Thanks to the biographical sports movie 42, some of the young sports fans in your classroom may still be buzzing about baseball's legendary Jackie Robinson. But have your students heard about the Negro Leagues or the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League? Use pictures books to introduce your kids to true stories of talented people who fought to play a game they loved. Read on for my list of old and new favorites that have enabled my third, fourth, and fifth graders to talk openly and eloquently about triumphing over bullying, sexism, and racism.
SISTERS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES
Expect both male and female students to ask, "Can girls really play baseball?" In the early 1900s, thousands of people were wondering the same thing when they came out to see the pitching skills of "girl wonder" Alta Weiss, a 17-year-old from Ohio. Answer the doubters with Deborah Hopkins' Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings.
When many professional ball players were drafted in World War II, who kept up our national pastime? The ladies! Learn about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in Doreen Rappaport's Dirt on Their Skirts: The Story of the Young Women Who Won the World Championship and David A. Adler's Mama Played Baseball.
The stadium anthem "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was written about a fictional girl, Katie Casey, and her love of the game. In Shana Corey's award-winning book, Players in Pigtails, she pays tribute to Casey as well as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Players in Pigtails includes the lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and The "Victory Song" of the AAGPBL. It's a fun way to start any baseball-themed unit of study. Be ready for lots of singing and Cracker Jack requests after reading!
Not only did women play professional ball but they rivaled America's baseball legends. Jackie Mitchell, one of the first female pitchers in professional baseball, struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Marissa Moss' Mighty Jackie the Strike-Out Queen is my favorite way to introduce Mitchell's story.
Follow this title with Crystal Hubbard's Catching the Moon: The Story of a Young Girl's Dream. Catching the Moon is about Toni Stone, the first woman to play big-league baseball. This African-American woman is best known for getting a hit off the legendary Satchel Page, a fierce pitcher in the Negro National Leagues. Read both books, Catching the Moon and Mighty Jackie the Strike-Out Queen, to create rich Venn diagrams or for a comparison and contrast exercise.
For excellent lessons on women in baseball check out the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Kadir Nelson's We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball is a must-have for fans of all ages. In this book, baseball history is told from the point of view of a fictional Negro League player. Readers will catch the thrill of the game, learn a great deal about American history, and be mesmerized by Nelson's glorious illustrations.
Negro Leagues: All-Black Baseball, in the Smart About History series, describes a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame by Emily, the book's young narrator. After her visit, Emily decides to write a school report about Bud Fowler, the first black baseball player to play with white ball clubs. (There was no official color line in baseball's early years. Bud Fowler played ball until the color barrier was ushered in with the Jim Crow laws of the 1880s.) My students loved the colorful illustrations, vintage photos, and the simple kid-to-kid explanation of the Negro Leagues and Jackie Robinson's 1947 breakthrough into the Majors.
Carole Boston Weatherford's A Negro Leagues Scrapbook is packed with vintage black-and-white photos, easy-to-understand texts, and facts that your students will continually reference.
No investigation of the Negro Leagues is complete without the stories of Josh Gibson, one of baseball's greatest hitters, or Satchel Page, one of baseball's greatest pitchers.
Nannette Mallege's Coming Home: A True Story of Josh Gibson and Angela Johnson's Just Like Josh Gibson prove to be favorites in my classroom year after year. This year, I'll introduce Rob Skead's Something to Prove: The Great Satchel Page Vs. Rookie Joe Dimaggio alongside older treasures, such as Lesa Cline-Ransome's Satchel Paige and Adler's Satchel Paige: Don't Look Back.
For lessons on the Negro National Leagues, check out the Negro Leagues' Baseball eMuseum.
Want kids to be upstanders, rather than bystanders? Read them Golenbock's touching story of the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodger's shortstop Pee Wee Reese. During Robinson's foray into major league baseball, players and fans hurled glass bottles and racial epithets at Robinson, but Reese dared to publicly befriend him.
I use baseball-themed units to investigate bravery against bullying; renew interest in biographies; and beat the sping fever sillies. The biggest bonus of the unit, however, is seeing nearly 100 percent of classroom fathers eagerly join in book discussions, assist with reading responses and essays, and chaperone field trips. My baseball-themed units include tours of Yankee Stadium and a Yankees or Mets game. Call the education department of your local baseball team to see what discounts or education programs are available.