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 12 chapters here.
Rachel and I were standing on Coogan’s Bluff, looking down at the Polo Grounds. In a few hours, tens of thousands of people would fill the stadium and bring it to life, but now, at eight in the morning, the place was empty. My arm around her waist, I explained to Rachel some of the basics of baseball.
“So where will you be standing?” she asked.
I pointed to the middle of the infield.
“I’ll be there, playing second base. That’s my position.”
“Is that an important one?” she asked.
“Well, there are only four bases…” It was breezy on the bluff, and though it was summer, Rachel closed her light jacket and shivered. She hooked her arm in mine.
“Only four bases,” she repeated, smiling at me. I leaned over and kissed her left ear.
“Are you cold? We can go back now.”
“No, I was just imagining you down there, mamish a little ant on a huge field. How do you do it? Won’t you be nervous with all those strangers staring at you?”
“Stranger, shmanger. If you come to see me I’ll really be worried about looking like a schlemiel.”
We stood there a while longer, and I showed her where the visitors dugout was.
“So that you can wave to me. If you come, I mean.”
“I’ll come today, but only if you promise I won’t make you nervous.”
“A promise I can make with my hands tied behind your back, but who can predict the future?”
“Your hands behind my back? I’d like to see you try.”
I made a ring with my arms and put Rachel inside of it. She let me kiss her again, then struggled to break free. A blue look came over her face.
“The future,” she said.
“Fine. I promise, you won’t make me nervous — ”
“That’s not the future I’m worried about. Oy, Talmed Metumtam… The future! Your baseball season. It’s not even halfway over yet. You’ll be as scarce as a blessing, and I’ll stay here and make myself sick thinking about you. I read once about the women who wear lipstick and wait for the ballplayers at their hotels.”
My stomach dropped so low my knees filled up with breakfast.
“You knock on my door, you kiss me, and then you go away. Who knows what kind of shtick you might pull with the boys out there in… in… in America?”
“This is America. And I’ll be thinking about you.”
Rachel spoke to me from a distance now. There was enough room between us for a lot of misunderstanding.
“This isn’t really America, Talmed. This is New York. What will happen out there?”
“Come, Rachel, let’s go back home. I need to be back here in a little while. Why should we talk about sad things? You’re on my mind, and that’s one thing I can promise about the future, too.”
She was crying, running down the hill ahead of me, towards the street. Her tears turned to laughter. She shrieked as she raced downhill and nearly tripped. When I caught up to her, her cheeks were bright red, and she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, to let me kiss her or slap me in the face.
Lucky for me, she didn’t slap. I kissed her lips, salty with her tears and fresh with the brisk morning.
“Kiss a thief,” she mumbled, pulling her lips away from mine.
“Count your teeth,” I said, finishing her thought. I promised myself that I’d never go to another lousy gin joint as long as I lived.
With Coogan’s Bluff behind us, walking back to the train that would slither clatteringly downtown, I noticed someone coming towards us, approaching the big overlook. He was a large man, and he wore a hat pulled down low almost over his eyes, but there was something familiar about him. He walked with his head to the ground, a little trail of cigarette smoke puffing from his mouth, dissipating into the cloudless blue sky. It was Butcher.
I was holding Rachel’s hand, and she felt my fingers jump.
“Are you upset, Talmed? I’m sorry, I’m a fool. Of course, you have to leave, and I have to stay here… I know you’ll be back.”
“It’s not that,” I whispered. “See that man? Coming towards us? Why, that’s Butcher!”
Butcher passed us and began climbing the hill that looked over the stadium. What was he doing there, by himself? What was he thinking about all the time, so alone nowadays? He still had the best record on the team — one of the best records in baseball — but he looked every day as though his back was against the wall.
“Can you wait for me? I’ll be back in two minutes.”
I didn’t hear what Rachel said, because I ran off to meet up with Butcher. When I caught up to him he was standing in the spot where I’d been just fifteen minutes ago, staring down at the ball field. I walked up beside him. He didn’t even notice me, his eyes were so glued to the scenery. They were pointing like the fingers of the devil straight toward the pitcher’s mound.
I coughed once, but Butcher didn’t turn. Finally I gave him a friendly klop in the shoulder.
“Butcher! What are you doing here?” I tried my very best to sound unconcerned.
Butcher turned, startled.
“Talmed! Vus makht a Yid?” How is a Jew doing? “I came here to… I wanted to see the field and I…”
“You here alone?”
“Well, I was at the store on Friday, and then last night, as well. This morning I was carving some meat before we opened up, but… I don’t know, what can I say? I can’t stand being there anymore. Who knows why? Used to be, I could kvell over a good cut of meat. Now I go back there, I sympathize with the cow. And then there’s the nagging. My wife follows me into the store: first it’s this, then it’s that, soon all I want to do is give her a good kick in the tukhes and lock the door behind her. But then, when I think about baseball, it don’t make me any easier. I love this game, you know it? I remember, I would go out on the mound — as a kid, I’m talking, growing up in the Bronx, where we had big parks and we’d spend every day on the diamond in the summer, playing with whatever sad excuse for a baseball we could find — and I’d fire that ball to the catcher and my mother would come drag me back home at nine, ten o’clock on a summer night. She was worried about me. I’d skip lunch, skip dinner, all I thought about was the next strike.”
“It’s not like that anymore, Butcher?”
“If only. Now, I’m a nervous wreck all day, wracking my guts about the next time I got to take the mound. I get sick thinking about it, I can taste my own nerves in my mouth. I practically got to drag myself out onto the field. But then it’s alright for a little while — as long as my head in is the game, I can ignore the fans and the pressure and the thought of spending the next three days just being sick all over again about the next time I got to pitch. But as soon as one little thing goes wrong — well, it’s lights out for me. I want to sink into the ground.”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything before? Are you going to quit?”
“Say anything? Say what? That this game makes me feel yellow? I can’t live without it, either. Quit? What would I do? Chop meat? No, I know what would happen. I can’t go back to the store. But I don’t know how I can go back to the pitcher’s mound, either.”
“Is it that hard out there? I mean, does this feeling happen to everyone?”
“Only to the meshugeners. Don’t worry. At second base it’s easier to pretend you’re still a kid. Nobody calls your name when you miss the plate by a half-inch. Nobody tells you that you’re pitching like their bubbe… You’ll be fine, kid. You’re made of something solid. Sometimes I think I’m made of nothing but dust. Like the stuff between the base paths. It’s easy to shake up dirt, ain’t it?”
So that was why he’d been so distant recently. He was buckling under the pressure, but baseball was like a drug to him. He couldn’t leave it, and it was killing him to stay.
“Say, I ever tell you the story about the man who goes to the doctor because he’s suddenly got a pain in his leg like you couldn’t believe?”
“You never told me. What’s the doctor say?”
“Well, the man walks in and says, ‘Doc, I got this pain here in the middle of my leg and it hurts whenever I do this.’ The guy lifts up his leg and bends it. Doctor’s a real wiseguy. Says to the man, “Well, don’t do that.’ The man looks at him. ‘That’s your answer?’ Doctor says, ‘You know a better solution?’
“That’s me, Talmed. I don’t know a better solution, but the thing I keep doing hurts too much. There’s no doctor for the sickness I got.”
Will Butcher be able to find a cure for his fear? Come back next week to find out in chapter 14, ‘The Fall of Dixie.’
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 13