Monday, August 8, 2016

Fastpitch: Exclusive Author Interview with Erica Westly

In today's society, you can't deny that female empowerment is a major hot topic. From movies to books, girl power is being heralded from the rooftops like never before. It's a pretty cool trend, but sometimes it's important to remember that this kind of movement didn't just happen. The credit that girls get these days comes because some great gal before her worked to pave the way. Every woman has done her part. For author Erica Westly, this revelation couldn't be any more true. 

In her debut book, Fastpitch, she recounts the strong and talented women who made fastpitch softball a national fever. Among the women she researched for this novel is my great aunt Bertha Ragan Tickey, 5-time softball Hall of Famer and legendary softball pitcher. Bertha was one of 7 children, and the only girl. She was the big sister to my grandfather, Pete Petinak, who - at age 89 - is the only surviving Petinak sibling left. (My grandfather was the baby of the family!) 

Bertha was a strong, fierce and motivated lady who played ball like a champ, and the women who played with her were just as amazing. I wanted to feature this book on Writing Belle today because I think it's important to remember not just where we're going, but where we've come from, and to honor the life of a woman (and her peers) who made this world a better place.  

Interview with Erica Westly

How and when did you become interested in softball? 
I grew up watching baseball with my dad but didn't get into fastpitch until I was an adult. One year, I started watching the Women's College World Series on ESPN, and from then on I was hooked. This book project came about because I was curious about the history of softball and how it evolved into a predominantly women's sport. The more I learned about the history and the athletes involved, the more fascinated I became. I also discovered that there are a lot of misconceptions about fastpitch softball--for example that it's easier to play or less competitive than baseball--and I wanted to help correct those.

Is Fastpitch your first published book?
Yes, Fastpitch is my first book. My background is in journalism. So before this book project, I wrote newspaper and magazine articles about various topics, including science, food, travel, and occasionally sports. I felt that the story of women's softball was too big and complex to fit into a magazine article or even two--it had to be a book.

Recently you have been making some appearances around the country. How has that experience been for you?
I have been able to visit a few different cities to help promote the book, and it has been very fun and rewarding. For the most part, I focused on places that had a connection to softball history and are featured in the book. Top women's softball teams, such as the Florists from Portland, Oregon and the Raybestos Brakettes from Stratford, Connecticut were once extremely well-known, but they're often forgotten today, especially among younger generations. I'd love for local communities to rediscover and appreciate these teams and the pioneering female athletes who helped make softball such a great sport.

Let's talk research! How did you go about digging deep into the historical roots of these fabulous and strong women who defined softball? Where did you begin? 
I started with some pretty basic online searches about the history of softball, and at some point I came across the Brakettes. My curiosity about the team led to more and more digging. I wanted to find out where the team name came from (it turns out they were named after the brake linings their sponsor, Raybestos, manufactured) and the national softball tournament that the Brakettes had won so many times. This led me to learning about other top women's softball teams, such as the Phoenix Ramblers and the Orange Lionettes. Fortunately for me, these teams all received extensive newspaper coverage during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, so there was a lot to read about them. From there, I tried to get in touch with as many former players as I could because I really wanted to tell the story of women's softball from the athletes' perspectives.

The first chapter recounts the softball background of Bertha Ragan Tickey. How did you get familiar with her career and life? 
I came across Bertha Ragan Tickey fairly early on in my research. She's prominently featured on the Brakettes website, and the Amateur Softball Association's pitching award is named after her. What attracted me most to Bertha's softball career was how long it was: she started playing with the Orange Lionettes when she was in high school and didn't retire from softball until she was in her late forties. For a woman to be able to have that kind of athletic career in the 1950s and '60s was truly remarkable. Another thing that made Bertha notable was that she was recruited from California to play for the Brakettes. In 1956, the Raybestos manager gave Bertha a job at the company and paid for her and her daughter to fly out to Connecticut and put them up for the summer in a nice beach house--all so that she would pitch for the company's softball team. Bertha was also routinely featured in national newspaper articles and appeared on television shows, such as "You Bet Your Life," hosted by Groucho Marx. I knew right away that she had to be a main character in the book.

What is it about Bertha - and the women of softball - that you think made them so driven, so special?
Bertha and the other top women's softball players were incredible athletes at a time when girls weren't generally encouraged to play sports competitively. In fact, Bertha's parents didn't want her playing sports after high school because they felt such behavior was inappropriate for a woman. She probably wouldn't have had the softball career that she had if her parents had lived longer; instead they passed away when she was a teenager, which was tragic but also enabled her to pursue her dreams of playing sports at a high level. Bertha loved softball, as did most of the other women she played with. One of the nice things about a team sport is that it gives you a built-in support network. Women could join softball teams like the Lionettes or the Florists and know that they weren't alone, that there were other female athletes who enjoyed sports and wanted to win as much as they did. They pushed each other to become stronger players, and women's softball became more and more competitive as a result.

How do you think the game has changed from its early beginnings to what it is today? 
Many people assume that women's sports weren't that competitive until after Title IX was passed in the 1970s, but the players on the Lionettes and other top teams were extremely talented. Other than a few technical differences, such as the pitching distance, which has varied over the years, and the advent of slap-hitting, the game of fastpitch hasn't changed that much. I suspect many of the players from the 1940s-1960s era would have no problem keeping pace with today's college players. What I see as the biggest difference is that today's girls have more opportunities to play softball in school, which the players from previous decades didn't have. On the other hand, young women today have fewer opportunities to play fastpitch as adults now that competitive community teams like Lionettes and the Ramblers have mostly disappeared.

For everyone reading, and I think young girls especially, what would you hope they take away from the book? 
I'd really like for young women to know about athletes such as Bertha and to get an understanding of what their lives were like. I think what these women were able to accomplish is so inspiring, and they played an instrumental role in getting women's sports to where it is today.

Where can readers connect with you online? (website, twitter, FB, etc)

My Twitter handle is @westlyer, and my author website is I also have a website for the book with additional info and photos at

About the Author
(From Erica's Website)
I’m a journalist and author currently based in Tucson, Arizona. I have a MS in neuroscience and a MA in journalism. I’ve written articles for Popular Science, Slate, the New York Times, among other publications. My latest project is Fastpitch: The Untold History of Softball and the Women Who Made the Game, published by Touchstone Books in June 2016. I can be reached at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Get fictional - it's fun! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to see you again soon!