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 six chapters here.
Dress Up a Broom
It was mid-morning on Friday when we stepped off the Crescent Limited in Pennsylvania Station. Reb Shlomo led us out onto 8th Avenue.
“Welcome to New York City. We’re staying at the New Yorker Hotel, just up the street here, but for those of you who call this town home, I’ll allow you to spend Shabbes with your families. I’ll be at the hotel. I expect you back for a team meeting on Saturday night and I don’t want any funny business. The Giants’ll be waiting for us on Thursday, for Opening Day. We don’t play or practice on Shabbes, thanks to the Almighty, Commissioner Landis, and Fishy Levine, may his memory be blessed — which means we’ll only have four days to get back to good form.”
We were standing in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking foot traffic. Amos Gold was trying to get a good look at the giant stone eagles perched atop the train station. He had an expression on his face as if he was expecting them to deliver a present right on top of his head. Meanwhile, Butcher Block, Bennie the Egyptian, Fayvl Melamid, Khotsh Greenbaum and Pretty Perchick — the players who came from New York or close by — were chomping at the bit to get home as soon as possible.
“My store,” said Butcher.
“My wife,” said Fayvl.
“My mother’s spicy cooking,” said Bennie.
“Big-bosomed girls of Paterson,” said Pretty Perchik.
“My God,” said Khotsh.
I was reluctant to leave Reb Shlomo, but he put a hand on my back and pushed me in the direction of the Lower East Side.
“Gey aheym” he said. Go home. “Go to your mother, show her you are alright. I will see you tomorrow night.”
“A gut Shabbes!” I cried, and took off down the street.
“A gut Shabbes, Talmed Metumtam, a gut shabbes,” Reb Shlomo yelled after me.
I walked east, then turned southwards. Finding myself on 2nd Avenue, I wanted to cry at all the things I didn’t know I’d missed. The voices of the newsboys and street vendors sounded like birdsong, and the exhaust from the automobiles tasted like honey on my tongue. I shook hands with my old pal, Yankele Goldblatt, selling papers on Delancey and turned onto Orchard. Fourth building on the odd side of the street.
Where have you been, Talmedel?” asked Mrs. Schwartz the widow, huffing slowly up the stairs. Her daughter, Rachel, was my age, and a beauty worthy of all King Solomon’s jewels.
“I been playing baseball, Mrs. Schwartz. My mother didn’t mention it?”
“When you work like a dog just to live, who has time to mention?”
“Yes, of course, Mrs. Schwartz. And how is Rachel?”
“Rachel is fine. Who’s asking?”
“Well, I am…”
“That’s what I thought,” said Mrs. Schwartz, and kept walking up the stairs.
Our apartment had two rooms: a bedroom, where my mother slept, and another, bigger room with a kitchen and a rickety wooden table and chairs. In the corner, there was a sofa. This is where we ate, where I slept, and where we sat and talked when there was something to talk about. Two years ago, my father deserted us; we didn’t know his whereabouts. My mother had put his picture in the “Gallery of Missing Husbands” in the Forverts to try and shame him into coming back; then she resigned herself to never finding him again.
I would have bathed, but there was a carp in the bathtub, naively enjoying its final swim. I opened the door to the empty bedroom and lay down. I must have fallen asleep, because when I heard the front door open I couldn’t be sure if I was dreaming. My mother walked into the bedroom with a bundle of groceries. Seeing me, she dropped everything and broke into sobs.
“Talmed,” she cried. “You’re home for good?”
“No, Mamme, I’ve just come home for Shabbes. We’ve been all over the country: Tampa, Atlanta – ”
“I know, Talmedel, I seen it all in the Forverts. They been writing about you. Nobody understands what is this baseball business. A game in a black league in Atlanta, anti-Semites in Tampa. Who needs it? And all the mothers got questions. They write in their letters to the “Bintel Brief”: ‘What is this game baseball?’ ‘Is it really for the Jews?’ ‘Is it proper the newspaper writes about sports when it should be telling our children to go and study?’”
“Ma, we have our first game on Thursday. I was hoping you could come and watch. If you can get away from work, of course…”
“From work I can’t get away. The boss Levinson would fire me in a minute. Oy, Levinson. May he be like a chandelier: hang by day and burn by night.” She spit three times. I followed her into the kitchen, where she was preparing the Shabbes meal. As I peeled potatoes I told of how, through sports, the Jews had a chance to show America we weren’t so different after all.
“And what’s wrong with being different?”
She paused for a minute, holding the ladle in the soup she’d been stirring, and looked at me.
“But maybe I can come to the game. I worry, listening to the radio every Monday, how that priest, Coughlin, from Detroit talks. An anti-Semite. If baseball is what you say it is, then perhaps it’s not the worst thing in the world.”
I spent a happy night, and at shul the next morning I couldn’t help noticing that all the young boys looked at me with admiration. Wherever I passed, there was excited whispering.
When the day was ending, I watched my mother say the Havdalah prayer. The light from the twin candles lit up her face. Her forehead was wrinkled, her mouth drawn long and her lips stretched thin. My mother’s back was hunched from sitting at a table and sewing buttons onto shirts all day. The paint on the walls of the apartment was the color of a headache and the sink leaked a drip that was enough to torture a fish. But as she drew her hands in a circle around the flame and pulled it to her face, she looked like a Queen of Israel.
“Gott fun Avrom un fun Yitzkhok un fun Yankev,” she prayed. God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. “Behit dayn libe folk Yisroel…” Protect your beloved people Israel.
Moving my lips but making no sound, I added my own prayer: “And give us the strength to battle proudly on the ball field. And to win.”
As I was preparing to leave for the hotel, my mother asked me to put on my uniform. She led me downstairs, to where her brother, my Uncle Herman, lived with his family.
“See what a handsome boy,” my mother exclaimed.
“Az men batsiert a bezem iz er oykh sheyn,“ Uncle Herman replied. Dress up a broom and it will also look nice.
“The boy is following his dreams,” my mother said, coming to my defense.
“He should be following tradition. A disgrace, to play games instead of working for a living or studying. And the only man in the house, at that.”
I saw Rachel, Widow Schwartz’s daughter, on the stairs. She was still wearing her Shabbes clothes and the long, light fabric of her dress protected her from all the wretchedness of the hallways.
“Rachel,” I stammered.
“Hello, Talmed.” She looked me up and down. “You look quite nice in your uniform,” she said, blushing at once and turning her face to the wall.
“Although, really, baseball? Isn’t that a boy’s game?” Without another word she opened the door to her apartment and slipped inside.
My breath was racing as I returned to the apartment. Stepping into my trousers and tucking my uniform into my bag, I noticed an envelope. Inside, I found four hundred dollars, with a note from Reb Shlomo explaining that this was my first week’s pay. I’d never seen so much money in my life. I rolled the bills up and put them into my mother’s coffee mug, so she would discover them in the morning, then kissed her goodbye.
Standing on the threshold of the doorway, I yelled back into the apartment.
“Ma, I’d really like you to come to the game on Thursday afternoon. If you don’t want to go alone, maybe Rachel can help you find the way?”
I ran down the stairs without waiting for a reply. I had time to walk leisurely back to the hotel. It was nice to feel the April breeze and dream of the future.
Will the Lions of Zion triumph on Opening Day? Find out next week in chapter eight, ‘How Khetzky the Cowboy Got His Name.’