Follow Skyler Schrempp
“Growing up is a ritual, more deadly than religion, more complicated than baseball, for there seem to be no rules. Everything is experienced for the first time.”WP Kinsella, Shoeless Joe
“You’re not buying only junk, you’re buying junked lives. And more-you’ll see-you’re buying bitterness.”John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Baseball makes great fiction. A League of Their Own, The Natural, Bull Durham, The Art of Fielding, Major League, A Field of Dreams, 61…our literature and movies are littered with powerful stories that revolve around America’s favorite pastime.
To that shelf, you can add Three Strike Summer by Skyler Schrempp, tucked between Malamud’s The Natural and Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. Like those novels, Three Strike is about dreamers. Roy Hobbs dreamed of the big leagues, Ray Kinsella dreamed of baseball diamonds nestled in fields of corn, and young Gloria Mae Willard dreams of pitching for a real team.
But Gloria’s a girl and this is the Great Depression. Girls don’t play ball.
Schrempp could have woven a perfectly fine novel out of that right there. A tale of female empowerment and overcoming odds and proving oneself worthy in the face of oppression. Classic.
Instead, she tucked classic inside a new wrapper, offering a baseball story inside a struggle of Dust Bowl migrants facing injustice in California. Imagine The Sandlot mashed up with The Grapes of Wrath and you’re in the ballpark.
Three Strike opens with the bank foreclosing on the Willard’s land. It’s not just their farm they leave behind, but the grave of the youngest Willard sibling, who died an infant from malnourishment. Hard times have come to stay.
Ma and Pa shoulder their fate stoically. Gloria’s older sister, Jess, emulates their resolve. Gloria, however, is enraged. She is no go-along, get-along girl. She is fiery and feisty and sometimes out of control.
I reckoned I was a bit salty. Or sour. Or something.
When the banker leaves their property, Gloria hurls a rock from a distant field, cracking his windshield. It’s a helluva throw, wild and yet deadly accurate.
It is this salty recklessness that defines Gloria, a knife-edge she tightropes throughout the novel. Sometimes it works in her favor. Sometimes she gets cut.
In California, the Willards find work at the Santa Ana Holdsten Peach Orchard. A pretty name for an ugly place.
Pa pulled our popping, moaning truck up to a great white gate. And standing in front of that gate was a man in pressed white trousers and a wide-brimmed hat. He looked about as friendly as St. Peter to a bunch of sinners.
Like Steinbeck’s Joads, the Willards are dealt into a game with a stacked deck. They’re offered low wages, overpriced housing, and credit at the company store that can never be repaid. This is indentured servitude masquerading as gainful employment, and everybody knows it.
Strife among the workers leads to whispers of strikes and unionizing. In this swirl of unease Gloria discovers a ray of hope: a baseball team organized by the children of the workers.
A boy’s baseball team.
The team has never beaten the team from the neighboring Michelson Orchard, due mostly to the Michelson team’s star hitter. The Holdsten team’s pitcher has never struck him out.
That pitcher is Terrance Bowman, and the Holdsten team is his. To have a chance to play ball, Gloria must convince Terrance to let her join the ranks. And to let her replace him on the pitcher’s mound. No easy task.
From the start neither Gloria nor Terrance like each other.
It was Terrance Bowman’s team, and it was Terrance Bowman who was pitcher. It was Terrance who called me a skirt, and a girlie, who’d turned everyone against me. Terrance who’d made them all laugh at me.
Schrempp excels in exploring this conflict. A Hollywood version of Three Strike would lead to a mano a mano showdown of pitching prowess, a battle of fastballs at high noon. Maybe Schrempp even considered such a scenario. Lucky for the reader she rejected it.
Instead, we see how Gloria’s salty recklessness does indeed earn her a spot on the team, but not before blinding her to the truth about Terrance Bowman. The Holdsten pitcher isn’t quite the villain she believed.
In Three Strike’s most poignant scene, Schrempp opens a window on Terrance’s inner life.
“You don’t know,” he said, “you don’t know anything about me. Or what I been through. You got everything. And all I got was my team, that I made, and then you just – you just come in – and all right, you’re good, but why you gotta take the only thing I got?”
Terrance is a fighter just like Glorida, a kid who gathered a rag-tag bunch of boys and turned them into a team, evaded the oversight of the union-busting orchardists to cobble together weekly competitions, and along the way inspired plenty of loyalty and goodwill. Even labeling him a sexist is an overstatement. He’s thirteen, not thirty.
Ultimately, Gloria gets her shot. She gets to pitch against the Michelson boys, and the game’s outcome rests on her shoulders. But by then the reader has already discovered what Gloria has learned along the way: that you can’t win ballgames (or decent employment) all by yourself.
Three Strike rises well above the average first novel, providing readers with a multilayered story about a complex set of characters. It melds a compelling tale of athleticism and competition with an insightful glimpse of a time and place when honest work was abused by dirty dealing. And it is told with grace and wit and plenty of fine writing.
I hope to see many more novels from Schrempp. She knocked this one out of the park.