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 eight chapters here.
Cincinnati Hanky Panky
It was Khetzke’s turn. We were shooting pool in the lounge of the Hotel Sinton in Cincinnati, where we stayed while playing a series with the Reds. Run-the-Numbers Cohen and Khotsh were on a team against Pretty Perchik and Khetzke. Mosie Schreiber was there, too, notebook in hand, getting copy for the next day’s article. The Forverts was calling his column on the baseball team “Der Leybs Dunern,” or the Roar of the Lion.
“Hey, Nosie Mosie, don’t forget to include the part where I slid into home for the go-ahead run,” said Khetzke.
It was a jovial atmosphere. We’d won that day’s game by a score of 5-2, with a second splendid performance by Butcher Block, and we were off to a 3-1 start. Now we were relaxing.
A little before 10 o’clock, when Reb Shlomo came by our rooms to make sure we were in for curfew, I made my way upstairs with Khetzke. It was our first time rooming together, and I offered to let him use the bathroom before me.
“Kid, I ain’t going to sleep. There’s a gin joint not far away and I’m going to have myself a time.”
“You’re going out now? But we’ve got a game tomorrow afternoon. You’ll need sleep.”
“Sleep I’ll get, don’t worry. As soon as Reb Shlomo knocks, I’m taking off.” Khetzke reached into his valise and pulled out a suit.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll take you up on the offer. About the bathroom, I mean. Reb Shlomo should be coming around soon, and I’d like to get changed in there in case he walks in.”
Sure enough, a minute later a knock came on the door.
“You both inside?” called Reb Shlomo from the hallway.
“We’re here,” I answered. I opened the door about half a foot.
“And tired, too. We’re going to sleep.”
“Well, a gutte nakht und zise draymer.” Good night and sweet dreams. Reb Shlomo patted me on the shoulder and walked on.
When I pulled my head back into the room, Khetzke had emerged, fully dressed. His leather shoes shined like the skin of the golden calf.
“Not bad. You sounded like you meant it.”
“What do you take me for? I’m no snitch.”
“Good,” he said. “Because if we get caught, there won’t be anybody to take the field tomorrow.”
“You mean you’re not going alone?”
“Who goes to a gin joint alone? I’m taking a few guys with me.”
I drew a deep breath, then looked at him.
“Do you think I could come?”
Khetzke grimaced, but there was no meanness in his eyes.
“I figured you’d ask. How old are you?”
“You got tight lips?”
“Khetzke, I wouldn’t say anything.”
“Not a peep, or you’ll stay almost 17 forever, farshteyst? The rest of the boys won’t be too happy with me, but what the hell. We’re roommates now, got to look out for each other. We’re meeting on the street in 15 minutes.”
I threw on my best clothes and soon I was walking over to the group of ballplayers waiting on the corner of 5th and Vine.
“Say, it’s the million-dollar Yid,” joked Khetzke, looking me up and down and whistling at my shabby bar mitzvah suit.
“Let’s get going,” said Khotsh. “Is Butcher coming down, or what?”
Hester Panim shook his head.
“Says he’s tired. Gonna catch a few winks.”
“Alright, then, let’s go.”
With Khetzke, Khotsh, Dixie, Hester, Big Hup and I, we needed to hail two taxis.
“Kelly’s Roadhouse,” Khotsch told our driver.
We drove along the Ohio River for a spot and then turned north. We pulled off the road and arrived at a great white house, with a large screened-in porch out front and windows blazing golden inside. On the porch there were men and women clinking their glasses in white wicker chairs.
Casually, the fellows walked up to the front door. I was nervous, but tried to ape the other men’s nonchalance.
“Evening.” A big, burly man greeted us at the door. “I’m Corny Kelly. This here’s my mother, Ma Kelly.” He pointed with his chin to the matronly woman standing beside him. “You folks been here before?”
“First time in Cincinnati,” said Dixie.
“You coppers?” The man who called himself Corny stuck his hand in the waistband of his pants, resting it between the cloth and his hipbone.
“You Torquemada?” Khotsh said, but Dixie pushed him aside. Corny raised his eyebrows.
“Coppers?” Khetzke whistled. “We’re just looking to have a belt or two, is all. We’re from out of town and somebody told us this place is better than the average gin mill.”
Dixie spoke up: “We’re ballplayers, Sir. Jewish ballplayers. The Lions of Zion. You may have heard of us. We’re in town to play the Reds and we sure appreciate the fine way the folks of Cincinnati have been treating us.”
Indeed. That day someone had thrown a house shoe at Big Hup as he waited in the on-deck circle; “sheeny” had been written on the heel in white chalk. Later, the Reds shortstop Leo “The Lip” Durocher was out by a mile at second base, but he made a vicious slide and nearly put his cleat through Fayvl’s shinbone. All through the game, Durocher had been yelling epithets at us. He only shut up when Big Hup approached the Reds dugout and stared him down from the first step.
“Ballplayers!” shouted Corny. “Well, come on in. Smiley,” the man yelled through a doorway as he led us down the hallway, “give these boys the good stuff, the George Remus brew!”
“On your right you’ve got the bar,” he said, pointing to a small room with an oak bar and slot machines lined up against the back wall. “And to your left you’ve got the music. The band’ll start in oh, about 15 minutes.”
We took a table and waited for the music. A woman wearing a blue dress that wasn’t exactly kosher for Passover brought over a tray of drinks.
“This round’s on the house,” she smiled, and walked away.
“Talmed, you better stop watching her or you’ll break your neck when she leaves the room,” said Dixie, slapping my knee affectionately. Next to me, he was the youngest on the team.
Khetzke picked up two glasses. He poured half of the contents of one of them into the other, and then refilled the first glass with water. He handed me the weaker drink.
“L’chayim, kid. L’chayim, to the Lions of Zion.”
The alcohol burned a mercury river down my throat. I nearly coughed up my kishkes. I watched the others, who had no problem getting down their drinks. Soon they ordered another round.
This time, when the woman brought the drinks, Khetzke looked at me.
“You ok to drink the whole thing this time? You feel alright?”
“Sure, Khetzkie, I’m fine,” I said, and picked up the glass.
Soon it was resting empty on the wooden table. I watched the bottom of the glass start to sweat, then lifted it up. It left a ring of moisture on the table, and I traced it, deep in concentration, with my finger.
When I looked up a woman in a red dress and a set of lips bright enough to illuminate the Zohar was leaning over me. She put one of her gloved hands on the arm of my chair. She smelled like a thousand wildflowers.
I was aware of the music and people dancing all around me. I can’t remember the questions the woman asked. I don’t know how I got the courage to answer her. The musicians were blowing their horns and the singer was stretching her thick voice around a love song.
“That canary can sing,” whistled Dixie.
Khetzke stood up and stretched his arms. “Whaddaya say we find some dance partners, boys? Four feet are better’n two.”
I tried standing up but everything seemed a bit funny to me, like the whole room was on roller skates. The woman in red was still beside me. The next thing I knew, her finger had found its way to my neck, and she was on my lap. I didn’t even know I had a lap before she sat down on it.
“Aren’t you going to buy a lady a drink?” she asked.
If I could have, I would have answered her. Instead, I stared back into her eyes as blue as tekheyles, and leaned forward. My lips found hers, and for a moment, I must have been kissing her. At least, that’s what Khetzke, who’d just walked over, said I’d been doing. The woman stood up and disappeared somewhere into the dancing bodies.
Khetzke was doubled over in laughter.
“Why did she leave?” I asked him. I was so nervous and out of sorts; even my sweat was sweating.
“She probably wanted you to buy her a drink. Well, and, uh, you know…”
“Well, what?” Perhaps she wanted a sandwich, I thought.
“You know, Talmed, this ain’t kheyeder. That woman works for a living…”
I have a vague memory of a car ride and taking a walk with Khetzke along the river. He must have wanted to sober me up. The lights of Cincinnati looked so pretty in that deep water, and the breeze made me think of home. Khetzke had me by the arm as we walked away from the river, toward the hotel. At the corner, a figure stood leaning against the wall. It was Butcher.
Khetzke walked right by him.
“Hey, Butcher,” I cried. “What are you doing out here so late?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” he said. His hat was pulled low over his face, and the light from a cigarette illuminated his strong nose.
“Nothing’s wrong.” He smiled with half of his mouth. “I’ll be going up in a minute.”
Khetzke gave my arm a tug and we went inside.
The last thing I remember about that fuzzy night is Khetzke tucking me into bed. “Rachel,” he said I kept repeating. “For Rachel in a red dress I’d work seven years.” And then, warming myself under a blanket of gin, I fell asleep.
Come back next week to find out more about the team’s adventures in the Midwest.