The Lions of Zion, Chapter One
Ed. note: There has always been a strong connection between Jews and baseball, but what would have happened had there been a Jewish team in the Major Leagues? In an original novel serialized on The Arty Semite starting today, author Ross Ufberg imagines the trials and triumphs of “The Lions of Zion,” an all-Jewish team competing in the National League in 1933.
Opening Day, 1933: The Lions of Zion Take the Field
Reb Shlomo stood on a chair in the middle of the clubhouse and put his hand in the air. The room fell hushed — no small thing for a clubhouse full of Jewish ballplayers about to take the field for the first game of the season, and of their careers. We were as nervous as a groom on his wedding night.
Our manager’s eyes turned a fiery orange under the lights of the low ceiling — as orange as the lion emblazoned on his cap. That was our team emblem: a lion on its hind legs, paws in a fighting pose, proud mane and glorious tail.
“Ballplayers!” Reb Shlomo had the voice of a pulpit rabbi, for once he had been, and his beard was black as burnt wood.
“In a few minutes, we will walk out of this clubhouse and onto the baseball diamond. If you think about it too much, you’ll catch a fever and Talmed here — ” Reb Shlomo pointed to me, his former pupil, the youngest fellow on the team — “will have to get the Haddassah Sisterhood to wrap you in a blanket and take you away. Now, you know how to play ball with the best of ’em. For the past month we’ve been down in Tampa and we haven’t been sunbathing, have we? No. We’ve been shvitzing in the heat, working our tukheses off, and I expect us to play like a team. Keep your heads in the game. Butcher Block is starting on the mound for us. He’s as strong a pitcher as I’ve seen and I don’t care how big those Giants bats are, his cutter is something I’d bet my mother-in-law’s life on.”
There were a few nervous chuckles from the fellows, who were kneeling in a half-circle around Reb Shlomo. Butcher Block, the gentlest ritual slaughterer I ever met, looked sheepishly at the floor. Dixie Amos Gold, like the shammes in a Hanukkah menorah, was a head taller than any of us and his slight smile was the only slight thing about him. To Dixie’s right, Pretty Perchik Solovetsky’s square jaw was tense, the way he always flexed it when he thought a lady might be looking. Hester Panim, our catcher, knocked an apple out of Big Hup’s mouth, who was chewing loudly. Big Hup just groaned.
The apple rolling across the clubhouse floor, Reb Shlomo’s fist shot up towards the ceiling, with his thumb pointed out. He moved his hand through the air like a shovel, constantly digging for the profound truth.
“We’re walking out of here in a minute to face the New York Giants. Those boys look good this year, but we got the stuff just like they do, I’m telling you. This is our game. Fat Freddy Fitzsimmons starting for the Giants is going to try to trick you with his knuckle curve but I seen him play twice last year and both times he got clobbered by a lesser team. Patience. He can’t pitch every one a curve and he sometimes tosses the pill fat as a dinner roll, high and straight up the middle. That’s when you jump on it. Watch those seams and when they don’t look to be doing nothing funny, I want to see those bats roll.”
Khotsh Greenbaum made a noise in the back of his throat like he’d stepped on a cow pie. It was an ugly noise, and we all heard it and knew what it meant. A week earlier, after it looked as though Khotsh had won the starting spot at second, he’d been switched out of the lineup for Fayvl Melamid. Melamid was a pale and soft-spoken man, skinnier than a baseball bat, who had less natural talent than Khotsh but held the infield together like a prince. Khotsh wouldn’t look at Melamid, and he barely spoke to Reb Shlomo.
“Dammit, you boys know the lineup and some of you aren’t exactly happy about it. I know it. But on this team there’s no secrets and I’m playing those who outplayed the rest. You want to kvetch about it, you go home and kvetch to your wives or sisters. This lineup is written on paper, not stone tablets. I can change it tomorrow. Give me everything you got and I’m all ears and eyes. Play with your hearts, and don’t scorch.”
The Brothers Levy looked from our coach to their brand-new white uniforms with a mixture of disbelief and glee. The twins, heirs to the biggest department store in Philadelphia, were giddy just to be riding the bench. Khetzke the Cowboy smacked his glove against his bent knee.
“But enough of this schmaltzy talk. Go out and give ’em hell. I want that the Giants should limp home today when we’re through with them. We got nine Davids and they got nothing but a bunch of overconfident Goliaths.”
Bennie Abraham and Saul Ehrenberg slapped each other on the back.
“One more thing.” Reb Shlomo’s face looked the way it had when I’d watched him all those Shabbes mornings speaking to the congregation.
“You might hear some nasty things out there. They’ll yell sheeny, they’ll yell Hebe, they’ll yell kike and they’ll yell pants-presser at us. We’re going to get a lot of ugly things coming our way. We’ve been hearing that garbage all our lives and it’s not news to anybody here that there are some folks that hate us and don’t want to see us win a single ball game this year. I won’t let that affect us and I won’t have any of you reacting to it. No answering back. You might give the players a taste of their own medicine when you feel you have to but if a single one of you gets into a brawl with a fan, on or off the field, it’s lights out to your season and you can take the next train back to the shtetl or wherever the hell you came from. We’re ballplayers, not thugs, and if we’re going to get ourselves headlines it better not be in the scandal pages. We’ll knock ’em out with our pitching, we’ll clobber ’em with our bats, we’ll run ’em over with our baserunning. Understand?”
We knew the lousy things people would say to us, we’d heard it all already in spring training, and we were prepared to have thick skin.
“We don’t have a home field and we will play 152 games this year as a visiting team. More if we capture the pennant.” There was a shuffling of shoes, and then a few cheers and yahs.
“We’re the Lions of Zion. It’s true what they say: A Yid shlept dem galus.” A Jew drags along exile. “Our hometown is in our heads and our hearts but when we’re playing in New York, like we are today, exile feels a little better. We’re sure to get a lot of fans come show up to root for their landslayt. ”
Reb Shlomo’s voice was loud and gravelly, his hands were pumping in the air and his feet were taking short, cautious jumps atop the chair. His eyes burned holes through ours.
“Folks paid half a dollar to get into the ballpark this afternoon and that’s a dear price to pay. So what do you say we give ’em a win to take home with them. This is as much our town as it is anybody else’s.”
The players let out with cheers. We slapped, spit, smacked, yipped and yawed, with flames crackling in our kishkes.
“Now, dammit, Lions of Zion, let’s play ball.”
With a staccato of cantorial yelps we grabbed our bats and gloves. In something like a burst of fire, a tribe of ballplayers and our manager Reb Shlomo smashed through the clubhouse door and darted down the stairs that led to the outfield of the Polo Grounds. In a blazing column, with ferocious beasts roaring on our caps and our heads held high, we ran like Hebrew warriors into the Land of Canaan.
Come back next week for chapter two, “A Gangster Brings Baseball.”