Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Lost Diamonds #2 by Ellen Lindner

As I've noted before, Ellen Lindner has really found an interesting new niche with her baseball comics. Her latest issue (#2) of Lost Diamonds, "a history of gender rebellion in American Baseball," Lindner is doing a deep historical dive, going after primary sources wherever possible. As a result, this is as rigorous a study in the historical suppression of baseball based on gender as possible. Lindner's clear-line style and eye-pleasing blue wash (a bit of nostalgia), along with her amiable narration, make this a fascinating history even for those not interested in baseball. It's important to understand that this goes and went far beyond sports. The cultural importance of baseball was so overwhelming in the early 20th century that excluding women (as well as non-whites) was a deliberate strategy aimed at excluding them from the larger cultural conversation. As Lindner points out, despite many barriers, women still found ways to participate in the sport, and she's trying to make these stories better known. 

Lindner picks up the narrative in the early 20th century and the "Bloomer Girls" teams, so-called because they were trousers instead of skirts. Lindner brings up the St. Louis Black Bronchos, a barnstorming Black team of women. Not only were they dismissed by certain modern historian when they were re-discovered recently, Lindner notes that their performances were ridiculed by journalists of their era. When a writer referred to them as incompetent, Lindner points out that the game the reporter was writing about was actually quite close. This wasn't just a matter of opinion; without TV or other media to carry games, a false newspaper report damaged the team's gate. 

Lindner then goes into detail about uber-athlete Ida Schnall, an immigrant who immediately mastered baseball, swimming, and diving. She was denied an Olympic appearance because the US Olympic Committee didn't field a team, citing the immodesty of swimsuits. As a result of doing Broadway shows as a diver, she got to know baseball players doing side hustles, like legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson and manager John McGraw doing vaudeville. Through her connections, she founded the New York Female Giants, who drew a number of fans and harassment by the police. Another superstar was Lizzie Murphy, who held her own playing against men. Lindner notes that the success of players like Murphy led to exploitation, like in the case of a former major-leaguer taking a young team of women to Japan, only to abandon many of them when the money ran out. When money was finally raised to bring them back, one young player was swept overboard at sea. 

The Eastside Girls, a Black team that formed out of the local YWCA in Los Angeles, formed their own league, playing against the likes of the Japanese Girls, a team of Asian-American girls. It was a way of establishing one's identity in the most American thing possible, along with other positives like community, camaraderie, and the confidence that's built through sport. Girls wanted to play baseball because it was fun and let them hang out with their friends and meet new people (just like boys), but it was also a means to unlock wider acceptance overall. This was not unnoticed by men in power, who banned women from baseball in a number of places starting in the late 20s. This culminated in infamous baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis banning pitching sensation Jackie Mitchell (who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back in an exhibition game) and all women from organized baseball.  It was one thing for women to play; it was quite another for them to make those in power uncomfortable. This is the gender rebellion in a nutshell: an arbitrary attempt to hold others down in order to maintain power. There was no good reason to keep women out of baseball. As long as the sport existed, women played it. Men simply didn't want women playing in their sandlot, and as long as they had the money and influence, they made the rules. 

As Lindner explains, however, it's hard to keep the marginalized down forever. This is a history, to be sure, but it is also a polemic. It's a correction of the record based on facts, statistics, and first-person observations. Lindner is painstaking in her research, but this is far from a dry recitation of facts: through her lively art (and excellence in drawing clothes above all else), Lindner recreates each era in a way that makes the concerns and wants of the players feel contemporary. 

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