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 19 chapters here.
Tukhes Afn Tisch
Since the All Star Game we’d lost 15 out of the last 20 and now we were a dozen spots out of first. We rode the rails from the Windy City to Pittsburgh and embarrassed ourselves so badly there that Reb Shlomo stormed the Pirates’ locker room.
Flying down the inner corridors of Forbes Field like one of King David’s bitter warriors, our manager banged on the door with both fists. The back of his neck was hot pepper-red and he had sweated a dark band through his cap. His shoulders and chest were heaving.
A confused-looking Pie Traynor, the Pirates third baseman, wearing only a towel around his waist, opened up the door.
“I need to talk to the Flying Dutchman,” Reb Shlomo demanded.
Waite Hoyt, the pitcher who’d beaten us that day, stepped in front of Pie. Hoyt was a decent fellow.
“Hello, Coach. Can’t it wait? Mr. Wagner doesn’t like to be bothered after games. Maybe it’d be best if you didn’t come in.”
Reb Shlomo was aghast.
“No Jews in the clubhouse, huh? You anti-Semite, may a child be named after you!”
“Named after who? It’s got nothing to do with you being a Jew. Don’t play me for a clown and don’t start trouble. It’s got to do with the fact that you ain’t on our team. We don’t usually have opposing players in here. Baseball’s got rules.”
Reb Shlomo sighed in exasperation and fastened a patently false smile to his lips, like a child pasting on a moustache at Purim time.
“Hoyt, sonny boy, mayn kind, mayn bokher, mein lieb,” — Reb Shlomo’s voice was so sticky you could have lost your shoes in it — “you’re a good pitcher and a nice man and a real khalushes shlemazel for beating us today, but please — I’m not knocking for permission. I’m knocking for to be polite. I’m going to find Wagner and I’m going to have a talk with him.”
Reb Shlomo reached back and took hold of my hand, and together we plowed through Pie and Hoyt.
“Sometimes it takes honey, and sometimes it takes a cock-and-bull story. I like to give them both at once.”
We found Wagner in the showers. He was lathering his underarms when he saw us approaching.
“I know I’ve got a reputation as a friendly Joe, but isn’t this taking advantage?” he asked, smiling.
“Honus, I’m sorry. Ikh veys — I know this isn’t the best time. But we’re catching a train in less than two hours and I had to talk to you while the game was still fresh. You’re one of the great hitters of all time. Tell me: what the hell is wrong with my boys? Why can’t they make decent contact?”
“Oh, Shlomo,” said Wagner, “ain’t it obvious? So long as you’re the one up in arms about it, they ain’t gonna get any better. They might have some talent, but that and a nickel will still only get them a 5-cent soda pop. It takes hard work to make it good and stay good. Some of the boys on your team got sprite, but some look like they’re halfway on the diamond, halfway to the moon. Take that pitcher of yours, for example. Butcher. There’s a fierce bull, but it looks to me like he’s got the— ”
“I know, I know,” interrupted Reb Shlomo. “The PMB’s.”
“Exactly. The PMB’s. And that’s only the one of your boys. What I’m saying is, you can’t be a halfway ballplayer. It’s like losing your virginity to your sister.”
“I never had a sister, but I see what you mean.”
Reb Shlomo took Honus Wagner’s words to heart. In St. Louis, we’d had a sluggish morning practice and we were back in the clubhouse for the afternoon game. Usually Reb Shlomo didn’t give grand speeches; with 162 games to a season, he’d have to spend all year holed up at his desk if he wanted to do that. But on this day, after seeing us dragging our tukheses on the field and acting generally unenthusiastic, he decided he’d try to lift us out of our funk.
He called us together in the locker room, and we all bent down on one knee. Reb Shlomo was standing on a bench next to the lockers.
“Boys, give me an ear. We been losing like dogs for three weeks. Something’s gone out of us. I don’t know what the problem is but you’re stinking like a bunch of old fish. You’ve gotten tired. Alright, I understand. It’s a long season. Maybe you miss your families. I can understand that, too. We travel a lot and even a mattress in a fancy-shmancy hotel can feel like a straw bed. A Jew likes his usual little corner probably more than the next man, but you signed up to play baseball and dammit, tell me: Is there a man in the world who wouldn’t kill to be where you are?”
Khetzke the Cowboy, ever a wiseguy, whispered: “Fayvl.”
Reb Shlomo continued.
“Fayvl mighta quit, but he said something pretty wise. You can’t do nothing halfway. Smartest thing ever came outta that shlub’s mouth. And it’s true. Baseball’s a game of life and death but it’s a merciful game because every day you get to come back again. You die on the field but you don’t leave no blood. But you do got to leave your soul, and If you ain’t prepared to do that — if you’re only willing to go halfway with it — there’s no point putting on your pants and shirt in the morning. This is the time for tukhes afn tisch”— asses on the table — “in other words, put up or shut up. We been given a chance to show the world that the Jews ain’t always complaining hunchbacks, and if we go down like slugs and kvetching yentas, we are doing no service to our people.
“Yesterday in the Forverts Nosie Mosie, that cocker with a big mouth and a small head, wrote about us: ‘The Lions of Zion are swinging the bat so lousy, they couldn’t hit the ground if you dropped them off a cliff.’ I’d like to drop him off a cliff, but what he said holds water. Why aren’t we hitting? Because we’re shluffing at the wheel. We need to go out and prove we’re still baseball players. You can’t just walk off the field in the seventh inning when you’re down by ten runs. We will finish this season with our heads high, or you’ll be cursed!”
The Lions of Zion plotzed out onto the field and lost the day’s game in one of the most lopsided contests of the season. Reb Shlomo’s speech had failed to stir.
After St. Louis we headed to Philadelphia, where we snapped out of our bad luck streak, at least for a little while. The Phillies were less than good and they started a fellow named Snipe Hansen, who tall and slim and was about as intimidating as a bowl of chicken soup. We clobbered him for eight runs over five innings, and Barney was pitching a no-hitter until the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, when the Phils put in their benchwarmer, Alta Cohen, to pinch hit.
Cohen wasn’t much of a talent but the Phillies manager must have figured that it would take a Jew to really rattle another Jew.
Hester started in on him as he got to the plate.
“Alta Cohen the alter cocker. Go take a seat. The bench said it’s getting cold without your bum.”
“You go to hell, Hester. I’m going to crack one over that goy first baseman’s head.”
And he did.
Barney’s face fell as he watched a sweet fastball bounce off a sour bat and sail over Janusz’s head down the right field line.
“Lousy thing,” said Barney, after the game, “but that Schoolboy alter cocker Alta Cohen’s no dummie. He knew that if I’d have been the first Jew to pitch a no-hitter, his name woulda been right next to mine in the books.”
Before we left Philadelphia, we were invited to appear at Levy & Sons Department Store — the store owned by Moses Levy, who was also the financier of our team. It was an invitation we couldn’t refuse. At nine o’clock on Sunday morning we put on our freshly laundered uniforms and stood like chickens awaiting the shoykhet in the grand store on Juniper & Market. In the middle of a great marble court that held a restaurant and dozens of mannequins dressed for a mannequin ball, we smiled, shook hands and signed autographs for customers. Khetzke’s breath stank of alcohol; Butcher was bleary-eyed and could barely string a sentence together; Barney made children cry by pretending to snatch the noses off their faces.
A boy of perhaps ten approached. In his hands he held a copy of a Baseball Magazine. He looked from the page to Butcher and back again, then stepped up close.
“Mister,” he said, his vowels long and his r’s rolling with Yiddish. “Will you sign for me the picture? I want to be a pitcher also.”
It was as though a great gust of wind blew through Butcher’s entire body. His face twitched. His chest heaved. His legs seemed to shake and then he swayed from side to side. He brought a big hand to his face and suppressed a sob. Then, with a scowl, he tore the magazine from the boy’s hands.
“Gey,” he said, spitting upon the floor. “Better you should grow up and be a peddler than a baseball player. This game is a curse and cursed are those who play it.”
It was a long and humiliating four hours we stood in that marble court, and by lunchtime Reb Shlomo made a decision. “Screw Levy. We’re not monkeys and we’re not prostitutes either, God forbid. He wants athletes, that’s what he’s got. If he’s looking for a caravan of clowns, better he should have asked the Dodgers. Let’s get out of here.”
Khotsh, who was in the middle of signing an autograph, tore up the piece of paper in his hands and tossed the pen over his shoulder. We marched out of Levy & Sons Department Store, pausing only to laugh as Khotsh squeezed the behind of a stiff but well-dressed mannequin.
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 20