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 chapter here.
A Gangster Brings Baseball
I had just poured Reb Shlomo a glass of tea — the shul was in such dire straits that they wouldn’t even provide sugar to sweeten his bitter drink — and was carrying it down the hallway when I heard voices coming from his office. I was the rabbi’s assistant, a 16-year-old yeshiva flunkee with not much talent for anything but “wasting time” and, as the school principal had said to my parents, “playing ball with the neighborhood goyim.”
It was a Wednesday, a little before nine, first week of January, and the congregants at the morning prayers had already dispersed — a time when the shul was usually deserted. The atmosphere was gloomy. The rabbi and I were constantly expecting the hatchet to fall: In 1933, each Shabbes brought news of another congregant going out of business, another neighbor shuttering his store windows and moving to the bread line, and we were worried there would soon be no money left for the rabbi’s meager salary.
I was about to knock when something in the tones emanating from the cold, dank room made me think twice. I moved closer to the door, put my eye to the keyhole and listened.
“Some things you have heard are true, some not so true. What people want, I give them. But take without reason, I don’t.” I saw Reb Shlomo standing in the middle of the room, but the man who had just spoken was out of my sight. His voice was high and mixed Brooklyn with shtetl.
Reb Shlomo nodded and said, “If that’s the case, Fishel, it is truly a pleasure to see you again, after so many years.” The visitor cleared his throat.
“Shlomele, seeing you is nice, too, but I come here with a proposition. Remember the days when we played for hours stickball in the street? And you, the big makher of the avenue, had a head for the ballplayers and knew by heart the standings and the box scores and all the meshugas from the big leagues? And how summer we sat on the roof and dreamed home runs?”
Reb Shlomo’s face softened. He looked younger by 30 years.
“Nu, of course I remember, Fishkele, but that was a different life. Now I have other things to worry about. God, in His infinite wisdom, is making me dumb with worry.”
“Well, Shlomele, listen to this: About the hard time you’re having, I know. I have people, and my people have ears. I’m no rabbi but I don’t forgot where I come from and I am having it up to here with the anti-Semites on the radio and newspapers. This Father Coughlin the Yidbasher and Henry Ford the richest Jewhater in the world — not to mention the news from Europe. We didn’t come to America so people could spit on us.”
The rabbi’s body swayed back and forth in agreement.
“What would show the world we’re as good as them? Money don’t work. I tried it and I got it, but still a sheeny they call me when I turn my back. So what to do?”
Through the keyhole I saw only the hands of the man called Fishel, outstretched as if trying to pull the answer to the riddle from Reb Shlomo’s mouth.
“Nu, Shlomele, nu?”
“Maybe it’s God’s will that we bear a burden in this world so that in the world to come…” His voice stammered and then trickled off; he didn’t have the heart to finish the empty sentence.
“Nonsense, Shlomele, nonsense. If we don’t work for ourselves, why God should? Listen: About me, you heard. I know people what got power, and I know people what got money. A lot of these people I know, they owe me favors. You’re straight as an arrow and you got a kop on your shoulders. I got a chance for something and with me I need you.”
“Fishel, if you’re talking about any shady business, it’ll be another 20 years before we see each other again.”
He took a step back, and Fishel moved with him. Now I could see the man with the strange voice: short, stocky, dressed in a fine camelhair topcoat unbuttoned all the way, with a pinstriped three-piece suit underneath. A gold watch chain caught whatever pathetic light there was in the office, and in between his fishy lips Fishel chewed a fat cigar. He looked like Rico Bandello in “Little Caesar.” I’d climbed out the yeshiva window to see it a few years back.
“Shlomo, what you take me for? Nothing shady. What I want is this: A baseball team.”
“A baseball team?” Reb Shlomo would have been less surprised if Fishel had asked him to join Murder, Inc.
“A baseball team. Like I told, I have friends. Some of them own teams. And one of the men what owes me happens to be called Judge Landis, and Judge Landis happens to be the big shot of the baseball major leagues. Commissioner, in fact.”
“I don’t think I understand, Fishel.”
Maybe Reb Shlomo didn’t, but I was catching on.
“A team, Shlomele, a professional baseball team. All Jews. What would play in the major leagues. And I want you should be the manager.”
The rabbi took a step forward, and again I could see him. The two men were standing only a few inches apart. Fishel was ugly next to the tall and slim rabbi.
“What you say, old pal? You know more about baseball than any Jew I ever met, and a better leader of men I don’t know.” Reb Shlomo looked deep into his friend’s eyes.
“Nothing dirty. My word is what you got.”
“A Jewish team?”
“A Jewish team. What is it, Shlomo? Will you be my manager?”
“Do you have a name for the team?”
Fishel paused for a moment.
“This is your job.”
Reb Shlomo looked up to the heavens, then at his cold, dirty office. A bare light bulb was flickering overhead, buzzing. I could barely breathe. I pushed open the door. The men turned, bewildered. Fishel’s hand moved to his pocket, but he withdrew it when he saw it was just a failed yeshiva bokher.
“The Lions of Zion,” I yelled, for this had come to me like a strike of lightning.
“What?” they both asked, puzzled.
“The Lions of Zion,” I said. “The team should be called the Lions of Zion.”
The rabbi nodded; Fishel’s face lit up like a sun.
“The Lions of Zion. I like it,” said Reb Shlomo.
“Me too.” The gangster rubbed his hands together. “Good: I stop by tomorrow and take you to dinner. We better move on this or we won’t be in time for the season. You’re a mensch, Shlomele. And the little pisher ain’t so bad, either.”
Fishel jabbed a thumb in my direction and was out the door.
“Fishel Levine,” whistled Reb Shlomo, and took out an old baseball glove from behind a dusty set of books.
Come back next week for chapter three, “Making The Team.”