This post is part two of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for the annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we interview the authors to learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite! Our online polls open in early April, and the winning author will receive a $10,000 prize.
This week we are chatting with author Ellen Klages about her new book about a young girl trying to break into Little League, Out of Left Field.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What inspired you to write about women and baseball? Were you an avid player growing up like Katy Gordon, the heroine in Out of Left Field?
Ellen Klages: My interest in this particular slice of American history began when I worked for the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco in the 1990s. It’s a hands-on museum of art, science, and human perception, and my department was working on a website called The Science of Baseball. I wanted to see if I could come up with a fresh perspective, so I began researching women baseball players. I’d stumbled across one or two and wondered if there had been more. And wow, yes, there certainly had! I love research and ended up with several folders of notes and ideas, many more than I could use on that project. Those folders sat in my files for almost 20 years before I started writing Out of Left Field. It was a delight to be fascinated all over again by the forgotten history of these amazing women.
Katy and I are both avid readers and share a deep love of the library, but after that, the resemblance gets a little fuzzy. I was certainly a rambunctious, active kid—running around, climbing trees, riding my bike everywhere, and going swimming. But I was never involved much in organized sports. I grew up in Columbus, OH, where the one, true sport was college football. I wasn’t even a baseball fan until I was in my mid 30s, listening to the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s on the radio.
DCHM: In your book, Katy is astonished to find a whole history of women baseball players that she has never heard of. The book is set in 1957, but today, in 2019, almost all of these women are still unknown. Why do you think their accomplishments have been lost?
EK: Today, if you mention women baseball players to a friend, they’re likely to nod and say, “Oh, yes. A League of Their Own.” If you tell them that women played professional baseball for more than 60 years before the All-American Girls Baseball League, and that there have been thousands of women ballplayers, you’re likely to get a blank stare.
Some of that, I believe, is because at the beginning of the 20th century, baseball began to be a multi-million-dollar business. It became America’s national pastime and was always promoted as a man’s game. That meant women’s baseball was ignored and sometimes even erased from the records. There was no publicity, no funding, no support. In the 1920s, men’s games were broadcast on the radio, but women’s games were not. By the 1930s, boys were taught to play baseball in gym class, and girls were taught softball, which perpetuated the myth that baseball has always been for boys and men.
I am fascinated by the stories not told. The players and teams whose accomplishments have become legendary are the ones that were written about, talked about, and immortalized. Everyone has heard of Babe Ruth. Almost no one has heard of Toni Stone.
Interestingly, kids may know more about the history of women in baseball than the average adult. There are at least a dozen non-fiction books written for children, most concentrating on a single player like Jackie Mitchell, Alta Weiss, or Edith Houghton. The majority of them are picture books and are quite short, because even though these were remarkable women, they were not allowed to achieve the kind of fame that would fuel a longer biography.
I hope that once readers of Out of Left Field know about Katy’s heroes, they’ll remember them. And then, a little bit of history will be reclaimed by a new generation.
DCHM: In Out of Left Field, Katy turns to research and the resources of her local library to learn more about the history of women in baseball. What did your own research process look like?
EK: I definitely had advantages that Katy didn’t, because by the 1990s, there were books about the history of women in baseball. I started with those books and used the references and bibliographies to guide my own journey. I am in debt to writers like Barbara Gregorich, Debra Shattuck, Susan Johnson, Gai Berlage, and others who did years of research, digging through archives and primary sources like small-town newspapers, baseball programs, and other ephemera.
And, of course, because I was writing in the 21st century, I was able to fill in those little, telling details—like, a top 40 song in the spring of 1957—using Google and other search engines. Within minutes, I could uncover information that would have taken weeks of research in a well-equipped university library.
One of the trickiest parts of writing this book is that it is narrated by a bright 10-year-old. In 1957, there were no reference books about women in baseball. And it wouldn’t have been realistic for a fifth grader to be able to have access to primary sources or archives. What could Katy discover? How was I going to give her even an inkling that her heroes were out there?
I spent four long afternoons in the downtown San Francisco library looking through the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, volume by volume, hoping to find a reference that Katy could use. I almost whooped out loud when I found the 1931 article about Jackie Mitchell.
With the Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball open in front of me, I eventually chose a dozen women, from the 1890s through the mid-1950s. I picked a few who were contemporary enough that Katy would have heard of them, like Babe Didrikson, and others because they gave me the opportunity to connect different eras—the AAGPBL, the Bloomer Girls, the Negro Leagues. I was delighted when I found out that one of the players in the AAGPBL came from the same hometown as Alta Weiss. And that, in 1957, Toni Stone lived only a mile or two from Katy’s house.
In a lot of ways, Katy’s adventure is as much about the joys of research as it is about playing baseball. She follows clues and lets her own curiosity lead her, getting as excited as I do when a hidden piece of history is uncovered.
DCHM: At the end of the book, you provide biographies of all of Katy’s baseball heroes, the real-life women who played baseball. If you could meet and interview any of these women, who would it be?
EK: I had the opportunity to interview Edith Houghton by phone, back in 1997. She lived in Florida and was 85 years old. Her stories were fascinating, and it was exciting to be able to have a conversation with a woman who had actually lived events that I thought of as history. Toni Stone had lived in Oakland, just a mile or so from my apartment, but she’d died the year before I started my research. I did talk to her relatives and got a glimpse into her life. If I could meet one of the others, I think I’d pick Alta Weiss. She had a long career and used her baseball experience to put herself through medical school—the only woman in her graduating class. What stories she could tell!
DCHM: Your book really beautifully illustrates how learning history can shift the way we envision possibilities for the future. As you mention in your author’s note, the ban on women in professional baseball has still yet to be officially lifted, and there are no women currently playing in the major leagues. What do you hope young readers will learn about the history and the future of women in this sport?
EK: Knowing that there is a history—knowing that it has never been solely a man’s game—is a big first step. Girls who love the game need to know that they are not alone. It’s a lie that girls can’t play baseball—they have. And at a professional level.
The only reason women like Toni Stone and Sophie Kurys didn’t get the opportunity to at least try out for the major leagues was that they weren’t allowed. Doors slammed shut instead of opening.
Will a woman break that barrier and play in the majors some day? I hope so. I want to believe she is out there. Maybe she’s 10 and is reading Out of Left Field and is inspired to keep playing, to keep fighting for her place on the “boys” team.
For me, historical fiction is about opening a dialogue between the past and the present. I thought a lot about injustice and civil rights when I was writing the book, because those were major headlines in the late 1950s. They feel even more topical today. Current events in 2019 are just as much about standing up for what you believe, fighting for what’s right, getting involved, resisting—and persisting—as they were back then.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Out of Left Field?
EK: Follow your dreams!
by: Caitlin O’Keefe