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 11 chapters here.
The first thing I did when we got to New York from Pittsburgh was to knock on Rachel’s door. The Widow Schwartz answered, and she didn’t give me Elijah’s welcome.
“You,” she said, a wooden ladle in her hand. “What business you got here?”
“I came to say hello to Rachel.” Mrs. Schwartz’s eyebrows fell half an inch. “And to wish you both a gut Shabbes. I’m back in town again with the Lions.”
“A gut Shabbes,” she said, and slammed the door in my face. From behind the door I heard her muttering. “A sportman. He should stay on the ball field.”
I knocked again. Reluctantly, Mrs. Schwartz opened.
“You still got business here? A gut Shabbes, a gut Shabbes, now let me get ready already.” She held the spoon like a dagger, high in the air. “If a woman don’t cook for the Shabbes, you think the Shabbes is going to cook for her?”
“I’d just like to say hello to Rachel, if she’s home.”
“Ikh vays — today it’s hello, tomorrow it’s — ”
Rachel peeked her head into the entryway. She came up to the door and stood in front of her mother. She was blushing, and her cheeks were so rosy I thought they might bloom.
“Rachel,” I stammered. “I wanted to see you.” The Widow Schwartz threw me under the train that was running through her imagination. “A gut Shabbes. I’m back in town for a little while. We’ve got games here and in Brooklyn. I got in, Rachel. I played. I played in the big leagues.”
“Oy, Talmed, mazel tov! Welcome home! You must have had such adventures. I want to hear all about it.”
“Can we take a walk after dinner?” I looked at Mrs. Schwartz, her round face hovering like the evil eye.
“May I, Mrs. Schwartz? Go for a walk with your daughter?”
“Vey iz mir,” she cried. “Today it’s a walk, tomorrow it’s — ”
Rachel turned around and clasped her hand over her mother’s mouth.
“I’d like that. And my mother thinks it’s just fine, too.”
“A sportsman,” falling like jagged rocks from Mrs. Schwartz’s mouth, echoed through the stairway as I climbed.
It was true I’d gotten to play, but barely. With Khotsh and Fayvl Melamid both out of commission, Reb Shlomo started Gary Levy at second base against Pittsburgh. The first game, Levy let a ground ball roll right through his legs, and he couldn’t hit for beans. He looked so much like a sack of potatoes when he stood at the plate that Khetzke started calling him Bulbes — Yiddish for potatoes. The last game in Pittsburgh Levy misjudged a ball and it hopped up and hit him square between the legs. After that, Khetzkie stopped calling him Bulbes and started called him Beytzim — Yiddish for eggs. Bulbes, Beytzim, or otherwise, he played like a real fruitcake from the start, but Reb Shlomo had no choice but to give him a chance. Levy’s father had thick pockets; I had to have thick skin. But when ball met beytzim and Levy needed a rest, Reb Shlomo sent me in. I played for two and a half innings. I had no fielding opportunities, and never once came to the plate.
I told about this and the cities we had seen to my mother as we ate Shabbes dinner. She had invited Uncle Herman and his family up to our apartment, and we all crowded around the tiny kitchen table eating lakes of matzo ball soup and a small flock of chickens. When the marrow had been sucked out of all the bones, my mother jumped up and ran over to the bookshelves. She pulled a shoebox from the bottom shelf and delicately pulled off the top. Inside was every article she had found about the Lions of Zion – not only in the Forverts, but even in English newspapers. Uncle Herman leafed through the articles and emitted grunts. My mother snatched the box from his fingers and held it close to her breast.
“You going to keep making noises, Hermele? A pusten fas hilkht hekher.” An empty barrel makes a big bang. “My son is a baseball player. You got something to argue? Maybe you like things better the way we had it in the old country? If you miss it so much, I’ll buy you a return ticket, you should live and be well. Over there.”
My Tante Rosa, Herman’s wife, who was sitting next to me, smiled out of the side of her mouth. She didn’t have the nerve to give it to her husband like that, but she enjoyed when others did.
After sponge cake and tea, we kibitzed. My mother worked so hard during the week, Shabbes was the only time she had to chat with her family and not break her head over the tsuris of this life. I hated to interrupt her reveries, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Rachel.
“Ma,” I said, kissing that forehead of hers which never saw the sun. “I have to go. Rachel is waiting for me.” She nodded; her breast heaved with the mournful woe that every Jewish mother feels when she watches her son fall in love.
The wind was blowing softly through the street like a hint, delicate as Rachel’s soft voice as she held my arm. There were so many things I wanted to tell her: my guilty, dirty kiss in Cincinnati, how I had drunkenly muttered her name before I’d gone to sleep that night, and the sour feeling I’d been left with after I told her of my major league debut and allowed her to believe in an idea much grander than the truth. But the warmth from her elbow, locked around mine, was too delicious a thing to risk. The truth — who needs the truth when you’ve got a beautiful girl by your side?
There was a kindness to the city then, to the dirty water in the East River and the faint lights of Brooklyn winking in collusion. You couldn’t see all the broken people who roamed between brick buildings during the daytime like lost pilgrims trying to find their way out of a scorched valley. Each time a discarded broadsheet tumbled past our feet, Rachel gripped me tighter. She talked of her life, her mother’s health, the grinding hours of the working days, sunshine and the weather and all the things that girls talk about when they walk arm-in-arm with boys. But soon she was quiet. She wanted to hear my stories now.
“Nu,” she said, “I haven’t done anything you don’t already know. It’s you who could really say something new. Tell me what it’s like being a baseball player. What happens when you escape this island?”
We — The Lions of Zion — were a lot of arguing, laughing, joking, sometimes hunch-backed Jews, I explained to her, who had the same problems and joys as any other group of arguing, laughing, joking, sometimes hunch-backed Jews. We swatted balls in different cities, in front of 40,000 fans nearly every day, but when we went back to the hotel room, each man slept with the same devils in his head that he’d grown up with. And as for me, well, I was always thinking of Rachel.
She squeezed my hand, and a feather fell out of the sky. It settled in Rachel’s hair, and I removed it and put in my pocket.
“I got some good friends on the team. Of course, they’re all older than me. Sort of like teachers, or fathers. There’s this one guy, Butcher. He’s our ace. A real star pitcher. But he’s been so down lately, he doesn’t even barely look you in the eye. He has this habit of taking a seashell in his hand — he’s got a lucky seashell that’s always with him, even when we’re playing — and rolling it around in his palm.”
I showed Rachel with my own hands how Butcher played with his charm.
“It looks like a boat lost at sea,” she said. I took her hand. My own was shaking.
“There’s one other thing I ought to tell you. I haven’t been much of a ballplayer, after all. I mean, I’ve only played in one–”
Rachel put a finger to my lips. She had a wonderful habit of interrupting people when they were about to say something unpleasant.
“You said you thought about me, then? While you were traveling the country, a modern Jewish Marco Polo…”
We were standing still, looking out across the river. I thought to myself that love was a boat that rowed you across the water and then left you there, in the middle of an endless ocean, with no idea how to get home. Maybe this is what Butcher felt, or something like it.
I kissed Rachel. Her eyelids, two soft pieces of felt, came together. She was sweeter than raisins.
“Zumer-feygeles,” whispered Rachel.
“What?” I asked her, so quietly, as if the moon was listening.
“Butterflies. In my stomach I got butterflies.”
Come back next week to read chapter 13, ‘Coogan’s Bluff.’