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 16 chapters here.
At Home With the Shabbes Goy
“But I don’t understand. How can we ask him to join the team? He’s a goy.”
We were standing on the corner of 7th and 1st. The noon heat rose from the pavement and stagnated in the valley below the tenement rows. A crush of people came flowing out of the Church of St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr. There were sturdy women in bright kerchiefs, and girls with bosoms like small breadbaskets skipping down the stairs. Men — old men who shuffled, young men who strutted, and men in their middle ages limping behind 30 years of hard work — followed after them, their broad frames awkwardly filling out their Sunday best. Black neckties hung down from their chins and split their massive chests in two.
These people were different from the folks I’d grown up with. Jewish men weren’t built this way — even our ballplayers would have looked merely average next to them. Our women rarely enjoyed the combination of flaxen hair and full bodies that these Polish peasant women were endowed with. Some of them — the ones who weren’t already worn haggard by work — enjoyed a beauty unknown to my people. If Jewish women were black cats, then these were braying, charming, buxom fillies.
“Come, Talmed. There’s Janusz.”
Reb Shlomo set off toward a spot in the milling flock of Polish worshipers, his dark suit and black beard cutting the crowd as he walked between them.
Janusz was certainly surprised to see us, two middling Yids, in the middle of his Roman Catholic brothers. Surprised — and perhaps a bit embarrassed, too.
“Reb Shlomo,” he said, his eyes widening then narrowing as he self-consciously looked around. “What are you doing here?”
Our manager put a hand on Janusz’s bulging arm.
“There’s somewhere we can talk?”
“What to talk? Have you come on a Sunday to fire me?”
“To fire you I got neither the reshus or the yetzer.”
Janusz, who spoke no Yiddish, stared blankly back.
“I’m not the Rabbi at the shul anymore, so I can’t fire you, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. Thank God, you could even say the opposite.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Janusz. “But still, I will find my wife and we will leave. You may walk with us. Our house is the next block.”
Janusz looked around for his wife and glided across the sidewalk to where she was standing, chatting with several plump women. His massive frame, the ease of his steps, and the way he so fluidly descended from his great height to whisper in his wife’s ear reminded one of a great athlete.
Soon Janusz returned with Mrs. Koropecky, his wife, in tow. The two men walked ahead.
“A good Sabbath. Do you — eh, do Catholics say this to each other?”
Janusz smiled. “Thank you. Yes, well — I know what you mean.”
“Fine, fine. Let’s talk takhlis. Why am I here?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know you don’t know, Janusz. I am about to tell you.”
“To make it simple: You probably know I’m the manager of a baseball team now. The Lions of Zion.”
“I heard from one of the men at the synagogue. I follow baseball. I know your team is not bad.”
“That’s exactly the thing. We were not bad, and then our first baseman got injured. He’s out for the season. And with our lineup, a man to replace Dixie is something we don’t have. We’re in a tight spot…”
“But what’s that got to do with me?”
We’d arrived in front of a slouching, four-story brick building. The fire escapes facing the street were covered with laundry out to dry — women’s undergarments, polka-dotted scarves, mean-looking work clothes and faded children’s outfits. Janusz leaned against the doorframe of the entrance. Several children were playing stickball in the street, still wearing their church clothes. Their mothers leaned out the window and in that peculiar Slavic tongue — all sh’s and ch’s and zh’s — called the children for supper.
Mrs. Koropecky hurried inside.
“Herbate,” she said, smiling the smile of one who doesn’t speak the native tongue, and her heavy footsteps echoed through the narrow chamber of the stairwell. Finally we heard a door open several flights up, and then abruptly close again.
“Tea,” Janusz translated for us. “She invites you for tea.”
The Koropeckys’ apartment was tiny. One room contained a stove and oven against the back wall; in the center of the room stood a bathtub, covered with a plank of wood and used as a table during the daytime, three mismatched chairs, and a toilet in the corner. Alongside one wall was a beautiful carved cupboard, its dark wood ornamented with gilded knobs. Refined lion’s claw legs seemed ready to march out of that apartment so ill with poverty. It must have been the only thing they’d brought over from their home in the old country.
Mrs. Koropecky lay three steaming glasses on the table, then set down a dish with sugar cubes. Placing one between his teeth, Reb Shlomo sipped from the hot drink. The smell of boiling cabbage emanated from a large pot on the stove.
“Have you ever played baseball, Janusz?”
Janusz raised his eyebrows.
“I learned as soon as I arrived in America.”
“And were you any good at it?”
“I wasn’t bad. Before I got married I played two years for Lackawanna in the Railroad League in Pennsylvania.”
Reb Shlomo’s intuition had been perfect. He had sensed a baseball player from the moment he saw Janusz standing in the shul kitchen.
“I knew it! Nu, what did you play?”
“I was an outfielder. But those teams were semi-pro. Everybody did a little of everything at least once.”
“How would you like to try your hand at first?”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, would you like to come to practice tomorrow? Try out for the team?”
“But you’ve got a team full of Jews. What do you want with a Christian like me?”
“The fact is, Yid, goy, something in between — I need someone what can play first base. I can’t make for a trade. I can only find on the streets.”
“You want me to come be a first baseman for the Lions?”
“I want to see you at least give it a shot.”
Janusz looked around at his poor surroundings. He settled his hands on his glass of tea, then looked at Reb Shlomo.
“You can see, I don’t got it easy. I work at a printing press all week, darken my hands with ink, then I come to the synagogue for a few extra dollars on your Sabbath. My wife does laundry for rich women and takes care of the house. I don’t have the pleasure of playing games.”
“Listen to me. You come tomorrow, I’ll pay you for three day’s work. And if you can play, you won’t have to go back to your job in the factory again. And your wife can pay another shikse — err, woman — to scrub her clothes.”
Janusz arched his eyebrows.
“How much do you pay?”
“Five hundred a month.”
The glass of tea nearly fell from Janusz’s hand. He swallowed his sugar cube in shock.
Reb Shlomo pulled a piece of paper in his pocket. He scribbled down the details for the next day.
“Get a rest. Stretch your muscles. Tomorrow you come, and if you haven’t forgotten everything from your Lackawanna League days, you’ve got yourself a job.”
Janusz seemed convinced.
“Please, stay and have supper with us?”
“We can play baseball together, but I can’t eat with you. I got my laws, you got yours. Baseball is a man’s game, but food — well, three strikes and God strikes me dead. Thank you for the offer. Do jutra,” he said in Polish. Until tomorrow.
Mrs. Koropecky waved bewilderedly to us as we let ourselves out the door.
On the street, Reb Shlomo wiped away a band of sweat from his forehead.
“Riboyno shel oylam, dear God, forgive me for this. But I just can’t stand to see the Lions go down without a fight.”
“What are you going to tell the men?” I asked him. A gaggle of children were standing on the corner, watching us with amusement.
“You leave that to me. For now, not a word to anyone.” He reached into his pocket and took out a nickel. “Go buy yourself a malted.”
“I’d rather a beer,” I told him, and he looked at me like I was a wild dog.
“I’m no boy. I’m seventeen years old.”
“Yuh, yuh, you’re right. I’m sorry, Talmed. I think… I’ll have one with you.”
Together we walked south to the Jewish neighborhood, then past it, to an Irish tavern. The cold beer revived our wilting bodies.
“Talmed,” said Reb Shlomo, drawing a deep breath. “Baseball makes a man do strange things.”
In the back of the bar, a youngster in a newsboy cap was reading the latest baseball scores from a ticker tape.
“To be strange a man needs baseball?” I said, and wisely took a sip of beer.
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 16