Some of my favorite middle school memories are bicycling to the baseball diamond and keeping score for my cousin’s team. It was a boy’s team, of course. It was the 1970s. No option for girls to play in my small Michigan town. But this was the closest I could get to the heartbeat of the game. I also wanted to be a batboy (or batgirl, rather) for the Detroit Tigers, but that wasn’t happening.
During high school and college, I jumped at any chance to attend a Detroit game. My friends and I once stood in line forever to get Tigers’ autographs. Another time we stalked a rookie pitcher who lived in our community. By stalked I mean we found out where he lived and drove by his house once. That was about as much excitement as we could handle.
Susie Finkbeiner’s latest novel, The All-American, sets readers smack-dab into 1952 where sixteen-year-old Bertha Harding dreams of playing baseball instead of baking brownies and keeping house. The story is set in Michigan, outside Detroit.
I have nostalgia for the 1950s even though my only experience with those years was as an infant. Maybe it’s because that’s the decade my parents attended college, started their careers, then met and married, establishing our family. Or maybe it’s because it’s considered a golden age.
Why a Golden Age?
- World War II is over and servicemen take advantage of the GI bill
- The economy is booming with expanded industry and no more rationing
- Optimism and family life bring a boom in birth rates
- Traditional values and wholesomeness are paramount
- Many families move to the suburbs
- The space age & NASA ramp up
- Prosperity prompted the rise of the middle class and leisure time
- The beginning of television in every home brought its own golden age (I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, etc.)
- Respected Dwight Eisenhower became president
- Low unemployment and low inflation rule the day
- Brown v. Board of Education (1954) rules that separating students by race is unconstitutional
- James Stuart, John Wayne, Jerry Lewis, Elizabeth Taylor, & Marilyn Monroe dominate the box office
- Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, & others herald the age of Rock and Roll
- Disneyland opens in California (1955)
- The first McDonald’s fast food restaurant opens (1955)
But everything wasn’t perfect. In fact, some of the above could arguably be the impetus for problems, conflicts, and excesses later.
The 1950s had turmoil, too:
- McCarthy-ism (1950-54) and the Red Scare
- Dawn of the Cold War
- The Korean War (1950-52)
- Racial gaps in wealth and education (with no G.I. benefits for blacks)
- Civil Rights conflicts prompted by Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott (1955)
- National reaction to the Little Rock, Arkansas school desegregation (1957)
- The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951 (J.D. Salinger)
- Teen culture emerges as teens distance themselves from parents
You can easily search the web to find all this.
But one thing doesn’t pop up unless you Google specific words. That’s women’s baseball.
I had no idea about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), a bonafide American sports organization (1943-1954). There were 545 women who participated, recruited from Canada, Cuba, and the USA. It started out of concern for men’s major league baseball suffering due to military service.
Women’s teams such as the Grand Rapids Chicks (MI), the Kalamazoo Lassies (MI), the Battle Creek Belles (MI—my hometown), the Rockford Peaches (IL), and the Fort Wayne Daisies (IN) formed primarily in the Midwest.
Ironically, these female athletes were still expected to hold to feminine ideals. That meant wearing lipstick and skirts (though shorter than normal) even on the field. Off the field, wearing trousers and drinking alcohol were forbidden. Charm school classes were mandatory.
Even though the league ended in 1954, two champion teams, the Grand Rapids Chicks and the Kalamazoo Lassies, are forever memorialized as Bobbleheads. Isn’t that the ultimate affirmation?
I never saw the movie A League of Their Own (1992), but it’s a fictionalized comedy-drama of women playing for the AAGPBL.
Learn more about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) here:
- Official website: All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—read about all 15 teams and their history
- Encyclopedia Britannica: The AAGPBL
- Society for American Baseball Research: The AAGPBL: Frontiers and Femininity in America’s Favorite Pastime
- National Baseball Hall of Fame: League of Women Ballplayers
Susie was my guest when I first started the blog. Read about her other small town Michigan novels here:
Two sisters discover how much good there is in the world—even in the hardest of circumstances.
It is 1952, and nearly all the girls 16-year-old Bertha Harding knows dream of getting married, keeping house, and raising children in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. Bertha dreams of baseball. She reads every story in the sports section, she plays ball with the neighborhood boys–she even writes letters to the pitcher for the Workington Sweet Peas, part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
When Bertha’s father is accused of being part of the Communist Party by the House Un-American Activities Committee, life comes crashing down on them. Disgraced and shunned, the Hardings move to a small town to start over where the only one who knows them is shy Uncle Matthew. But dreams are hard to kill, and when Bertha gets a chance to try out for the Workington Sweet Peas, she packs her bags for an adventure she’ll never forget.
Several things drew me to this novel: the Michigan setting, the 1950s, baseball, and the author.
For readers who don’t care for baseball, fear not! This book is about far more than that.
Though slow-paced with no heart-thumping plot, this story is peopled by real, three-dimensional characters caught in family dynamics, heartaches and joys, dreams fulfilled, dreams lost. The chapters are more episodic in nature, but still riveting. That’s because Susie Finkbeiner makes your care about these people.
I felt their pain when the family went from being a regular part of the neighborhood to being shunned. That’s due to false allegations regarding the father’s allegiance to the Communist Party during the Red Scare. The only way to move forward is to move away and start over up north with quirky Uncle Matthew.
Thus the irony of the title. The figure on the front cover holds a baseball and glove, symbols of the American pastime. Yet Bertha’s father is supposedly embroiled in very un-American activity. Very Red.
Another irony: Tomboy Bertha’s love for baseball is frowned upon by the average person. She even plays pick-up games with the boys. Playing professional baseball defies the housewife ideal of prioritizing home, hearth, and family. It wasn’t ladylike, not even with the requirements of wearing lipstick and a skirt. With non-traditional interests and goals, Bertha is definitely swimming upstream.
Eleven-year-old Flossie (AKA Florence) is opposite of her sixteen-year-old sister. Precocious and blunt, she thrives on books much like her father, Will Harding, a successful novelist. She has found refuge with the librarian who recommends books to her—no book banning for her!
Flossie has her own problems, but she shares a special bond with her dad. Through Shakespeare references about toads and jewels, he deftly teaches her about silver linings.
Chapters alternate between Bertha and Flossie’s complementary points of view. They enliven the story with their distinctive personalities and voices.
Reading this story opened my eyes to what it was like living during the Red Scare. The scariest part was the unfounded accusations—lies that destroyed reputations and uprooted families.
As counterpoint, humor and a sweet high school romance lift the heaviness from time to time. Though I didn’t like aspects of the ending, I loved the family interactions throughout, the way Dad and Mam (who happens to be British!) are devoted to their family.
Join me for some Q & A with Susie Finkbeiner.
What was your inspiration for writing this story and what’s your personal connection to women’s baseball and the 1950s?
During the 2020 lockdowns I was listening to an audiobook called A Good American Family by David Maraniss about the time when the author’s father was accused in 1952 of being a communist during the Red Scare. At the same time, I was reading The Incredible Women of the All-American Girl’s’ Professional Baseball League by Anika Orrock, a whimsical book about the women who played pro ball from 1943-1954.
I realized that the timelines met up and was intrigued by the contrast. That was when the story started to grow in my mind.
At the time I didn’t have a personal connection to women’s baseball other than having been an athlete when I was younger. I just have always loved the game!
As far as the personal connection to the 50s? Well, I suppose I’m interested in writing about decades when my parents and grandparents were young.
How did you decide on the personalities and circumstances of your heroines Bertha and Flossie and their family?
I’m one of those fiction writers who doesn’t have it all charted out when I start writing. So, I suppose, I write with the intention of letting the characters flesh out as I go. Often I don’t feel as if I am the one who decides what the characters become or what they experience. That builds over the months and years in which I’m writing and daydreaming about them. It’s exciting!
Did Bertha and Flossie hijack the story or did you have full rein?
I don’t like reining my characters in. For me, that only results in stilted and forced writing. I’m sure other authors have full command and still end up with beautiful writing. That’s just never been my experience.
So, I like to think that I collaborate with the characters to write the best story we’re capable of. Flossie was a surprise, the way she fleshed out, but a very pleasant one!
What would Bertha and Flossie have to say about you? And why?
Well, I’m not exactly sure. I’ve never wondered about this before. I suppose that Bertha would be surprised that I found her story interesting enough to tell. Flossie, I’m sure, would probably want to know why she had to share the spotlight with her sister.
What’s the most unusual or interesting thing you had to do, learn, or research about women’s baseball, the McCarthy era, or anything else to create this story?
Without a doubt, I most loved researching the women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. They were a tough lot with so much heart.
I loved hearing about their experiences during and after their professional baseball careers. Some of them went home to start families. Others advocated for women’s sports for the rest of their lives. Still others started careers in other fields. They all had such interesting stories.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like family-oriented novels and/or Michigan settings, you might enjoy A Hundred Magical Reasons (formerly Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum). This dual timeline novel spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and his friendship with a young girl and his impact through the decades. Set near Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here. (It’s currently under consideration at a publisher.)
If you like small town stories about family dynamics and secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
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Bio of Susie Finkbeiner
Susie Finkbeiner serves on the Fiction Readers Summit planning committee, volunteers her time at Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and speaks at retreats and women’s events across the country. Susie and her husband have three children and live in West Michigan. Check out her other books on her website. Find her at Facebook, Instagram, and BookBub.
Join me next time for a visit with author Susan Meissner.
Meanwhile, have you read The All-American or others by Susie Finkbeiner? Did you know about the women’s baseball league? Do you have nostalgia for the 1950s? Answer any or all of these questions in the comments below.
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