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 five chapters here.
A Doubleheader in Atlanta
Two young men in white uniforms and blue ball caps were waiting for us when we pulled into Atlanta’s Terminal Station.
“Sholem aleykhm,” said the slightly taller one, and they both thrust out their hands. With wrists like beanpoles, they certainly didn’t look like athletes.
“Gary Levy,” said the slightly smaller one. “This is my twin brother, Eli.”
“Aleykhm sholem.” Reb Shlomo took their hands. “How can we thank you?”
“We just want to play baseball, really. Our father — that’s Moses Levy — says together we don’t have half a head for business. I think he wanted us as far from the store as possible. When we told him about the baseball team, he couldn’t send us here fast enough.”
“Whatever the reasons, we’re grateful.”
The brothers rushed us outside and into several waiting taxis.
“Our father is taking care of this,” said Gary, and took out a roll of bills as thick as a Chumash. “We’ve got to hurry if we’re going to make the game.”
“But we’re stopping at the hotel first,” asserted Khotsh, as Run-the-Numbers Cohen pushed him into one of the taxis.
“Yeah, I’ve got to wash after that train ride,” said Pretty Perchik, but Dollar-a-Klop Barney clamped a hand over his mouth.
“No time — we’ll take our things right to the stadium,” said our manager. He leaned his head out of the window and shouted to the Levy brothers.
“Those uniforms — you have more of them?”
“Sure. In every possible size. They’re sitting in the visitors’ clubhouse. Let’s go — the Black Crackers are waiting, and that crowd’ll be awfully upset if we’re late.”
They jumped into the first taxi and the cars started.
“Did you say Black Crackers?” shouted Reb Shlomo, but his question was lost in the wind as the taxis sped down Spring Street toward Ponce de Leon Park.
We changed into our new uniforms and went to squeeze in a half hour of batting practice. Hester Panim was helping Dollar-a-Klop warm up his arm. Reb Shlomo didn’t want our aces to pitch today; we were tired, inside and out, and there was no point in clobbering a man’s confidence for an exhibition game with a minor league team. Eli Levy had told us he was a pitcher and we weren’t exactly in a position to doubt him. He would start game two.
We were returning to the dugout for the start of the game when the crowd began to roar. We turned around and followed their gazes out to center field. The outfielder for the Black Crackers, Happy Driver, had climbed up onto the big magnolia tree that stood in deep center-right. He waved to the crowd of 9,000 — black and white, all sitting together — and launched the ball all the way to home plate, where a teammate was waiting to catch it. The ball bounced only once: 425 feet, and the throw was perfect.
“Well I’ll be,” said Julius Silverman, rubbing his stomach. “A magnolia in the middle of a baseball diamond.”
“That’s fair territory,” said the umpire standing nearby. “You’re warned.”
Khotsh raised his arm, pointed and laughed: “I’m surprised that Schvartse Cookie is up there tossing a baseball and not looking for bana—”
“Goddamn, Khotsh, why don’t you hit more and yap less,” said Dixie Gold. “Don’t need any ugliness here.”
“Hit more? I’ll hit for more bases today than you will.”
“You don’t know sh*t from Shinola. I don’t like men who talk bigger than they walk. Get going before — ”
Fayvl Melamid shuffled up between the two of them.
“Please, men, sholem bayis.” Peace in the house. “Khotsh, they’re the Black Crackers, not the Schvartse Cookies. If you don’t respect others, the Torah says, you don’t respect yourself. And Dixie, we’re not out to beat each other, just the other team. If we are going t—”
Reb Shlomo walked over and broke up the squabble with a long, hard look.
Game one didn’t turn out to be much of a contest. Roy Welmaker, the Crackers’ ace on the mound, pitched a shutout. We managed five hits, but no runs. Dixie went two for four, with a double that would have been a home run in most other parks. Khotsh laid a bunt that he ran out for a single, Khetzke hit a leadoff single in the sixth but was stranded, and Dollar-a-Klop Barney, frustrated, no doubt, by his own poor pitching, walloped a triple into right field. But we couldn’t convert anything.
Dollar-a-Klop showed his nerves from the first pitch, which got smacked for a double. The Crackers batted around in the first inning and came up with five runs. The only thing Barney allowed after that, until the seventh inning, at least, was a homer that sneaked over the wall, to Othello Groucher, the Black Crackers’ first baseman. The fans didn’t help much either — they weren’t nasty, but they weren’t overly polite. In the seventh, Barney loaded the bases with a walk. The next guy was getting wise and leaning over the plate, smiling to the crowd; Barney hit him in the ribs. Reb Shlomo walked out to talk to him, and I, of course, went with him.
“My arm’s a wet noodle,” said Barney. “Take me out.”
I signaled to the bullpen, where Jakie Stein was moistening his lips and warming up. Stein closed out the game with nearly flawless, and very wet, pitching.
Final score: Atlanta Black Crackers 6 — Lions of Zion 0.
Game two we played under the lights. I was sitting between Reb Shlomo and Fayvl on the bench when Levy threw out his first pitch.
“His fastball moves about as fast as the Kol Nidrei service,” said Fayvl. “Not to speak ill of him, you understand…”
“Maybe he’s got a curve?” whispered Reb Shlomo, swaying back and forth as pencil-thin Levy released his second pitch.
The crack of the wood was followed by a shattering of glass. Washington Jeffers, batting leadoff, hit a foul ball so hard and sideways that it cracked a window of the Sears building behind the first base dugout outside of the park. The crowd whooped and hollered. Eli Levy chewed his nails as he waited for another ball from the ump.
Jeffers took two more pitches for a three-and-one count, then scorched a grounder past the third base line for an easy double. It was past Perchik before he could even dive for it. This started a theme, and Levy was on the bench by the third inning with three times as many runs given up. The rest of the game passed in a similar fashion. In the sweaty heart of Atlanta, we lost the game two by a score of 13 to 1. The highlight for us was watching Hester Panim throw out three runners trying to steal second.
Bonk Brown pitched for the Black Crackers. They called him bonk because he wasn’t afraid to hit a batter when a situation got hot — but Bonk didn’t have much need for that in our game. We did score, though: Saul Ehrenburg got an inside-the-park home run when he hit one to center field and caught their outfielder daydreaming under the magnolia tree. We watched him as he ran the bases, praying he wouldn’t trip over his own feet. Surprisingly, he made it to home plate without falling.
Khotsh was the only one who didn’t get up off the bench to congratulate Saulie as he touched home plate.
“What’s the difference,” he muttered. “We’re still losing.” Then he spit on the ground, put his cap over his eyes and went to sleep.
That’s how Fayvl Melamid came to replace Khotsh as our starting second baseman.
Reb Shlomo didn’t do much talking in the clubhouse. All he did say was, “Today didn’t mean a thing. We woke up with heavy hearts, but thank God we’ll be going to sleep much happier, knowing now that we still have a baseball team. Dinner’s at the hotel in an hour. Let’s get back.” Even Mosie Schreiber, who hadn’t stopped complaining about his headache since we left Tampa, was glad to forfeit the possibility of good copy for some quiet respite.
At breakfast the next morning, Reb Shlomo said there was something he wanted to show us before we left for New York. We followed him out the door, on a fifteen-minute walk through the streets of the city. Suddenly, he stopped in front of a four-story brick factory building. The words “NATIONAL PENCIL CO.” were stenciled in large white letters across the top of it. The men looked around as Reb Shlomo straightened up and began to speak.
“Men, I want you to take a good look at this building. This is the factory where once there was a Jew named Leo Frank working as superintendent. He came from New York to make here a living. A few years after he arrived, he was falsely accused of murdering a little girl. Framed. The trial was a shande. Even the governor knew it, so he commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison. A gift like that, a man wishes he never has to receive.
“There were people who weren’t happy about this. They wanted the Jew Frank dead. So what did they do? They kidnapped Leo Frank from prison and took him far from town and lynched him.”
It seemed like every bird in Atlanta could be heard in the stillness on the street.
“Why did I bring you here? To remind you — that every time we play baseball, we’re playing not only for us. We carry history on our backs like a hump. I’m not saying I want a team of hunchbacks, but I want you should remember: A game may be just a game, but a Jew is always a Jew. Don’t remember this when you’re at bat, but don’t forget it, either.”
We made our way in silence back to the hotel. Nobody spoke until we boarded the train and left Atlanta’s city limits.
Come back next week to read chapter seven, ‘Dress Up a Broom.’