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.
A Trick Play
The door to the visitor’s clubhouse at Ebbet’s field opened slowly and Janusz peeked his head in, then took a few uncertain steps inside. In his hand he held a scrap of paper. It was the note Reb Shlomo had scribbled to him the day before. The boys were getting dressed and gabbing; nobody noticed him walk in.
Reb Shlomo was in the manager’s office giving a long interview to Nosie Mosie. He was trying to curry the newshound’s favor: he knew that giving a non-Jew a chance to earn a slot on a Jewish team would be controversial. It would be hard enough to get the Jews to rally around a Shabbes goy; he needed that the Forverts should be against him like a hole in the head.
Janusz stood tentatively inside, probably wondering how he’d ended up in such a strange situation. I had one leg in my uniform pants or I would have gone over to him right away. Khetzke beat me to it.
“You’re in the visitor’s clubhouse, schlemiel,” Khetzke said to the newcomer, making his way over to the door. He’d mistaken Janusz for a ballplayer on the Dodgers. “Your clubhouse is over on the other side – out the door and to the left. You just get traded, or what? Don’t recognize your mug.”
Scampering over half-naked, I ran up beside Janusz and intervened.
“Khetzke, he’s no Dodger. This is Janusz. He may be our new first baseman.”
Suddenly the clubhouse went quiet. The men hadn’t been told anything; now they were eyeing the stranger with suspicion. Janusz certainly didn’t look like a Semite. His face was too square, his features too fine, to belong to our tribe.
“Vos makht a Yid?” said Fayvl, hoping for the best. After all, there were plenty of Jews who didn’t look the part. Dixie had looked like the All-American Southern Charmer.
“I’m Janusz. Hello.” He stood there awkwardly, as the entire room stared at him in confusion.
“He doesn’t speak Jewish,” I said.
“Don’t look Jewish, neither,” said Pretty Perchik.
“Well, Maimonides, that’s ’cause he ain’t,” I said, and led Janusz to the office, a dozen pairs of eyes stabbing us in the back. I knocked on the door, shoved Janusz inside. A moment later the two emerged. Reb Shlomo gave Janusz a locker and said nothing to the team. Nosie Mosie followed close behind with his cigar leaving a trail of surprised smoke. He gave Pretty Perchik an elbow to the chest and arched his eyebrows. Perchik slammed his locker closed and walked out onto the field. Nobody said as much as hello to the Shabbes goy.
Janusz took his place at the bag. Reb Shlomo and the players off the bench were hitting us grounders for fielding practice. The first ball went to Perchik, at third. It was an easy roller; Perchik snapped it up and whipped it to first. The ball flew wide to the home plate side, and Janusz leaped off the bag and snagged it out of the air. The next ball went to Khetzke. He scooped it up and tossed it to first. The ball bounced five feet before the sack, and Janusz trapped it in his glove, in a full stretch. Then I got the ball, and pitched it underhand to first. It was the first decent throw of practice.
Khetzke scowled at me. Perchik spit in the dust and turned away. Khotsh, who was sharing the bag with me for now, fielded the next ball and tossed it so far over Janusz’s head that all the poor guy could do was watch it sail into the stands behind him.
Reb Shlomo hurried out into the infield.
“What’s the big idea,” he said angrily. “You boys forget how to throw a ball?”
“We didn’t forget nothing,” said Khetzke. “Looks like you’re the one who forgot.”
“We ain’t the Lions of Christ, coach. This is a Jewish ballclub. I wanted to mess around with goyim I’da gone to play for another team.”
Butcher, who had been watching silently from the sidelines, now ran out onto the field.
“Looks like you fellows got a problem,” he boomed. Lately everybody had been walking on eggshells around him. He was so gloomy, one was afraid even to laugh in his presence.
Butcher turned to Khetzke.
“You, Mister Heretic, Mister Apikoyres. You got no problem breaking every law in Bereyshis, but now you got a problem with Janusz?”
“No, I don’t got a problem with Janusz. Or with any of the goyim, for that matter. So long as they’re not sitting in the same dugout with me.”
“Khetz, why don’t you try chewing on your glove for a minute. Everybody’s got an opinion but the fact is Dixie’s out and we need a first baseman. We ought to see if this fellow can play; if yes, I’m all for it. I don’t care what any of you have got between your legs in the front, so long as you’ll bust your backside for me when I’m on the mound. Now you got anything else to say about the Shabbes goy, I suggest you wait ‘til you get home. You don’t have to kiss Janusz under the khuppah but if he’s here to help us win, then you better treat him fair once we step out onto the diamond. Especially when I’m pitching. Otherwise, you’ll look like a veal chop when I’m through with you.”
“Let’s hit balls!” shouted Reb Shlomo and shooed the infielders off to grab their bats. Now at least he knew he was not alone. He had me, and he had Butcher. And once he had our star pitcher, he knew the battle was nearly over.
When Janusz stepped up to the plate, he seemed to be three times the size of Hester Panim, who was squatting behind him. The broad Polish peasant raised the bat, hitched his elbows, bent his legs and assumed a position that suddenly looked so natural to him. The strong muscles in his legs were flexed, visible through his pants. His arms were like cobras ready to strike; although his body instinctively knew, recalled, the perfect batting stance, his eyes were under the domain of his psyche.
He looked around from here to there, backward, forward, sideways. Even down at Hester.
“Take a deep breath,” the catcher told him. “Relax. Ain’t nobody here to cheer or boo. Hit like you were back in the railroad leagues…”
Janusz took a few practice swings, and then cracked the first pitch so hard the cover dropped off as it sailed into right field. With a bang it crashed into the advertisement on the right field fence, beneath the scoreboard: “Hit Sign, Win Suit. Abe Stark. Brooklyn’s Leading Clothier.” If Janusz could keep this up, he’d put old Abe Stark out of business.
“That goy hits for a sweet dream,” said Fayvl Melamid, his jaw dropping.
“No makhlokes here,” said Perchik.
Khetzke and even Khotsh could only nod their heads. Janusz had the job.
Up until then we’d faced some nasty anti-Semitism from fans. Called all sorts of names, we turned our backs and played harder, and learned to ignore the comments of drunk and nasty fans. Now, however, we faced hatred of a different kind.
Word had spread in just a day that the Lions of Zion were playing with a non-Jew. Now the Jews were showing that they too knew how to be vicious and petty. When we took the field at the start of the game, Janusz was understandably jittery. Just a few days ago he’d been a factory worker and a Shabbes goy. Now he was a major leaguer. As he stood in position at first base, he looked around with wide eyes. Some Torah scholar with a big mouth and front-row seats wouldn’t let up.
“Hey, you dumb Polack,” he shouted. “Hey, potato brain, shouldn’t you be working in a coal mine?”
Janusz tried to ignore them. In an act of solidarity, we all walked over and huddled around him, including Dollar-a-Klop Barney, who was making his first start after the suspension. But as all Jews know, and as Janusz soon learned, there’s no way to turn off the tap once the water starts flowing. Anti-Yid, anti-Goy — no matter what type of hatred you have, it’s always about as ugly as a dog’s breakfast.
The game got off slowly. Janusz was hitting in the cleanup slot, right where Dixie had been, but on his first at-bat he struck out swinging on a bad pitch.
“Eh, that goy is working for the enemy!” a genius behind home plate yelled.
Reb Shlomo walked over to Janusz as he sat down on the dugout bench.
“Don’t pay attention to those mamzers. They’re all chutzpah, no seykhel.”
I leaned over to Janusz and translated. “Those people are dumb bastards and you shouldn’t listen to them.” I saw him smile for the first time.
Bottom of the fifth, two outs, down by four runs. We were playing sloppy, and the taunts hadn’t let up. It was starting to get to us.
When Hack Wilson, the Dodgers outfielder, hit a pitiful single that somehow got through, Barney took a deep breath. When the next batter came to the plate, Wilson was taking a generous lead. He was a funny-looking ballplayer, with a Neanderthal flat face and a neck big as a tree trunk. He wasn’t a swift runner; his big lead was particularly galling.
Barney threw to first to check Wilson. Wilson, built like a beer keg, came rolling back to the base with a smile. Pinching his nose, he boomed to Janusz, loud enough for all the infield to hear:
“How can you play on this team full of stinking sheenies?”
Janusz put one of his enormous hands — a voice from the stands had called them his goypaws — into the front of his pants. He came out with a closed fist.
“You gonna pop me one, or you just counting your thirty pieces of silver?” said Wilson.
Janusz grinned as he tossed the ball back to Barney. “Aw, I’m just checking to make sure the Jew bastards didn’t circumsize me while I wasn’t looking.”
Khetzke’s eyes popped open at short. I wanted to pick up second base and toss it straight at Janusz’s head. Was he betraying us after we’d stood up for him? He’d get a licking in the dugout, that was for sure.
Wilson chuckled. “You’re alright, for a Pollack,” he said, and again settled into a lead.
Barney was staring intensely at Janusz. The first baseman stared back, as if challenging Barney to a duel. Janusz had his hand down his pants again.
“It’s something worth checking twice for,” he said to Hack Wilson, who was standing about ten feet off the base, and they both laughed.
Barney threw the ball to Janusz again. Wilson dutifully made his way back, and Janusz tossed the pill to the mound.
By now the crowd was booing. The fans wanted action, not a slow-paced game of cat and mouse. Butcher, to everybody’s relief, turned his attention away from first and was staring at a sign from Hester.
Meanwhile, Wilson stepped off first. Janusz sidled off the bag too, took two big steps so he was standing right next to Wilson, and then he produced the baseball. He tagged Wilson on the shoulder, and flashed a grin. Wilson was so confused he didn’t know what to say. The umpire, also confused, took his time in making a call. He looked to Barney, who held up both his hands, empty. His mouth looked like it was nearly bursting, but then he swallowed and opened his kisser. Empty, too.
The umpire had no choice but to call Wilson out. Janusz had the ball, fair and square. Maybe it was magic, but baseball doesn’t believe in magic, only facts. Janusz had tagged Wilson out. End of story.
In the dugout, Barney was rubbing his belly. “Nothing like a baseball-sized kneidl to take your mind off a lousy game,” he said.
Janusz stuck his hand down his pants and pulled out a greasy strip of newspaper.
“Especially when it’s been wrapped so nicely!”
“What was that?” asked Fayvl Melamid, terribly confused.
Reb Shlomo was crying from joy.
“That was a neys, is what it was. Janusz had a kneidl in his pants and he switched it for a baseball last time Wilson took a lead. He threw the delicious matzoh ball back to Barney, hid the ball in his glove, and tagged that chutzpaniak out like he deserved! Brilliant!”
Barney belched, and he and Janusz embraced. We lost the game, but nobody seemed to care.
The next morning Nosie Mosie told the story of our trick play in an article under the headline: “Janusz the Shabbes Goy and The Great Kneidl Ruse.”
The season was halfway over.
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 17