back to her, along with the smell of cut grass: she and Donna against a blue sky, arms around each other’s necks, their gloves dangling over each other’s shoulders.
PART FOUR: FLY BALL
This is it. Right here, this is it: the sun on Harry’s face, the grass beneath her bare legs, the breeze buffeting her hair. It’s a perfect summer Sunday. If Kit were here, they’d be pressed up against each other, limbs twined. They’d—
Frankie’s voice carries over the back lawn. “Oh come on, not that crap again.” Harry opens her eyes: Donna has her bat pointed somewhere between imaginary right and center field.
“What?” Donna lowers the bat. “Is there a problem?”
Frankie props her glove on her hip. “Yeah. Quit acting like you’re Babe Ruth with bosoms.”
“Oh, screw you.” Behind Donna, Scout hides a snicker under her mitt. Donna spreads her arms. “I just wanted to try it out!”
Frankie punches the ball into her glove. “Yeah, we all know you’re a good hitter. You don’t have to go making yourself all big about it.”
“Are you just saying that ‘cause you’re five foot nothing?”
“You know, I heard he wasn’t even pointing at center,” says Scout conspiratorially. “My dad knows someone who was there, denies it up and down.”
“Hey, are you gonna pitch today or what?” yells Gina from the outfield.
“Your dad’s buddy is full of it,” says Donna. “Anyway, it gets people talking.”
“Yeah, a lot.” Scout stretches, still low in her squat. “Can we get this thing rolling again?”
“Thanks for the directions, by the way!” Gina yells, strolling away from where Donna had pointed.
“I’m serious!” Donna looks around for support. “It would fill seats if it worked.”
Frankie snorts. “If we listened to Betty and flashed the crowd, we’d fill seats, but you don’t see our bosoms popping out when we catch a fly ball.”
“Will you stop saying ‘bosoms’? I never heard it so much before I met you.”
“You stuff it, Muck.” Frankie holds up the ball and cocks her head toward Scout. “You ready to catch this pitch?”
Donna laughs and lifts her bat. “Not likely. Get ready, Luz!”
“Good show?” Harry tilts her head backward: Ruth is blocking her sunlight, hands in her pockets.
“It’s what’s in town,” she says, and Ruth lowers herself to the ground next to her. “How’s the leg?”
“It’ll be fine.” They both look up as Donna’s bat cracks against Frankie’s pitch. Gina is already trying to position herself below the ball. Frankie dashes toward the bases, trying to cover all of them, while Donna tears around the makeshift diamond and Scout yells encouragement to everyone. Ruth huffs her amused huff and shakes her head. “Our guaranteed day off and what do they do?”
“Eh, it’s good to keep it fun.” Donna charges through home plate, arms upraised, and joins Scout in a victory dance. Harry covers her eyes with her elbow, her other hand resting on her stomach. “It is a game, after all.” Ruth makes a noncommittal noise.
A car rumbles up the drive and hums to a stop by the carriage house. Harry hears the door slam and a man’s muffled voice. “That’s Colonel Sink,” says Ruth.
“What?” Harry sits half up and squints. The tall, rangy profile of Bob Sink strides out ahead of Lorraine, who hesitates, searching for someplace to wait. Colonel Sink’s purposeful gait takes him right up to the front door, which Nixon answers in short order.
“A nice way to spend your Sunday,” Harry remarks, and closes her eyes again.
It’s Colonel Sink who greets them when they sit down for dinner. He stays on his feet and smiles at every one of them. “Evening, ladies, good evening,” he says with a little nod. He cuts a fine figure for an older fellow, with his steely gray hair and thick mustache over his sharp, tanned face. Nixon is already at the table, sullen and stewing. Harry can see him gripping his salad fork as he stares into the middle distance.
Harry takes a seat between Josie and Scout. Josie keeps her eyes down as she spreads her napkin over her lap. “Fireworks, you think?” she mutters.
Harry feels it too, the sudden suspicion in the room. Sink lays the Southern charm on thick, like he can will away tension by sheer force of attention. “Definitely ordnance.”
“Quiet, please.” Mrs. Sobel finishes tapping her glass. “Miss Powers, it is your turn to say grace.”
Shifty nods, puts her hands together and folds her head. At the “Amen,” silverware clatters and conversations resume. Belle puts on a charming smile as she reaches for the butter plate. “Colonel Sink, so kind of you to join us here.”
He dips his head. “Well, it’s always a pleasure to see you girls. Always too long between visits.”
Belle splits her roll with a knife. “To what do we owe the pleasure tonight?”
Sink smiles. “Let’s not ruin a fine meal with business.” Nixon’s jaw tightens, and he looks down at his plate. Harry catches Ruth’s eye across the table, before they both look back at Sink.
When the main course has been cleared away, Sink threads his fingers together. “Well.” The girls go quiet. Nixon says nothing yet, his jaw still tight. Sink looks up and down the table. “I am here on some business tonight, as Miss Compton insinuated.” He pauses, and Harry can see him negotiating his approach. She presses her back against the chair. “Ladies,” he says, setting both palms on the table, “you all are good ballplayers, and you play a fine game out there. But the fact is, people aren’t buying women’s baseball yet, and our ticket sales are not very good.”
“Happy Sunday,” Josie mutters.
“This league,” he continues, “while groundbreaking and exciting, is also a business, and a business needs income to survive. Stanhope Nixon has given us three weeks to triple our ticket sales—”
“Triple?” Frankie blurts out, gaping.
“Three weeks?” Donna squawks.
“Or Mr. Nixon will cut his losses and thank everyone for their time,” finishes Sink. “Now be reasonable, ladies. Mr. Nixon’s primary concern is his industry, which is vital to the war effort. Like it or not, this venture is and remains an engine for goodwill. It needs to support itself to be viable, otherwise it drains resources from other arenas.”
“Thanks for the warning!”
“What are we supposed to do?”
“A drain on resources? Is that all we are?”
“It’s been a month!” Dahlia grips the table, visibly agitated. “How can you tell anything from one month at the start?”
“Let me tell you something,” Sink says over the uproar. “I told Mr. Nixon the same thing, as has your coach, by the way. I’m on your side on this one. Lew and I have spent the whole afternoon strategizing, and I’ve already had similar meetings with the other coaches. Now I know you girls can swing this. Don’t get angry. There’s nobody to get angry at — no, not even Stanhope Nixon. Understand?”
No one answers him. Sink picks up his napkin and arranges it at his place setting. “Thank you for your kind hospitality. It was a lovely meal. My apologies that I can’t stay longer. First thing tomorrow Kenosha hears this too.”
Harry came to Rockford from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Locals claim Babe Ruth hit history’s longest home run at Artillery Park. Harry went to high school near where that ball landed. Whenever she comes on a home plate, she searches for what’s 650 feet out. It’s just habit by now.
The Welshes aren’t in coal. She grew up middle-class and weathered the Depression well, for the most part. The mines aren’t what they used to be, though, and the town worries about that. Assume the league folds. Assume they all go home. Harry could probably find a job, and she would wait, anxiously, for word of Kit, but she’s lived somewhere else now, and what she wants is out.
The crack of the bat fills the ballpark. All the infielders crane their necks, trying to follow the arc of Devina’s hit. Harry sees it coming her way, clear as a math problem. She dances back and forth over first base, anticipating it, but as it comes closer, its path looks less certain. She dashes toward second, glove held high.
“Somebody call that!” yells Nixon from the sidelines. From the corner of her eye, Harry sees Donna coming in under it. She skids, less than gracefully, to a stop.
“Mine!” Donna calls, just before the ball lands in her glove.
Nixon stalks up from home plate. “An object lesson, ladies. Always call your catches. Leave the midair collisions to the Air Force.”
Donna tosses the ball in one hand. “Hey, people might come to see that.” She whips the ball back to Ruth on the mound.
“Your Rockford Peaches, sponsored tonight by the Marx Brothers!” Gina calls. The rest of the infielders laugh nervously.
Nixon claps, unsmiling. “Less scheming, more baseball. Get it together. We’ve got a game to play.”
The ride to Wisconsin is a long one, and tedious. Harry spreads out on her seat, her back to the window, furiously chewing gum. Her book is useless: she can’t focus on it in the least. She can hardly have a drink right now. There’s nothing to do but eavesdrop, though beyond the endless litany of team anxieties, there’s little enough new conversation either.
“What else can we do?” says Shifty in one of the seats near the back. “Seems to me we already play good.”
“Our junk is wrong. Got anything for that?” Gina shifts around, the stuffing squeaking beneath her. “Nobody wants to see us play hard. Look at our uniforms. That was our first clue.”
“Hey, shut up.” Harry can hear Betty glaring. “Look us, sitting around and bitching like we already been done. Ain’t nobody going home yet.”
“Stanhope says otherwise,” grumbles Josie.
“Yeah, well I say to hell with him. We ain’t done.”
“So what do we got?” Frankie interjects.
Gina goes deadpan. “There’s always T and A.”
“I am not flashing my tits for money.”
Harry tucks her hands under her arms and peers toward the front of the bus. Joey and Babe are playing catch across an aisle. Catherine leans out, stern. “Hey, anything happens, you know you’ll both be benched.”
Babe twists around to give Catherine an apologetic grin. With impish spite, Joey tosses the ball again. In a flash, Babe whips off her hat and reaches to net it. It lands in the cap with a neat fwunk!
“Hey!” Babe beams, and lifts the cap like a trophy. “There’s my new move for Lindy, right there.” She bends at the waist to the side, stretching her arm out and snapping upright again.
Someone taps Harry on her foot. She thins her mouth. “What?”
Dahlia holds out a newspaper. “Have you seen this?”
“I don’t want to—”
“Just look at it.” She shoves the paper into Harry’s hands. Harry, still slouching, examines the folded and creased page. It’s an ad for war bonds, with all the typical slogans and stock imagery. The model, however, is a girl ballplayer, looking straight out at the reader. It’s Gia Basilone, and she’s wearing her Blue Sox uniform. Dahlia scoffs. “That was fast.”
“I’ll be damned,” Harry says after a moment. “Fifteen percent of ticket sales to the war effort? That’s smart.”
“Patriotism sells,” says Dahlia acidly.
Harry cocks her head. “You don’t think it’s a good idea?” She holds out the paper again.
She shrugs and folds the ad. “I think it’s a great idea. I just wish I was surprised that now we have to trot out this jingoistic bullshit just to stay in the game.”
“Don’t tell me with all our troubles that you’re an objector too.”
Dahlia gives a small, cynical grin. “They’d buy tickets if they’d get to throw things at me.” She gets to her feet. “I’m showing this to Nixon.”
“Show it to Ruth,” Betty interjects. “She’s the one who’ll get something done about it.”
Dahlia frowns. “Were you listening?”
Harry turns around to see Betty wink. “No secrets on this bus, Web.”
Gina kicks at her across the aisle. “Jealous ain’t a good look on you, Betty.”
“Jealous? There’s gotta be a prize to be jealous.”
Harry looks up at Dahila. “Have fun fixing us,” she says, and tries to settle in again.
If they all went home, she would have company on the train. Maybe Scout would stay with them until Cleveland, before she and her shorthand and her 130 words per minute went back to Tonawanda. Harry and Scout are in the same position, waiting for someone to come back and start a life together. Gina would come with them too. She left a job at a switchboard to try out. She mentions that job more than her family. Her mother hardly speaks English, much less understands or approves of baseball. Harry doesn’t know if she would go straight home.
The Philly girls would come along, as would Ruth. She’d lose them somewhere in Pennsylvania, probably — Erie or Pittsburgh or State College. Ruth would do something sensible with her time. She’d organize church drives or volunteer with the Red Cross. Betty would fight for her old shift at the Sherman tank factory. If anyone gave her grief over the failed experiment, she’d rip them a new one, maybe get or give a shiner. Harry doesn’t know what Babe would do with herself. She might drift around, making a buck here, a friend there. She’s smart enough to run dance competitions. She’s lucky enough to bet well on horses. Babe likes company. She doesn’t like decisions. Harry would worry about Babe.
At Wilkes-Barre, Harry would have to leave someone behind — Dahlia, maybe, on her way to New York. After a hurried “See you around,” she’d be back where she started. It doesn’t seem like a very good trade.
At the improvised fanfare, Harry nearly jumps out of her skin. She looks up, mid-swear, to see a sock puppet bobbing above the seat in front of her.
“The Ongoing Adventures of Corporal Christopher Grogan!” announces Scout with a flourish. “A new installment presented courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Rockford Peaches!” She tacks on a ferocious roar.
Belle groans theatrically from the next seat over. “This trip isn’t long enough?”
The Kit puppet has been crafted from an olive-hued sock, with a knot of yellow yarn for hair and a handkerchief parachute tied around its neck. It looks like a man’s sock; Harry hopes like hell it was clean.
Scout marches the Kit puppet back and forth to patriotic humming. “Watch out, Adolf! I won’t stand for Kraut bullying abroad. But I do hate to leave my gal behind me. She’ll be oh so lonely!”
A second puppet pops up: this sock is white, a bright splotch of lipstick at the toe. “Oh Kit!” squeaks Scout’s Harry-voice. “I’ll write you letters by the ton. Bombs away, Berlin! Love is stronger than war!”
“Atta girl, Harry!” crows Frankie from the back.
Harry looks over at Belle. “Are we really going to stand for this?” Belle has her hand over her mouth, but her eyes are dancing. Harry sighs.
“We don't need a parachute, darling!” “Kit” proclaims. “Our love will float us through thick and thin!”
Even Ruth has twisted around in her seat to watch. Harry crosses her arms. “This dialogue is a disgrace.”
The Kit puppet whirls to face the other. “Oh Harry!”
“Phil!” Harry interrupts, just before the two socks throw themselves together in a fit of writhing cotton-knit passion. “Where’s Sergeant Tanner? He shouldn’t stand for being shown up like this.”
A blue sock edges up over the seat. “Oh my darling Wilhelmina!” Donna swoons.
“We’ve got more!” Scout sits up on her knees and waves around the bus. “Craft night in my room! Come on by.”
The implications are all depressing. Harry gives in, and turns to look out the window.
The boarding house in Racine is nobody’s old mansion. The light fixtures are all vintage first Roosevelt. Harry counts them and their queer yellow glow as she pads down the hallway. The wallpaper is older than she is, as are the beds and most likely the sheets. Harry has a policy for nights when she tosses and turns. Sitting around doing nothing isn’t going to get her what she wants.
Something she appreciates about the Midwest is the prevalence of the wraparound porch. She clutches her robe closer as she steps through the front door. Even without a light on, the porch is thick with moths. They climb up the siding and flutter near the dark lamp overhead. Harry takes a deep breath. The flask in her pocket is a reassuring weight against her thigh. Outside, the country sounds familiar: crickets, rustling branches, the occasional passing car. She pauses where she stands and listens closer. There’s something else beneath it.
She rounds the corner. Nixon is perched on a rail, lobbing a baseball at the side of the house and catching it on the bounce, over and over again.
The ball moves cleanly every time. Nixon throws and catches it with quick, sure movements. He cultivates an air of laziness about the act, but there’s grace underneath that comes through in spite of it.
Harry could still retreat. She could hurry back upstairs and pretend she’d never seen him there. Instead, she folds her robe over her pocket and ventures closer. “Great batting average,” she says.
Nixon looks up, and accepts her presence immediately. He turns back to the wall. “Never misses.”
She smiles. “We can use all the help we can get.” Thump. He looks up at her again, ball in hand. She shakes her head. “I’m not bothered.”
Nixon takes the ball in both hands. He idly runs his thumb over the stitching. “I wish this was a home game.”
Harry huffs. “No kidding.”
“Then I’d know what was being done to get people in.” He laughs a little to himself. “I don’t know what they’ve been doing up here.” He squints. “What are you doing out here?”
Harry shrugs. “Just awake.”
Nixon cants his head, and studies the bulge near her thigh. “Ah.” His hands drop to his lap. “What’s your poison?” At her silence, he reaches for a flask of his own, sitting on the floor by his hip. “I’m whiskey.”
Harry’s shoulders relax. She lets her robe open, enough to reach into her pocket. She screws the top off her flask and takes a sniff. “Brandy tonight.” She holds it out, an offering.
Nixon grimaces. “No thanks. I may be thirsty, but I’m loyal first.”
He gestures at the porch. “Pull up a seat, if you’re not going somewhere.”
She lowers herself to the floor, well to the side of Nixon’s strike zone. Of all the improprieties they’re committing right now, this one makes her smile. “So,” she says, cradling her flask in her lap. “Any ideas for how we’ll bring in the bucks?”
Nixon wrinkles his nose. “Sink wants all this terrible cheesecake. He thinks people will pay to see Varga girls. I told him I didn’t think the players would take it well. No offense.”
“None taken.” She imagines, briefly, Ruth in high heels and a playfully sheer peach-colored slip, leaning on a Louisville Slugger. When she thinks of Ruth’s face in such a get-up, she takes a swig of her brandy. “No Plan B yet, then?”
“Plan B. Huh.” He shakes his head. “This was my plan B. I wanted to join the Airborne.”
She looks at him. “Kit is in the Airborne.”
“I know.” He takes a long pull off his flask. “I tried to join, after Pearl Harbor. I failed my physical four different times. Four different sites.”
Harry knits her brow. “Jesus. I thought anybody could join the Army.” Her cheeks flush. She clears her throat. “No offense.”
He smiles. “We’re Nixons, from Nixon, New Jersey. My parents certainly aren’t just anybody.” After a pause, he shrugs. “Anyway. They say I’m 4-F, so this is my instead. Those who cannot do, coach.”
“Don’t say that.” Harry thins her mouth. If Nixon is a drunk, fine, but there’s nothing she can’t take like a self-pitying drunk.
He nods to himself, eyes focused on the wall. “We might think of something.” He rolls the ball over one knee. “We do this right, we’ll go to Chicago. I’ll take us there.”
Harry dips her head. “That sounds fine to me.” Nixon looks at her, and holds up the ball. She shakes her head, and lifts her flask for another sip. Nixon raises his hand. Thump.
If Harry goes back, she will measure time in letters. She’ll sleep in her old room in her parents’ house, and she’ll haunt all the places that she never went alone. She’ll spend all her pocket change at newsstands and corner stores. She’ll be too tired to play a game of catch.
Harry hasn’t moved for ten minutes. She stands at the edge of the bullpen, socking a ball into her glove over and over again. The crowd is not bad. It’s better than they’ve seen in a while. It’s going to be a scorcher, though, and this stadium is poor on cross breezes. Gina sidles up beside her. “There a key somewhere I can pull out? I think I really want to see you go.”
Harry keeps her eyes on the stands. “Are you calling me wound up?” Her wrist snaps, and the ball thwacks into her glove.
“I’m saying if someone was staring at me like that, I’d offer them a steak instead.”
Harry grips the ball, and feels the tendons in her hands stretch. In her peripheral vision she sees Josie flipping a bat over her arms and shoulders like a drum majorette. “What do you do to loosen up?” she asks.
Gina shrugs. “Imagine all the fellas with their flies undone.”
Harry shakes her head. “You’re terrible.”
She winks. “Don’t mention it.”
“Josephine Ramirez,” Devina drawls behind them. “Are you licensed and bonded to operate that thing?”
What’s true is that Harry can’t stand the waiting.
Amended: Harry can’t stand waiting to start. The Belles insert hiccups into the flow of the game by holding little contests, fairground stuff: catch a foul, get a kiss; win a posed photo with two players of your choice; watch your favorite girls crush the Axis power with a well-aimed pitch at a plywood cutout. It’s interminable. Between innings, Harry is vibrating to get out there and play.
When she’s on the field, though, the game can last as long as it wants. This is it: the dust beneath her shoes, the scabs on her knees, the exquisite crack of the bat, the race to beat another person, a speeding ball. Thank goodness Racine is a top-notch team beneath all the distractions. The game, the diamond, the crowd, the plays: Harry is here, and she wants to eat it all alive.
The Racine pitcher has a predator gait. Ruth sees Belle Compton trying not to lean out of her way. She takes stock of her batter. In this and in other games, she’s been reckless and unpredictable. Sometimes it pays off for her; there’s no telling when it won’t.
Ruth keeps her feet planted, her shoulders loose. The announcer pauses to consult the line-up. Get ready for something, folks. Up now, number six, Belles pitcher Rhonda Speirs.
Speirs doesn’t take her eyes off her. She always stares a moment too long before lifting her bat. Ruth checks in with Belle. She sends out her signals; Belle flips down her mask and squats. Speirs waits for her, unmoving.
Ruth makes the pitch. The ball hurtles away from her fingers and over home plate. Speirs swings in a huge arc; the bat follows through long after the ball goes roaring up and deep into the outfield. Racine raises a cheer as Speirs throws the bat aside, nearly into Belle, and tears off for first base. Ruth is helpless in that moment: all she can do is trace the arc of the ball as it comes back to earth. Speirs pounds one foot into the plate and heads off for second. The outfielders are racing her too. Babe and Devina both have their sights on the ball, and neither one has called it yet.
“Come on!” yells Harry from third, practically dancing into the grass. “Watch out, watch out, watch out!”
The noise from the stands escalates too. Ruth grips the tip of her glove. The outfielders are on a collision course, right where the ball should land. She can see it from here: it’s on their faces. Neither is willing to risk losing the out.
“Wait!” yells Babe, and Devina skids to a stop.
Babe takes a flying leap. She wraps her legs around Devina’s waist, with impossible grace, and swings. She leans all the way out, almost parallel to the ground, and stretches her glove out. Speirs puts her head down. She keeps on running.
The ball lands smack in Babe’s glove. The out counts.
When Babe Heffron and Devina Randleman bring the Lindy hop to the outfield, everything changes.
It means Donna Malarkey can keep padding out a college fund, forty dollars of her weekly seventy-five.
It means Belle Compton will catch pop flies mid-splits, and wave her hat to the crowd to lead cheers.
It means Josie Ramirez won’t have to decide between working at the factory and asking her cousin if she can have that job back.
It means Frankie Perconte will tumble to meet ground balls and cartwheel over home plate.
It means Shifty Powers won’t ask her her sister to meet her at the station, the sister who held her hand in bed and said Darlene, go and do something.
Harry is the first to charge out of the dugout when they win. The Peaches mob each other, laughing and hugging and dancing even more. Even Ruth drops her sober demeanor and throws her arms around a few of the girls. Above them, in the stands, attendees crush forward, shouting out names and clamoring for autographs.
Nixon emerges, shaking his head and laughing. “Hell of a thing,” he says, shaking hands and pounding shoulders. “Where did that come from, Babe? You ladies going to keep this up?”
“Mr. Nixon! Mr. Nixon!”
At the front of the crowd, some press half-hangs over the railings. Two of them have cameras, and they snap like mad, calling out for Peaches to pose for them. Nixon turns and looks up at them.
“How long have you been planning that?” one reporter calls out. “Do you have any comment?”
“Do the girls have any comment?”
One waves his notepad. “Hey, Ruth! Can I call you Ruth? Ruth!”
“Will you talk with us?” one of the photographers shouts.
“Yeah,” says Nixon. “Of course we’ll stay and talk.”
PART FIVE: SIGNALS
Between the two of them they’ve gone through nearly half the pack. Betty is a voracious smoker, but she’s careful about it: she keeps the cigarette in her mouth even when she’s talking, and she doesn’t snuff it out until she’s right down to the filter. When she’s done, she unrolls the stub, picks out the filter and piles the remaining leaf atop a little scrap of cigarette paper. Betty says they call that field-stripping a cigarette in her brother’s unit.
“You plan on smoking that?” asks Belle, fascinated.
Betty clamps her fresh, unlit Lucky Strike between her teeth. “You’re goddamn right I am.”
Never mind the boys who throw them smokes from the stands, or the seventy-five a week from Stanhope Nixon guaranteed until playoffs. Belle leans back in her seat, watching Betty as she rips a match from a book, folds the back over the strip and yanks it out. The sulfur smell is brief but strong. Betty lights her new smoke and shakes out the match before dropping the bent cardboard stick in their ashtray.
“We should have beers,” Belle muses.
Betty scoffs. “We never drank it much. You’re Italian, why would you? We got wine, anything, you name it. Beer is kid’s stuff.”
Belle chuckles. “You always make me sad I didn’t grow up in South Philly.”
“Jesus Christ, are you nuts?” Betty is giving her this queer look, amused and puzzled at the same time.
Belle shrugs. “You sure make it sound like fun.”
“That’s ‘cause I’m a good bullshitter. If I had your life, nice house, a driveway, no winters, a pony, I’d stay put, never complain.”
“I never had a pony,” Belle points out.
Betty crooks an eyebrow. “You’re in college. My ma fought me so I’d finish high school. And I was the first.”
“I bet you could do it now.”
“College, me?” She turns her head to blow smoke. “That’s likely.”
“You think there won’t be some post-season scholarship money?” Her mouth twists. “Hell, the Big Man wants us bettering ourselves.”
“Is that what Sobel’s for?”
Belle grins, but continues. “The GIs are getting college money on discharge. The president just made a speech.”
Betty’s face is the picture of skepticism. “You ain’t honestly comparing Rockford to Guadalcanal.” Belle opens her mouth, but Betty shakes her head. “When the season’s over, if I’m still foreman at the Sherman plant, I’m happy. That’s all I want.”
Belle taps the tabletop. “I still say you should think about it.”
Betty laughs. “Yeah, all right.” She rolls her cigarette between her fingertips. “You’re so full of thoughts, you got any for Chicago?”
“Other than what’s been scheduled for us?” Belle makes a show of examining her nails. “I might.”
“That’s good.” She jabs her cigarette in the air. “Frankie tells everyone she’s from Chicago, but I ain’t spending my time in Joliet.”
Belle leans back in her chair and blows a passable smoke ring. “You got a nice dress you haven’t been allowed to wear?”
Betty smirks. “I think I could rustle something up.”
“I have every confidence, Betty.”
She makes a little bow. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Gina drops a Chicago Tribune on the coffee table. “Hey, you want to know how we know we’ve made it?”
“Painted on an airplane!” says Scout, sprawled out on the couch.
“We’re allowed to play in pants,” adds Shifty hopefully.
Gina gestures at the table. “What is this, I have to tell you everything? The paper’s right there. You all can read.”
Ruth sets down her paperback and reaches for the daily. It’s folded open to the gossip columns.
Life’s Just Peachy
Chicago is in for a delectable summer treat as the Rockford Peaches come to town for some weekend shopping and sightseeing. These ball-playing beauties are sure to charm the Windy City as thoroughly as their crowds on game day—but watch out, boys: these ladies have high standards. It takes more than a ball and bat to make you a Peach’s catch.
Ruth looks up. “How did this get out?”
Scout takes the paper from her and scans it. “What is this Peacock guy implying?” She snorts. “‘Delectable summer treats’? That’s a funny joke.”
Shifty looks around. “Is that his real name? Peacock?”
“Come on. Who would choose it?”
Ruth stands up. “Can I have that?” Scout hands her the paper, and Ruth leaves the girls to laughing about it. She heads for the coach house. Nixon is around the side, leaning against a car and staring out into a field, cigarette burning in his hand. He turns at the crunch of her shoes against the gravel.
“Nice night out.”
Ruth studies the field. It’s more an open stretch of tall weeds than anything, but the sunset sets it aglow with purples and deep shadows. “Nice enough.”
Nixon hugs his elbows and turns back toward the field. “I think it’s nice.”
“Nix.” She holds out the paper. He takes it, puts the cigarette in his mouth and reads the item. “How did that get in there?” Ruth’s eyes move from the lit end of the smoke to his face. “This was supposed to be a private trip.”
He lets his hand fall to his side. “Loose lips sink ships.” Ruth doesn’t laugh. He glances up at her. He taps the page. “Ruth, this is little. The bellboy could have looked at the guest list.” He flicks away some ash. “I could set up a press meeting, just a quick one, so people don’t think this kind of thing works. Or, and this would be my preference, we could ignore it and let it go away on its own.”
“Now you’re just humoring me.”
“Personally, I’m offended. There isn’t even any scandal. Just some terrible slogans.” He smirks. “Really, is Lancaster so upstanding that nobody ever gossips?”
“Nix, no Quaker jokes.”
“They’re only funny if you’re actually a Quaker.” He lets his smile drop. “If this was going to blow up, it would look a lot worse than this, and we’d see it coming. The biggest favor the pearl-clutching culture warriors did for us was making everyone sick of them.”
“Let’s keep an eye on it all the same. I don’t want to learn about any more of these from somebody on the team.”
His cigarette hand hovers near his mouth. “This isn’t cover for you raising hell while we’re in Chicago.”
“I thought I might run wild at an ice cream parlor. Is that all right?”
He takes a final drag and drops his cigarette. “Okay.” He grinds the butt with his heel. “I’ll keep my ear to the ground.”
Chicago is a lady — a dame, a broad, a skirt, like Betty would say. She’s a brassy girl with strong lines, and she knows how to work them: the big sweep of the Lake Michigan shore, the broad strokes of the elevated train tracks, the towers racing up to the water, the bold curves of the forked river. Belle can’t get enough of her. She’s a smoky-voiced, gin-soaked moll, she’s winking from the arms of some robber baron, she’s a hard-nosed Girl Friday chasing down a scoop. Chicago is thrumming: she’s real, and to hell with the other towns.
Belle has never seen a city dressed like she is. She loves their faces, the elaborate iron front of Carson Pirie Scott, the white geometry of the Wrigley Building, the green-and-gold champagne bottle of the Carbide & Carbon Building. Chicago spreads out on a grid as even as good teeth. When Belle looks down one of the streets, she can see down it, miles and miles of possibility. Rockford is almost an ache, save for the baseball.
“—and so the nurse, right — honestly, I don’t think she knows any of our first names. So she runs over and drops down practically on top of me and goes, ‘Compton, where you hit?’ She’s feeling me all over, trying to see why I’m down. And I’m face first in the dirt, and all I can say is, ‘My ass! My shapely ass took one for the team.’”
The cluster of men around Belle bursts into appreciative hoots of laughter. “Is she telling that story again?” Nixon shakes his head. “I think it gets bigger and better every time.”
“The bruises were amazing, though,” Belle continues, her hand on a silk-suited shoulder. “You should have seen it. One ball, four hits. Almost a miracle!”
Ruth allows herself a small smile. “Would you begrudge her a fresh audience?”
He gestures with his glass of bourbon. “Your problem is that you’re generous. We could cure you if you spent any time with my family.”
A man about Nixon’s own age approaches them, one hand holding a flute of champagne, the other pressed to the small of his back. “Fine evening, Lewis,” he says, as though his pronouncement makes it so. He twists at the waist to look Ruth up and down. “Tell me, which one is this?”
Nixon’s smile has a touch of the rictus grin about it. “Norman, this is Ruth Winters, from Pennsylvania. She’s our starting pitcher. Ruth, this is Norman Dike. He works for my father.”
“How do you do.” Ruth offers her hand.
“Pennsylvania, eh?” Dike pumps authoritatively. “Whereabouts?”
“Don’t know it,” he says, with perfect blitheness. “Good grip, though. Ha!”
Nixon takes a generous sip of his bourbon. Dike turns his attentions back to him. “Your wife, where is she? I hope she’s well.”
“She’s fine.” Nixon studies his glass. “She preferred to stay in New Jersey.”
“Yes, well, Rockford must leave something to be desired. And the dog?”
“The dog is fine,” says Nixon dryly. “As is the kid.”
“Of course, of course.” Dike switches abruptly back to Ruth. “You must continue exactly what you’ve been doing. This little experiment has been wonderful for the company!”
She folds her hands. “And what is your role at the company, Mr. Dike?”
“Public relations.” Dike draws himself up. “I talk and the newspapers sit up. Nixon Nitration Works has been a leader in the field since ’24.”
“I believe you just hearing you say it,” Nixon interrupts dryly. “Norman’s in town to check in on the team. I don’t think either of you will be disappointed.”
“We don’t expect to be,” says Dike. He begins rambling about a mutual acquaintance at Yale. Ruth tunes out and looks around the room. It’s something out of a Jazz Age silent film, all gilt and fine furniture and waiters with bowties. Joey and Scout have been marveling at the hors d’oeuvres table for most of the evening. Catherine makes a circuit, observing their settings with obvious interest. Ruth follows her eyes and sees Dahlia comfortably chatting with one of the society ladies who’d tagged along. One group of players is camped out by a window; every so often they stop talking and look out at the lights below.
“Jeez Louise, is it nine thirty? We’d better start heading down soon.”
Betty’s voice carries no matter where she is. The words are so uncharacteristic that Ruth excuses herself, despite a resigned look from Nixon, and tracks her down near the coat check. Betty fakes a convincing yawn as soon as she sees Ruth coming. “Go-Go Guarnere, ready to turn in?” Ruth glances at the others lounging purposefully nearby: Gina, Shifty, Devina, Donna, Belle. They wait at their positions like they’re impatient for a hit. Ruth turns back to the ringleader. “Anything I should know about?”
Betty bats her eyes, but there’s no mistaking the quirk of her lips. “We’re just thinking about our beauty sleep. It’s been a big day, you know? Big day in a big city.”
“Seen enough today, have you?”
“Yeah.” Betty’s expression is now completely guileless. “Nice of the Nixons to throw us this party in our own hotel. I’m pooped.” She yawns again and nods before strolling out the door.
Ruth starts after her; a hand rests on her elbow. “Excuse me, Miss Winters?” The man grins at her. “Do you have a moment?” His suit is exquisitely tailored, and he wears a thick class ring of the sort they give out at Ivies. Ruth glances at the door, frustrated, and turns back to their patron. Over his shoulder, she sees the others slip out and away.
When Gina falls on top of her in the back seat of the taxi, all Belle can do is keep laughing. “Chicaaaago, Chicaaaago, that toddlin’ town!” Gina sings, still stretched out across them.
Devina, Betty and Donna join in. “Chicaaaago, Chicaaaago, I’ll show you around!”
“I love it!” Belle crows in time.
Shifty twists in the front seat and peeks back at them, grinning. On their right, Lake Michigan speeds alongside them, light scattering off the surface of the water. The tall buildings fall away as they fly along the drive. Belle rolls down her window and sticks her catching hand out. Gina’s hair blows out, whipping against her face. The wind rushes over Belle’s skin, the currents pushing and splitting against her. The escape, this is what she came for. No chaperone, no schedule, just a cool summer night and the mask of a hired car. “Bet your bottom dollar,” she sings with her girls, “you’ll lose the blues in Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town!”
“Thanks, mac.” Betty hands over the rolled-up wad of cash she’s collected. Lights flash and blaze on the ornate building behind them; just beyond it, trains rumble north and south. All around them, young people surge toward the entrances; a few linger near the taxi, waiting to claim it. The cabby flips through the fare and spreads his hands.
“You went downtown to Uptown, lady. That’s it?”
“Don’t worry, I got your tip right here.” Betty leans through the open window and plants a kiss right on the cabby’s mouth. Donna cheers, while Gina claps her hands over her face laughing. When Betty pulls away, the cabby blinks, his lips smeared with Betty’s bright red lipstick. He yanks the brake and pulls out into the street. “Go home to your wife!” Betty calls after him. Belle pounds her on the shoulder and doubles over, tears in her eyes. Betty grins down at her. “Cheap-ass bastard. He got more than he deserved before I ever touched him.”
“You’re terrible,” Belle wheezes. “Just terrible.” The disappointed couple behind them moves off to hail another cab.
“No kidding, stop the presses.” Donna bounces on her heels. “Are we going in already? That’s Charlie Spivak in there!”
Betty is already reapplying her lipstick. “Jeez, you’d think it’s Glenn Miller. What’s your rush, kid?” Donna begins sputtering, and Betty is laughing again.
“I’m going in.” Devina nods up at the building. “You seeing this place?”
The great vertical sign says ARAGON in red and gold-white. Huge floodlights set the façade aglow, while two enormous windows frame the grand arch of the front doors. Belle lays a hand on Gina’s shoulder. “All right, girls, just remember, this is an upstanding place, so whatever you do, don’t get caught.”
Gina glances up at her. “Some moral authority you are.”
“Moral, hell.” Betty wags her eyebrows. “It works, don’t it?”
All the journalists and socialites can’t seem to get enough of her. Ruth’s escape from the party takes a maddening amount of time. Whenever she asks where Nixon is, she gets knowing looks and a few long stories, none of any interest to her. An hour passes before she finds Nixon out on the hotel balcony. He’s standing at the rail, whiskey in one hand, a cigarette in the other, looking down at the city lights. He doesn’t turn around when she says his name. She hesitates, but continues. “A couple of the girls snuck out.”
He bows his head. “Who?”
“Belle,” says Ruth. “Betty, Devina—”
Nixon laughs. “Devina? They’ll be fine.” His voice is graveled; it hisses and pops like an old record. He keeps on staring at the other buildings below. “I don’t want to be here.”
“You could send everyone home,” she suggests.
He waves it off with the cigarette hand. “The party could give a damn who’s here.” He shakes his head. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Nixon drunk is not like the parodies of intoxication she remembers from her youth. “I could walk you back to your room,” she says. “But I really think—”
“It’s comforting, how literal you are sometimes.” He chuckles. “You thinking like a man, Ruth. Men want to fix things when they complain. Women just want sympathy.” He turns and leans against the rail. “My wife doesn’t trust you, you know. I told her that’s ridiculous, but I don’t think she believes me.”
She tries not to sigh. “Well. She should come and see for herself.”
“Yeah.” He smirks. “New baby, long commute... Maybe.” He drains the last of his whiskey in one gulp and sets the glass on the balcony’s edge. “I bet they’d have gotten Bob Strayer to coach you if they hadn’t got me.”
Ruth looks down. “Nix, the others could be in trouble. No one knows where they’ve gone.”
“You can’t control everything. Fifteen people, plus entourage.” He huffs to himself. “I tried to enlist four times, you know. Kept failing my physical.”
She looks down at her wristwatch. “You’ve mentioned that.”
“I’m coaching baseball,” he says irritably. “I was an all-star shortstop at Yale. How do I fail my physical?” He sees Ruth’s eye fall on the empty glass. His mouth thins. “It’s not hard to rig results. The Works blew up in ’24, and now we’re a valued part of the war effort.”
“I could be part of the war effort,” he says. “I should be out of OCS and doing something by now.”
“It’s not hard,” he says, and turns back to the lights.
The floor is packed: the minders barely have the space to squeeze through on their circuits. Arches and colonnades line the grand ballroom, with lounges at ground level and balconies overhead. Onstage, the band is swinging. Somewhere out of sight, a crew is broadcasting the music on WGN radio. Everyone in the Midwest wants to be where they are right now. Belle plans on actually thanking Nixon for this trip once they get back.
Betty reaches for the sleeve of a passerby. “Say, got an idea where some girls could put their feet up?”
The man is thin and nervous-looking. He opens his mouth, but it’s a moment before anything comes out. “I think I know you,” he says.
Belle leans over Betty’s shoulder. “Is that right?”
He looks between them. “You’re with the baseball league.” When he smiles, he looks happy; his neutral face is simply set to fretful. “My name’s Hall. John Hall. I’m looking for my friends...” He turns and stares at the crowded ballroom.
“How many friends you got?” Betty winks at Devina, who shakes her head.
“One too many.” Hall smiles thinly. “He said there’s a tunnel to the Green Mill around here somewhere. Al Capone’s bar,” he adds, at their uncomprehending looks. “It’s supposed to be a great jazz club.”
“Al Capone!” Betty pulls an appreciative face. “Maybe when we’re done with this place, huh?”
“Maybe,” Belle chuckles. “We ought to enjoy this place first, though.”
Hall studies them all for a moment. “Follow me,” he says. “I’ll see what I can do about a booth.”
Belle looks down at her fingers, splayed over a cocktail napkin, then back at the rest of the table. “I do have to swear you to secrecy, boys.”
“Aw, come on.” The middle fellow, a skinny guy with a rakish grin, leans forward. “We deserve some bragging rights. We got half your infield sitting with us. That’s a hell of a thing.”
Belle surveys their companions. There are four of them: a husky one with round glasses and close, curly hair; a short one smoking a cigar; a skinny one with a rakish grin, and Hall, who sits to the side nursing a club soda. Devina, Betty and Donna are watching her too. Belle makes a show of choosing her words. “You sound like you think you’re making a deal.”
The skinny guy winks while his pals snicker to themselves. “We’re all adults here.”
Donna starts laughing. “Good luck with that.” She nudges Belle with her shoulder. “Belle of the Ball here wants to be a lawyer.”
“Get out of here!” says the cigar smoker.
“You don’t want to do that,” says the husky one with a snort.
“Why not?” Belle grins. “Should I rather wait out the war and go back home to have kids?”
The skinny guy wags his eyebrows. “Why wait?” His friends cheer, except for Hall, who looks uncertain. Betty winks him.
“Watch this, cowboy. She’ll get going real good now.”
The short one pulls a long face, his hand resting on his chest. “I wouldn’t want to be sitting at a table with women of poor moral character, ma’am.”
“Who here is of poor moral character? This is the Aragon! They have standards.” Belle slaps Betty’s hand away from her thigh beneath the table. “I think we’re no more or less upstanding than Rosie the Riveter. What do you think, girls?”
“Every girl in the league is a lady,” Devina drawls, while Donna just covers her mouth and giggles.
“Nicky, settle down, huh? We’ve clearly got nothing to offer them.” The husky guy props his elbows on the table. “I bet these girls get spoiled rotten by that Nixon fella.”
“Who?” says Betty, at the same time as Belle sits up and says, “Spoiled rotten?”
Donna clutches her temple. “Oh brother.”
“If you think we’ve got it easy, you’re kidding yourselves,” says Belle, pointing at all the men. The Nixons don’t do squat for me that I can’t and don’t do myself.”
The short one produces a cigarette case. “Anyone?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” says Devina, and takes his cigar from his mouth.
“If anything, we deserve a lot more than what we’re getting,” Belle continues. “Of course, we shouldn’t ask for more, since we should be happy with what we get.” She huffs. “Please. That kind of thinking is going to put us right back where we started before the war.”
Donna sighs hotly and sinks back in her seat. “We’re having fun tonight. For God’s sake, lay off.”
Belle spreads her hands. “Why? Stanhope Nixon could blow his nose on more money than I’ve ever seen. Does he think we’re going to be grateful that he’s elevating the sport for women, just because he makes us wear cute uniforms and pose for pictures? We already elevate that damn sport. He’s trying to make an industry out of us. Why the hell should we settle when women aren’t settling anywhere else in the country now?”
Betty looks out at the others. “I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing anymore.”
“No kidding,” says the skinny guy, his brow furrowed.
Belle fiddles with her cocktail napkin, first folding it, then crumpling it. “They treat us like children,” she announces, with unexpected fervor. “No independence, no support. We work like dogs for him. Stanhope Nixon should be ashamed that he’s not doing more for us.”
The men stare at her with uncomfortable, slightly glazed expressions. Donna frowns. “Hey, where’s Hall?”
Babe glances up at her, but keeps her eyes straight ahead. “Hey, Ruth. Swell party, huh?”
Ruth doesn’t look away. “I thought you’d have left already.”
Babe takes a gulp of her drink. “What for?”
“To go dancing.”
“Eh.” She shrugs. “Sometimes it’s nice to change up the scene.”
“I don’t know anything,” she says, a bit too stubbornly. She frowns at Ruth. “Look, Ruth, I’d do anything you tell me, but I’m no squealer.”
She tries not to sigh. “We have to look out for each other, Babe. There’s a certain amount of job security at stake.”
“Hey, lay off it, would you? Who made you boss? We ain’t kids here.” Babe shakes her head. “Believe you me, Betty knows a thing or two about taking care of herself in a city.”
“Excuse me.” A smartly dressed man inserts himself by Ruth’s shoulder. “Which of you is Rita Hayworth? Two beautiful redheads in one place, I just couldn’t contain myself.” He presses a hand to his lapel and bows. An exquisite silk handkerchief peeps out from his breast pocket. “Thomas Wrigley. Very pleased to make your acquaintances.”
“Wrigley?” Babe glances at Ruth. “Like the building downtown?”
“And the national candy brand, yes. Are you the Babe Heffron? You look just like your magazine cover.” He runs a hand over Babe’s sleeve. “I love watching you in the field, Babe. You must be quite the dancer.” He looks Ruth up and down. “And you can only be Ruth Winters. You wear that dress very well.”
Ruth makes herself smile back. “You’re very kind, Mr. Wrigley.”
He chuckles. “Tom, please.” He settles back on his heels. “I was at that Racine game last week. Such a thrill to watch you ladies go. Powerful stuff – sheer poetry. And that triple play!” His eyes light up. “You don’t get to see that often anywhere. The way Belle Compton got that last out — she’s just magnificent.”
Ruth gives him a perfunctory nod. “She is something, isn’t she?”
“You must be quite close with her, as her pitcher.” Tom laughs. “What a corker she is. We spent some time together this evening. Very charming, but what a mouth on her. Still, who’s going to tell her she’s wrong?” His eyes dance. Ruth’s stomach squirms. “Let her think what she does,” he says. “It’s a hoot to hear her go.”
Here is Belle’s secret to looking like a good dancer: she doesn’t think. Where her feet should go or what dance is appropriate, that’s immaterial. She loves movement. Belle loves to be in her body. She trusts it to take her where it should. She’s proud of what it can do.
She and he gravitate toward each other through the press of couples and floorwalkers. When they come together they don’t talk; one look and he puts out his hand, and she rests hers on his hip, and they pick up their feet and forget the rest. They’re both big people, and other dancers make room for them. Belle rolls her head back and looks up at the vast painted sky ceiling. Cameras flash. Charlie Spivak is still going strong. The crowd responds. It’s a home run thrum, a give-and-take between roaring crowd and base runner. It’s the perfect moment to be twenty-one in Chicago.
She and her fella migrate all over the floor, a honeybee dance with swing. She keeps coming into her girls’ orbits, where they blow kisses and make faces at each other. From her perch at the table, Devina lifts her cigar in a salute. Donna bumps up against her from behind, and they lean on each other, giddy, before splitting apart. The fella tracks Donna’s red hair with his eyes, and Belle grabs his hands in hers, teasing. She catches sight of Shifty, close in conversation by one of the columns; the man dwarfs her, his hand propped above her shoulder.
Belle frowns on her next spin. Shifty’s elbows are splayed behind her. She’s gone still, staring with no expression. Belle looks back at her fella: he’s laughing. He doesn’t notice. Nobody around her notices, not even the eagle-eyed minders on their rounds. Belle’s jaw clenches. One more spin, and as they break apart, she steps back. The fella’s face falls, but Belle’s already pushing toward Shifty. The man is bending closer, hiding more and more of Shifty from her. He’s got his hand on her side. Belle begins pushing with less regard for the other dancers.
Quick as a boa, an arm encircles the man’s waist. Betty presses herself against him, pulling herself up and his shoulder down so she can whisper in his ear. Shifty slips away, but she doesn’t run: she stands and watches, Betty’s red mouth stark against her white teeth. The man tries to protest, but Betty maneuvers him around, pressing him up to her, the column at her back. Is this the man you want to be? How do you like it, you raggedy-ass sonofabitch? Did you want to be left alone? The man starts to squirm. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean. I’m sorry. A moment later, he stumbles away. Belle knocks against his shoulder, but he keeps fleeing.
Betty has her elbow crooked around Shifty’s neck, while Shifty blushes at the floor. Belle throws her arm around Shifty’s waist, and the three of them look at each other. The band keeps on playing, and Shifty pats them both on the back, and right then Belle knows they’re all right. She tugs them both away, where somewhere is a tunnel that goes to Capone’s jazz club. Betty begins to laugh. What just happened? Belle presses through the dancing crowd. She doesn’t know the way, but she has every confidence. Some things are certain, and this is one, that they’ll always be young and the world will go on forever.
PART SIX: TAKE ME OUT
“And here’s Rockford’s spunky shortstop, Georgina Luz, up at bat. Kenosha’s really going to have to step up their play if they want to walk away with their heads high, folks.”
“That’s some wise guy they’ve got up there today,” says the Comets’ catcher amiably.
“I dunno.” Gina lifts her bat. “I kinda like him.”
The catcher snorts, more in amusement than disgust. She hunkers down and lifts her mitt. The pitcher, who has been staring at them while she waits, gives them a curt nod.
“Knock it out, Luz!” bellows Betty from the dugout. “Come on, let’s get this over with!”
Gina feels the buzz right through to her bones. The Peaches have the bases loaded, and the visiting team’s missteps are gifts that keep on giving. Donna on first, Dahlia on second, Harry on third — it’s a pretty good place to be, for the bottom of the seventh.
The hit is lucky: the pitcher throws her a hell of a curveball, and if she’s honest, she probably only connects because she’s short. The ball whizzes up, out and away. Not a lot of mileage for her, but Harry should get home, maybe Dahlia too. It never gets old, tearing over the dirt, feet slamming on the ground, the crowd roaring behind you. The outfields can’t decide where to throw the ball. She pounds over first, and checks second. Harry slides face first into home plate. The left fielder lobs the ball at third base. Dahlia keeps running. The third baseman tries to both stare her down and catch the ball. Gina scampers back toward first.
The first baseman grabs her hair. “Jesus, Jesus, you’re blocking the plate!”
All Gina sees is a crash. Dahlia goes flying ass over tin cups. Only the third baseman staggers to her feet. The stands rumble with a different kind of noise now, this worried rumble that doesn’t mean anything good. She looks around, peering out from behind the first baseman. “What’s happening?”
“Don’t know,” the girl says, with a clipped New England accent. She waves her glove. “Hey Shirley! Move over.”
The second baseman steps back, hesitating. Donna isn’t sure where to go either. Dahlia is on the ground, the third baseman hovering over her, and there is definitely nothing good about the way she’s lying. Nurse Roe hustles out onto the field. “Stay at your bases!” yells the ump, hurrying after her.
Any idiot can see that Dahlia isn’t going anywhere on her own two feet. Roe and the umpire heft her up and sling her arms over their shoulders. The Comets all applaud as she passes. Scout emerges from the dugout to take her place at the base. Seeing Dahlia stagger back across the diamond, her face pale and sweaty, sends a shiver up Gina’s spine. When she tries for third base herself, she looks down at the torn up dust where it happened; the shortstop tags her out.
Everyone congregates in the locker room after. Dahlia is sitting on a bench, propped up against the wall while the doctor and Nurse Roe finish binding her up. Nixon hugs his elbows. “What are we looking at?”
The doctor wipes his hands on a handkerchief. “She took quite a slide. Her knee may be dislocated. There could be some fractures. She needs a lot of rest and attention, probably physical therapy.” He shakes his head. “I’m sorry to say that you’re out a player for good this season.”
Dahlia sighs. “Sorry, Shifty. Looks like you’re pitching the rest of the season now.”
“Don’t apologize,” says Nixon. “Shifty can take of it. Right, Shifty?”
She jerks a quick nod. “Yes sir.”
“Don’t apologize,” Dahlia mumbles. “You know what I said to that girl when it happened? ‘Are you okay?’ Famous last words.”
“What are you so hard on yourself for?” Gina offers up a smile. “That’s a magnificent exit, Web. You’re already a legend.”
“Just what I always wanted,” says Dahlia, and looks away.
All Nixon wants is a quiet room and some time to himself. The ride back from Kenosha was subdued and unhappy, even after a sizable win. He’s grown to like the girls’ self-entertainment; its absence unsettled him as much as anybody.
The first thing he notices as he approaches his front door is that someone is shouting from inside his living room. The second is that he recognizes the voice. For a moment, he imagines quietly stealing away and letting the problem wear itself out. He lays his hand on the doorknob, takes a deep breath and steps inside.
“—An absolute outrage! I can’t fathom how it’s been allowed to go on so long! Does no one have proper respect anymore?”
Nixon puts on his gamest smile. “Sounds like I’m missing something fun.”
Norman Dike shuts his mouth and looks away from Lorraine, who stands by apologetically, clutching the keys to the coach house. “Lewis!” Dike strides up to him with forceful gesticulations. “This is very serious. Something must be done! It must be!”
He lifts his eyebrows. “Are you talking about Dahlia Webster? Because I’d love a new pitcher this late in the season.”
“What?” Dike blinks. “Oh, yes, I did hear about that. A real shame.” He holds up a manila folder, his indignation renewed. “I’m talking about something far worse. Look at this!”
Nixon holds out his hand and looks over at Lorraine. “You can leave us,” he says, and the driver escapes, palpably grateful. Dike grips his hands behind his back and paces while Nixon taps out the contents of the envelope. It’s addressed to Colonel Sink in Chicago; the postmark is two days old.
A few photographs slide out, along with a typewritten note. He flips through the pitctures. They’re dimly lit and taken with an amateur camera, showing a dance hall or lounge. Nixon sighs. Some of them are unmistakably of Peaches: Donna mid-laugh at a table, Betty dancing with a sailor, Devina puffing on a cigar. He picks up the note. It begins with a demand for money and a threat to go to the papers. Most of it, however, is a list of quotes.
Stanhope Nixon should be ashamed that he’s not doing more for us.
We’re making him money, and we deserve more than $75 a week.
They treat us like children. No independence, no support.
I’m not going to be somebody’s housewife. This has showed me that I don’t have to.
The note ends with a means of anonymous contact and a threat, naturally, to go to the papers.
Dike shakes his head. “Normally, of course, I wouldn’t take this seriously. But I have reason to believe these quotes are authentic, in which case, your girls have a serious problem with authority.” He stabs the letter, rattling the sheet of paper. “I heard a few similar things, back in Chicago. I’ve told Colonel Sink so myself.”
Nixon massages his temple. He doesn’t need this. “Honestly, Norman, there’s very little here to get upset about.”
“Isn’t there?” Dike sputters. “The Peaches are riding high, Lewis. You’re earning Nixon Nitration Works a lot of goodwill, and you might be set to make it to the playoffs. The public is fickle. It doesn’t take a lot to bring that all down. We can’t have loose cannons putting that in jeopardy. It’s my job to find this loose cannon and set an example. We have standards to maintain. Something must be done. The old man demands it.”
“As in my father?” Nixon knits his brow. “You told my father about this?”
“Of course. It is his good name and company, after all.” Dike nods firmly. “I’ll need to conduct a thorough investigation and interview your girls.”
“If you really think that’s necessary.” Nixon sighs. “I have a spare bedroom, if you need it.”
“Excellent.” Dike yawns, and only belatedly covers his mouth. “Well, it’s been a long day. I’m going to put in a call to headquarters. Your phone?”
Nixon points upstairs. As soon as Dike leaves, he makes a beeline for the decanter on the mantle.
“Look at this. Vultures.” Harry drops the morning paper beside her plate, shaking her head as she shovels more scrambled eggs in her mouth. “Half a column inch to Dahlia blowing out a knee.”
“It’s a tragedy.” Gina spears a piece of toast. “The woman’s got beautiful gams. They got a picture?”
Harry squints at the paper. “‘We give our best to Miss Webster and wish her a speedy recovery. Meanwhile, Rockford fans all over are surely relieved that of the Peaches’ two pitchers, at least Ruth Winters is still going strong.’”
“Not to mention the rest of us,” Gina snorts. Betty waltzes in and promptly steals a strawberry from Gina’s plate. “Oho, look what the cat dragged in!” she laughs. “And where were you?”
Betty half-turns as she rounds the table. “What? Nowhere. I was at confession.”
Gina props her elbows on the table. “Tell me something. I’ve always wanted to know this. Does it still count if all you say is ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God’?”
She smirks. “I’m wounded, Luz. Harry, are you hearing this? She gives me no credit.”
“Gina, you’ve got a terrible grasp on Betty’s vocabulary. Have some faith.”
Betty winks. “Sure does me a world of good.”
Gina jerks a thumb over her shoulder at her. “Rest and attention. Now that’s what I’m talking about.” She snatches the paper from Harry, who’s too engrossed in her coffee to notice, and looks over the rest of the sports page. Kenosha beats South Bend, despite fine defense from Burgin and De L’Eau. Comets make appearance at VA hospital. Local chamber of commerce poses with Gia Basilone. “Basilone, Basilone,” Gina mutters under her breath. Hospital bed confirmation: Peaches pitcher Webster enrolling at Harvard this fall. She looks around the table. “Hey, did we know that Dahlia was heading to Harvard?”
Harry snorts. “Are we surprised?”
“Fair enough.” Gina keeps on reading. At the end of the paragraph, she frowns. “Did somebody piss in the Trib’s cornflakes?”
“What do you mean?” Betty asks, one cheek stuffed full of bacon.
“‘Watch out, South Bend. Peaches expect to be pampered when you put them up, unless you put them in their place.’ That’s a lot p’s.”
Harry takes the paper out of Gina’s hand and looks it over. “I have no idea,” she says finally, and turns to the politics page.
“Hey.” Betty jerks her chin toward the front of the house. “Anybody get the mail yet?”
Gina leans back in her chair. “It’s your day to do it, sweetcheeks, so no.”
“That’s all I needed to know.” She winks and gets to her feet. “I’ll be back.”
Gina takes her cigarette from the corner of her mouth and gestures with it. “So then Belle says, ‘You want to point to where I’d be hiding a Tommy gun?’ This big mook at the door, he’s got no answer. How the hell could he?”
“Son of a gun,” Catherine chuckles. “I am sorry I missed that.”
Neither of them notices Shifty appear at Gina’s elbow until she nods at Gina’s smoke. “Got any more of those?”
Gina jumps. “Jesus, give a girl some warning.” She fishes out a pack. “Sure, go crazy. Lips, you won’t be too offended?” Catherine gives her a wry look.
“Thanks,” says Shifty, and slips the cigarette between her lips. She rifles through her pockets for a matchbook. Catherine frowns.
“You’ve got that look, Shifty. You okay?”
“I’m fine.” Shifty’s hand trembles as the match flares and she lights her cigarette. She sucks deep and blows slowly out. “Gina, they called you in to talk at all?”
“No. Would who call me in about what?”
Shifty inhales again. “That fella from back east, Mr. Dike.”
Catherine cants her head. “What about him?”
“He’s here. He’s asking all sorts of questions about what we were doing in Chicago.”
“Oh, for crying out loud.” Gina rolls her eyes. “Where are we, Berlin?”
She squirms a little. “He showed me pictures of us, asked me who was who. They know some of us went out.”
“Pictures?” Catherine stares. “Was somebody following you?”
Gina throws up her hands. “How should I know? Ruth wanted to, I know that.” She jams her cigarette back into her mouth. “Jesus. Nixon doesn’t care, I don’t know why he should. You know who else he’s talked to?”
“You’re the first one I’ve seen. He told me not to talk about it.” She shrugs.
Catherine thins her mouth. “I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.”
“I don’t know.” Shifty flicks her ash uncertainly. “He said not to talk about it.”
“Our very own detective noir,” Gina snorts. “What do you think, is the world ready for Norman Dike, P.I.? I sure am.” She twists her face. “Ah, I’m going to — get to the bottom — of this. I’m a leader in the field!”
Shifty smiles, and Catherine shakes her head. “Good imitation. Don’t do it if he wants to speak with you.”
Ruth leans against the doorjamb. “Well, this is just ridiculous.”
“Isn’t it?” Belle plunges back into her closet and flips through her array of dresses. “I shouldn’t be surprised. The man droned at me for twenty straight minutes at that party and I still don’t remember a thing he said. Anyone that boorish can’t understand people having a good time.” She leans back out again. “I’m not calling you boorish. No offense.”
Ruth smiles. “I’ve gotten over it. Besides, you’re all adults. Nobody seems to have come to any harm.”
“Quite the opposite.” Belle holds out a flowing emerald gown. She wrinkles her nose and shoves it back in. “You should come next time.”
“I’ll think about it.” She peers into the closet. “It doesn’t have to be your nicest one.”
“Are you kidding?” Belle emerges again, grinning. “I’ve been waiting to see you get glamorous all summer.” She holds up a gold-tinted dress, makes a face and returns it. “What is this for, again?”
“Exposure.” She crosses her arms. “Local society wants to see that we’re interested in the town. Really, they just ask a lot of questions and talk about themselves.”
Belle smirks. “Yeah, but why’s it always you? Not that I like the man, you understand. To be perfectly frank, he frustrates me.” She winks, and holds up a blue gown. “The feeling strikes me as mutual, but I’m fine with that.” She holds the dress up to Ruth’s shoulders and stops. “Oh yes, definitely this one.”
Ruth looks down. “Oh, Belle, I don’t know if I can—”
“Shush.” She dives to the floor of her closet and comes up with a pair of high heels. “If we’re going to be stuck here with Norman Dike, I at least want to know that someone is having a good time tonight.”
Mrs. Sobel stands at attention on the front porch. Ruth opens the car door herself and sits while Nixon smoothes down the front of his suit. “Dike is doing what he’s doing, so help him out if he need anything, but otherwise just let him be.”
“Of course,” says Sobel, glowering as Nixon lets Ruth take care of herself.
“And you have the mayor’s number?”
She pats the pocket on her cardigan. “The girls are safe in my hands.”
Nixon smiles. “That’s what a chaperone is for. We shouldn’t be later than midnight.” Ruth shoots him a look. “Eleven,” he amends.
Sobel nods. “We’ll all be here when you get back.”
“Great.” Nixon bounces the keys in one hand and heads for the driver’s seat. “Have fun.”
It would be a great shot, if Gina owned a camera: Betty, sprawled back on her bed, one leg hanging off the edge of the mattress, posed like she owns the place. She’s looking down at her knees, her expression turned in. “But what about it, you know?” Betty taps her knee with one finger. “I mean, what are the chances that any of us are here?”
“Right,” says Gina, on cue.
“Yeah. So who’s to say I’ve gotta just go back where I was?”
“Until next summer.”
Betty smiles. “Yeah.”
Gina leans back in the vanity’s chair, her feet propped up on the bed. “Where would you go?”
Betty shrugs, and looks over at a poster taped to the wall. “Belle keeps talking about college. I don’t know, she thinks maybe I could do good there.” Gina smirks and looks down. Betty frowns. “What?”
“Nothing.” Gina crosses her ankles. “I love the girl, I do, but she thinks everybody she likes is Belle Compton.”
She shakes her head. “Nothing. Forget it. College, huh?”
“Yeah.” Betty props an arm up behind her head. “My brother, you know, Henry, he’s with the First Armored.”
“Who’s telling this story? Henry writes me about his engineering classes he has to sit through when he thinks he don’t have anything else to say. He hates ‘em, but I dunno. Sounds interesting to me.”
Gina lets out a deep breath. “Wow.”
Betty looks up at her. “What?”
“Lady ballplayer and girl engineer too?” Gina chuckles. “Never let it be said that you half-assed anything.”
“Oh yeah?” Betty’s mouth crooks. “What about you, where would you go?”
“Are you kidding me? Radio. Next question.”
Betty laughs. “Shoulda seen that coming. Wiseacre.”
The kitchen looks like the punch line to a joke. Supplies and ingredients lie strewn pretty much everywhere. A huge pot of off-color mush bubbles on the range. Gina’s eyes start to water as soon as she comes close. She presses her face into the crook of her arm. “Who the hell let you in here again?”
“You don’t have to get all shirty with me.” Donna prods the pot indignantly “There’s no smoke this time. Give me a little credit.”
Gina squints as she forces herself to lower her arm. “For crying out loud, I can smell it in my room.”
“Somebody kill a skunk?” Frankie pokes her head around Gina’s shoulder and blanches. “Holy mackerel, what is that?”
“Look, you yobos have no class anyway, so I’m not wasting my breath.” Donna frowns at the mixture, and prods it with the spoon. “My mother makes this all the time and it comes out fine.”
“One more reason I thank God every day I was born Italian,” snorts Frankie.
“Hey, are we defaming the Irish again?” comes Scout’s cheerful voice behind them.
Gina turns. “Not so much defaming as condemning them to eat their own food.”
Scout grimaces. “Ouch.”
“You people are awful,” says Donna. “And spoiled rotten. You’d like this if you gave it a shot.”
Gina takes a chance and lowers her arm. “And to think I came looking for you.”
“Oh, I was talking to Dike.”
Gina pauses. “About Chicago?”
“Yeah.” Donna shrugs, and dips her spoon into her soup. “He wanted to know if anyone was talking shit about Stanhope to anyone. I told him I hadn’t heard anything like that.”
Gina crosses her arms. “He show you some pictures?”
She sips the soup and nods. “And some ransom note too.”
“It gets better and better.” Gina frowns at Donna. “You’re eating that mess?”
“I’m as amazed as you are,” Scout says gravely.
“Jack diamonds, boom!” Babe throws her suite down on the coffee table. “Read ‘em and weep, ladies.”
Belle strolls in behind the card game and peers over everyone’s shoulders. She clucks her tongue. “Oh, that’s just too bad.” She pats Gina’s arm. “Hey, can I see you for a minute?”
Gina glances up at her face, then stubs her cigarette out. “All right, deal me out.” She stands up as Babe cackles and Donna tosses her cards at her. “What’s up?” she asks as Belle leads her outside.
She shuts the door behind them. Her expression shifts. “Dike asked me to send you up. He’s going to ask you questions. I told him about the guys we were sitting with. That’s probably all he wants to know.”
“Yeah? Good. If they’re showing their asses, I hope they get a good kick in the nuts too.”
Belle furrows her brow. “Do you remember any of their names? All I’ve got is Hall.”
“His first name was John. I don’t have any of the others.”
“Well.” She gestures at the coach house. “He’s just in Nixon’s living room.”
Dike unlocks the door when she knocks. He squints at her. “And you are?”
“Luz.” She clears her throat. “Georgina Luz. You sent for me, sir?”
“Ah.” His expression becomes stern. “Yes. Come in.”
Gina’s never been in Nixon’s place. Whatever personal touches are in here were probably there before he came. She spots a big glass jar of whiskey on the mantle as she takes a seat in a jar. “I heard you had some miscreants on your hands,” she says.
Dike nods. “It does look that way.” He reaches for what must be the famous brown envelope. “Do you recognize any of these quotes from your evening abroad, Miss Luz?”
She scans the sheet of paper he hands her. “No, sir. I was dancing most of the night.”
He squints. “Do you know who might be likely to have said them?”
Gina frowns. She clears her throat again and looks down at the list. She might not have been there, but any idiot could see that’s Belle ranting on the page. Gina shakes her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” Dike steeples his fingers and taps his chin. Gina shifts in her seat. “Don’t you want to ask me about the fellas?”
“Who we were talking with.” She gestures at the paper. “Nobody else could have overheard us in that place.”
“The blackmailer isn’t our problem, Miss Luz.”
She blinks. “He’s not?”
Dike gets to his feet. “Our problem is that someone is taking advantage of Stanhope Nixon, and of the league. We pay ingratitude swiftly and in kind at Nixon Nitration Works, and this league will not stand for anything less than full commitment from its players.”
Gina stares up at him, trying desperately not to laugh or to bolt, wondering how he can possibly take himself seriously. “But the blackmailer gets prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and everything, right?”
“In time.” He pauses, and eyeballs her. “Luz, eh? Spanish?”
He grunts. Gina tracks him with her eyes. Her heart starts to pound.
Walk, don’t run, she reminds herself. Don’t attract attention. Gina’s hand shakes as she opens the back door and slips inside. The first person she sees is Devina.
Gina grabs her arm. “Where’s Sobel?”
“Looking for Betty, last I knew.”
“When was that?”
Gina swears. “You want to run some interference for me? Don’t let anyone else go see Dike, all right? Something’s not right.” She looks up at her. “He ask you questions yet?”
She nods. “I didn’t say much.”
“Okay.” Gina pinches her lip. “Okay. I’m calling that party. Don’t let anyone else go see him.” Devina pats her shoulder and they split up. Gina makes her way to the office, another room she’s never been in before. The telephone has no fingerprints on it. She snatches it up and starts dialing. The rotary is slow and noisy.
The switchboard operator picks up and asks for her number. “Hey there,” says Gina, and smiles into the earpiece. “I work at 8-7742. Any chance you could help a sister out?”
The car spits gravel behind it as it lurches to a stop. The engine is still dying down when Nixon throws open his door. “Check on the girls,” he says over his shoulder. Ruth slips off her heels and hurries into the big house.
Nixon’s own door is locked. He can see Dike through the window as he shoves the key into the knob and wrenches the door open. He storms into the living room. “What the hell is going on here?”
Betty sits on the couch, jaw shoved forward and tight. She’s not looking at anybody or anything. Dike smiles. “Lewis! Our problem is solved.”
Nixon points. “This isn’t a problem, this is one of my best players. Betty, are you okay?”
She doesn’t move. “Fine, sir.”
Dike puts his hands behind his back. “I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth if I were you. Colonel Sink is satisfied, and your father thinks you’ve exhibited decisive leadership tonight.”
Nixon stops cold. “I’m sorry?”
“Belle. Hey.” Gina nudges her with her foot. “Pick up your cards.”
Belle shakes her head. “It’s been more than an hour.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Belle’s eyes stay glued to the coach house. Gina watches her. “Cool it, all right? It’s Betty. You think she won’t be fine? She’ll be fine. Pick up your cards.”
“I can’t do this.” She presses her knuckles to her mouth.
“Betty’s always fine,” says Gina, more insistently. Belle doesn’t answer. Gina drops her cards on the table. “Look, what are you going to do? Go up there and say it was you? You remember who it is might have passed those things along?”
“I can’t remember,” she hisses through gritted teeth. “Do you remember anybody? Damn it, the place was a madhouse.” She covers her eyes. “It was all out of context. I never wanted to make trouble for anybody.”
“I believe you,” says Gina, more quietly. She doesn’t add what she’s really thinking, that Belle will happily make trouble—who wouldn’t, when you can always get out of it?
The door behind them swings open. “Hey,” says Babe, peering out. “Anything yet?”
“Nope,” says Gina. “You want company?”
“Yeah,” says Babe. She slips outside and perches on the rail, her back to the coach house. Belle’s knee starts bouncing. Gina looks back down at her cards. She turns back to Babe. “Hey, you want to—”
The coach house door slams. Betty comes stalking out across the lawn, her eyes front and center. Everyone leaps to their feet. Belle hurries down the steps. “What happened?”
Betty clenches her teeth. “Somebody got a cigarette?” Gina hands her a rumpled pack and a lighter. Betty grabs a cigarette and grips it hard between her lips as she lights it. “Goddamn Dike starts parading around in front of me, telling he knows what I done, how I’ve ‘hurt the team and endangered the league’ with my goddamn behavior. Made me wait there while he called all the big honchos. Kept saying I was responsible for shit in the papers.” She blows forcefully from the side of her mouth. “I didn’t say nothing. He’d already decided it was me. So I’m out. I’m on the next train east.”
Gina stares. “What?”
“That’s bullshit!” Babe snaps, eyes wide. “How’s Nixon letting that happen?”
“It was me,” says Belle, pale as a ghost. “Betty, you can’t let them do that to you. It was me.” Betty eyes her, furiously blowing smoke. Belle turns around. “I’m telling them. This isn’t right.”
“Hey.” Betty grabs her arm. “Don’t be a goddamn martyr.”
Belle jerks away, staring. “Are you crazy?”
“You think about it,” Betty says gruffly. “They ain’t gonna get rid of you. Belle Compton, Belle of the Ball, star catcher from UCLA? They’re sacking the Italian skirt from who gives a damn. They ain’t stupid.”
Gina feels her legs shaking. “Betty, we won’t play without you.”
“You’re gonna.” Betty tosses the cigarette and grinds it down with a vengeance.
Tears are spilling down Belle’s face. She’s breathing hard. “Betty, this is wrong.”
“Yeah. It is.” She looks at all of them, gathered in a circle around her. “This shit happens. It’s the cost of business. I see that.” She takes a deep breath. “You all had better clean yourselves up, all right? I don’t want any more of this bullshit than I’m already gonna get.” She hands Gina the lighter and the pack, and turns to Babe, whose jaw is clenched tight. “Hey,” says Betty, and pats her cheek. “Keep going, all right? I ain’t done. Not by a long shot.”
Gina finds herself wandering from room to room, listening until the conversation exhausts her, then drifting on. At one point she finds Devina sitting on the landing of the steps, knuckles pressed to her mouth and staring out at the stained glass over the front door. Gina just sits with her for a while, trying to get comfortable with this companionable silence thing she’s heard so much about. A quiet “Excuse me” from behind them unspools the mood.
Catherine stands behind them, waiting to get through. “Hey, Lips,” says Gina; it comes out wearier than she’d planned. Devina looks up and scoots over against the railing. “You look busy,” she says as Catherine steps between them.
She pauses. “There was a lady at church who always used to tell us to live by our word. So when she’d say, ‘If life gives you lemons,’ we always knew she had some lemonade ready.”
Gina laughs. “No kidding. Fresh lemonade right then and there?”
“It always worked on me.”
“To hell with it.” Gina gets to her feet. “Want help? I’ll put on a paper hat and do a jingle.”
“Actually.” Catherine stops again on a lower stair. “It’s Dahlia’s day to get the mail.”
Gina nods. “All right.” She rubs her hands together. “Right, who doesn’t love mail call?”
“No reading it first, now,” says Devina dryly.
Gina points as she hops down the steps. “Just for you, I’m breaking out the censor marker.”
The bundle of letters in the mailbox is just enough that she can excuse herself if she doesn’t want to stick around. There’s only so much anger she can take right now, and all it brings to mind is Betty waiting out there on the platform. Gina makes the rounds and keeps it light. Scout even smiles and cracks a joke when she gets her weekly letter from home. A few people ask if Catherine is serious about the lemonade; Gina assures them that Mama Lips would never joke about a thing like that.
“Let’s think about this,” says Frankie, gesticulating with a postcard showing historic downtown Springfield on the front. “It’s not like we’re never going to see her again. And the league might change its mind.”
“I second that.” Harry lets her hand drop. “Once we get through this week, we’ll be fine.”
Donna nudges Josie. “So, you ready for this? One pitcher, one catcher, three weeks left before the playoffs?”
Josie slumps back on the couch. “You make it sound so enticing.”
Frankie snorts. “Hey, ain’t this what you signed up for? Right, Luz?”
“You got it.” Gina grins and waves her final batch of letters. “I got to find Ruth. You seen her around?”
Donna nods toward the hall. “Downstairs somewhere, I think. Look for the blue dress.”
“All right. Evening, ladies.”
Gina strolls down the hallway, feeling better, if only a little. If anyone could weather losing this and still come out strong, it was the Peaches. Her Peaches. She allows herself, while no one is looking, a sentimental moment, and counts herself lucky. Who couldn’t, with a ragtag group of ladies like this?
She spots Scout’s room through her open door. The light’s on, and Gina’s still feeling sociable. “Heya, Muck,” she calls, and pokes her head through the door. “How do you feel about West Virginia lemonade?”
Scout is flat on her back in the middle of her bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her face is limp and pallid. The empty envelope of her family’s letter sits loosely in her hand, its contents lying on her chest and by her side. Gina’s smile couldn’t have come off her face faster if it had jumped. “Whoa, Scout, what happened?”
She doesn’t answer, except to rub her thumbs over the ripped envelope. Gina can’t even hear her breathing. Cautiously, she inches toward the bed. The letter consists of a single sheet of paper, handwritten. The words she catches look like an apology. A newspaper clipping has tumbled onto the bed. It’s something about a big battle in Sicily.
“I’m not a first-degree relative,” says Scout softly, her voice odd and detached.
Gina’s heart plunges into her stomach. She reaches for the article. Along the side runs a casualty list.
“July 9th,” Scout says. “We were in South Bend.”
“Yeah,” says Gina, lost for words.
Scout doesn’t say anything else. She doesn’t move. Gina just stands there. It’s a hell of a place to be.
PART SEVEN: BRUISES
The quiet in the house is different now, cornered. It’s close in on Devina as she climbs the steps. Each one creaks and complains. Seems like everyone should hear her coming, but no one’s listening. They’ve all dug in, hard at work ignoring empty rooms.
Through a far door, she can see Shifty perched on her bed, hunched over a glove. She oils it with a patient single-mindedness. Randleman men do that too. There’s always something to look after. Her pa says that words don’t do much, but actions do. Right now Devina feels helpless about talking. People want to unload, or blow their tops, or just pretend they aren’t hurt. Not much to do sometimes besides endure until the next thing comes along. She leaves Shifty to her work.
Devina heads down the hall, to one of the closed doors. It’s plastered over with clippings and postcards and little remembrances between friends. Harry hustles up past her. She avoids looking anywhere and ducks into her room. Devina hears her fumbling, a quiet swear, then the quick, frantic flicks of a lighter not catching.
She almost knocks. It jars her to push right in. She does it quietly. Somebody has made the bed, the sheets turned in tight and snug. Scout’s things aren’t so neat. Devina studies her vanity dresser. All the photos of Phil Tanner stick out from the edge of the mirror. One is a photobooth print, four stacked images of a handsome man in uniform, laughing and pulling faces. Another shows him and Scout standing in someone’s grassy backyard. Her arms are wrapped around his waist, her head pressed to his shoulder. Devina picks up a framed portrait sitting on the desk. It’s signed in the lower right-hand corner. To my best girl — Always yours, Phil.
There’s a moment where Devina imagines this is a terrible trespass. Maybe they make the playoffs and Scout is steady enough to come back. She looks down at the backyard photo again. Scout’s face is radiant. Phil’s hand rests with perfect ease at her hip. She sets it down.
Devina slips a picture out from the mirror’s edge, and another, and another. She empties the vanity and piles Scout’s effects. She pulls open drawers and closets and folds clothes. The door opens. She looks up. Ruth stands in the doorway, holding a box.
...The Rockford Peaches have some cold comfort in the knowledge that no week can be worse than the one they’ve just suffered. Losing pitcher Dahlia Webster to injury so late in the season is bad enough. This reporter has learned two more players have fallen from Rockford’s ranks. Second baseman and crowd favorite Betty Guarnere was called home suddenly to her family in Philadelphia. She could not be reached for comment; Peaches coach Lewis Nixon has asked that her privacy be respected at this difficult time. The same night that Ms. Guarnere left, third baseman Scout Muck received word of a personal tragedy. We offer condolences to Scout and to the family of SSgt. Philip Tanner, 20, Tonawanda, New York.
With playoffs looming close, Coach Nixon surely has plenty on his mind without his players dropping left and right. No word on how he plans to cope with these fresh challenges, or if any trades are in talks. When asked for a reaction to this week’s events outside Beyer Field, first baseman Donna Malarkey responded sharply, asking, “Don’t you have a war to write about?” In this reporter’s opinion, given the above, it’s just been done. Buy this paper tomorrow for all the latest on your Rockford Peaches and the AAGPBL.
A card game migrates through the house. Right now it’s taken up in the sitting room. Devina has lost track of what game, exactly, it is. Frankie and Joey argue about the rules with every round. Devina can’t tell what they’re playing for, but the game is cutthroat.
The front door swings from the outside. A blast of hot air seeps into the foyer. Joey sighs loud through her nose. “Shut the door, for God’s sake!” She slaps down a spade ten. “God damn it,” she mutters.
“Hey.” Babe elbows Devina. “Look at this.”
They’ve seen her before. She plays for the Comets. The Peaches go quiet, watching her lug her bulging suitcase in. She drops the suitcase on the carpet, panting, and takes in the house. Gina looks down at her cards again.
The trade spots them and smiles brightly. “Hi there. Any of you ladies know where I’m supposed to go?”
Gina leans back in her chair. “And who are you?”
She comes closer and holds out her hand. “Flo Talbert. I play third base.”
Joey makes a show of looking her over. “So you’re our new Scout.”
Flo lowers her hand. “Listen, I’m real sorry about your troubles. I really liked—”
“So did we,” says Babe. She turns back to her hand and doesn’t look up again. No else makes a move. Flo stands by, uncertain.
Catherine comes down the stairs. She looks down at the suitcase, then over at Flo. “Hey,” she says, reaching for the handle. “You need some help?”
“That’d be swell.” Flo nods to the other girls. “See you around.”
“Make yourself at home,” says Joey. Devina watches them go. She feels uneasy, that she didn’t offer to help first.
Babe’s shoulders tighten. She throws down a card, a heart. “Someone gonna see me?”
Nixon hears the engine from his study. The crunch of gravel under wheels sends his heart pounding. He has no more visitors scheduled, and the unscheduled ones have been nothing but trouble. Somewhere between the irritation and the conditioned panic, he sets down his glass, slips into his loafers and hurries downstairs.
He jerks the door open, ready to chase the inevitable reporter off his front step. Kate looks up at him, still pulling her gloves off. Beneath her wide-brimmed hat, her face lights up. “Lew!” She hooks her arm behind his neck, one glove still on, and presses her face to his shoulder. “It’s so good to see you.”
Nixon blinks. Behind her, Lorraine tries to balance a short stack of hat boxes riding in the back seat. Nixon turns his head and catches the scent of her hair. His lurching heartbeat slows down. He wraps his arms around her waist. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
She tilts her head back and looks up at him. “I just flew in. It sounded like you needed your wife.”
“In the papers?”
She quirks her mouth. “We live a strange life.”
They break apart. He looks back at the car. “You came alone?”
She looks down at her other glove and tugs at it. “He’s with his grandmother. I wanted us to spend some time alone.”
He frowns. “It’s been three months since I’ve seen him.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it now.” She gives him an expectant look. Immediately he steps aside, and she brushes past him into the cool of the house. He watches her as she sets her hat on an end table.
Lorraine follows them inside, suitcases in hand. “Where do you want these?”
“Is that all of them?”
Lorraine shakes his head. “I’ll be one or two more trips.”
Nixon gestures at the stairs. “Put them in my room.” Lorraine nods and heads up the steps.
Kate looks away from surveying the small foyer. “These are nice arrangements. Small, but nice.”
Nixon shuts the door. “We’re pretty well taken care of.”
Kate turns and looks up at him. “I’ve missed you, Lew.” She leans closer. He lingers on the kiss, until she pulls back. Her expression is somewhere between wry and resigned. “VAT 69? You shouldn’t have.”
He shrugs. “I’m a man of fine tastes, wives included.”
“Wife, singular.” He steps behind her. “Don’t play this game with me.”
She shrugs off her jacket into his hands. “I’m not playing anything.” Beneath her updo, the muscles of her long neck tense.
Outside, it hasn’t cooled off since practice this morning. Ruth shuts the back door and heads toward the coach house, notes in hand. The mugginess is oppressive after the cool of the house. Her dress clings to the back of her legs.
Her surprise must register when a woman answers the door. She’s slim and exquisite, with thick dark hair and an Ava Gardner face. “You can only be Ruth,” she says, smiling. She rests her left hand on her chest. “I’m Kate Nixon. It’s so nice to finally meet you after hearing so much.”
“Thank you,” she stammers, thinking on the few details Nixon has dropped: the New York society, the brilliant schooling, the summer home in Great Neck. Kate Nixon, up close, looks equal to the sum of her parts. She folds her hands at her waist, perfectly poised. Ruth feels the sweat rolls down the back of her neck. “Is he in?”
“He’s busy.” She crosses her arms. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“I need to talk to him about the trade situation.”
“Yes, you have a new girl, don’t you?” Kate’s expression seems genuinely sympathetic. “It sounds like you’ve all had a rough time of it lately. I understand you’re quite the rock for the team.”
Ruth dips her head. “I’m just one player.”
“Of course. But you do so much, don’t you.” Kate leans against the doorframe. “I get such compliments from the locals about your dinner party appearances.” Her smile becomes wry. “Stanhope appreciates the extra support, of course. Rich as sin, but so particular about where he spends.”
Ruth toys with her notes. “I only go to help. They just like having someone who plays ball at the table.”
“How sweet you are.” She cants her head. “Is it true you nearly went into the Army instead?”
“The Women’s Army Corps.” Ruth nods. “Yes, almost.”
Kate wrinkles her nose. “They have a horrid reputation, don’t they? I heard that any soldier dating a WAC gets seized for medical treatment.” She presses her knuckles to her mouth. “I’m sorry, I must sound so catty. I’m just trying to get a feel for you, Ruth.” She smiles, and reaches out to squeeze Ruth’s fingers. “I do hate to be embarrassed. You really know how to carry on head held high. That’s wonderful.”
Ruth keeps her hand in Kate’s, trying not to frown. “Do you know when he’ll be available?”
“Not really. He’s on the phone.” She smiles, and gives another squeeze. “I’ll tell Lewis you came by.” Ruth is still standing there when she shuts the door.
...If you’re looking for high drama, come out to Beyer Field this Tuesday, where former Comet Florence Talbert faces off against her old teammates wearing her new Peaches uniform for the very first time. Talbert was traded to Rockford following the sudden departure of third baseman Scout Muck, who resigned her position due to personal tragedy, according to reports. Kenosha, of course, regards the trade as a tragedy of its own. Talbert is known for her clear head and reliable play, both in short supply for the Comets. Better luck next year, ladies! Somebody has to bring up the rear.
Of course, the Peaches are always well worth the price of admission. Whether you’re in it for the brassy balletics, the irreverent interviews or the reams of rumors, you’ll always find something to talk about after the final out. This week may be interesting for Rockford coach Lewis Nixon, whose wife is in town for a surprise check-in. A word of advice, Mrs. Nixon — there’s a spot or two still open on the team. If you’re as good as Dahlia Webster, the City of Rockford welcomes you with open arms!
Devina looks from the pitcher’s mound to Belle crouching behind her. “You girls ready?” she calls.
Shifty stops massaging her shoulder and gives the thumbs-up. Devina checks in with Belle. “Hey,” she says. From behind her mask, Belle’s eyes refocus.
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, I’m here.” She straightens and holds up her mitt. Devina raises her bat.
The pitch comes in too high. Devina steps away and lets Belle throw it back. Shifty’s next throw falls shorts of the strike zone. Devina watches her shuffle her feet. “You doing all right?”
“I’m good,” Shifty calls back, and squeezes her throwing hand. Devina swings at the next pitch, and strikes. Belle misses the ball. She apologizes and chases after it. She apologizes again, eyes downcast, as she throws it back. Devina bows her head, checking her stance.
“All right, now,” she says to them. “We’ll get it.” She raises her bat.
The other Peaches pretty much leave Flo Talbert alone. She makes some stabs at talking, but nothing sticks. Devina watches her from the other end of the locker room. Flo isn’t shy about changing. She brushes her hair and pins it up without a mirror. Before she shuts the door on her locker, she picks up the hem of pink uniform, looking it over.
Devina makes her way over. Flo looks up at her and smiles. “Good practice?” Devina asks.
Flo nods. “I said this playing against you. You’re a hell of a team.”
“It’s your team too.”
“I hope so.” She blows out the side of her mouth. “It just happened so quick, you know? I was in green playing South Bend on Monday.”
“You’ll settle in.” Devina glances at the door. “You been warned yet about leaving?”
Flo knits her brow. “No.”
“Reporters. They hang out by the bus.”
Next to them, Frankie laughs. “Yeah, and by the doors, and at the diner, and behind trashcans. Just you wait, Kenosha. It’s a real ball.”
“My name’s Florence,” she says easily. “I’ll answer to Tab, though.”
Devina’s mouth twitches. “I’ll walk with you. Just remember your answer is always ‘No comment.’”
Flo snorts. “That much of a problem for you guys?”
Devina hefts her bag up on her shoulder. “That and we’re short a pitcher. Other’n that, we’re fine.”
Kate meets him at the door with a kiss and a paper in hand. “Have you read this rag? It’s absolute garbage. Great stuff.”
“I try not to,” he says, as she pulls away.
“I’ve made us some coffee.” She heads toward the kitchenette. “I had to do some cleaning,” she calls over her shoulder. “Not as much as I’d anticipated.”
“I don’t use it very much.” He follows her in. “I’ve just been at practice, honey. I’m disgusting. Can it wait?”
Kate arranges the pot of coffee and matching pair of mugs on a tray. “Aren’t you impressed that I cleaned your kitchen?”
He has to smile. “It’s a little unnerving, to be honest.”
She picks up the tray. “It shouldn’t be.” She bustles off into the dining area and sets the coffee down on the table. “How was your day?”
He shakes his head and pulls out a chair. “It’s not over. I’m still working on a trade.”
She pours for them both and takes a seat across from him. “Are they generally this time-consuming?”
Nixon shakes his head. “Talbert was a peace offering. Sink was cleaning up after Dike.”
“Norman Dike?” Kate huffs softly. “That man is a twit.”
“Among other things.” He sips the coffee, and makes a small, appreciative noise. “I’ve missed this. You brew a good cup.” Kate reaches out and puts her hand on his; he takes it, and sips his coffee again.
“Have you talked to Stanhope about the trade?”
He makes a face. “The last person I’d want involved.”
She frowns. “I know you don’t get along, but he only wants what’s best for you. I’m sure he would help.”
“He’s helped me quite enough this year.”
“I don’t want to get into it.” He looks down into his cup. “I have to go.”
“Was she a good trade?” Kate asks, a little too quickly.
He stands up. “I have to do this thing. I’m sorry. Thanks for the coffee.” He leaves her nursing her own cup, and doesn’t if she watches him go.
Nixon idles at the bottom of the stairs, his hands in his pockets. Ruth hurries down the steps; her hair is still wet from the shower. He looks up at her. “That was quick.”
“I’ve been trying to get through to you.” She rests a hand on the banister. “We have to talk.”
“I’m working on the pitcher situation.” He gestures loosely behind him, toward the coach house. “I’m having trouble with the other phone.”
She glances around the room. “Can we talk in private?”
His mouth thins. “Let’s go to the study.”
She heads down the hallway with him. He keeps his eyes straight ahead. His shoulders slouch. “What’s going on?” he asks.
Ruth finds herself using her height. She glances down at him. “Your wife seems worried about you.”
He pinches the bridge of nose. “I don’t want to talk about her.”
“Well, I need to.” She opens the door, more forcefully than she’d intended, and shuts it behind them. “Nix, you need to tell her she has no reason to worry.”
He laughs. “Do I?”
She narrows her eyes. “I need for people to know it’s square between us. It’s important to me. She came an awful long way to check in on you.”
“Dramatic, isn’t it?” He leans on the back of an armchair. “She also left our son at home with her mother. Tell me that isn’t calculating.”
Ruth shakes her head. “That’s not my business.”
Nixon sighs. “Can this wait? You of all people should want me to focus on this trade.”
She crosses her arms. “My pitching isn’t this important.”
“You’re not the only person on this team,” he snaps. “You want to let this get in the way of playoffs? Because Shifty isn’t going to get us there.”
Ruth glares. After a moment, she says, “I’ll find you again when you’re not too busy,” and leaves.
Isn’t often that Devina opens her door to find Belle Compton’s been knocking. She looks drawn and anxious. “Can I come in?” Devina steps aside, and Belle heads for the chair at her little-used vanity. Devina shuts the door. It looks like that kind of talk needs to happen. She sits down on her bed, legs crossed.
Belle takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry about today. Shifty shouldn’t waste her time with me. Josie should catch at our game tomorrow.”
Devina tries to think of something good to say. “You were off. We can’t all be on every single time.”
“No.” Belle can’t meet her eye. “No, I can’t focus on anything. Oh God.” She presses a hand to her forehead. “Oh God, I’m such a mess.” She curls one knee up into her chest and hugs it close. “I can’t stop thinking about Betty.”
Devina looks down. “We all miss her.”
Belle’s face contorts. “You didn’t send her away.”
“You didn’t neither.”
“Don’t be a jerk. Of course I did.” She chokes on her words. “I said all those things, I should have paid for them. Not her.”
Devina watches her. It’s an awkward feeling, not knowing how to help. Tears begin bubbling down Belle’s cheeks; she fights to keep them back, and won’t scrub them away. “It wasn’t you that was unfair,” Devina says, more quietly.
“I came out fine, though, didn’t I?” She sniffs. “Betty gets no pay, no benefits, and she’s banned from coming back. She wanted this more than I did, and I wanted this a lot. Shit, Devina.” She presses her forehead to her knee. “How many more knocks do we take?”
His bed is full when he tramps into his room. The reading lamp is on. Kate’s silk pajamas show off the outline of her collarbone; the rest she has under the covers. He leans in the doorway. “I didn’t think you’d be up.”
She sets the book on the bedside table. “I’ve barely seen you all day.”
“Sorry.” He rubs his palm over his stubble. “Long day.”
“I can see that.” The low light throws her contours into relief: her high cheekbones, the bridge of her nose, her wry smile. She folds her hands in her lap. “I’m excited to see your girls play. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a game.”
He steps out of his slippers and begins unbuttoning his shirt. “I’ve only been out of school four years.”
Beneath the sheets, Kate crosses her legs. She watches him put on his night clothes, more of a routine than he’s had in months. “It’s good to see you busy.”
“Nice that you think so.” He circles to the other side of the narrow bed. She scoots over, then settles back once he’s under the covers. Her feet are toasty: she hooks his cold toes between her ankles for a moment as she rolls onto her side. He slides lower under the blankets, readjusting his pillow.
She watches him. “Lew, it’s not an attack.”
He laughs softly. “It never is.”
“I wouldn’t come all this way just to start a fight with you.”
“Kate,” he says, resigned, “you made this a fight the minute you left our son with your mother.”
“Lewis.” Her voice is still soft, but that firmness creeps in, that undercurrent that makes his skin crawl. “I didn’t want him to be a prop. I needed this to be adult. All I hear out of Chicago is how you dine all around Rockford with your star pitcher on your arm.” He snorts. “Of course we need to talk.”
“There’s nothing happening with me and Ruth.”
“I know.” She leans back into her pillow, the sheets rustling around her. “She seems perfectly sweet and perfectly virginal.”
He looks at her. “Then what?”
She keeps her eyes on him. “Everyone said you were so happy. Interested in something for a change. I was angry it wasn’t because of me.”
Nixon rolls onto his forearms. “You could have come out. There was nothing stopping you from moving out here.”
“To Rockford?” She lets the word hang between them. “It took you three days in the first place.”
“You didn’t want me to stay.”
“You needed to do something. Lew, you need get over this Army thing. You don’t have to be 1-A to do something.” He looks away. She props her head up on her hand. “Lots of people fail that physical.”
“Not people like me,” he says, more fiercely than he’d planned. “Not four times. That doesn’t just happen to anybody.” Kate’s silence makes him anxious. He glances at her. She’s just watching him.
At last, she says, “There are things about you that I can’t fix.”
“Kate, if I wanted to be in bed with my mother—”
“Stop talking, will you?” She presses her cheek to her pillow. “I don’t always know why I love you so much. You don’t trust your family, you’re depressed and you’re a high-class drunk. You’re impossible, but I love you, but you’re impossible.”
They lie there on his narrow bed, the bedside lamp still on. She pulls her knees up. Her feet brush against his leg again. Nixon stays where he is, staring at the open door.
Ruth tries to keep her voice steady. “We have a game to play. There are people waiting in the stands. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Shifty looks up from the bench, her face flushing red. Nurse Roe thins her mouth. “An ice pack for a little while, maybe. But she needs rest, or she’s gonna blow out that arm.” She shakes her head. “I can’t send her out on that mound. You’re probably pitching this whole game.”
Shifty tries to get to her feet. “I can play.” Nurse Roe pushes her back down.
“You don’t go anywhere until your coach says otherwise. Until then, Powers is benched on my order.” Shifty wilts where she sits.
“Shifty, it’s fine. Just rest up and don’t worry about it.” Ruth looks around the locker room. “We’ll be fine, ladies. Stay focused, do what you can and help each other out.”
Gina pulls a face. “I gotta say, if it’s the Comets that knock us out of the playoffs, I’m gonna be mad as hell. No offense, Flo.”
Nurse Roe turns to Ruth, frowning. “Where is Nixon anyhow?”
Ruth shakes her head. “We’ll manage. Come on, let’s get up there and have a good game.”
They’re roasting out there. Sweat soaks through their uniforms and beads browned, freckled and sunburned skin. No one smiles when they congregate between innings. They barely even look at each other. Nurse Roe bullies everyone she can into drinking more water. Worst is Sobel, barking what her own advice and encouragement. The last thing anyone wants is abuse from Mrs. Sobel.
Donna nearly throws a punch at the umpire when she’s tagged out at first. She stalks back and slumps into a corner, staring at nothing.
Babe shakes her head at the space where Nixon usually stands to watch them. “Every fucking time,” she mutters. Frankie keeps twisting in her seat to check the locker room.
Peaches! the speakers boom. Is this all you’ve got? Joey mimes hurling a ball at the announcer’s box; some members of the crowd actually follow the path of her arm and cheer.
Out on the mound, Ruth scans the VIP boxes. Kate Nixon sits alone in her beautiful hat. Ruth lets her arm swing by her side, then winds up taut for the pitch.
Devina passes her the ball, and there’s a moment where no one knows if Flo will tag out the Kenosha runner heading toward her. Lucky she’s a ballplayer first thing, and the infielder always goes for the base runner.
Ruth is pacing. Devina doesn’t like to watch it, but she can’t look away. Catherine stops her at the top of the steps. “Hey. How’s that arm?”
Ruth jams her hair back under her hat. “I can do this one.” Catherine gives her a dubious look. “We don’t have a choice,” she snaps. “Let’s just get it done.”
Josie flips her catcher’s mask up. “Hey, you let me know if something’s wrong, okay?”
Ruth doesn’t answer. She turns toward the bullpen, where Harry is on her second strike. Devina watches the shape of her shoulders. Ruth hasn’t been angry since Sobel was their coach.
Harry bunts the third ball, but the pitcher catches it, ending the inning. Devina takes a deep breath and pushes herself to her feet.
“Ruth.” Joey tries to approach her. “I can still pitch if you want me to.”
Everyone turns at the unfamiliar voice. A woman in a Peaches uniform emerges from the locker. She ignored everyone around her and walks up to Ruth.
“What the fuck?” Gina whispers to Devina.
Comprehension dawns on Ruth’s face. “Speirs, right?”
Speirs nods. “I can take it from here.” Ruth bows her head and steps back. Speirs looks around. “Catcher?”
“Right here.” Josie raises a hand and steps forward.
Devina looks over her shoulder. Nixon leans against the door to the locker room. He’s wearing a business suit and no hat. “Nice to see you, coach,” says Gina on her way out. He nods, but stays quiet. Ruth stands by the steps, watching him. The expression on her face is hard to see and hard to avoid. Devina hustles past it.
What on earth... folks, this game just got shaken up. We have a new pitcher coming in for the Rockford Peaches! Unidentified just yet, uniform number 34... Does someone have a name for our player?
In the dugout, Shifty and Catherine are on their feet, peering toward the infield. Ruth looks away from Nixon, just in time for the first pitch. Speirs is coiled and controlled, and the ball flies from her hand so fast the Kenosha batter doesn’t even swing. The crowd roars, thrilled to see the game become competitive again.
“Well,” says Shifty. She looks at them both, and she smiles.
Mark down this date, baseball fans: we almost certainly have our sides lined up for the very first pennant race in women’s baseball. With Belles relief pitcher Rhonda Speirs swapping Racine gold for Rockford pink, in this writer’s opinion the Peaches have almost certainly moved into the championship bracket. Credit is due to the Peaches themselves, who played hard at low strength and without their coach for most of their 7-6 victory over the Kenosha Comets. It’s no time for patting themselves on the back yet, though. The South Bend Blue Sox are still roaring away in the east, and Ms. Speirs may come to regret leaving a strong team like the Racine Belles.
Stay tuned as we head toward the playoffs. The Blue Sox play at Racine Tuesday, August 24.
PART EIGHT: STEAL
Emily Post says that “charm cannot exist without good manners.” You do not have to have manners that follow particular rules but the continued practice of kind and friendly impulses, a kind, proper and courteous approach, cannot help but add to your personality and give you a big advantage in dealing with your every day contacts. Here are some simple suggestions that will help you in your development of a pleasing personality on and off the playing field.
All-American Girls Baseball League Charm School Manual
That saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” might be the truest thing ever said.
Josie spends a lot of time watching. She’s known these girls more than three months now, and she’s seen a lot. They make it easy to wish you were someplace else. You have to be quiet about it, though: after all, it’s a real accomplishment to be here, in this huge house in this nowhere town with this wretched Midwestern weather. It wouldn’t do to appear ungrateful. That’s Sobel’s thing, always be gracious and grateful. There’s a joke for you. When it comes to Sobel, grating is more like it.
Thinking about Santa Barbara brings a bitter tang to her mouth, but she does it anyway, nursing the homesickness. It isn’t the apartment complex that she misses, or the asphalt or the bases or the constant construction, but the spindly lemon tree that grows out back, the smell of the ocean when a breeze brings it by, the brightness of all the little finches. She misses running around with her friends and siblings and cousins, and the panadería three blocks over. She misses saying she works at the Lockheed plant and getting that knowing nod in return.
She misses the dust at home. Even the dust on her knees here is different. A stupid thing to miss, maybe, but stupid doesn’t stop anyone else.
At 9:30, Josie is ready to take her shower. She collects the towel she was given, the soap she went out and bought, and the comb that came with her, and walks barefoot down the long hall to her bathroom. Her calves are still sore: they’ll feel thick and inflexible until she’s in bed, but the water will help. There’s a stiffness in her neck that won’t come out, even after using Donna’s hot pad. She notices how tightly she’s clenched her jaw, and takes a deep breath, feeling the joint pop as she moves it around.
Babe and the Kenosha trade, Flo, are waiting outside the door. Babe is leaning against the wall, her hair clashing wildly with the floral wallpaper; Flo is wearing a terrycloth bathrobe with a little comet stitched on the breast. Josie feels the muscles in her face tense up at once. “Long wait?”
Flo nods at the door. “Shower’s been going about twenty minutes. I don’t know who’s in there.”
“It’s probably Belle,” says Babe, then holds up her hand. “Hey, don’t give me that look. I’m just the messenger.”
Josie makes the effort to exhale. “I’ll go to another shower.” The words don’t come out with any particular optimism.
Babe gives her a sympathetic look, then turns back to Flo. “So yeah, there’s nothing to it.”
Josie can’t help herself. “Nothing to what?”
Flo looks sheepish. Babe just smirks. “Tab here wanted to know if our coach was extra involved with any of us players.”
“You talking about Ruth?” Josie laughs. “Not in a million years.”
“I didn’t know!” Flo insists. “Look, it keeps going around, all right? I believe you. It just looks like it from the outside.”
“Hey, I posed for a picture once with Colonel Sink. Does that mean we’re an item now?”
“I’m shocked he ain’t sent you flowers, Josie.”
“Fucking rude,” she agrees. She looks up at the door again.
Babe leans close. “Oh Josie Josie, Josie, time is fleeting,” she sings, dipping her shoulders in rhythm. “And here and there my hair is turning gray.”
“The other Andrews Sisters disown you, Babe?”
She shrugs. “They’re just jealous they can’t dance.”
Inside, the water stops. The three of them go quiet and listen. Belle sighs — it really only can be her. Josie’s toe begins tapping. They wait while she dries off. Her footfalls sound heavy on the tiles inside. When the door cracks open, Belle just has a towel wrapped around her, her blonde hair hanging lank around her face. “Sorry,” she mumbles and hurries to her room. Josie grips her elbows and doesn’t look up until Belle’s door thumps shut behind them.
Babe peers into the bathroom. “There’d better be some hot water left.”
“You’re telling me,” says Josie, gloomy again.
Eight-thirty in the morning. Nixon is already massaging the bridge of his nose. Josie and the others stand in their half-circle, arms crossed, one leg stiff. Joey hugging her elbows with her usual smirk. “Hey, the wife keeping you busy, coach?” A few people snicker.
“The wife is flying back east as we speak.” Nixon scrubs at his eyes. “Okay, nothing too complicated today. Let’s just get our machine oiled again. If Racine loses at South Bend this week, we’re in the pennant race Let’s not let anything else distract us.” He takes a deep breath and exhales. “Babe, Devina, Shifty, I want relays and long catches. You can have a bat if you want. Infielders, how about we work on our communication today. Ruth, you go with them and call the hits. Josie and Rhonda, head to the bullpen and spend some time together. Any questions?” No one speaks. “All right. I’ll be visiting all of you.” He shoos them off.
The team scatters and heads out around the field. Out of earshot, Flo makes a crack, and Gina, at least, smiles and replies. Josie watches Belle amble toward Ruth, looking lost. Ruth steps up to Nixon, but he walks away with a terse “You know them. Do whatever you want.” Josie thins her lips and looks at the only person remaining. Speirs is watching her, tense and alert as an animal. Josie takes her time. She sticks her mitt and helmet under her arm and walks right up to her.
“Looks like we’re partnered up,” she says, with studied carelessness.
Speirs nods sharply, once. “Is that how you do it?”
Josie frowns. “No. Right now.”
“Ah.” Speirs cants her head. “It seemed to me like you had a system.” She glances toward Belle and Ruth.
“Everyone plays with everybody,” Josie says shortly. “Why, is it different for the Belles?”
“No.” Speirs seems unperturbed. Josie can tell already this is going to drive her nuts. Speirs gives her that intent-but-expressionless face. “Well, shall we?”
Josie starts toward the bullpen. “Let’s go over our signs,” she says, not looking at her.
Speirs nods. “Fine. I have a few of my own to teach you.”
She toys with her glove. “Well, I’m not Dahlia Webster.”
“You don’t say,” Josie mutters.
She finds Ruth standing over the silver coffee pots in the lounge. Josie smiles and pats her elbow. Ruth smiles back, though it’s faint.
She leans on the sideboard. “How you doing, Ruth?” Being shorter than her means one thing: Ruth is certain not to avoid her eye.
“Fine,” she says, but Josie knows automatic responses.
“Something on your mind?”
Ruth picks out a cup for herself. “No. D’you want coffee?”
“Sure.” Josie doesn’t budge. “You can talk to me. I’m your catcher.”
“Yes.” The corners of Ruth’s mouth twitch. She busies herself with pouring the coffee. “It’s nothing,” she says quietly. “It’ll pass.”
Josie accepts the cup and reaches for the cream. “I’m going to keep being blunt with you until you let me know what I can do.”
“There’s nothing you can. I’m just thinking about things.” She looks at Josie. “How is working with Speirs?”
Josie rolls her eyes. “Not like you.”
“I wouldn’t think so.” She blows the surface of her drink. “You’ll get used to her. Belle too.” Josie looks away. Ruth tilts her head. “Belle will be back. She just needs time.”
Josie laughs to herself. “So long as she can do her job, sure. If you say so.” She lifts an eyebrow. “What are you thinking about, Ruth?”
Ruth glances at her. “What I might have been doing instead.”
“Really?” Josie smiles, disbelieving. “What was it, the WACs? Instead of this?”
She nods. “Yeah.”
Publicity is important to you as a ball player and highly important to your team and the AllAmerican Girls Baseball League. In the interests of publicizing you as an individual or your team and league in general, you might be expected to cooperate with the publicity managers in various cities or with the newspaper and magazine writers. Don't look upon this as too much of a chore because it usually brings pleasing results.
Smokey tries to warn them as they come in; she catches Josie’s eye and nods toward the counter. The guy looks like any other customer having a doughnut and coffee. Josie is trained by now. When she spots the notepad at his hand, she elbows Harry. The reporter’s face lights up; he scrambles off his seat. Smokey moves to intercept him. “Hey, girls!” she says cheerily. “Seats by the window today?”
“Ladies!” the reporter calls out. “A minute of your time?” Frankie gives him a magnificent stinkeye as the group ignores him, heading for the booths. “Hey!” He follows, waving his pen in the air. “Any reaction to Basilone getting knocked out?”
Flo’s head turns sharply. “What did you say?”
Smokey steps neatly between the table and the reporter. “I’m asking you not to disturb my customers. I’m only asking you once.” Her words are precise and cold.
“Hang on, hang on.” Donna waves past Smokey, “What happened?”
The reporter readies his pen. “Just came in on the wire. Top of the fourth against Kenosha last night.” Flo moans, which the reporter notes eagerly. “Basilone’s defending third, Caparzo’s running bases, and she plows right into her. Basilone’s got four broken ribs, maybe a concussion.” He shakes his head. “Caparzo got her real good.”
Josie has seen Adrienne Caparzo barreling toward home plate at her. It’s a hell of a sight. “Jesus,” she says. Basilone must not have budged.
The reporter sidesteps Smokey. “If Racine can beat South Bend, Rockford is out of the playoffs. Any reaction from the Peaches?”
“You’d have to ask the Peaches about that.” Smokey pushes him back. “These are my customers, and you need to leave.” The reporter opens his mouth. He looks to the Peaches, hoping for a break, but falters to see each one glaring back at him.
He slips his pen into his pocket. “Maybe I’ll come back.”
“Maybe you won’t.” Smokey grabs his sleeve. “Order’s on the house, pal. Walk out before I have my cook throw you out.”
“Jeez, lady!” He yanks his arm away. “Just doing my job.”
Smokey watches him until the bell is ringing over the front door. She turns back to the table, her expression pained. “I’m sorry about that.”
Babe swears and sinks against her seat. Others look down at their hands or murmur to each other. “Well. That’s it. Racine had better lose,” says Donna, who looks away from Speirs. For her part, Speirs remains expressionless. Josie glances around the table. They’re all horrified, and sure, she is too, but she knows they’re all thinking like her. If the Belles take a fall, a team without Gia Basilone is a team that’s easier to beat. Josie feels the shame in that as an afterthought.
Nixon plants his feet in front of Mrs. Sobel’s chalkboard. “Just to give everyone a head-up, we’ve already sent over official signals of our support to Gia Basilone and the Blue Sox. Everyone else did it for us, so we owe them that much.”
He looks around the room. “As for playoff implications, I know we’re all aware of what a Racine loss means for us. I have an event that evening that I can’t miss, but I highly encourage everyone to prepare themselves for one eventuality or another.” He nods at Sobel. “Thank you, Helen.”
She nods back and dismisses the class. Nixon waits by the door for Ruth. She hangs back, watching the others go. Joey ribs her as she passes, and Gina winks. “I’d rather not,” Ruth says, once the classroom is empty.
Nixon slips his hands in his pockets. “You didn’t even know what I was asking.”
“I do.” She shakes her head. “I don’t like those parties, Nix. Everyone thinks they have the right to say anything to me, and I’d rather just be here with the girls.”
“Ruth, please.” He leans toward her. “The last time, I promise. If we make the playoffs, we just have the social with the Blue Sox. If we don’t, we’re free to go. Ruth, I have to accept this invitation: the man is footing the bill for stadium upkeep next year.”
“Next year?” She makes a face. “Wow.”
He crooks a smile. “Nutty, isn’t it? Come on. You can leave early if you want. I’ll have Lorraine drive us and you can go when you feel like it.”
“You know that won’t be long.”
He rests his hand on his chest. “As long as it’s long enough.”
“Hey, Josie!” Frankie waves her over toward the radio. “Circle up!”
“I’ll be right there!” She passes the makeshift camp that’s sprung up in the lounge and heads for the stairs. Speirs hadn’t made a sound coming down, which is why Josie walks right into her. “What it!” she snaps, massaging her shoulder. Speirs stays on the upper step.
“Is that the Racine game?”
Josie nods. “You probably don’t want to be there, do you.”
Speirs looks down at her. “Have you ever seen barnstormers?”
She frowns. “What, the airplane shows? No.”
“They used to come to Springfield when I was little. You’d stand in a field and watch the daredevils zooming overhead. I always liked the wing walkers. Incredible focus.” She looks away, in the direction of the radio. “That’s what baseball feels like to me.”
Josie stares for a moment, then slowly shakes her head. “Wow.”
“That isn’t what I would have guessed you’d say.”
Speirs shrugs. “I know everyone here thinks the Belles are a good team. But I want to play in the pennant race.”
Fair enough, Josie thinks, and lets her squeeze by.
Their host has spared no expense. Nixon supposes he’s meant to be impressed; hopefully the rest of the town is. A man opens the car door for Ruth, and holds out his hand. She looks at it uncertainly for a moment, but allows herself to be helped up. Nixon deposits his keys and a ten-dollar bill in the fellow’s hand, and holds out his elbow for Ruth. “You ready for this one?”
“Ready enough, I guess.” She feels her updo gingerly. “I’ll never get used to having all my hair up top.” They climb the stone steps up to the front door. A doorman lets them in, and Nixon reaches for Ruth’s jacket. “Can I just say,” he murmurs, taking in all the eyes on them, “that you look like a million bucks tonight.”
“It’s Belle’s dress,” she says quietly.
“Well, act like it’s yours.”
“Lewis! And Ruth, how good to see you.” The mayor’s wife excuses herself and welcomes them with a kiss to each cheek. She grips Ruth by the elbows. “My, you look simply ravishing tonight.”
Ruth puts on her best smile. “We appreciate you having us over.” The mayor’s wife’s smile seems strained. She turns to Nixon.
“Have we missed your wife?”
He bows his head. “Yes, she’s back in New Jersey. She flew back a few days ago.”
“Oh, that is a shame.” She smiles again at Ruth, and something about it is off, overbright. Ruth glances at Nixon. The mayor’s wife takes him by the elbow, and urges them to come in.
The girls in our League are rapidly becoming the heroines of youngsters as well as grownups all over the world. People want to be able to respect their heroines at all times. The AllAmerican Girls Baseball League is attempting to establish a high standard that will make you proud that you are a player in years to come.
“Fuck! Shut up, will you?” Gina bangs the radio again. She glares at Donna. “What did you do?”
“I knocked it!” Donna throws up her hands. “Don’t just sit there, fix it!”
The clamor of girls dies down as Gina dives behind the radio. They strain for some sound or static from the speakers. “You’ve got lousy timing, Malarkey,” Josie grumbles. Donna shakes her head and hovers by Gina.
“Jesus Christ,” Babe whispers, gripping the arm of the couch.
“Ruth? You must be Ruth Winters, aren’t you!” A beautifully coifed guest sidles up beside her. All Ruth can think of is how raw her ankles are rubbing against her shoe straps, but she smiles in return. “I’m Eleanor Collins,” the woman says. “My husband Fred owns the newspaper.”
“Oh!” Ruth puts on a game face. “We all read it very closely every day.”
Eleanor laughs. “Oh, I see what he sees in you. You’re so genuine — I love that he brings you around.” She looks up through her lashes and lays a hand on Ruth’s arm. “That’s a compliment, dear. You looked so scandalized for a moment!”
She remembers a beat too late that she needs to respond. “Not my usual social scene,” she says, nodding at the rest of the guests.
“Of course not. You do handle yourself quite well, though. I hate pretending for everybody, but you must do it, of course.” Eleanor smiles again. Her lipstick highlights the expression in a somewhat unnatural way. “I have to thank you girls, by the way. Your Mr. Nixon is the first exciting thing to happen here since Myrna Loy stopped in with the USO.”
Ruth glances at Nixon, standing with an older man near an abstract painting, and probably on the receiving end of a terrible joke, from the looks of it. She turns back to Eleanor. “Have you seen our games?”
“Oh no.” She shows her dimples. “I’m sorry to say it’s just not my cup of tea. But, well. You’ve read Jane Austen, haven’t you? I know she’s writing parody, but you can’t believe what new society does for a person. Though you get to spend much more time with him than we do. I am jealous.”
Ruth imagines Eleanor meeting Nix when he’s unshaven and hungover. The idea of that being any kind of charming brings a small smile to her face.
Eleanor leans closer. “Can I ask you something, Ruth? If it’s not too personal? You must tell me what he’s like. Totally off the books, of course, just between you and me.”
“Nix? He’s...” She considers her adjectives. Unreliable. Brilliant. Infuriating. Secretly very earnest. Before she can answer, though, she looks back at Eleanor, who is giggling behind one hand. “What did I say?”
“Oh Ruth.” She leans close. “You don’t have to play coy. It’s common knowledge. I’m just the only one who’s asking you about it.” She glances over at Nixon too. “What is his wife like?”
Something in Ruth’s chest clenches up. “I think you’ve been misinformed.”
“Misinformed? By my own eyes?” Eleanor laughs. “Dear, you are sweet.”
“—s over! It’s over! Eugenia ‘Sledgehammer’ Sledge pulls off a grand slam—”
“Holy shit!” Donna stares. “Did you hear that?”
“Blue Sox win! Blue Sox win! Ladies and gentlemen, get ready for the playoffs!”
The room erupts.
Nixon navigates his way through the front hall, trying to spot that head of red hair. One of the women looks familiar; Ruth was talking to her earlier in the evening. He taps her shoulder. “Excuse me, I’m looking for—”
“Ruth?” The woman shrugs. “I think she left. But you know, Lewis.” She lays a hand heavy with rings on his lapel. “I’m here.”
He frowns, and removes her hand. “I don’t think that’s—” He stops. “How soon before you left did you talk to her?”
When she shrugs again, he excuses himself and runs outside.
Home, Josie thinks, doesn’t have to be just a place. It doesn’t even have to be one set of people. She still misses Santa Barbara, but she’s got a little time left in Rockford too.
Chaos greets Nixon when he steps through the front door. “Coach!” Flo shouts, and throws her arms around his neck. “We’re in! We’re going for it! We’re gonna be champs!” The girls surge around him, sometimes noting him, more often just celebrating among themselves.
“Have you seen Ruth?” he asks, over and over again. There’s no clear consensus on where she might be. He hurries up the stairs, into the dormitories, startling Devina and Joey.
Ruth is, of course, in her room. Belle’s blue dress hangs on a hook in her bare closet. Ruth’s suitcase is open on top of her bed. She folds clothes and fills it up.
Nixon stares. “What are you doing?”
“Leaving,” she says, too calmly.
Nixon hesitates at the door. “For South Bend?”
“For the Army.” She whips one of her shirts through the air and lays it down on the bed. “I’m done here.”
Nixon puts his hand on the door knob. “Leave that open, please,” she says.
“We’re in the playoffs,” he says dumbly.
“That’s the first thing you say to me?” She shakes her head. “The girls will be fine without me. Speirs is an excellent pitcher. I’m tired of having no privacy, and I won’t let people talk about me. No more papers, no more parties, publicity, none of it.” She exhales hotly, and returns to her pile of belongings.
“Ruth. Please, be reasonable. Don’t.” He watches her pack. “You can’t.”
“I didn’t sign up for this, Nix.” She looks at him. “I came here to play baseball.”
He shakes his head. “This is a pretty dumb time to leave, then.”
She stands up straight and looks at him. “It’s my choice,” she says softly. “Please let the girls know after they’re done celebrating.”
“I get to tell them?” He narrows his eyes. “This isn’t like you.”
“No,” she says, and flips the suitcase shut. “I think it’s like you.”
PART NINE: WALK
Yeah, maybe if she closes her eyes, it’ll work. Close your eyes, boom, no more ripped polyvinyl on the seat, no more cold glass cramping her neck, no more elbows in each other’s faces and guts. Instead she can have this hand on her breast, this gin on his breath, this soldier up inside her like he’ll pitch a flag when he’s done. She ain’t even taken her shoes off, her clothes, none of it. Her skirt is up to her tits. She has fantasies of his bare ass pounding against the car horn.
Babe opens her eyes. The soldier could catch flies, all slack-jawed with his eyes squeezed shut. “Fuck!” he grunts. “Fuck yeah!” Babe wrinkles her nose and just lets him go until he’s finished. He holds himself above her, grinning. “Fuck yeah.” Babe gives him a wan smile.
She pushes herself upright and out from under him. “You mind taking me home now?”
“Just once?” he says, but he’s already concerning himself with his trouser buttons.
She pulls her panties up. “Yeah.” She looks down at her bare knees. “I don’t feel like me.”
“I got someplace to be,” she says. “My pops will kill me if I get missed.”
“All right,” he says amiably. “Where do you live again?”
“I’ll tell you where to let me off.” They circle around to the front of the car and hop in. While he hums, she watches the headlights and the dark road around them.
“Thanks for the fun,” he says, as she steps out of the car. “You sure this is close enough?”
Babe nods. “I need the walk.”
The soldier winks and guns the engine. “See you around, sweetheart.”
“Yeah,” she says. Soon it’s just her and the cornfields, and she’s all out of cigarettes. “Goddamn,” she huffs, and still it don’t feel right.
She holds up the dresses again, her mouth thin. “Come on, be straight with me. Which one?”
“Are you serious?” Donna looks between the two, scrunching up her face. “The, uh. The green one, I guess.”
“You guess?” She tosses the green one over the back of a chair. “That’s hardly good enough.”
Donna’s mouth twists. “You’re getting awfully jazzed up about a stupid social.”
“Why not?” Flo turns and holds the yellow dress against herself, checking the mirror. “I never actually thought I’d get to be in the playoffs.” When Donna doesn’t answer, she looks over at her. “Aren’t you?”
Donna comes back, blinking. “Aren’t I what?”
“Excited about the pennant.” She tilts her head and examines her reflection. The yellow dress really is better.
In the mirror, she sees Donna shrug. “I thought it would be different,” she says, eyes downcast.
Leather shoes, no matter how nice and new (thank you, Stanhope Nixon), do not break themselves in on their own. Baseball calluses, sure, Frankie’s set, but these dainty heels? These are ripping her to shreds. Fine timing, given the givens.
All Frankie wants is an escape. When she bangs full on into somebody, she takes the Lord’s name in vain, but gets bashful when she sees who’s just walked into her, as if Elaine Roe was one of her nuns back at school. “Sorry about that,” she mumbles, recanting.
“Careful, huh? I ain’t Randleman.” There’s no heat in her words, though. She smells like cigarettes. Frankie didn’t think Nurse Roe smoked. Roe gestures at the shoes dangling in Frankie’s hand. “Your feet okay?”
Frankie lifts her chin. “I can play.”
“All right.” Nurse Roe glances down at her stockings. “But you can’t stand.”
“If those South Bend girls weren’t so good at stealing seats, I wouldn’t have to.”
Nurse Roe smiles. She never shows her teeth when she does that. “Better chairs than bases, huh?”
Frankie laughs. “Hey, we’re on it. Give us four days.”
Seeing Nurse Roe force herself to relax is the first Frankie even realizes that she’s nervous. The concept seems strange, like Devina dancing on tables or Gina lost for words. A moment later, she’s pointing at Frankie’s shoes. “I’m all out of bandages. Find some flats or put those back on.”
She spreads her hands, the shoe heels clacking against each other. “I don’t have anything else!”
Nurse Roe starts to leave. “Commandeer something.”
Frankie eyes the party. Now there’s a thought.
It strikes Speirs that she is, perhaps, settling in here. The big house in Rockford is hers now. She roams it ceaselessly, studying the press of people and players as they prepare to face off. The Blue Sox are her guests; she may as well have been a Peach since Wrigley Field.
A hand lands on her arm. “Whoa. Hey now.” Speirs looks first at the hand, then at the face to which it belongs. Mariel Shelton, the South Bend second baseman, is looking her up and down. She uses her silence too well to simply be thinking. Speirs turns to face her, daring her to continue. Finally, Shelton nods. “You look good in that pink uniform, I bet.”
Speirs gives her a curt dip of the chin. “I’m getting used to it.”
“You sure are.” She makes a show of peering behind Speirs’ shoulders. “Nice looking place. I always thought that. I like coming here.” Speirs doesn’t answer. Shelton lifts her eyebrows and leans close. “Used to be a little statue I liked on that table over there. Little — what’s it called, Fabergé?”
“Art Deco.” Speirs keeps up eye contact. “A greyhound. Yes, it was rather nice. The Nixons have a fine collection.”
“Good memory.” Shelton rolls her shoulders, slow and irreverent. “I wonder if they’ll ever find it.”
Speirs says nothing, but she is determined not to look away first.
Seems to Josie there used to be more Blue Sox. She remembers Manola Rodriguez laughing it up with Basilone. Tonight Mannie huddles with Jane Morgan, trying to keep up her cheer. Josie has seen that look all over Babe’s face. She takes her time cataloging the room. Jay De L’Eau got shuffled to Kenosha when the Peaches got Flo. Chuckler Juergens and Hoosier Smith have been benched with injuries a couple weeks at least. Hillbilly Jones and Rue Haldane were widowed and injured in short order last month. They’re out a Mama Lips and a Ruth. She feels for them.
“Got a light?”
Josie turns. Eugenia Sledge always takes her by surprise. She’s such a little, slender thing, unassuming in her fine dress and nice heels. She holds up a Lucky Strike, tapping the filter with her thumb. Josie nods and digs out her lighter. “Didn’t take you for a smoker.”
“Me neither.” Sledge leans into Josie’s light; the skin around her eyes is dark and puffy. Her mouth makes a hard line as she sucks on her cigarette.
Josie watches her. You’d never think skinny arms like those could hit as hard as they do. “Ready for tomorrow?”
Sledge looks up at her, and Josie knows that look too, weighing what stays with the team, and what stays only with yourself. She exhales. “So help me God, if I don’t kill Snafu first, we may actually be fine.”
Josie laughs. She can’t help it. It just comes out. Sledge looks startled first, and then, in her eyes, relief.
A day like this, Joey can’t make herself quiet or still. No one can expect that of her. She’s pacing up and down the dugout, sweating under her hat, down the back of her neck, behind her knees. It’s the start of the end. Hard to even think of that. She keeps looking down the line. Gina tosses a ball from hand to hand. Flo pulls on her bottom lip. Frankie’s knee bounces like a seismograph. Nixon stays off in a corner, talking close with Harry.
Donna grabs her elbow and pushes her to the side. “Jesus Christ, Joey, you’re blocking my view.”
“Language, Miss Malarkey,” snaps Sobel, sitting by herself at the end of the bench. She glares at Joey. “Miss Liebgott, sit down and stay still.”
Joey complies, glaring, but Sobel has already turned back to the game. First at bat! the announcer’s voice booms. Number 21, your gal from Huntington, Catherine Lipton! The stadium cheers and whistles. Catherine hands off her extra bat and strides up to the plate. She plants her feet, patient and thorough, and she lifts her head before she raises her bat. Her face is calm.
Joey finds herself looking at Sobel instead — Helen Sobel, on the edge of her seat, ankles crossed, fists balled on her knees, murmuring Come on, come on, come on, come on.
She can hear the press shouting before she’s even left. “Damn,” she mutters, and Harry gives her a sympathetic snort.
“What are you pissing and moaning about?” she deadpans. “This is my favorite part.”
The sun is full in their eyes as they emerge. Other players are hurrying toward the bus, ignoring what they can.
“Hey, Able Grable!” A photographer snaps her picture as she turns. A smartly dressed woman watches her, a notepad in hand. Something about her gets under Devina’s skin. She slows to a stroll, then changes course and walks over.
“Good game, Randleman!” another one calls.
Devina keeps her eyes on the woman, who squares her shoulders and lifts her pen. “Can I help you?”
“Certainly,” says the woman. “Alice Troudeau, Springfield State-Journal. Given the course of this experimental season and all the tribulations your teammates have borne, would you agree that professional baseball is too trying for women?”
“Too trying?” Devina laughs. Nothing else that makes sense. She dips her chin at Alice Troudeauds. “Tell you what. How about you all come on down and try us.”
She makes the rounds without being asked. She stops in on Harry, who strained a muscle at her hip, and chats about the progress of the 82nd through Sicily. She swings by Gina’s room and reminds her, smiling, not to feed reporters fake locker room anecdotes. She sits with Belle for a few minutes, knee to knee, and doesn’t say anything at all.
When she passes by the dining room, Nixon is sitting at a chair at the long table, a spread of papers and statistics in disarray in front of him. His fingers rest on the sides of a glass of whiskey, the bottle of VAT 69 within reach. Catherine checks the height of the liquid.
“Evening, coach,” she says, and he looks up.
“Is it still?” He checks his watch. “So it is.” With a wan smile, he turns to her. “How are the troops, Ms. Lipton?”
She nods. “In good spirits, mostly. Shifty’s hand is feeling better, so I wouldn’t worry about Sledge so much.”
Nixon looks down at his papers and shuffles them, seemingly with purpose. “That’s news in our favor. Thanks.”
He picks up his pen, but doesn’t put it to paper. “Really,” he adds. “You’ve been a great help.”
Catherine focuses on her hands for a moment. “It’s just talking to people.” In the space where Nixon should have answered, she glances at the place setting, and Ruth’s empty spot beside him.
It’s a good roar when she walks out to the diamond. Her heart turns over a little at the sound of it. Somewhere in the crowd they’re even shouting her name. Belle! Belle! Belle! Belle! She straightens her shoulders. They want some of her old pizzazz. For a moment she feels that rush up her spine and over the soles of her feet, but when she glances up at the mound, it’s Speirs standing there, already coiled and at attention. It makes her feel like she’s wasting everyone’s time.
Chuckler Juergens rests the bat on her wide shoulder, grinning. “Isn’t it my lucky day. Welcome back.”
“You too.” Belle grimaces companionably, and flips the mask down.
The plays aren’t good, though. Belle’s catching is sloppy, amateur stuff unbecoming of her. Speirs strikes Chuckler out and calls a time-out. Belle’s chest is thick and tight as she and Speirs walk toward each other. The crowd buzzes, curious and irritated. Speirs looks at her, the whites of her eyes bright in the shadow of her hat.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” says Belle, but Speirs doesn’t budge.
“Where are you? Are you here?”
Belle opens her mouth, and she has to keep it together, everyone’s here, everyone’s watching, but it’s all wrong, and they all have to know, and she should just give Josie the mask and take her place on the bench. That’s just how it is, and it’s how she’s going to be. She can’t help it.
“Hey.” She feels a hand on her shoulder, and for a wild moment she thinks it’s someone else, but when she looks it’s just Speirs, with her too-calm face and probing eyes. “We’re here,” she says, steady. “Are you here? Because that’s where I need you, Compton.”
Belle looks out over her shoulder, at the rest of the diamond. “I’m here,” she says, before she quite believes it. Speirs keeps looking at her. Belle takes a moment, squeezes the inside of her glove, and nods. “I’m here.”
“Good.” Speirs’ eyes go a little brighter. “Curveball on the next one.”
“Sock it to me.” They part again, and the crowd cheers the game on.
“About time you came and visited me!” Smokey throws one arm around Donna’s shoulder. “How you doing, sweetpea?” Her grin comes out crooked. “Notice I’m asking you that first.”
Donna manages a laugh. “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow, don’t worry.”
Smokey arches an eyebrow. “You’d better. I’ll have you know I’ve been composing a poem in honor of a Rockford victory, and I intend to recite it.”
Donna slings her elbow behind Smokey’s waist. “Maybe if you made it to a game, we’d win this thing outright.”
Smokey drops her arm, her face a mask of playful shock. “Are you sassing me, Donna Malarkey?” Donna shrugs, all innocence. Smokey’s laughs trails off. “I do wish all our friends could be here. You heard from anyone lately?”
“No.” Donna knows she’s faltering, but Smokey nods, and pats her on the back.
“You girls make it to Game 7, I’ll be there. Save me one behind home plate, all right?”
Her mouth quirks up. “I’ll see what I can do.”
It’s a sight she never forgets, that little girl, the question just out of her mouth, holding up a ball and a pen for her, Georgina Luz, of all people.
Words just don’t ever do the job like motion does. Shifty knows she isn’t very well spoken, but she knows what she’s saying as she rounds the bases. Her shoes kicking up the dust, her head pounding with that score, her arms pumping, it’s all one big Just you try and catch me, and she’s been speaking that since she was a little girl.
When she throws herself at home plate and the umpire says she’s safe, she raises her eyes to the scoreboard and gets her answer. All right, says the game. One more day.
Speirs holds the liquor in her mouth for a moment. She swallows with a guttural sound. “What is that, whiskey?”
“Now’s the time to enjoy it.” Harry lifts her flask. “We must remain vigilant in the fight against dehydration.”
Speirs crosses her ankles and stretches down the Adirondack chair. “One more day, then.”
“Until next year, anyway.” Harry lets her head loll back. “God, to think of it. What do you think you’ll do?”
Speirs shrugs. “Wait for next season.”
“What, in a room somewhere?”
“No. I’m still deciding.” She looks over at Harry. “What about you?”
“God knows. Head back to Wilkes-Barre, I guess. Try to not go out of my mind.” She squints down at her flask and begins drumming along the sides. “Well. To hell with tomorrow. Here’s to three and three.”
“I might toast to that,” says a voice behind them.
Harry twists and nearly rolls off her chair. “How did you get in?”
Ruth sets down her small suitcase while Speirs blinks. “The door was open.”
Harry begins to laugh. “What, did you get lost? You just had to stay on the train.” She gets to her feet and takes Ruth’s face in her hands. “I don’t believe you.”
Ruth cracks a smile. “Get in line.”
PART TEN: SCORE
I have long been intimidated by the idea of meeting Ruth Winters. If there’s one thing that she’s made perfectly clear over the years, it’s that she values her privacy. She never uses her maiden name in public, and she married quietly enough that I had to approach her through Betty Guarnere. We have only spoken once over the telephone, but our written correspondence has spanned several months. Now I am sitting in her kitchen, sharing coffee and chatting about my drive up, and I can hardly believe it.
Ruth and Jim share a lovely old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. Jim is a veteran, having served in Europe. Though they were both in Normandy, he with the 29th Infantry and she with the WACs, they didn’t meet until several years after the war, when he saw her at a friend’s birthday dinner. Jim has perfected telling this story. “You never saw such beautiful red hair,” he says, with obvious relish. “On a tall woman like that, I was done. Oh, was I a goner.”
Ruth’s famous locks are gray and cropped now. She wraps her hands around her cup and smiles a little as he talks. I’m struck by how private that expression is, even as we sit together listening to this very public yarn. It’s only the first of many instances in which I begin to understand just what Catherine Lipton meant when she said that Ruth shared of herself sparingly. I am itching to know what’s going through her head as I laugh and banter with Jim; given how the first half hour is going, I wonder if she’ll say very much at all.
Jim offers me a tour of their house. “You’re going to need a guide, to get through all these pictures,” he says, waving at the nearest wall. As I will learn over the next several visits, most of the house is given over to photographs. Many of them are of children and friends, a good deal from Jim’s reunions. He teases me by mentioning one in particular, and reappears after a few minutes with a large group photo, in black and white. It’s dated September 10, 1943. “Wish I’d been there to see that,” he says, as he sets it in front of us.
“You were busy,” Ruth replies, putting on her reading glasses.
“I really wish I’d been there,” he says, and winks at me. Ruth slides the picture toward her and studies the faces.
“Look how young we all are.” She begins pointing. “There’s Joey. She became a social worker, for the refugees. Her German made her very useful.”
“Which refugees?” I ask, reaching for my notebook.
“From the camps.” She keeps looking over the picture, and the names start coming, one by one: Dahlia, Babe, Harry, Flo. For a moment I’m overwhelmed. Here I am, sitting with Ruth Winters herself. My professionalism escapes me.
“Where are you?” I ask, and she points off to the side, in the back. Her expression has gone inward again, as she cups her chin in her hand.
“That was a good day,” she says, and pauses.
When they’re in England again, after Normandy and before Holland, Nixon comes and finds her at Littlecote. She’s spent most of the past week bent over maps, analyzing photographs and assembling scale replicas of Nijmegen and Eindhoven. The date has totally passed her by, save as one of another cancelled D-Days. Nixon waltzes in wearing rumpled ODs and a five-o’clock shadow. The other WACs and intelligence officers know by now to ignore him. Ruth doesn’t notice him until his hand snakes in front of her work, holding a flask.
Her pencil strokes become more pointedly deliberate, until they slow to a halt. She sets the pencil down and looks at the flask.
“It’s been a year,” he says, and tilts the flask forward.
“Not a year in which I drink,” she answers, and turns around to catch his smile. “What time is it in Chicago?”
He doesn’t even check his watch. “Just about time to play ball.”
You remember the brightness of that morning, how gold the light was when the sun rose. The girls had barely slept, of course: there was so much in the air, the final game, the year ahead, the giddy disbelief at seeing you back. You had spent the entire day on a train, and that sense of barreling forward lulled you, over and over again, before jerking you back. You can touch on those moments again in an instant. Donna dropped her cards and swore when you walked by the door. Frankie’s blue-black hair flashed under each lamp as she hurried down the hallway. Belle hovered at the back of her room until you went and hugged her. She smelled like nail polish and tobacco, and she buried her face in your shoulder and laughed.
You woke with no transition from your sleep, still wearing your clothes from the days before. The sky was eggshell pale and clear. If anyone else was up yet, they were keeping as quiet as you were. You sat up in your old bed, in your room that you had cleared out two weeks earlier. Even then it seemed more real than real. But you were a well-oiled machine, and you stood up and began your day as always.
You’d left the windows open. Robins were singing outside in the tree.
“Here’s a good one.” She hands me the album, open to a wedding portrait. I recognize Harry Welsh and her Wife of Bath grin right away. “That’s one I had to miss. We were still overseas when Kit was discharged. Wilkes-Barre isn’t too terribly far, though. I visited as soon as I could.”
I’m stuck on Harry’s dress. “Is that what I think it is?”
Ruth nods. “Parachute silk.”
I’m fascinated and unnerved by the idea that a wedding dress could literally have been to war. Because Christopher Grogan was a paratrooper, he was able to give his girlfriend a wedding dress. It’s a strange path, from a C-47 to a church aisle. Despite the blunt analogy, I like the symbolism too. I’m sitting with Ruth Winters now because once upon a time, Georgina Luz did voices at the same Chicago radio station where Studs Terkel died gory gangster deaths each week. Studs is a collector of stories, and Gina’s, naturally, bowled him over. They became friends, and when he assembled my favorite of his oral histories, “The Good War,” the Peaches got a few (hilarious) pages.
One of the more surreal experiences of my career was picking up the phone and hearing Studs’ voice address me and respond to me, rather than simply emit brilliant conversation on the radio. Studs put me in touch with Gina, who introduced me to Betty, who organizes the reunions. Betty made me jump through a whole lot of hoops, and I met a whole lot of other league members before she’d let me near Ruth. I knew she trusted me when she got me through to Gia Basilone, now retired by the beach near San Diego. Even after all that, I was still nervous.
Ruth is the one everyone always wanted to know about. Even though she only played for one season, more ink has been spilled about her than I know she cares to contemplate. If I prove to be untrustworthy, I might as well thank her for the coffee and leave right now. And if I did wrong by her, I could kiss my contacts with the rest of the Peaches goodbye. I have to be careful and honest, not to mention patient. I thought nothing would be more nerve-wracking than actually making contact.
The truth is that on one level, I would enjoy poring over Ruth’s photographs and hearing her talk about each of them. But while I’m holding a picture of Devina Randleman, leaving the church with her groom under an archway of baseball bats, Ruth says, “You have some questions you’d like to ask me.” To hear that amid all my worrying, I’m afraid I stammer a rather coltish affirmative. “I’ve been buying time,” she says. “It’s strange for me to talk about these things with other people.”
“We don’t have to start big,” I tell her, and set my Dictaphone on the table.
It’s just the three of them trudging through the rain. Ruth listens to the two switchboard girls go back and forth: it’s good patter, better than focusing on the landscape. Her boots suck at the gummy road. Rain and sweat alike run over and under her clothes. All around them, the war is still waiting to be cleaned up. Every morning someone reports an unexploded shell by a road or rumors of German snipers near the field hospital. The fields and houses are torn to shreds, ravaged by tank treads and craters and thousands of feet. Everywhere the armies have left behind scraps.
The girl carrying the radio is named Eunice Delcotto. She reminds Ruth vividly of Frankie. She and Ellen, wearing a toolkit hoisted over her shoulder, scour the road for signs of the broken telephone wire. Ruth walks a little ahead of them: she has other things to note — the state of the roads, what’s been cleared, what’s become blocked. Though she knows, intellectually, that they’re in a safe zone, she can’t stop expecting an attack.
Ellen spots the wire, and Eunice gets on the radio, and once they determine that it was a break and not a snip, they repair it in a trice. Ruth is amazed they can do their jobs in this downpour. She commits her notes to memory, to record them back at HQ.
They return in a hurry, to the tune of Ellen’s off-color marching song. Other WACs are digging drainage ditches, as they have been all week. Ruth hustles into her tent and shucks off her poncho. In the midst of all her maps and notes sits one new item, completely out of place. Ruth picks it up to set it aside, and already has a pencil in her hand when she reads the name on the envelope. The postmark is out of South Philadelphia, and the letter has been forwarded from England. Betty’s script is bold and elaborate, the fanciest thing in sight.
Burned coffee always takes you back to that breakfast table, Harry nattering about John Stuart Mill and Flo singing a fan-created cheer and Shifty quietly, firmly taking the open seat at your left. Speirs said your name behind you. Before you turned, strategies spilled from her mouth to foil South Bend batters. Catherine passed by and casually reached into her pocket, displaying a silver teaspoon. “It’s for good luck!” said Speirs, still in earnest. Catherine shook her head and set the spoon on the sideboard. Speirs began talking again, and took the spoon back without missing a beat.
When Nixon came in, everyone groaned. You hadn’t seen him since you’d hung up your hat. He looked the same: rumpled, unhurried. The rest of the girls watched you two as they heckled him. “We lose every time you eat breakfast here!” Joey said, loudest of them all.
“Really?” Nixon reached for the silver carafe and poured himself a cup. He didn’t acknowledge you, not yet. “I think that’s bullshit, but feel free to prove me wrong.” You knew you should have told him. He should have known when you arrived, but you were taking a chance. You were testing something. When he looked at you, it was brief: one look and then he reached for the sugar. “If you’re here looking for good seats,” he said, “I have to tell you, the ones behind home plate are long gone.”
You didn’t look away. The table was quiet. You kept it light. “Got any in front?”
He let the moment stretch, and that, that was your signal.
I have had to train myself not to feel disappointment when these women I so admire go on to have ordinary lives. Your hope is that these trailblazers, these wonderful characters that you’ve studied and grown to love, will continue their trajectories and be exceptional all the time. To you, they deserve success and special recognition. Some of them even got it, and why not? They are driven, aggressive and ambitious, each in their own way. Dahlia Webster almost dropped out of Harvard to be a war correspondent, and went on to a successful career as a journalist and author. Belle Compton became a highly regarded criminal lawyer in the 1950s, a Herculean feat for her day, and later a federal judge. Scout Muck returned to the league, as an administrator, and helped run and expand it before it closed in 1954.
To sit with those who chose quieter paths could feel anticlimactic. It took me some time to understand that leading quiet lives didn’t rob these women of what I loved about them. Frankie Perconte charmed the pants off me for three straight days last month in Joliet. She just retired from nearly five decades with the postal service. Babe Heffron spent thirty-five years as a shipping clerk, though she always keeps that LIFE Magazine cover framed on one wall. Devina Randleman remains an active member of her local Visiting Nurses Association. Shifty Powers, though soft-spoken, seems to be the friend and advisor of every person in her hometown. All of these women are still party to the rich emotional life that bound them so closely together in friendship in the league. The conversation is not so much about highlights. We crave personalities more than events.
Ruth played baseball, went to war and then had a quiet life. She went to war despite wanting quiet. She admits that her experiences in the ETO make it hard to believe that one summer of baseball is what she ought to be talking about. But, I ask, isn’t this a recurring theme for you? Hasn’t there always been some ambivalence about playing baseball in wartime?
She takes some time to respond. “The baseball itself, yes. I came to the league a skeptic, though of course, I still came, and I came to play. Certainly I wrestled with that even then.
“It was the coming back that did me in. When Nix would want to get me really mad, he’d call me a glory-hound. The truth is, I came back for the same reason I came in the first place.” I ask her what that is. She gives that slight smile again. “I was very skilled at baseball, but I wasn’t good at it. I just knew it the second time around.”
I ask her what she means by that. She starts telling another story entirely.
When the two girls approach Ruth, somewhat shyly, about organizing some teams among the WACs, she asks them what they’re going to do for equipment. Corporal Annette Marcheson gleefully announces that they’ve stolen some essentials from the regular Army storeroom. Corporal Susan Farnsworth quickly says they wanted to wait to ask for it until they’d talked to her. Ruth tells them to put the equipment back, that she never heard anything about it, and that unfortunately she’s too busy with her duties to take up games. Marcheson and Farnsworth nod and slink away, and Ruth returns to her work.
England in March is no place for baseball. She keeps noting all the reasons why — the soggy ground, the heavy skies, the sharp, chilly dampness in the air. Any open space in their village is reserved for military maneuvers, as it should be. Besides, these women signed up to do a job. They’re here on behalf of the war effort. Baseball is not an appropriate use of their time.
In April, she sees them playing catch behind the mess hall. Marcheson crouches for every other catch and Farnsworth backs up more and more as they toss the ball back and forth. They both have good arms on them, though they throw wild often as not. It doesn’t seem to matter: they call each other names and tease and laugh, loud enough to attract some catcalls from passing Airborne troops. Ruth has work on her desk: she has to update a map of Cornwall, and command was very insistent on the particulars.
She sticks her hands in her pockets and heads closer.
Marcheson is off chasing the ball again. Farnsworth cackles behind her hand. “Oh, that was a good one.” Her eyes go wide when she spots Ruth. “We had these sent from home,” she says quickly, holding up her glove.
“I believe you.” She looks over at Marcheson, jogging up to join them. “You know,” says Ruth, “I’ve found that eye contact helps with aim.”
Marcheson’s cheeks are bright pink with the cold. “Oh yeah?” she pants, lifting her eyebrows.
“Yeah. Watch where she’s throwing the ball with her eyes, and her hand should follow. Give it a try.”
“Why’s that?” asks Farnsworth.
“Connection helps,” says Ruth. “Your teammates will thank you for it.”
She sees them around the base later, practically joined at the hip. When they throw and catch, it’s a seamless act, one fine-tuned unit in sync.
September: it never feels like autumn, not at the start of it, but it’s not summer anymore. The light is different. You always know by the light. On the bus, as it flickered through the canopy of trees lining the lane near the stadium, you knew. The girls were in high spirits, drunk on that last day feeling, and you leaned your temple against the glass of the window and you let it all happen again. Soon it would be gone, but you had the rumble of the tires over bricks, the apologies from Lorraine up front, the inside walls of the bus, plastered with photos.
You stood up when the bus came to its stop, at the farthest back section of Beyer Field. Lorraine took a back way, but you could see where you were headed. Already the place was filling up, people milling around in the parking lot among cars and buses and even some farm trucks. All the girls rose too, some of them, like you, too tall to stand up straight. They filed off, one by one, and nodded at you or smiled or made a wisecrack, and you were grateful to see that again. Nixon waited at the bottom of the steps for you, and you thanked Lorraine, and he made his unchanging reply.
There is greatness in what’s small. There it all was, the same concrete tunnels, the same cramped changing room, the same unromantic smell of sweat and feet; there, above your emptied locker, still on its cardboard label, your name.
Her record, and the esteem in which others held her, would have guaranteed Ruth Winters a place in history regardless of her post-season actions. The unanswered questions she refused to address in public would have made her a mystery to fans for years to come on their own. It was her departure, at the height of her prowess, and her subsequent return that changed her narrative forever. Her homecoming of a single day has always been poetic to me. Her teammates and others have expressed reactions as varied as they get in my interviews. I’ve often wondered how I would feel in their shoes.
Donna Malarkey remembers incredible anger. “I was sick and tired of losing people who were important to me. It wasn’t fair, especially because I felt we should have been enough to keep her. Why didn’t she think we could support her like she had supported us? My feelings were very strong, but very mixed, when she came back.”
Dahlia Webster, who kept an extensive diary, wrote about the news from her home in New York. “Something must be terribly wrong, because that doesn’t sound like the Ruth Winters I know. The papers are worse than useless: if the series is covered at all, half of it is speculation. I can barely tell who won the game.”
Said Gia Basilone: “I felt for her. I often felt like we were in the same boat. When I got knocked out, I was sorry, sure, and I missed my teammates, but I was also incredibly relieved. The pressure you got put under, words can’t explain it. We didn’t know what we were getting into. We just thought we’d play baseball. You put ordinary girls in the crosshairs like that, what are you thinking? I get why she left.”
The topic is not an easy one for Ruth herself. She too has had many years to contemplate it, and the fallout. “People today, I think, have a hard time understanding why I would leave, and why I did. I had it very firm in my head why: I didn’t want to be a phony. That’s what it felt like, at the time. I was being dragged into all these politics I couldn’t escape, and all I wanted to do was be with my team. It seemed like the best resolution to an intractable problem: cut your losses, get out of the way and let the rest of them do their jobs unhindered.”
I asked her if she had any doubts at the time. “Not at first. I thought all my worst fears and misgivings about this baseball business had been confirmed. I was going off to do a real job, to get out there and help win the war. There was automatic righteousness, in my view. And I knew the girls could take care of themselves. I had plenty of confidence in them.”
When I asked her what happened, she looked right at me. “I don’t like having regrets.”
She feels comfortable in the olive drab. It’s anonymous. Her work is important, not her uniform, and she likes that very much.
Nixon is proud of his jump wings, though he labors not to show it. He looks both exhausted and relaxed, regaling her with stories of training in the Carolina mountains. There’s one hapless company commander, but the NCOs cover for him as best they can. “It’s a change, having no women for company,” he says. “Men are not very civilized creatures.”
She smiles over her cup of coffee. “Did nobody warn you before you signed up?”
“Nah.” That lopsided, lazy grin sneaks across his face. “You’d be amazed where you can hide reinforcements. You WACs get footlockers?”
He tells her that his unit is shipping out soon. “I’d tell you where,” he adds casually, “but then I’d have to shoot you.”
She knows better than to ask, and thinks on her own orders. “I’m glad we could meet up,” she says instead. “You look happy.”
“Was that gloating?” he asks, and she keeps her answer to herself.
There was always that moment before your eyes adjusted to the outside light, after the walk through the tunnel onto the field. All the colors were washed out, and you were surrounded by sensation, the roaring stands, the brilliance of the grass and the sky, the first sight of your opponents, your teammates on all sides. You always took the anthem as a chance to calm down, to focus, your hand on your racing heart.
The what ifs got me into history. We’re hungry for significance amid the mess of the record. When we speculate, we’re sifting for that special something that defines the story. The idea that unseen moments or single personages are what turn history on its head is a tantalizing one. That none of these theories are easily proven only adds to the intrigue.
When Ruth Winters came back, the Peaches were tied with the Blue Sox. Each had beaten each other three times, and neither one looked close to backing down. The Peaches played fast and aggressive, while the Blue Sox held their defense at all costs. If the Blue Sox could have brought in Basilone at the last minute, they would have, but it was Winters who showed up. That she tipped the Peaches into their victory is a clean and neat theory, but when I broach the topic, she adamantly denies it.
“I had very little to do with that. If you’ll remember, Eugenia Sledge got a beautiful hit off my last pitch. It was Frankie who broke that tie in the ninth.” She recites the statistics as one who has repeated them for many years. It comes off like a script, especially when she insists, “I just didn’t want to miss the game.”
To my discredit, that first evening, I write this off as modesty. All their lives, the women of this league have talked up their teammates at their own expense, from LIFE Magazine forward. Something Ruth says before I leave sticks with me, though, and I can’t stop thinking on it as I drive to my hotel for the evening. “I’m proud of everyone in that league,” she tells me. “Every woman who played, I’m proud of them. How could you not be? Look what we accomplished.”
No one is sleeping, on Belle’s orders (“That’s what trains are for!” she announces, over and over again). Most of the girls are packing or watching each other pack. By the end of the weekend, the house will be empty, the loan over. Not everyone goes back where they came from: a few are braving the Chicago winter together, in search of jobs. Everyone promises to write; Ruth promises replies as she can. She wanders the house long into the night, her hands and pockets full of scraps covered with addresses. It’s hard to imagine them living in other places, but there is the evidence. Frankie lives on East Dearborn; Catherine on 8th Street; Harry on Lancaster Lane.
Sometime between midnight and dawn, Nixon finds her in her room, repacking her small suitcase. He leans in the doorway, disheveled as ever. “So, trading in your uniform for good.” She looks up at him, but continues folding her shirt. He laughs softly to himself. “Somebody had better win that war quick, to get you back for next season.”
“Are you planning to come back?”
“Mm.” His mouth twists, uncertain. “Probably.”
“Probably?” Ruth stops, a blouse in her hands. “Are you doing something else?” He slips his hands in his pockets, hanging his head. Ruth tries not to white-knuckle into the fabric. She is very tired, and he is dear to her, and it has been a long season. “You know,” she says at last, “it’s possible you’re not being kept from anything by anyone. Not everything is a set-up, Nix. Maybe you just failed your physical.”
She turns back to her suitcase, putting her things together. He stands in the doorway, not coming, not going yet either.
Nothing diminishes with all the years between you and that summer. Between one question and the next, you can steal out of your kitchen, in the house where you’ve made a life, and be on that field again. You see their faces, the way they all sit, they way they’re not good at waiting, and you smell the dust and the grass and the heat. The girls from South Bend hold their positions, and you know they’re no different, that they’ve borne their joys and losses, and that you are equal to each other, and how rarely that happens.
You’ve come back, and the field falls into focus in front of you. The stands are full and the speakers crackle. Nixon leans with his foot propped on the wall. You feel their hands on your shoulders, Joey, Babe, Harry, Flo. You choose your bats and climb the steps. The weight that you lift in your hands is real. You swing, thinking only of this swing. The ones that come will come as they will.
When you set the second bat aside, your own is so light it’s a part of you, and when it’s your time to walk to home plate, the wood is smooth beneath your tan and callused hands.
The bases look good. Josie waits on third, and Devina stands panting at second. In the moment before you line up your feet, you notice your own comfort, that you’ve allowed yourself to make it here. You look up at the pitcher. You’re here. When you breathe in, when you raise your bat, no one on this field is anywhere else than here.
It’s easy to come back to this place. You’ve done it so often over your years.
The pitcher winds up. The ball comes hurtling toward you.
Oh, you love with your racing heart. You love your fearless girls.
The bat in your hands slices the air. Oh, you love this game.