What would have happened had there been a Jewish team in the Major Leagues? In an original novel serialized on The Arty Semite, Ross Ufberg imagines the trials and triumphs of The Lions of Zion, an all-Jewish team competing in the National League in 1933. Read the first three chapters here.
The Jewish ballplayers were staying two to a room in the Montefiore Hotel. After breakfast, we’d walk three miles along the Hillsborough River to arrive at a crude baseball diamond. We had no support system or ready facilities like the other, established teams, so the boys from the local YMHA came out to pitch balls and shag flies, while their sisters and mothers helped with the laundry.
Days in the Florida sun worked wonders on Reb Shlomo. Soon he was tan and limber, running around the field with a whistle in his mouth, instructing, correcting, shouting and, occasionally, encouraging. Clearly some men — and one woman — had come to tryouts in a delusional dream. There was the Great War veteran who was missing his arms, but begged us to take him on as a pinch runner: He claimed it was difficult to tag him when he slid. Then there was the buxom brunette who’d been playing for a Bloomer Girls team in Indiana. One of the YMHA boys who tossed balls during practice always lobbed her softies.
“She’s not much of a hitter,” he told the other infielders, “but it’d be a shame to pass up a chance to watch her round first.”
One late afternoon, as practice was winding down, the men were crowded around home plate, kibitzing and showing off their swings. A rock came whizzing from out of the shrubs beyond first base and hit me square in the forehead. Luckily, it didn’t draw blood. We turned around and saw a group of young boys, most likely kids who worked in the cigar factories that dotted the city, running away and yelling all sorts of nice names for Jews. Fayvl and Butcher Block took off after them, but they didn’t get far before Reb Shlomo shouted at them to stop.
“Why chase them? What would you do if you caught them? Better we should send their parents a thank you note.”
“A thank you note? For what?” one of the men asked.
“For making us feel at home,” answered our manager, and we knew he was very wise.
On the tenth day of Spring Training Reb Shlomo posted a list of those who’d made the team in the lobby of the hotel. After the unchosen packed their bags and glumly left for the train, the remaining men all wandered into the card room. The hotel staff brought cakes and, after locking the doors, took out some schnapps, as well. “Courtesy of Mr. Levine,” they told us. Prohibition was still on but Fishel Levine, apparently a bootlegger, and our benefactor, sent us his best wishes. The men made sure Reb Shlomo was up in his room, then took a sip.
Now that the hatchet had fallen and missed their necks, the players let down their guard and got to know each other. At one table, Hester Panim was dealing five-card stud. He was the only man who’d come to Tampa with a catcher’s mitt, and lucky for us he was damn good. He threw a line to second base so straight you could hang your whites on it, and he was a feisty hitter. Run-the-Numbers Cohen, a right-handed accountant from Baltimore with a cloudy past, a sinking curve, and a rising fastball, was at the table with him. So was Wet Jakie Stein, a lefty spitballer from Utica, New York who was bald as an eagle and naturally produced more saliva than any man I’ve met before or since. Between them was Butcher Block. He’d walked onto the field the first day of Spring Training with an embarrassed look on his face.
Reb Shlomo was smiling. “So, you’ve come.”
Butcher Block shrugged.
“This is America. Let the woman mind the store. I want to play baseball.”
Dollar-a-Klop Barney was there, too. An auto mechanic from Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, he was a skilled outfielder and lately had been throwing some pitches. With his strong arm, Reb Shlomo was going to turn him into the fourth man in the rotation. His first time on the mound he nearly took the head off the batter, but he zipped the ball in so fast it screamed.
“Hey, Barney,” Hester Panim had yelled, after Barney beaned his fourth man during practice. “Where’d you say you got that nickname of yours?”
“I used to charge a dollar for every klop I’d give to a car in the garage,” he said, showing all his teeth.
“Well, now we’re charging you a buck for every klop you give to a teammate on the diamond. Players ain’t automobiles, Barn. The goyim you can smash up, but let the Yids live.” After that, Dollar-a-Klop Barney’s control improved miraculously.
The outfielders were sitting at another table. Big Hup, dumb as a felt boot but with extraordinary speed and strength, was our center fielder. He was always chewing on an apple, and never said much. We called him Big Hup because “Hup” was just about the only sound he ever made and, well, because he was truly quite big. Next to him was Saul Ehrenburg, the clumsiest right fielder you’ve ever seen. If you cut off his legs, he’d still manage to trip over his own feet. He had a build, though, and besides Dixie Gold, he was the strongest bat on the team. Bennie Abraham, the Egyptian-born son of Jewish spice merchants, was dealing. He was translating his cricket skills onto the baseball diamond, and it looked like he’d be a starter in the outfield. He was skinny and fast, and he bolted across the field like a camel with a hot pepper stuck in an uncomfortable place. Julius Silverman was at the table, too. He had a delicatessen in Buffalo and a respectable belly, and he’d knock the cover off the ball but couldn’t outrun a rag peddler. Reb Shlomo made him arrive at practice twenty minutes early to get some extra running in. He and Big Hup outweighed any other three of the fellows.
In the corner, beneath a heavy haze of smoke, sat the handsomest two men on the team, as well as Fayvl and Khotsh. Pretty Perchik Solovetsky, whose family manufactured undergarments in Patterson, New Jersey, sat straight as a colonel in his chair. Every hair was in place, shining like a new moon, and his blue eyes were set deep inside long wet lashes. Playing at third base, he could throw out just about any runner, and he hit with a precision that was admirable. However, Reb Shlomo was on his case for one thing: Pretty Perchik hated to slide, because it killed him to dirty his uniform. Next to him sat Dixie Amos Gold, a 19-year-old from Kentucky who stood six and a half feet tall and was all muscle. He was the only Southerner on the team, and he could have played for anybody he liked, except he was cursed with a furious temper and rumor had it that he once killed a Protestant minister with a homerun ball that left the park. A Jew who killed a Christian clergyman was a headache nobody needed. Except us, of course.
Dixie was taciturn and had the mean, appealing face of a hard-nosed gumshoe. He was our first baseman. Then there were Khotsh and Fayvl. Khotsh was arguing every hand of poker, accusing first this one of peeking over his shoulder, then that one of stacking the deck. A good second baseman, but if you said the weather was nice, he’d tell you it looked like rain. Fayvl, irreproachable for his honesty off the field and on, and admired by all for his hard work and scholarly demeanor, was dealing.
Khetzke the Cowboy, our shortstop, was dozing off in the corner with a bottle of schnapps. He’d snuck out several nights after curfew to go to back-alley gin joints, but so long as he kept scooping up the ball like he did and dropping hits like raindrops, we weren’t going to give him mussar about it.
By Spring Training’s end, we learned to play together and eat together, to go to the pictures together and curse and brawl together. We were shaping up to put on a respectable season. Our plan was to leave the Montefiore and head to Georgia for a doubleheader exhibition game against the minor league Atlanta Crackers, and then travel to New York for a week of rest before opening day. Our last night, we were enjoying supper when a man in suspenders and a cigarette between his lips burst through the French doors into the dining room.
With a pen behind his ear and a newspaper in his hand, he ran over to Reb Shlomo’s seat.
“Mosie Schreiber here. I’m covering you boys for der Forverts this season and I was supposed to meet you in Atlanta, but when I heard the news I rushed down to get a comment. What have you got to say about this?”
“About what?” asked Reb Shlomo.
Schreiber thrust the newspaper in front of Reb Shlomo’s nose. In a trembling voice, our manager read the headline aloud:
“UNDERWORLD FIGURE ‘FISHY’ FISHEL LEVINE GUNNED DOWN ON DELANCEY, ASSASSINS MAKE CLEAN GETAWAY.”
“Sharmuta!” yelled Bennie the Egyptian, and the dining room went quiet. Without Fishel Levine, we had no money. And with no money, we had no team.
Reb Shlomo got up and left the dining room without a word. I thought he was going to be sick. The Forverts reporter prodded us for comments, but there was nothing to say. Could our season be over before it started? Over my dull voice of protest, Khetzke the Cowboy raided the kitchen and found a hidden bottle of schnapps. By midnight the entire team was slumped over in their chairs, drunk as Purimshpilers and sad as Job, while I went upstairs to try to console an inconsolable Reb Shlomo.
Will the Lions continue with no obvious means of support? Find out next week in Chapter Five.