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 13 chapters here.
The Fall of Dixie
The game hadn’t even started yet, and already the Polo Grounds were electric with cheering, and the Lions were being adored louder than the Giants. Even though this was their home field, what kind of a Jew — even a lifelong Giants fan — would have the chutzpah to boo us?
Barney was sitting on the bench, in what he called his “civilian clothes.” Khetzke, also suspended, sat next to him, likewise dressed for the street.
“You hear that, boys,” said Dollar-a-Klop, as we were about to take first bats of the game. “Everybody loves us. If God played baseball, he’d be jealous.”
Reb Shlomo, standing on the steps of the dugout, stroked his beard. There now were little strands of grey interspersed in it, like smoke in a charcoal fire. He held a lit cigarette in one hand.
“God, in His infinite wisdom, can speak for Himself. Maybe it’s better He ignores us. If he saw what Jews we have on this team, He might start to reconsider…” Reb Shlomo looked straight at Khetzke, who made no secret of his strong affinity for pork and his disdain of the old-fashioned Sabbath observances.
Khetzke turned to Barney. “We sweep this series, we’ll be so close behind the Giants, we’ll know what they ate for breakfast.”
“Nu, nu!” called Reb Shlomo. “Listen up and gather around.”
The men stood up and formed a circle around our coach. He was so excited he was practically hopping.
“We can win this game. Such a crowd we’ll be lucky to see again in our lifetimes. No changes to the lineup except Talmed, you’re starting at second. Now, dammit, don’t make me regret it. Butcher, it’s your game to lose. Your arm, nobody can hit. I don’t want you to overthink anything. Shut off your brain and listen to what Hester tells you. I’ve never had such a good feeling. We win this game, we could even be in first by midseason.”
He was excited; his voice was rising, and the cigarette flew from his fingers as he brought his hands up above his head to a position that brought to mind a rabbinic injunction:
“Chazak, chazak venischazek!” he shouted. Be strong, be strong, and be strengthened!
We got off to an early lead. Butcher was throwing his fastball like the eleventh plague. In the second inning, I came to bat against Watty Clark. “Low” Watty Clark, as he was known to opposing players, had a plug of tobacco in the side of his mouth the size of an apple, and he looked to be eight feet tall and eight inches wide. He was a beanpole, but he could put the ball anywhere he liked. He was like an old spinster making meticulous stitches in a quilt.
In the stands I had found Rachel, and now, as I held the bat in my hands, I tried to lose her. Clark stood up straight and brought his glove close to his chest. Then he leaned back, kicked his leg up high, and suddenly I saw the red stitching of the ball coming toward me like a meteor. My arms brought the bat out in front of me and before I had time to think, there was a crack as wood hit leather and I was running like a man on fire to first base. I didn’t see, until afterward, that I’d hit the ball down the third base line, into the outfield. I reached base and realized: I had my first major league hit. I was an immigrant who’d finally arrived in the New World.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, we were ahead by four runs when Jo-Jo Moore came to the plate for the Giants. With two outs and no men on base, the finishing touches felt like a formality, especially since Butcher was still tossing good stuff. Playing second base meant I got to watch him as though from the offstage wings of a theater. He focused in on home plate like a poor man counting his money. The stadium, the crowd, the entire world, ceased to exist for him. But then there were brief moments when he’d lose his concentration, when the batter would step out of the box to tap the dirt off his cleats, or to read a sign from the third base coach. Then, a look of beaten-dog panic overtook Butcher’s face. His shoulders narrowed and tensed, he took off his cap to find his lucky charm, and he waited like a man about to hang for the batter to step back to the plate.
Butcher was ahead in the count when Jo-Jo connected and the ball, a hard line drive, shot down towards third base and took a hard hop as it came Pretty Perchik’s way. Perchik dove and extended his arm farther than his arm wanted to go, but he fought his body and came up with the ball. He fired it to first base, where Dixie was stretching himself out, right foot on the corner of the bag, left hand reaching, pushing through the air, pushing towards the ball, pushing toward that last out.
Once Reb Shlomo said to me, “Baseball is a game where you should never underestimate how much can mean an inch. In the streets, you respect an inch like you respect a half-penny. On the diamond, an inch is worth a million bucks.”
Jo-Jo understood that, too. He ran hard down the first base line. One thing I had learned about the game is that even if you know you’re going to lose, it’s all speculation until the final out. The ball hit Dixie’s glove almost at the moment Jo-Jo’s foot came down on the bag. The umpire made a fist and raised his thumb, then brought his arm back toward his chest.
“Out,” is what he yelled, but a different cry is what I heard. Dixie was on the ground, clutching his foot. He was curled up like a piece of paper that’s sitting too close to a fire. With one hand he scraped dirt into his fist and squeezed it into dust; his foot was bent back in an unnatural way. Trying to control the emotions on his face, Dixie’s jawbones were two railroad ties desperately supporting a dangerous load of pain.
Reb Shlomo ran out of the dugout and was leaning over the fallen first baseman. Gently he pried Dixie’s hand from his ankle and examined the injury. A doctor had rushed out onto the field, too, and was now trying to get a peek. Once he saw Dixie’s leg, he shouted for somebody to bring him inside.
Lions and Giants alike were crowded around first base. Nobody likes to see a wounded player, not even his fiercest opponent. As I saw the stricken face of Jo-Jo Moore, I realized that in some ways, baseball is much more forgiving than life. It is a war where the defeated have a thousand chances at resurrection, and you don’t want to leave enemy bodies on the field. Because, unlike in war, you don’t have to. It’s enough just to win. You don’t have to win bloody.
Khetzke grabbed Dixie around the shoulders, and Perchik wrapped Dixie’s thighs around his own waist so as not to disturb the ankle any more than he had to. They looked like pallbearers at a funeral. Poor Dixie’s face — the youngest man on the team next to me, and one of the most promising — had turned to marble, but sometimes even marble trembles a bit when the vandals are approaching.
Most horrible of all was the realization in my own head that the thoughts of Khetzke and Perchik were tumbling down in the same order as mine. First we thought, ‘What will be with Dixie?’ Then we realized his ankle was probably broken, but ankles heal. Then we thought, ‘What will be with us?’ Immediately, a thousand versions of that great question appeared like beet stains on a white tablecloth. Baseball wasn’t just our passion: it was our meal ticket. Would there be what to eat if our star player left the banquet hall?
Will The Lions of Zion be able to win without Dixie? Find out next week in chapter 15, ‘Tsuris’s Clothing.’
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 14