The Lions of Zion, Chapter Eight
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 seven chapters here.
How Khetzke the Cowboy Got his Name
With hearts racing after Reb Shlomo’s rousing Opening Day speech, we prepared to go to bat. The Polo Grounds was an intimidating place: 55,000 fans filled the bathtub-shaped stadium, and from the sounds they made when we came charging onto the diamond, half of them were rooting for us. I took my place next to Reb Shlomo, who was nervously smoking a cigarette on the dugout stairs. Khetzke and Dixie seemed the most relaxed. They were trading barbs back and forth, trying to loosen up the other men. Pretty Perchick paced back and forth, running his hand through his hair and tugging at his shirtsleeves. Big Hup stood in a corner, a basket of apples on the floor by his side. He was chewing loudly, and he grimaced when he swallowed the core. Meanwhile, Bennie the Egyptian was fiddling with a silver charm in the shape of hand and saying a silent prayer.
As the visiting team, we had first bat. Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, the Giants pitcher, was sharp. His knuckle ball was breaking hard, and our batters were left scratching their heads for the first few innings. Butcher Block, too, was pitching like a polished pro.
Butcher had been nervous to take the field. In the dugout, he pulled his cap down low and turned a seashell over in his hands, looking at it like an ancient coin whose value he couldn’t determine. When it was our turn to take the field for the first time, Reb Shlomo looked at him:
“Just like you’re back in the store, Butcher, chopping meat. Don’t forget, the lion cuts down the lamb.”
“You going to take the field or jump in the ocean?” quipped Khetzke, pointing to the shell. “It’s just a short train-ride away.”
Butcher smiled, wiped the sweat from his eyebrows, slipped the shell under his cap, then walked slowly onto the field. He took a few practice pitches and Kiddo Davis, the Giants leadoff man, stepped up to the plate. Butcher rocked back on the mound, brought his arm around over his head, and released the ball. It came like a furious locomotive, and Davis swung and missed.
“Atta boy, Butch,” yelled Hester Panim. “Kiddo can’t play with the big boys.”
Kiddo turned around and spit a big wad of chewing tobacco near Hester’s right knee.
Butcher fired again.
“That pill’s burning up,” said Reb Shlomo, after strike two.
Strike three came a moment later. It was the beginning of a masterful performance: Butcher threw fastballs that sliced the air in half, mixing in junk pitches here and there to throw the batters off balance.
It was a pitcher’s duel, score tied at zero, until the seventh inning. Dixie Gold opened with a line drive that sailed over the head of Johnny Vergez, the third-baseman, and fell into left field for a single. Pretty Perchik followed suit by poking a hard single through a hole in the infield. When Big Hup came to the plate, the roar of the crowd drowned out everything else. Reb Shlomo was shouting something to Dixie on third base. It seemed as if his lips were moving but no sound was coming out. Fayvl, next to me on the bench, was nervously patting my back every minute or so, like he was looking for contraband. When Fat Freddie reeled back and delivered a sloppy pitch straight down the middle, there was a collective gasp. Big Hup clicked into action. His bat made a huge cracking sound as he sent a ball sailing to deep right field. It bounced short of the warning track and the right fielder played it off the wall. Dixie crossed home plate without sliding, with Pretty Perchik right behind him. We were suddenly ahead by two runs.
We looked around at each other on the bench. Could it be? The crowd seemed to be cheering for us.
“It’s so noisy I can’t even hear you think,” Reb Shlomo said to Fayvl, who had a habit of talking to himself out loud.
Fat Freddy got himself out of the jam that inning with no further damage, but the Giants players fell easily under Butcher Block’s cleaver. When Dixie Gold made a diving catch at first to make the final out of the game, entire congregations of Jewish fans stormed the field.
We had a strict curfew — ten o’clock — and that first night, after I fell into the bed next to Reb Shlomo’s it took less than a minute for me to bid goodbye to the waking world.
We had two more games against the Giants. Friday afternoon, screwballer Carl Hubbel matched up against Run-the-Numbers Cohen. Hubbel had yet to give up a hit and we were down one run to nothing at the seventh inning stretch, when we walked out onto the field for the Star-Spangled Banner. As we held our caps over our hearts, we all scanned the visiting team’s family section. Butcher Block’s wife was there, as was Bennie’s Egyptian family. They looked proudly perplexed. I searched for my mother with a heavy heart. I wasn’t expecting her to be there: She had to work, I knew, and she wouldn’t risk losing her job to come see a game she didn’t understand. But then, at the far end of the section, sandwiched between two men with towering top hats, was my mother. She was waving furiously towards me. I waved back and smiled. An observer might have thought I was overcome by patriotism, noticing the lump in my throat that made it hard to swallow. My mother leaned back, and next to her I caught a glimpse of a dark-haired Rachel, who was trying with all her might not to look my way. How she appeared from out of nowhere in the middle of that wild crowd, so soft and hidden, I was prepared to work seven years for her hand.
Now it was the top of the ninth, and we were still hitless. Cohen and Hubbel were pitching their guts out. Big Hup was at bat, with Khetzke on deck.
“Just get on base, Hup,” he said, smiling like a devil. “I’ll hit you home.”
Hup leaned over the plate and took one in the elbow. He trotted to first base as the crowd slowly rumbled to life.
Hubbel reached into his glove as Khetzke settled into the batter’s box. He keeled back. Kicked his leg high in the air cancan style and delivered a perfect strike. The ball plunked in the catcher’s mitt.
Khetzke barely moved. He stepped back for a second, turned to glare at the pitcher, then stepped up to the plate again. It was no pleasant favor to be glared at by Khetzke. His swarthy face and cold expression weren’t exactly sweet babka.
Khetzke raised his bat and dangled it in the air. It seemed weightless in his arms. Hubbel again drew back. Shot forward. The bat swung around so fast it was just a shadow in our eyes, but then there was that familiar pop as the ball hit the catcher’s mitt. He swung too high. Strike two.
Khetzke took three steps back from the plate, gave a wink to the dugout. Hubbel glared from the mound. Khetzke, still outside of the batter’s box, peered back at him. Bowlegged his knees. Swung the bat, a peashooter in his massive hands, off his shoulder and down between his legs. Cocked back his cap. Raised his right hand high in the air. And then, in one graceful motion as fluid as the River Jordan, Khetzke the Cowboy began to ride his bat like a wooden horse and lasso an imaginary calf.
He whooped and hollered. His horse whinnied and whined. The crowd cackled and jeered. Khetzke was smooth in the saddle. His horse bucked but its rider was steady. Steady, and smiling. Hubbel was mad as a bull. It was bad baseball manners to pull a stunt like this against a man who was pitching a no-hitter, but Khetzke the Cowboy didn’t seem to care.
The Umpire took out his pocket watch and began counting. The catcher for the Giants implored him to do something—this was baseball, not a rodeo—but we all knew the rules, as did the Umpire. The batter is allowed to step out of the batter’s box for up to three minutes. Khetzke rode his wooden horse like a champion wrangler, but by two minutes and fifty-nine seconds he was leaning over the plate, concentrating eyes like two half moons, waiting for the next pitch.
Hubbel shivered like an autumn leaf on the mound. A long interruption in the middle of a pitcher’s routine can do a lot to upset him. He reached into his glove and delivered a curve.
Khetzke’s front leg pawed the ground and he hitched his right elbow. His wrists turned over in the blink of an eye and he brought the bat around the plate. There was a collective gasp from both benches. Hubbel brought his glove over his face and fell to his knees. The sun twitched one inch lower in the sky over right field and the crack of wood on ball-leather reverberated into the heavens. The ball sailed high into the air and soared over the right-field fence. The great Carl Hubbel, all the gas gone out of him, squeaked like a field mouse.
“Did he just ride a horse?” said Reb Shlomo half in disbelief, nearly swallowing his cigarette. “That shtick he pulled — did he know he was going to hit one out?”
We had a 2-1 lead, and we hung on to it for our second win over the Giants.
Sunday’s game wasn’t nearly that close. Jakie Stein gave up four runs in the first inning, and we never recovered. We lost the game, 6-1, but we still had made a damned fine showing, taking the series from the Jints.
Now we were heading to Cincinnati. Moses Levy wired a short note of congratulations and some instructions: He’d heard, from his sons, that Reb Shlomo was sharing a room in the hotel. That wouldn’t do. Though the players stayed two to a room, a manager must have his own space. I wanted to room with Butcher Block, but he and Hester Panim were as inseparable as a lulav and esrog. Instead, I’d stay with Khetzke the Cowboy. Reb Shlomo was hoping the presence of a young bokher like me would curb his wildness.
“Be vigilant,” he told me. “No hanky panky.”
Will The Lions of Zion triumph in Cincinnati and will there by hanky panky? Find out next week in chapter nine, ‘Cincinnati Hanky Panky.’