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 nine chapters here.
Twentieth Century Limited
About a month later, the Twentieth Century Limited was cutting a line through the Midwest. We’d left Chicago at three in the afternoon, and now it was past midnight. After sweeping the series at Wrigley Field we had an 18-12 record, tied with the Giants for second place behind the Pirates. We had four games against the Boston Braves coming up, then on to Pittsburgh and, finally, back-to-back series against the Giants and the Dodgers.
On one side of the lounge car a few players were having a friendly poker game: friendly, because when Run-the-Numbers Cohen was around, nobody wanted to play for money. We learned the hard way he didn’t come by his name for nothing. The first night in Chicago he’d cleaned us all out.
Khotsh and Hester were in the middle of a heated discussion. Hester was making the claim that Chicago, his hometown, was the greatest city in America. Khotsh spoke up for Brooklyn. Khetzke looked on in amusement.
“It’s like this,” said Hester. “In Chicago, a man can walk out on the street and turn his head all around and feel like he’s in the greatest city in the world. Then he looks straight up in the air and it’s like he’s standing in the middle of the ocean.”
“That’s a cock and bull story if I ever heard one” said Khotsh. “You ever stood in the middle of the ocean? So what the hell are you talking about?”
Fayvl, who until now had been shuckling over a volume of the Talmud, spoke up:
“They say, in Chicago there are so many Torah scholars it’s the Vilna of the Midwest. This must count to its credit, no?”
“Sure,” said Khotsh. “But you ever been to Green Bay?”
“Green Bay?” said Fayvl, somewhat lost. “No. Are there many yeshivas there?”
“Got me,” said Khotsh. “Why don’t you go and check?” Fayvl turned back to his book, silenced for the moment.
Dixie and Mosie Schreiber were chatting at a table. With his hot hitting, hard good looks and Southern charm, Dixie was popular with the fans. One of the women in the mailroom at the Forverts reported that a quarter of the letters they received these days asked if Dixie was single.
“How does it feel to be the called the greatest Jewish first baseman to ever play the game?” asked Mosie. He was deep into a bottle he kept hidden in the pocket of his jacket.
“I’m as happy as a pig with two peckers,” Dixie said. Then, “Don’t print that.” Dixie, silent as a twig when he first joined the team, was beginning to enjoy himself.
Schreiber took a swig from his bottle. “I’ll think of a way to circumcise that treyf metaphor.”
Fayvl took his nose out of his book and spoke up again.
“Gentlemen, sorry to interrupt, but I got something on my mind. It said in the newspapers today all about the boycott in Germany on Jewish stores. You heard? You read?”
“Fayvl, give it a rest, wouldya?” said Khotsh. “We’re trying to relax here.”
“A rest? How can I rest when even from America I smell trouble? A rest maybe you can give, but not me. A boycott? And what comes next? Maybe they’ll start spitting on us too? In the middle of these games, we mustn’t forget the most important thing: S’iz Schver tsu zayn a Yid.” It’s hard to be a Jew.
“It sure is a lot harder when you’re nearby, I’ll tell you that. You got to remind me I got a hump on my back all the time?”
“Khotsh, may you live and be well, I tell you, a good time is hard to have when there’s trouble around.”
“I find the same thing — only when you’re around.”
Khetzke stood up and got between the two men. Ever since Fayvl “stole” Khotsh’s place at second base there had been friction. Even though Fayvl had won the position fair and square, his persistently gloomy outlook made it hard to take his side. Since he was an old teacher of mine, I didn’t want to get in the middle of anything.
“Forget it, huh,” said Khetzke. “Fayvl’s right, and so is Khotsh. It’s hard to be a Yid, but it ain’t so easy to be a ballplayer, either. And feeling like you’re carrying a hundred-pound sack on your shoulders don’t make that bat swing any faster. So let’s just try to relax, and maybe hold off the dark talk for another day. What do you say, Fayvl?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. A schver harts redt a sakh.” A heavy heart talks a lot. “Please, don’t let me take away from your entertainment.” Fayvl picked up his book again and Khotsh turned back to the card game.
A few things on my mind, I went to the vestibule between train cars. In the small space, I figured I could find some quiet.
Butcher was standing there, smoking a cigarette.
“Hey, Kid.” He took a long drag.
“Hi, Butcher. What are you doing here?”
Beneath his eyes there were great deep valleys of shadow. It looked like he hadn’t slept in days. I recalled that evening in Cincinnati, when I saw him through a haze, leaning against the wall of the hotel. Since then he always seemed to be slipping away somewhere.
“What’s wrong, kid?”
“Oh, nothing. Wanted to get away from the guys for a spot, is all.”
“How did you guess?”
“Why else would you come here? The company? What’s on your mind?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
Butcher lit a cigarette off of his old one.
“You’re thinking about a girl.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“We’ve all been 16.”
“Except for Fayvl,” I said, wanting to make us both laugh.
“No, even Fayvl. Three hundred years ago, maybe, but even Fayvl.” He brought one of his meaty arms to rest on the windowsill and leaned over. He was looking out the window, but the night was so dark if you wanted to see the landscape, you had to imagine it. We must have been somewhere close to Buffalo.
“Who’s the girl?”
I said nothing.
“Rachel in a red dress?”
“How’d you know?”
“Kid, when you’re on a baseball club living with people the way we do, there ain’t much that doesn’t get out. You can’t keep a secret from the team.”
“It’s just, I’ll see her when we go back to New York. She sent a real nice letter to me. I don’t know what to tell her. I guess you heard about the gin joint.”
“Talmed, you’re too young to give yourself an ulcer. You didn’t commit any crime. You as crazy as a goat for this girl?”
“I’ve been crazy about her since I was old enough to talk, Butcher. But I was never smart enough for her. Or her mother.”
“Don’t worry. You’re famous now, a Lion of Zion. Speaking of which, you ever think about getting in the game?”
“Sure. Every day. But I don’t know…”
“Don’t know what? You going spend your life wishing you were out on the field? You’ve got to have beytzim to play ball. What do you play, anyhow?”
“I’d go anywhere, but second base is my position.”
“Then I suggest you get yourself over there the next time we have practice. Field a few balls. Take a few swings. Hell, I’ll pitch to you and toss fat pancakes. Show Reb Shlomo what you got. I know you’re his assistant, and Fayvl was your teacher, but that don’t mean you can’t make a play for the position. You’ve got to make yourself seen.”
“Thanks, Butcher. Maybe I’ll try it.”
“You do that. I got your back.”
The chilly air in the vestibule was making me sleepy. I said goodnight.
“Aren’t you tired?”
“Sure. I’ll be in soon. You go on.”
I made to leave, then turned around at the door.
“You never told me what you were doing out here, all alone. What were you thinking about?”
The big man chuckled gently, but the smile on his face disappeared like a cat in an alley, and I wasn’t sure if I’d even seen it.
“Me? Ah, nevermind.”
I was almost through the door.
“Just one thing.” Butcher took a long drag on his cigarette. “Never become a pitcher.” He exhaled a muddy river of smoke, and I was sure he wanted to float away on it.
He patted my shoulder and gave me a push through the door.
“Now go back in there and keep Run-the-Numbers from fleecing everybody out of their paychecks, whaddaya say?”
Will The Lions of Zion beat the Boston Braves? Come back next week to read chapter 11, ‘Clear the Benches.’