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 18 chapters here.
Can’t Do Nothing Halfway
Reb Shlomo peeked his head out from the manager’s office.
“Anybody seen Fayvl? We take the field in fifteen, and that shlub still hasn’t shown up. He probably got himself lost. Took a wrong turn in Bava Kamma.”
“Bava Whatta?” asked Janusz.
“Forget it, forget it. Just tell me when that shmuck gets here.” Reb Shlomo retreated back into the office.
Not a minute later the door burst open and in bounced Fayvl, dressed like a schoolteacher, as in the days of old. He was in dark slacks, a spotty black jacket and a dime store necktie decorated with coffee stains and cigarette burns. His eyes, though, were aglow with a spot of sunshine.
“Rabbonim,” he said, pacing back and forth. Every part of his body was jumping with excitement.
“What gives, Fayvel? You act like you got a fire in your pants.”
“In my pants is none of your business. In my heart is a fire like the burning bush!”
“If you got news, give it.” Khetzke was tucking his shirt into his pants. “And hurry up and get changed. Reb Shlomo’s likely to have a heart attack if he sees you acting like a little yenta in the locker room. We’ve got to be on the field.”
“I’m not taking the field. Friends, my dear, dear friends, I have a piece of news. Two, actually. First I’ll give you the sad.”
“A real Jew, this one,” said Perchik. “Always starting with the sad….”
Fayvl brushed off this comment without making a sour face. He was a new man.
“I’m not taking the field today. Not today, not tomorrow. Not ever again.”
There was a murmur of voices, and Reb Shlomo came out of his office at the commotion.
“What’s going on here?”
“I’m telling, I’m telling,” said Fayvl.
“He’s telling, he’s telling,” said Khetzke.
“Tell, tell,” said Perchik.
“I’m quitting the team. Halfway through the season and I realize my heart isn’t in it. I thought I was a ballplayer but it turns out there’s a difference between what you dream you are and what Hashem actually made you. I’m no ballplayer. I’m a melamid, a teacher, and there’s no denying it.”
He took a deep breath, as if lamenting this fact, but quickly a look of pride overtook the trace of sadness.
“You can’t do nothing halfway. Just look at Moshe Rabeynu. ‘Talk to the rock,’ Hashem said. ‘Talk to the rock and it will give you water.’ Moshe listened halfway and he struck the rock with his stick. What happened? For this he never made it to Eretz Yisroel. I don’t want to miss out on getting to my Eretz Yisroel, boys. I’m going back to teaching.”
“Your Promised Land is a teaching job in a dark and musty cheder?”
“Well, Khetzke, there’s more. I told you I had two kinds of news. There’s also the good kind.”
Fayvl, as much as his he knew how, paused for effect: “I got myself a shidduch.”
“Married? You’re getting married? Who’s the lucky squirrel? Did I say squirrel? I meant girl.”
“I’ll tell you. I have people here, in Chicago, from my mother’s side, may she rest in peace. I went for a Shabbes meal and they said to me, ‘Fayvl, boychik, khokhom, it’s time you settled down. Baseball, shmaseball, your mother from the grave would surely curse your kop if she knew what you were doing. We’ve got a girl for you.’
“And the next day I met her: Shani. Shani Rozhinkess. Sweet as raisins, just like her name. We fell in love, what can I say? Love — who would have believed in such a thing back in New York? So you see, the bad news come out of the good news. For me the Promised Land is teaching, a home with my future wife and kinderlekh running around barefoot.”
Reb Shlomo took Fayvl’s hand.
“Fayvl, sweetheart, dear. I’m happy for you. Mazel tov und may you live and be well biz hundert und tsvantsik. But do you have what to make a living? It’s not easy to find work today. Maybe you should finish out the season and save up a little for your new life?”
“Thank you, Reb Shlomo, but I am a lucky man, baruch Hashem. Shani’s father is the rosh yeshivah at a little place here in Chicago, and he’s going to find for me a place to teach at his school.”
“In that case, Fayvele, what can I say? For once my tongue deserts me. You have my blessing. All I ask is to be invited to the wedding.”
“You’re all invited to the wedding. We’ll hold it the next time the Lions come to town!”
“Ameyn.” Reb Shlomo dropped Fayvl’s hand and turned around to us.
“Now, men, we have somewhere to be. Fayvl will excuse us. We have a game to play. May we all have such luck and happiness — on the ballfield!”
“Tell me,” said Janusz, as we stepped onto the field. “Are things always this crazy with the Jews?”
On the field it was Butcher facing off against Burleigh Grimes, the infamous spitballer. Grimes threw a wet ball that sailed through the air and zippered up and down — nobody could lay solid wood on the pill because we never knew where it was going to go next. He caught us off guard whenever he tossed a fastball or a curve, and we were left scratching our heads and falling on our tukheses when we wiffed.
Meanwhile, Butcher was getting murdered.
“They’re shelling him like it’s the Great War,” said Reb Shlomo. I was in the dugout. Khotsh and I were trading off at second. “He just don’t look right.”
“His mechanics are good,” I offered. “Maybe it’s psychological. You know, the PMBs.”
“Yeah, something’s still eating at him. You talk with Butcher these days it’s like you’re talking to a man whose eyes’ve gone fuzzy.”
By the third inning the Cubbies were ahead by five runs to nothing.
“See if you can’t sit next to him and try to get a word in. I want to know whether to pull him or let him be. I’m half afraid if I take him out he’ll never get over it. On the other hand, I’m afraid if I leave him in he’ll never get out from under it.”
“What it are you talking about, exactly?”
“I don’t know, Talmed. You can fill in the blank. Ain’t you got an imagination?”
I was sitting next to Butcher, but he seemed so far away, like he was watching the game form one of the quarter seats.
“You feeling ok, Butch?”
He rubbed his knee and looked around.
“Why ask a question if the answer is staring you in the face?”
Butcher got up and stood on the steps of the dugout, though he wasn’t watching the game. His eyes darted around the stadium like a bird hopping from branch to branch.
Wet Jakie Stein took Butcher’s place next to me. Khetzke the Cowboy had just swung on strike three, missing big on a loping off-speed pitch. He’d been expecting a spitter and thought the ball was going to cut.
Reb Shlomo was pacing up and down the dugout.
“There’s got to be a way to stop this. Stein!” He stopped in front of Jakie, who was our very own illegal spitballer. “Tell me – do you do anything different when you throw that spitter of yours? Is there any way the other team can tell what you’re throwing?”
“Well, not if they don’t shake my hand first, they can’t. What good’s a dirty ball if everybody knows its dirty?”
Reb Shlomo walked away in frustration, and Janusz hit a dribbler to third that was picked up for an easy third out.
Butcher went over to Reb Shlomo as the players were taking the field.
“Coach, I’m pulling myself. I ain’t got nothing left.”
Reb Shlomo looked at him for a minute, kicked the front step of the dugout, and walked away. Butcher headed for the showers.
Bennie the Egyptian came up to bat in the top of the ninth. He’d had three hits already — the only ones Grimes had given up the whole game. Bennie took the first two pitches; both of them were spitters. The next pitch he swung at and whomped all the way down the first base line, but it pulled foul just at the wall. The fourth pitch was a regular old fastball — the kind that had been confounding the team all day — and Bennie knocked the seams off of it. The ball sailed over the shortstop’s head, above the left fielder’s glove, and all the way into the stands for a homerun.
“How the hell did you hit him?” asked Khotsh when Bennie finally rounded the bases.
“I knew what he was going to pitch every time. My question is how the hell haven’t you been hitting him?”
Khotsh nearly lost his cap.
“You knew what he was going to pitch? How the hell did you know a thing like that? If you’re stealing signs and you ain’t sharing with the rest of us, you’re not only a ganif but a khazer-mamzer, too.”
“Sharmuta! Don’t call me names, Khotsh. All you gotta do is watch the man’s head. When Grimes wants to throw a spitter, he uses all the muscles in his head except his brain. You can see him sucking in that juice so hard his hat moves up and down. You know, like he’s doing some Ashkenazi dance, hell do I know… Keep your eyes on the cap for the wiggle, that’s all there is to it.”
But it was too late for Bennie’s observations. Hester hit a fly ball that couldn’t make it out of the infield, and the game was over.
Butcher was already gone when we made it to the locker room.
“This is worse than a pogrom,” said Reb Shlomo, looking at Butcher’s empty locker. “This team’s in trouble, and Butcher is about to break.”
When I was putting my jacket on I found the postcard I’d bought for Rachel. I turned it over in my hands. What would I write to her? I thought about Fayvl and his newfound happiness. What did he mean by halfway? Did one have to think about baseball all the time, or was there room for other things off the field? Butcher was in the game whole hog and it was eating him up from the inside. My heart was in baseball but maybe not as much as it should have been, and I was afraid if I gave any more of it to Rachel, there wouldn’t be enough room for the game of my dreams.
I’ll write something in the morning, I thought, and folded the postcard back in my pocket. I walked out into the Chicago night. Along dingy streets with sidewalks crumbling like matzah I made my way back to the hotel. It started to rain.
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 19