The Story Behind the Stories
The Birth of Gemma Barrows by Jamie Todd Rubin
Last fall I read a collection of Sports Illustrated baseball writing. The collection
spanned fifty years, and as I read it a thought kept recurring: when I grow up I
want to be a baseball writer. This kind of thinking happens to me from time to
time. It's happened for as long as I can remember. After watching the HBO
miniseries From the Earth to the Moon in 1998, I desperately wanted to be an
astronaut. Watching Top Gun in the summer of 1986 made me want to be a fighter
pilot. Watching Bull Durham made me want to be a minor-league baseball player.
Even today I come away from these movies with the strong desire to be what I see
dramatized within them. When people ask why I write I tell them that I couldn't
make it as an astronaut, a fighter pilot, or a minor league baseball player -- but as
I writer, I can do all three.
My favorite long-form nonfiction is the baseball essay. I suspected this for a long
time, but reading the Sports Illustrated collection cemented it for me. I relish
reading anything that Tom Verducci or Ben Reiter has in current issues of the
magazine. And I enjoy reading collections that contain the works of the old
masters of this narrow-casted trade: Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, Robert Creamer.
A good baseball essay spans more than a single magazine issue; it lives for
generations. As a child of the 1970s, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, and Stan
Musial were names on the back of trading cards, or grainy figures in
black-and-white clips. The baseball essay gives them life in a way that no baseball
card or video clip can achieve. For a few fleeting moments in the pages of the
essay, they are still playing ball.
It is a little late in my career to become a baseball writer, but I've managed to get
the "writer" part of the title. As baseball season approached in February it
occurred to me that I could write a baseball essay if I made it entirely fictional. It
was in this manner that Gemma Barrows was born.
I wrote three drafts of the story in the space of a week or so, and it was wonderful.
For those eight or nine days I was baseball writer. I felt like a baseball writer.
When I read the story aloud -- my usual method of chasing down problems -- it
even sounded like a baseball essay to me. It sounded as though I was reading
something out of a future issue of Sports Illustrated.
What surprised me most about writing this story were that three characters
emerged, instead of the two I'd initially conceived. I expected Eddie O'Halloran to
put himself into the article he was writing, and of course, Gemma Barrows was the
subject of the story. I think there is more to Gemma's story than what was revealed
in the Eddie's profile of her, but that's the great thing about profiles -- they leave
you wanting more. At least, that was how I felt when I finished the story. The real
surprise for me was Gemma's father, Vassar Barrows. He was nowhere in sight
when I sat down to write the story.
Careful readers of IGMS will note that this is the second baseball story I've had in
the magazine. The first was "Big Al Shepard Plays Baseball on the Moon"
(January 2014). I thought after that first one that I had all the baseball stories out
of my system. Then I wrote "Gemma Barrows." And still that wasn't enough. At
present I am working on a baseball alternate history novel. Somehow, baseball has
managed to find its way into most of my stories, even if it is just a passing
reference. That's okay by me.
I would like to offer special thank to my friends Bud Sparhawk, Juliette Wade, and
Jay Werkheiser, for their incredibly helpful comments and feedback on earlier
drafts of this story.
Read more of The Story Behind the Stories