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 17 chapters here.
The Miracle of Mayonnaise
It was the morning of July 7, the day after the All-Star Game. We were standing in front of a tall glass building at the Chicago World’s Fair, killing time before our game against the Cubs. Hester had the map.
“What’s this one?” said Khetzke, who was wearing his Lions cap.
“Says here it’s an exhibition for an automobile company.”
We looked up and saw “NASH” in bright red lettering stretched across the roof of the building. Below the sign, inside, two columns of automobiles were rotating, as if on a vertical conveyer belt. Each car was placed on an elevator, rose to the top, and then began its descent so that the next car in line could take its place.
“This must be the Nash Motors exhibit,” Hester added.
“A real Vilna Gaon,” said Khetzke. “Butcher, take my advice — with a guy like this as your catcher, you’d be better off tossing the opposite of whatever pitch he calls.”
Butcher smiled, nodding his head and watching transfixed as the cars rose and fell like ocean waves. The building was nearly one hundred feet tall, and all glass. “This is making me dizzy.”
“Better you should stop watching the cars and start telling us about the All-Star game. Who did you talk to? What was it like?” Khetzke pressed Butcher for details, but the pitcher was gloomy, reticent.
“I didn’t talk to nobody except the boy who cleaned the dugout after the game.” He was silent for a moment. “Let’s move on. Nash Motors is giving me the willies. It reminds me too much of my career.”
“Your career? How’s that, Butch?”
“These cars — they start out at the bottom, make it to the top, and nu, end of the day they’re all back at the bottom again. If yesterday I was at the top of my game, tomorrow the game is on top of me. Farshteyst? Odem yesodo meofar vesofo leofar,” Man begins and ends in dust.
“Beyno l’veyno iz gut a trink bronfn,” quipped Khetzke. But in between, it’s good to take a drink. “Enough yenta-ing, Butcher. Let’s go look at Kraft Miracle Whip. Even you can’t philosophize about mayonnaise.”
Lake Michigan’s currents carried crisp air to the shore as we passed throngs of people. Every type of American was there: delicate women in gloves shading their pale faces with parasols; aristocratic men who wore their tuxedo shirts buttoned to the chin; young men, boys really, with hands stained blue from working at the tool and dye factories that dotted the Midwest; and then there were the dozens of hulky, tired-looking workmen from whom emanated the stink of blood. Their eyes were dark and washy, their noses permanently crinkled in a paralyzed state of disgust. Many of them were missing fingers: these were the men of the slaughterhouses.
We pushed our way through the large crowd that was gathered in front of the Kraft Building, into the exhibition hall. Here was the future! In a giant vat, eggs, vinegar and oil were being beaten together. The mixture then traveled through glass pipes to a six-armed filling machine: from there, a creamy mayonnaise waterfall came rushing out of the other end, caught by an army of glass jars. The jars marched forward on a long conveyor belt, catching the gooey substance as they pushed forward. Soon a robotic hand came down from the firmaments of the mechanized contraption and popped a lid on the jars. Hats on, they were hugged by robotic arms which slapped a Kraft label on the upright breast of each container. Everything was automated: not a human hand interfered from start to finish. This was the age of progress.
A sweet female voice over the loudspeaker explained the process to us. In the factory, the mayonnaise machine usually worked at six times the speed we were witnessing now. Somebody gasped. A child squawked. Behind me a fat woman fainted in delight, probably overwhelmed by viscous fantasies.
“I guess she sides with the eggs,” laughed Khetzke.
“Ekh,” groaned Butcher. “These labels just remind me of uniforms. Baseball uniforms.”
“You’ve got to get the game out of your head,” said Khetzke. “You’re looking at the genius of man, and all you can think about is your own tsuris.”
“Fine, better let’s say they look like soldiers dressing for war.”
“Di ganze leben is a milkhome,” said Khetzke. All of life is a war. “Isn’t that enough? Leave the soldiers be.”
“How do you do it, Khetz? How do you walk around all day knowing you’ve got to go back out on the diamond, in front of tens of thousands of people — you don’t feel an iota of nerves? You don’t shvitz, you don’t worry, you don’t think, ‘I’ll die before I go out there again?’”
“It’s just a game, sweetheart. I should give myself an ulcer over baseball? I’ll save that for when I get married, thank you.”
“Alright, alright,” said Hester. “Enough of this sweet talk. Where to next?”
“I want to ride that elevator. What’s it called, Mr. Geographer?” Khetzke put on a joking wise guy tone.
“The Skyride. It takes us up in the air and across the lagoon. I ain’t afraid if you ain’t afraid.”
We walked along the lagoon and passed by vendors selling all sorts of tchotchkes. One souvenir cart had a cigarette case emblazoned with a picture of the very sky ride toward which we were walking; next to it was a decorative plate with “Century of Progress,” the theme of the Fair, etched in gold lettering above a map of the grounds. There was also a plaque depicting a scene from another of the exhibits at the World’s Fair: the Negro Plantation Show. Several tall, thick Negroes were stooped over in a field, picking cotton. One of them had a speech bubble above his head. “I Sho’ Do Loves My Freedom,” it said. Underneath was the American flag, and in bright red letters a caption reading, “America: Land of the Free.”
“Ain’t that the Shabbes Goy over there?” Khetzke pointed to a neighboring cart and asked Hester.
“I don’t think that’s what his mother calls him, but yeah, that’s the one. Janusz.”
Janusz was looking at postcards and talking with a friend in Polish.
“That’s Bucketfoot Al Simmons,” said Butcher. Bucketfoot was a talented third baseman for the Phillies. “I sat next to him on the bench yesterday in the All-Star game.”
We walked over to the two.
“Fellows!” said Janusz. “I’d like you to meet my friend. We used to play together in the Lackawanna League. Well, for about a month or so, that’s all, but when I read in the paper that he was in Chicago for the All-Star game the same time we have a series against the Cubs, I thought, There’s a man I’d like to see again.”
“But you were speaking Polish?”
“Sure. His real name ain’t Simmons. It’s Szymanski. As Polish as I am.”
“Nice to meet you, boys. Janusz and I go back, it’s true. But don’t worry — he didn’t spill any secrets.”
“We ain’t worried,” said Khetzke. “He’s one kneidl who won’t fall apart in hot water. He proved himself to us.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Butcher.
Hester extended his hand, too.
I absentmindedly scanned the postcards again.
“Looking for something to send home to your mother? It’s true what they say about Jewish boys, huh?” Simmons laughed.
“It’s not for my mother,” I said. “It’s for a girl.”
“What kind of girl?” said Simmons.
“My girl,” I answered and I knew as soon as I said it I should have just kept quiet.
“As friend of mine who’s been playing this game for years once told me, ‘Al, there’s always been a place for girls in baseball. In the hotel room, and out the door.’”
“Give the boy a break,” said Janusz. “He’s young and he’s seeing stars.”
Simmons started again: “Take it from a man who’s been in baseball a long time. There ain’t much room for love.”
“Don’t ruin him, Al,” said Janusz, poking his friend in the ribs. “Not everybody is so damn coldhearted as you are.”
“Coldhearted, hot-blooded. Anyhow, I ought to scat. I’ve got a number waiting for me at the hotel room could knock the pants off a Polish priest. Or, to make it understandable to you” — he waved his hand at us — “she could knock the hat off a rabbi.”
Bucketfooted Al winked and was gone.
“Eh, don’t take it to heart, Talmed. Go on, buy your postcard. We don’t have time for the Skyride. We’ve got to get to the stadium in an hour.”
I paid three cents for a Century of Progress postcard and stuffed it in my pocket. I promised myself I’d fill it out as soon as I had a free minute.
We hurried along the lagoon and out the 23rd Street Exit. We were at Wrigley Field in no time at all.
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 18