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 four chapters here.
Man tries and God Laughs and Man Tries Again
At eight in the morning, red-eyed and cheerless, Reb Shlomo and I schlepped our suitcases down to the lobby. Our train to Atlanta was leaving at nine, and though our season was as lost as the Garden of Eden, the tickets had already been purchased and the hotel paid for, so we were planning on spending the night in Atlanta and then continuing home. Reb Shlomo had even talked about staying in the South and looking for a job there. I think he was afraid to go back to New York and face people after such a painful failure.
The men hadn’t moved since I’d gone upstairs the night before: They were sprawled in the dining room chairs, and from the looks on their faces, marauding Cossacks were riding through their dreams.
Khetzke opened a bloodshot eye when the waiters came in, scowled, and dropped back to sleep.
“Shall we serve breakfast or let them sleep?” asked one of them, depositing a large silver coffeepot on the banquet table.
Reb Shlomo said nothing. The healthy spring his body had acquired over the past few weeks disappeared overnight. His cheeks were gaunt and pale, and his back was stooped like a shtetl Jew’s.
“They’ve got to get up if we want to make the train,” I said, and began banging a spoon against the fine china.
“What’s the big idea,” snarled Khetzke. “It’s all over. At least let tired men rest.”
Fayvl Melamid was on his feet. He gave a pleading look to Khetzke, then walked over to me.
“Talmed,” he said, putting a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps Khetzke’s right, it’s best to let the men sleep. It’s not your fault, it’s just… After such expectations…” His voice was shaking like a wet dog.
Butcher Block stood up, buttoned his shirt, and came over.
“Come on, kid. Eat something, then I’ll carry your bags to the station. We’ll go home. There’s nothing else to do. It’s back to the store for me.” Such resignation from this big man was more devastating than a thousand nasty words from Khetzke.
Pretty Perchik, lolling across two chairs in the corner, was moving now, too. He instinctively straightened out his clothes and ran a palm over his messy hair as he sat up. After remembering where he was, he spat on the floor in disgust and resumed his sleeping position. Nearby, Hester Panim had slept with a napkin spread over his face and now it blew in and out with each deep snore of his. Dollar-a-Klop Barney had rested his head on Julius Silverman’s generous belly. A pile of drool was on the floor. It was impossible to know which one of the two it belonged to.
Reb Shlomo was sitting on the floor, staring at a cup of steaming coffee, but taking no drink. The mug he held in his trembling hands had a crack running down the side.
Khetzke got up and pushed his way through us to get to the bathroom. With a snarl he ripped down the sign hanging in the lobby: “WELCOME, LIONS OF ZION, TO THE HOTEL MONTEFIORE. YOUR HOME FOR SPRING TRAINING 1933.” Beneath it, in Yiddish, the sign read “MAZEL TOV.” He rolled it up in a ball and tossed it across the hallway towards the wastebasket.
“Mazel tov to that,” he said as it landed perfectly, and then pushed open the door to the bathroom so hard we heard glass shatter from inside.
I kept banging the spoon. I had this idea that I was going to deliver a speech, say something that would make a difference, but the words felt big as baseballs in my throat. Dixie Amos Gold came over and took the spoon from me. With his giant hand he took the cup too and made to smash it against the wall. Then he thought better, set it down on the table and walked out of the room, the lobby, the hotel, and into the hot Tampa morning. He released a string of foul letters that would have made the Queen of Sheba blush.
Bennie Abraham raised a wrist to his face and looked at his watch. With a scramble he was up and at my side.
“Sharmuta! I’m coming back with you. Baseball’s not for Egyptians, anyway.”
He came downstairs and Butcher Block took our luggage and the four of us set off for the station. Fayvl said he’d see to it that the men managed to get back home, and he’d drop by in New York for a proper goodbye.
Mosie Schreiber was waiting for us at the entrance to the train station. He was wearing the same clothes as the night before and smelled like the study room in the yeshiva I flunked out of.
“Reb Shlomo,” he said, but the newly-unemployed manager didn’t have the strength to raise his head.
“I’m sorry I had to bring you the bad news. What will you do now?”
Mosie was holding a pen and notepad, but he wrote nothing down.
“We’re going back to New York,” I said. “Life goes on.”
But I didn’t believe it, and I led Reb Shlomo by the elbow to the platform and on board the waiting train.
“Would you mind if I rode with you? Now that the Lions of Zion won’t be playing, it looks like I’m out of a beat. Damn Fishy Levine. May he have one hundred beds in a palace in the sky, and nobody to share them with.” Nobody, not even Mosie, could manage a laugh.
We found Reb Shlomo a seat and he sank down like an old man. The train whistled and rumbled, when we heard a shout coming from the platform.
“Telegram! Telegram!” the boy cried. He was dressed in the Montefiore bellboy livery.
“Telegram for Reb Shlomo of the Lions of Zion.”
Butcher Block moved the window curtain aside and looked out the window.
For the first time this morning Reb Shlomo spoke.
“Talmed, tell him we already got the news. No need to shout it to the Heavens — the Heavens already know.”
He sighed. “Mensch trakht un Gott lakht.” Man tries and God laughs. His voice was a hoarse whisper.
I ran out to the platform.
“Please, we know. Fishel Levine is dead. You don’t have to rub it in.”
“Whatever you know, that ain’t my business. Here’s your telegram. My job is to deliver it.”
They were calling my name from inside the cabin: “Talmed, the train’s about to leave. Forget the telegram. Who needs bad news twice?”
“Jews,” I thought to myself. Wasn’t it our job to remember the miserable past as often as we could?
Walking back to my compartment, I opened the message. If I’d had anything in my mouth I would have choked.
“TAKE ON MY BOYS IN ATLANTA STOP I’LL FINANCE TEAM.” It was signed, “MOSES LEVY LEVY & SONS DEPARTMENT STORE.”
“Talmed, you look like you swallowed a fish bone.” Butcher Block took the telegram from my hand. He was nibbling on a roll he’d taken from the hotel, and it took him a minute before he could clear it out of his throat.
Meanwhile, Reb Shlomo was bent like a zucchini, hand lost in his beard, staring out the window at the walls of the station which only weeks earlier he had greeted with such a light heart. The train whistled again to signal its imminent departure.
“Reb Shlomo!” shouted Butcher Block. “Come! We’re back in business!”
Bennie Abraham grabbed the telegram and read it out loud, and our reinstated manager’s jaw dropped to the floor like manna. We raced back to the hotel.
We threw open the doors to the dining room. Some of the men were eating breakfast with their eyes closed.
“We’re back in business, gentleman. To the train station!”
The train was still there. The railroad engineer had gotten out of the cab and was walking up and down the platform.
“Hurry up,” he shouted, when he saw our bedraggled men. “We’re 40 minutes behind schedule.” Then he blew his whistle and shouted, “All Aboard.”
Butcher Block, Reb Shlomo and I were the last ones on. The engineer approached us.
“You’re from the baseball team, right?” he asked. “I heard you fellows cheering as you ran off the train. The hotel sent a bellboy over here, asking us to wait. Course, can’t really hold up a train just because somebody asks me to. Lucky for you, I happened to notice something a little funny with the engine. Thought I’d run a quick check. You know. For safety’s sake.” He winked, then wiped his hands on a sooty cloth.
“Shapiro’s the name. Engineer Morris Shapiro. We’ll be off now.”
Shapiro climbed into the locomotive, and we hopped on board. The train rumbled to a start, Atlanta-bound.
Will The Lions of Zion be able to win in Atlanta? Come back next week to find out in chapter six, “Doubleheader in Atlanta.”