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 14 chapters here.
Dixie’s ankle was broken; nearly everybody had gone home. I was about to leave with Khetzke and Butcher to visit our teammate in the hospital when Reb Shlomo asked to have a word with me.
The damp air in the manager’s office was weighted down with smoke. Reb Shlomo was slumped over in his chair, eyes half-closed, stroking his beard in that eternal Jewish pose, a mix of resignation and consternation. Jews are never surprised by tsuris; they’re only surprised by the clothing it wears.
“Talmedel,” Reb Shlomo began. “We’re in trouble. Dixie’s out for the season.”
“Is there anybody on the team who can play first base?”
“Is there anybody…” he repeated, tasting my words in his mouth like a spoiled piece of meat. “No, nobody. And Dixie’s bat. Another like that we would be lucky to see in our lifetime. Oy, what a baal guf, what a strongman, that boy was. Talmed, I tell you, we’re in trouble. I said that already, no?”
“Can we make a trade?”
Reb Shlomo stared at the tip of ash, the color of a miserable sky, collecting on the end of his cigarette.
“A trade, he says, can we make? If yes? Then the gantse velt will jump and say, ‘Look, the Yids stole a nice Christian boy from a good baseball team and now he’s working for them. And how did they do it? Money, of course.’ No, we can’t make a trade. Anyway, who have we got that others would want, that we can afford to give?”
“Is there anybody on the team who can play first?”
“For first you need two things. Height, and height. While the Almighty might have sprinkled blessings on our people like bird droppings, as the saying goes, he was never overly generous with inches. No, we don’t got a man on this team besides Dixie who is built like a first baseman.”
“So we need to get one from outside? What about that Greenberg fellow on the Tigers? A big prospect.”
Hank Greenberg was a rookie, but he was already making a big splash. The papers were calling Dixie and Hank two big stars who would bring baseball to the Jews. Well, actually, I think it was the other way around. The club owners wanted to bring Jews to baseball.
“Ach, leave it. We can’t go around in the middle of the season trying to make a trade, especially when we haven’t got bupkes to bargain with. Tell me — would you trade a piece of gold for a bundle of rags?”
“Who will you play tomorrow at first?”
Reb Shlomo was silent. What was surely no more than two minutes felt like hours inside that dark, stuffy clubhouse office. Reb Shlomo lit another cigarette, took one puff, and then watched as the cigarette slowly extinguished in the ashtray.
“This baseball business is good for heartburn and nothing else. It’s all nerves. A game is what they call it, but it’s no less torture than anything else in this world. More, probably. Just imagine: each day your life is hanging on by a thread. Each victory must follow victory. It don’t mean nothing in the morning what you done last night. It’s golus, pure golus. You live like a hunchback every breath you take. Just look at what it’s doing to Butcher.”
I thought I was the only one who knew that Butcher was cracking up.
“Nu, Butcher. Not only is Dixie out, but our star pitcher has got the PMBs.”
“PMBs?” I’d never heard this before.
“Pitcher’s Mound Blues.”
“It’s when you feel like the only time you’re alive is when you’re tossing the pill. And what’s worse, it’s the only time you feel anything at all. Rest of your day is spent in a street dog’s existence. But the most awful part is that, when do you think about dying more than when you’re really alive?”
“So you know?” I was incredulous. If he knew, couldn’t he do something about it? “Isn’t there anything you can do about this… About the PMBs? I mean, if there’s a name for it, maybe there’s a cure.”
“Do I know? You think I’m such a luftmensch I can’t see my star pitcher is losing his marbles? A name for it… Tell me something, Talmed. A Jew is a hunchback all his life. There, we got a name for it. And is there anything that can be done?”
“I thought that’s what we were trying to do here, on the team. To play baseball like men and show the world we’re more than just hunchback Jews. There must be something.”
“Right now, we’ll go home and sleep. That’s something. Enough questions for tonight. I’m tired and I’m upset. Tomorrow, if we don’t find the answer, maybe the answer will find us.”
Perhaps it was too much to hope for, an answer the next day. Or the days after… We dropped the rest of the series quite unceremoniously to the Giants. The newspapers tore us apart. We were nothing without our strong-armed first basemen, they said. Baseball News said it was bound to happen. Nobody can put together a ragtag team of amateurs and compete in the Big Leagues. The Dearborn Independent, Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic rag, hailed our losing streak as the “collapse of the corrupting baseball cabal.” The Forverts proclaimed the approach of Purim, without a happy ending.
We had Shabbes off, a few days to rest before we played the Dodgers on Monday. On Friday, Reb Shlomo and I went to shul — our old haunt, where Reb Shlomo had once been prince of the pulpit and I, his assistant.
“Daven, boy,” he said to me as we walked in. “The only thing to do is daven. Was there ever any better advice than that?”
“Or worse,” I mumbled under my breath.
We were early. Reb Shlomo nosed around like a child going back to an old favorite treasure room. With the season in turmoil, he wanted to delight in a bit of nostalgia. Those were simpler times, back when he was the rabbi here, when all one had to do was give a little talk on Shabbes afternoon and dispense advice to worried mothers and wives, old men with their grandchildren in tow. And then one day there appeared a man named Fishy Levine. What happened to him, everybody knows. Would our season end in the same way?
Reb Shlomo and I walked down to his old office. The door was closed. Cobwebs stretched across the doorframe; the doorknob was sprinkled with dust. These were hard times, and the office looked like it was still unfilled. Its old occupant pushed open the door: A blizzard of specks and dots snowed down as we walked inside. It had the sad look of a place that had once been important but was now forgotten, abandoned. This, I imagined, is what the ruins of the Second Temple must have been like. And there, on the desk, was a baseball.
“Gib a kuk,” whispered Reb Shlomo. Have a look. “Oy, how life likes to remind us we are always alone and never, ever alone.”
There was a scratching sound and a slight groaning coming from down the hallway, where there was a small kitchen.
It was still early for congregants to be assembled for prayer.
“Thieves?” murmured Reb Shlomo, moving his lips but barely emitting a sound. Times were so desperate that even stealing from a synagogue was not unthinkable. The door hadn’t been locked when we’d come in.
We made our way delicately out of the room and along the wall of the corridor, trying to avoid the squeaking boards of the old wood floor.
A dim light shone in the kitchen, and the figure of a man came into view. He was standing on tiptoe, one hand reaching up to what seemed like heaven. The doorway impeded a full view, so we inched closer.
The man was dressed in a boilersuit, stained with the evidence of a tough working existence. He wore black boots that shined despite the low light; his massive body was supported by his tiptoes, and one long hairy arm was stretched several feet above his head to the tall ceiling, where he was delicately unscrewing a dead light bulb from its socket.
It was Janusz, the Shabbes goy, who had worked for the synagogue doing odd jobs, turning on and off the lights and stoking the stove on Fridays and Saturdays, for many years. He was a big, strong Pole, who spoke with a thick accent and could fix just about anything.
A look of relief overcame Reb Shlomo’s face. The sound of footsteps could be heard above us as men filtered in for Kabboles Shabbes. The building was ancient; every movement could be heard, every footstep discerned. Mr. Horowitz still had the same cough, and we heard him clear his throat and spit into his hankerchief.
Suddenly, with a movement as quick as lightning, Janusz spun around on his toes, in our direction. In his right hand he held the old bulb; his left hand — massive, we could see now — stabbed the air just in time to grab a 12-inch piece of heavy plaster that was falling from the ceiling, aiming right for the rabbi’s head.
Reb Shlomo was so startled he could say nothing. Calmly, Janusz grunted hello and turned back around, fished a new light bulb from the pocket of his boilersuit, and began screwing it into the light fixture.
“Did you see that?” I whispered. “That piece of plaster would have brained you, for sure!”
“What reflexes,” said Reb Shlomo, whispering and trembling, still in shock.
“Like a cat.”
“No,” said Reb Shlomo, his eyes lighting up with a golem spirit. “Like a ballplayer!”