When I was a student at Kent State University I carried a double major: English and History. Anybody perusing my life in writing would think that I have employed only my knowledge of English and have disregarded my knowledge of History. But when it came to researching the hidden history of women in baseball and writing a book about it, I think I was employing all the history research skills I ever learned in college. Plus more.
After the publication of She’s on First I opined that “somebody should write the true story of women in baseball.” I avoided being the person to do this for a while. But then at some point I realized that many somebodies were going to write such a book, and that each of us would tell the story based on what she thought was important and interesting. If that was going to be the case (it was: after my book was published, several others on women in baseball were also published), then I wanted to tell my story first.
And so, back in 1988, I began to research the history of women in baseball. I thought I would be finished within a year. Wrong. Very, very wrong. It took me four years, and I worked on research seven days a week. Not eight hours a day, but usually three or four.
Because nobody had written such a history before, there were few secondary sources. I had to find and evaluate primary sources, which are much more difficult to wrest from the jaws of the past.
One of my areas of research was newspaper articles from about 1875 through the 1970s. (This was before the days of the internet.) In other words, 100 years of newspaper articles. From all over the country. Most of them on microfilm. Agony, sitting in a library threading microfilm through readers, turning the knob to scroll through each newspaper, looking for something in the sports section. Or maybe the society section. Or even the features.
Another area of research was small town libraries, which were apt to have files on famous people from their town. Whenever I ran across the name of a female ballplayer, I tried to find out where she was from, and then I called that town’s library.
And then there was the telephone. I managed to interview many players over the phone, including those who played baseball in the 1910s. And there was almost nobody I talked to only once. I interviewed many players six, seven, or a dozen times over the course of months and years.
And I wrote letters, too, when I couldn’t make phone calls. Letters to authors of books about women in sports, letters to town historians, letters to major leaguers who in spring training faced Babe Didrikson.
I had help with this overwhelming task. Sharon Sliter Johnson, a good friend and fellow researcher, tracked down people I couldn’t. And photos: she especially tracked down photos. And — the two of us spent many a Wednesday driving back and forth to Watervliet, Michigan, to discover more about Maud Nelson, the single most important person in the first fifty years of women playing baseball. It was through these trips and visits to the Watervliet cemetery and town hall and history society — as well as more phone calls — that we managed to discover the identity of Maud Nelson. Her real name was Clementina Brida Olson Dellacqua.
By the time I finished all my research, four years and three months had passed. And then I had to write the book!
Working on the story of women in baseball was one of those experiences that drove away anything else that tried to occur at the same time: there was simply no room for anything else. That’s why I have restricted my other nonfiction books to single-person subjects, such as Jack Graney on the one hand, and Earl Derr Biggers on the other. In researching these people, I was still employing my history background . . . but I also had time for other things.
Women at Play is available in paperback through used book stores and online sites. It’s also available as an ebook.
3 responses to “My Writing Life: 7”
“…more difficult to wrest from the jaws of the past.” I wish I’da said that :). Great post Barbara. I really enjoyed reading.
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Barbara, thanks very much for this fascinating article. I had no idea that you had to put so much time and effort into the researching of Women At Play