Tomboy dramatizes a young teen age girl's struggles between social and family pressures and her determination to be the first woman to make baseball's major leagues.
My eyes kept drifting over to that big box tied with red satin ribbons on the dining room table.. It was my twelfth birthday, but I hadn’t expected any presents. Certainly not from my brother Rubin who never gave anything away. Or from my dad who didn’t do that sort of thing. Or from mom who celebrated birthdays by cooking our favorite meals. Mine was brisket with potatoes roasted in the gravy and chocolate fudge cake. But even that delicious food didn’t keep my eyes from the box. What could be in it?
Mom was all smiles when I opened it, probably expecting to hear me squeal with joy. But I felt like groaning. A doll! A great big porcelain doll all gussied up in a gown you’d wear to a prom—blue taffeta with puffed sleeves and a ruffled hem. It came with a second set of clothes that included a pair of tiny high button shoes.
“Gee Whiz, Mom, I havent’ played with dolls since I was little.”
“But this doll has outfits and you can keep adding to its wardrobe. Marshall Field’s has a big collection.”
When I didn’t answer, her nose quivered like she was fighting tears. “I just don’t know what you’d like.”
Why did she say that? She damn well knew what I liked. I was a baseball nut. I played every time there was a game in the empty lot next to our apartment. And at night I’d lie awake in bed dreaming about becoming the first girl to make the Major Leagues. Sometimes I thought of wearing my brother’s pants when I played so I could match the guy’s speed in running bases and chasing fly balls. But in 1936, girls just didn’t wear pants. A girl or woman in pants would cause as big an uproar as a boy or man in skirts.
“What I’d liked, Mom, is a pair of knickers.”
Mom was a tiny woman, shorter than me by two inches, and when she wanted to get my attention, she’d lift her shoulders and call me Rebecca instead of Becky. “Rebecca, you’re becoming a young lady.”
“So it’s time to let go of this boy stuff.”
She was pissing me off and I just stared out the window until she got busy doing something else. She didn’t say anything again about boy’s stuff until my next birthday.
“I have a surprise, Becky. You and I are going downtown to lunch at the Palmer House.”
That made me feel real special. Mom didn’t usually spend money on fancy restaurants.
She got all dressed up in a gold-colored skirt that flared and a frilly organdy blouse, and her face was thick with powder and rouge and a lipstick that matched her skirt. I wore my one good dress, a blue navy-style top with a pleated skirt.
I scoured that restaurant menu without finding a single thing I recognized. So I was glad when mom ordered for us, something called lobster thermidor. It was slimy so I just picked at it until the waiter brought chocolate fudge cake álá mode for dessert.
After I cleaned the last cake crumb from my plate, mom beamed a smile at me. “Now for the fun!”
“What? Tell me.”
“To Marshall Field’s. To buy you a dressy dress.”
“I already have one. I’m wearing it.”
“That’s for Temple and things. How about one, you know, for dates?”
“You’ll soon have them; just wait and see.”
My mind jumped to Stevie Swanson who played ball on our lot. He wasn’t exactly my boyfriend, but my heart thumped when I was around him, and I think he felt the same judging by the flush in his cheeks whenever he saw me. Still I’d never thought of a date. The guys would tease the hell out of us if we had one. Sometimes, though, I closed my eyes and pictured kissing him, and that made pulses throb all over my body. Maybe mom knew me better than I knew myself. I should spend more time on clothes, maybe even some make-up. But that thought was drowned out by a wave of anger. She was a sneak, trying to lure me away from baseball with thoughts of dates and fancy dresses. Ha, didn’t she know I was one of the best ball players in the neighborhood, and getting better every day?
I was so heated up that on our way out of the restaurant, I didn’t watch my step and tripped over a bench, landing flat on my face. I hated being so clumsy—it happened a lot lately. When I stood, it wasn’t only my face that was red, but my bleeding arm. Mom pressed her hankie over the bleeding until it stopped.
“Okay, Becky, we’re not going to let this spoil our shopping trip.”
“I’m going home,” I said as I walked toward the train station.”
She grabbed my arm. “Come on, don’t ruin our day.”
I wrenched my arm free and moved toward the depot.
Mom followed, tight-lipped and silent. We didn’t speak on the ride home or during dinner. Afterwards, while she sat in a rocker darning my ankle socks, I started to feel bad, like a spoiled brat. After all she did try to do something special for me. I went over and said, “thanks Mom, that was a swell lunch.” I heard her sigh as I made my way to my room.
That blood on my arm was like handwriting on the wall. Three days later, I had my first period. I wasn’t going to tell mom; she made such a fuss about things, but I didn’t know where the Kotex was so I had to tell her. She gave me that super gentle look and hugged me, maybe figuring I was scared. I was a little, but I said, “it’s no big thing, Mom.” After showing me how to pin on the Kotex, she pursed her lips, and said, “Becky, you musn’t play baseball during your periods.”
“Racing around makes you bleed harder.”
“So, it’ll soak your Kotex, maybe run down your legs for everyone to see.”
“I’ll wear two Kotexes,” I said, as I pulled on my baseball glove.”
She tried to pull my glove off.
“You’re crazy,” I said as I ran out the door to join the guys in a game.
Damn if she didn’t follow me and come right onto the field. “Rebecca, you come home this minute.”
I ran out to the edge of the lot to catch a fly ball, then returned to second base, which I was covering. She stood there for a few minutes and then lifted her shoulders and turned towards home.
Mom hardly spoke to me for the next two days. I pretended like I didn’t care, but I felt horrible when she turned me into an empty space, like I didn’t exist. So when my next period came on, I decided not to cause a stir and sat on my back porch steps watching the guys play.
After a while, my neighbor Bruce limped down his stairs and up mine to sit next to me. He was an older guy, in college, but he was my fan. He had a short leg so couldn’t play sports himself, but got a kick out of watching me and the other kids play.
“Hey, Becky, why aren’t you out there?”
“Don’t feel like it.”
“Nuts. I like watching you. You’re good….Say, you’re not losing interest, are you?”
I shook my head.
“How about I take you to see a Bloomer Girl’s game?”
“Yeh. I’m writing a term paper about them. They’ve been playing baseball for ages, barnstorming all over the country playing men’s teams.”
“Like the Cubs and the Sox?”
“Nope, men’s amateur and semi-pros.”
“Does Chicago have a Bloomer Girl’s team?”
“You betcha. The Chicago Stars.”
I was so excited I stuttered. “What…what do I do to get on that team?”
“Just keep playing. You’re nearly good enough already.”
At that I jumped up, and ran out to join the game. Mom was wrong. No blood dripped down my legs, not even a spot.
After that I played ball, bleeding or not. Mom didn’t say anything so I figured she’d given up on me until the day, a couple months later, when she grabbed my arm as I was on my way out to play ball, and said, “No more baseball for you young lady.”
I pulled away from her. “Why?”
“I was watching you play out the window yesterday, Rebecca. You’re getting to be a big girl and your breasts swing and bounce when you run.”
I knew they bounced, but I didn’t pay it any mind. I even liked it when Stevie stared at my chest. But whether I liked it or not didn’t really matter; what mattered was to go on playing ball.
“So what if they bounce?”
“So, you’re making a spectacle of yourself, that’s what.”
“Gee Whiz, Mom, big girls play sports all the time—tennis, basket ball, even baseball. Did you ever hear of the Bloomer Girls? They play men’s teams all over the country.” I paused, and then told her I was in training to play with the Bloomer Girls. “That’s my dream, Mom.”
A faraway look came into her eyes. “I had a dream once,” she said. “You wouldn’t remember Theda Bari. She played in the silent films. I dreamed of being an actress just like her.” She paused. “But I had to give up my dream when I got married and had you kids. See Becky, when you move on in life, you have to let go of some dreams.”
I liked hearing about her dreams, but not when she used them to muck up mine. “Damn it Mom, it’s no big thing; I’ll just get a good strong bra.”
When she didn’t answer, I said, “Okay, Mom, okay?”
“We’ll see,” she said as she got up and left the room.
Soon after I got my bra, Stevie and Skinny, another guy who played ball with us, suggested we start a kissing club with them and me and my cousin Jean. Jean was the only other girl who played ball with us, though she hadn’t come around lately. I’d never kissed a boy but my heart thumped my chest when I imagined kissing Stevie. We played spin the bottle, and lucky me, my first spin landed smack in front of Stevie. We pressed our lips hard against each other as if we were glued together. I couldn’t wait for my next spin, but it landed in front of Skinny who drooled spit all over my mouth and chin. Lucky for me, or maybe I cheated, but after that most of my spins ended in front of Stevie.
Our kissing club ended a few months later when Skinny started high school and Stevie moved to another school district, I told myself I didn’t care, that I had more serious business on my mind. I was training for the Chicago Bloomer Girls’ team. And when I wasn’t playing ball, I exercised, swinging my arm with a heavy bat, throwing balls against a garage door, and timing my running until I whizzed the length of the playing field. I knew I was getting strong from the size of my muscles. One day, I flexed them proudly in front of my dad. He gave me a curious look, like I was a freak.
Hank Greenberg was my baseball hero, not only a great player but because he was Jewish like me, and I felt real proud of his becoming the first Jewish ball player to become a super star.
Anyhow, you can imagine how excited I was to pick up a brochure at Temple and read that Hank Greenberg was to be the special guest at the Temple’s annual father’s and son’s night celebration. Hank Greenberg, here in our Temple, just a few blocks from my house. But that excitement quickly gave way to rage. I wanted to stamp my foot and scream--unfair, unfair, unfair. Hank Greenberg was probably more important to me than to most of the guys who’d attend that affair. I should be there. I have to be there. I will be there. I’ll crash their damn father’s and son’s night.
My decision was bold all right but I hadn’t thought about how to carry it out until the evening of the event. After a quick dinner, my brother and dad cleaned up and took off for the Temple. It was mom’s bridge night and as soon as she stacked the dishes and changed from her wrap-around house dress to a skirt and blouse, she left, too.
So there I was, alone in the house, my heart beating like it had gone wild. How was I to crash the celebration without causing a stir and being sent away? They’d kick me out in a second if they recognized me. I’d have to go in disguise as a boy. But I had no boy’s clothes. My dad’s would never fit me; he was big and fat. And my brother’s clothes were too small. Though only a year younger than me, he was a couple inches shorter. So I had no choice but to rummage through his closet. I found a pair of yellow knickerbockers that fit when I hooked the waistband together with a big safety pin. Then I cut a hole in the toes of a pair of knee socks and squeezed my legs into them. Next, I found a white cotton shirt that worked when I left the buttons over my chest open. I put on a sweater of mom’s that could pass as a boy’s and that buttoned over my chest. Finally, a hat! Rubin had a big head so I figured one of his billed caps would leave room for my mop of unruly, curly hair. I was wrong. My hair sprang out all around the edges of the cap. I wet it down. Still I couldn’t tuck it all away. Then I smeared it with vasoline, once, twice, three times, until it lay flat. Ah, my costume was complete. I walked back and forth in front of the full-length mirror in the hall swinging my shoulders like the guys do. I was ready.
My heart raced when I opened the Temple door and followed the sounds of the party down the stairs to the basement. The room was festive, with candles lighting rows of dessert tables, tapestries covering three of the walls, and on the fourth wall, a blow up photo of Hank Greenberg swinging a bat. I figured there were more than a hundred people there. They were standing at tables sampling the desserts or in clusters talking and in some cases arguing, judging by their wild arm gestures. I kept myself half hidden behind a dozen young guys grab-assing and joking. My brother wasn’t among them. But my father spotted me. He sidled over and whispered in my ear, “Becky, better leave before anyone recognizes you.”
I was used to obeying him. He had never yelled or hit me or anything like that, but there was a tone in his voice that made me think he would if I defied him. So my first thought was to take off, but I hesitated. What was the point of my crashing the party if I knuckled under right away?
“What would be so terrible if someone recognized me,” I whispered back.
“Is that your desire, to cause a scene?’
“My desire is to hear Hank Greenberg.”
“You’ll be sorry,” he said as he went to another part of the room.
By then, Hank Greenberg’s talk had started. “People keep remarking about my home runs, fifty eight this season. And believe me, I’m mighty proud of them. But more important than a home run is runs batted in. Remember you ball players—your goal must be simply to get yourself to first base.”
There was a lull while Greenberg checked his notes, and filling that lull was my brother’s finger pointing at me and his voice shouting —“Hey, Sis, what are you doing here?”
Dozens of eyes turned in the direction he was pointing. My knees went weak. I didn’t know what to do—run out like a chicken or stay and take the attention away from Greenberg. The decision was made for me when my dad and Rabbi Newman were suddenly beside me, each holding an elbow as they steered me out of the room.
Running home, I couldn’t sort out my thoughts. First I cussed out my shithead brother. Then I imagined calling my dad and the rabbi cowards. After that I lashed out at myself for having failed. I paused then as Hank Greenberg’s words echoed back to me. “Your goal is simply to get yourself to first base.” Was crashing the party my first base, making public the unfairness in banning me? And if that was my first base, what should be my second? An answer came as soon as I asked the question. Keep advertising the unfairness by wearing boy’s clothes. Yes, yes, I said to myself. Except for school, I’m going to wear pants.
The next day I asked mom for money to buy clothes.
“I just bought you a new skirt.”
“Something I pick out for myself.”
“Oh, stop treating me like a baby.”
That last remark did the trick. She gave me five dollars. I took a streetcar to Sears where I bought a pair of brown corduroy knickers, a beige cotton sport jacket, and a baseball cap. This wasn’t a costume; this was to be my regular wear.
That evening I modeled the outfit for my folks. Mom clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and, looking at dad, said, “I don’t know what’s gotten into that girl.”
Dad just got up and walked out of the room.
The day following my purchase, Stevie dropped by. He’d never come to my house before. I made some cocoa with marshmallows and motioned him to sit down at the kitchen table. His face turned red as borscht and after clearing his throat three times, he said, “I got two tickets for the roller derby Friday night.”
I thought he was inviting me but I waited to make sure. And then he said, “One for me and one for you.”
A date. My first date.
“That’d be swell,” I said.
On Friday, right after dinner, I soaked in the bath and thought about my date. Would he kiss me when he brought me home? Would the kisses be different when no one else was around? Would he touch me? What should I do if he does?
Back in my room, I found a Marshall Field box on top of my bed. I opened it in a hurry and found a pale lavender dress made of clingy material. It had a scoop neck and flared skirt. I knew mom had put it there, my date dress. But other than for school, I’d sworn off skirts. I had laid out my new knickers to wear for the date. Yet the dress was beautiful. I was trying to make up my mind what to wear when I heard Bruce’s deep voice in the living room. He didn’t come to the house often, but when he did, it was usually to tell me about a game in one of the other neighborhood lots. I put on my robe and went into the front room to tell him about my date. But the look on his face stopped me. “Is something wrong?”
“I thought you’d want to know that today the damn baseball commission disbanded all Bloomer Girl’s teams, said the game was too tough for girls.”
My heart dropped into my toes. What will I dream about lying in bed at night? What will I be when I grow up?
Slowly I returned to my room and slipped into the new dress.