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 10 chapters here.
Clear the Benches
It was bound to happen sometime.
We split the first two games against the Boston Braves, and game three was the first time Butcher started a game and didn’t win it. In the bottom of the eighth, the Braves were down by a run when Wally Berger came to the plate. Berger was a power hitter, and he’d already swatted a home run against Jakie Stein the day before. He was five for nine in the series, and now he was up with two men on base.
Berger hit the first pitch for a long foul ball. On the bench, Reb Shlomo stood up and began to pace. He turned to me.
“Butcher doesn’t look so sharp. The pill’s starting to plotz.”
He really did look like he was out of juice.
“After this batter, I’m yanking him. Tell Levy to warm up. Butcher’s throwing too many pitches.”
“One hundred and thirty seven,” said Run-the-Numbers Cohen. “I always count.”
The next pitch kicked up dirt as it bounced a foot in front of the plate and caught Hester in the thigh. The Boston crowd, nearly 40,000-strong, came to life with a dreadful rumble. Butcher stepped off the rubber for a minute and took off his cap. He fingered the shell he kept hidden inside, rolled it over in his hands, muttered something to himself, then stepped back into position. With a short windup he let the ball go. As soon as the leather left his fingers he knew he’d made a mistake. Berger clobbered it into the left field wall; only smart fielding by Bennie the Egyptian prevented it from being a triple, but two runners had already scored.
Reb Shlomo had barely taken his first step onto the infield when Butcher abandoned his post, walking back to the dugout with his eyes locked on his shoes. He dragged himself across the clubhouse without a word, then disappeared into the clubhouse. Wet Jakie Stein closed out the inning in relief, and in the top of the ninth a Lions rally put us back on top. But Butcher, for the first time, had shown signs of being mortal.
A day later, Barney was on the mound. Burger had already hit twice that day, so on his third at bat, Barney walked him. Intentionally. Berger didn’t take to that very well. As he walked to first base he yelled something that got drowned out in the crowd noise.
Dixie led off the next inning and quickly fouled off the first two pitches. Braves hurler Fred Frankhouse threw the next one high and inside. Real high, and real inside. Dixie dove backwards to the dirt and stood up cursing. The umpire shouted out a warning to Frankhouse, while the Braves catcher, Shanty Hogan, gave Dixie a friendly ribbing.
“What’s a matter, sonny boy? Can’t take a little chin music?”
“Chin music?” said Dixie. “That there was a goddamn war cry. One more of those and Frankhouse is in the shithouse.”
“Come on, Dixie. That was no war cry. I’d only call it a love song.” And then, “Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Man,” hummed Hogan, as Dixie swung and missed for strike three.
When Barney took the mound in the bottom of the sixth, the air was rotten milk. Berger stepped up to the plate with one out. Meanness was plastered on his mug. On the first pitch, Barney threw inside. Berger snarled, and the next pitch was a strike across the outside corner. Berger inched forward, crowding the plate. If there was one thing Dollar-a-Klop Barney didn’t like, it was being challenged.
Hester set up high on the inside corner. Berger stared at Barney’s hands as he went through his delivery, and the next thing anybody knew Berger was splayed out on his back, having just barely avoided a leather bullet to the ribcage. In a second he was up and running, charging straight for the pitcher’s mound amid raucous cheers and bloodthirsty cries. Hester tossed off his mask and chased after Berger, while Barney stood, fists in the air, ready to fight, on the pitcher’s mound. Whoever thinks baseball isn’t a violent sport ought to experience the zing of a fastball or the crack of a beaned batter’s fist.
Berger swung and Barney ducked, then delivered a shot straight into his opponent’s gut. Soon the entire Braves bench was launching a frontal assault on the pitcher’s mound. The umpires were helpless to halt the forward march.
I was in the dugout. Reb Shlomo ran like the dickens out to the field and tried to come between the men. Soon our entire infield was in the hubbub, and Big Hup was charging down from center like a steed on a Mongol raid. Khetzke had two players by their collars and they punched the air helplessly as he held them, immobilized and impotent. Khotsh delivered a shot to the sternum to a fellow named Rabbit Marranville. Little Rabbit hopped around in circles, gasping for breath and putting on a show for the umpire. Fayvl Melamid was the only player trying to stay out of it, but soon got an anonymous knee to the back of the legs. Fayvl tumbled backwards and his dome smacked against the ground. The sound of his hard head hitting the dirt was enough to bring the fight to a halt. Reb Shlomo rushed over and was joined by the Braves Manager, Deacon Bill McKechnie. Dollar-a-Klop Barney was thrown out of the game, of course, for his penchant for klopping, and Berger, too, was tossed, as were Khotsh and Rabbit. We were rattled, and we lost the game.
In the clubhouse, Fayvl was laid out on a metal table, a doctor leaning over him and checking his vitals.
“Everything’s copacetic,” the doctor said, “but have the gentleman sit out for a few days, even a week. His head took a decent beating, and he’s going to be sore. Send for me if the blurred vision isn’t gone by tomorrow.”
The doctor packed up his instruments and was on his way out the door.
“Oh, and keep an eye on him tonight. Watch him closely and don’t let him fall asleep until after midnight. See that he doesn’t start talking funny…”
“He always talks funny,” said Khetzke. Black and blue and sore and tired, we laughed in relief.
The next morning a wire was waiting for us from Commissioner Landis. Barney got a week suspension; Khotsh was out for five days.
Barney was our number two pitcher, and with Fayvl injured and Khotsh in the doghouse, we were out a second-baseman.
On the train to Pittsburgh, I picked up a copy of the Forverts. It was embarrassing to see our escapades in print, but there was another emotion swelling in my chest, too. It wasn’t anything new to hear reports about punches being thrown at Jews; but it was nice to read that this time, Jews punched back.
A mention of the pickle the team was in, having no second baseman for the upcoming series, set me thinking. I went to talk it over with Butcher.
I found him sitting by himself in the dining car, staring at his reflection in a coffee cup. The bags under his eyes were sides of brisket, but when I sat down he slid his drink away and looked up and smiled.
“You heard that Dollar-a-Klop had a tooth knocked out in the fight?” he said to me. “A groundskeeper found it and gave it back. Barney asked the maid at the hotel to sew it into his lucky underpants for him. This way, he won’t forget to play with a bite.”
“Barney’s got a pair of lucky underpants?”
“We all got our quirks, kid,” said Butcher, and his hand left the table and snaked into his pocket. I thought of the shell that I’d seen him take out whenever he was nervous or in trouble.
He put a few coins on the table to pay for his coffee. “I’m going to catch some z’s,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a little zetz of caffeine to get you to close your eyes.”
“Butcher, could you wait a minute?”
He put a big hand on my shoulder.
“You don’t got to mention it, Talmed. I’ll look out for you tomorrow at practice. Take the field like you’ve already got the job. Just don’t think too much. You start thinking, and soon it gets so you can’t stop.”
I stared out the window as Pennsylvania rolled by. How many baseball diamonds had we passed along the way, the train eating up the steel rains from Boston to Pittsburgh; how many farmhouses had we passed where children lay in their beds and dreamed of wooden bats and leather balls and white bags that spit up dust when a runner slid in desperation… It was impossible to follow Butcher’s advice. All I could do was think.
When Khetzke came in with a bottle of brandy in his pocket, I was happy to help him finish it. He poured a little into Butcher’s now-cold coffee and pushed it toward me.
“Passed by Butcher on my way here. We had a little chat. Seems like you might get in the game, eh? Now here’s what you got to know about the Bucs,” he said, and leaned close over the table and gave me the Major League scoop.
How will Talmed perform at second base? Find out next week in chapter 12, “Zumer-Feygeles.”
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 11