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 20 chapters here.
Sleep Would Not Come
It felt strange to be back in New York, as though I’d been gone a hundred years.
The last time I’d been home, I was sure that I loved three things in this world: baseball, Rachel and my mother. Not necessarily in that order, but not necessarily not in that order, either.
Now, as I was sitting next to both of these women at my mother’s Shabbes table, they felt like strangers. And what’s more, baseball troubled me, too, instead of bringing me relief. I stared at the chulent on my plate, pushed it from side to side with my fork the way a poor man sweeps the floor with his broom.
“Talmed, ketzele, why aren’t you eating?”
My mother put her hand on top of mine, then got up from the table to bring in another dish.
Rachel looked at me. Her hair was in a bun; her skin, despite the sun during these warm months, still sparkled like falling snow. But somehow I couldn’t find the words I needed to say.
Rachel was thinking. She was quiet.
“Tell us about the team,” said my mother, sensing the tension silently hiding under the napkins. My homecoming was supposed to be a joyous occasion, and here I was at the Shabbes table wearing the expression of a mourner.
“We’re not so good anymore, Ma,” I offered.
“Good, bad — who’s counting?”
“In baseball, Ma, everybody counts.”
“You have to have an answer for everything? Tell me, you’re enjoying it? You’re working hard? Your letters stopped coming. What, they don’t sell stamps in Cincinnati? The postmen all quit in Chicago? In Boston the mail was cancelled?”
“Yes,” added Rachel softly. “The letters have stopped.” Her dark eyes were as round as my answers.
“I meant to,” I said. “I just — well, things on the team got a little crazy, that’s all. We started losing. Fayvl quit. We have to practically drag Butcher onto the field every morning.”
“Mein ketzele, if your bubbe had a beard, she’d be your grandfather. What counts isn’t what could be, but what is.”
This was too much. Rachel, upset with me though she was, couldn’t keep a straight face. She burst out in laughter as my mother came over and placed a brick of babka in front of me.
“Eat, eat,” my mother said, placing a fork in my hand. “Just don’t get fat.”
The painful lunch ended on a sweet note and Rachel and I went out for a walk.
“Your mother is right,” she said. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to wait here for a man who’s running around the country, staying in hotels where loose women wait in the lobby for these professional athletes? Do you have any idea how nervous that makes an honest girl?
Again, I tried explaining.
“An excuse in a fur coat is still an excuse, Talmed,” said Rachel wisely. “If you had so many things inside your head, you could have taken a few out and put them down on paper. It would have maybe cleared for you some space.”
“I’m sorry. What else can I say?”
“Just tell me what’s been bothering you so much.
“I don’t know.” Though it was warm on the street, a cold wind swept through my body, and I shivered.
“First there is so much on your mind, and now you don’t know? You’re sick of me already?”
“No, it’s not that. You got to believe me. It’s the… I don’t know. The team is losing left and right. Our playoff hopes are down the toilet. Everybody’s miserable, our bodies are hurting, the hotels are starting to get on my nerves and I’m tired of—”
Rachel interrupted me. “So what are you staying for?”
“What do you mean?”
She stopped and held my hand close to her chest. She looked straight into my eyes.
“If what you’re saying is, you no longer enjoy playing a little boy’s game, why don’t you quit?”
“Who quits? This is a job any man would dream of.”
“So tell me. Now that you’ve had it, is it still such a dream?”
“It would be if we could start winning again.”
“And if you don’t?”
“If we don’t, I still won’t quit. You can’t just leave. You can’t throw in the towel when there are innings left to play. You can’t take a base on three balls, you can’t walk off the field with only one out, and you can’t quit in the middle of the season. These are the rules of the game, dammit.” I raised my voice. Rachel’s eyelashes fluttered. She fell silent.
“You can’t do anything halfway,” I said, softer now. “That’s all I’m saying. I didn’t mean to get excited.”
“You see what?”
“It’s just, well… What about love. Isn’t love anything, then?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you can’t do anything halfway, you can’t do love halfway either. I love you but I’m not a fool. I won’t wait for a man for who doesn’t think of me. Be a mensch. Find the time to write to the woman you love.”
We were stopped now, sitting on a bench along the East River, watching the Saturday afternoon seagulls take their Shabbes stroll.
“For stories I could read Dostoevsky. For love I want a nice Jewish boy. Just tell me that you’ll write.”
“I’ll write, I’ll write, my Rachel. To you I will write.”
Later that afternoon, I was having a shluf in my mother’s bedroom, enjoying for once the heymishe feel of a familiar bed, the lumps of the mattress formed by people I knew, when I opened my eyes and saw a figure standing over me. At first I thought I was dreaming — who could this be, visiting me in my dreams? — but then I heard the unmistakable chatter of voices below the window, the noises of a neighborhood full of life, and I saw that it was Butcher Block, a heavy expression on his face, in the bedroom. “Your mother let me in,” he said.
The shades were pulled down over the window, and only a sliver of light was sneaking in, lighting up one half of Butcher’s face.
“I’ve got a favor to ask.”
“Sure, Butcher. Anything.” I was slowly waking up, and I sat up on the bed and stretched my arms.
“I’ve got a letter here I want you to hold for me.” Out of the inside pocket of his jacket he produced an envelope. I reached out to take it, but Butcher wasn’t quite ready to let it go.
“What’s so special about the letter? You can’t keep it at home?”
“It’s not safe at home. My wife, you see, she gets into everything. I was home this morning and I found this — it’s a letter from a long time ago, from somebody I once loved very much. A love letter, see.”
Both of our had a hand on the mysterious relic of the past.
“Not from my wife. I’m afraid if she discovers it, my goose’ll be cooked.”
I was silent for a moment. I didn’t want to judge, but I always thought that when a man was married, there were parts of his life he had to let go of.
“This love letter… The woman who wrote it — you’re still in touch with her?”
“Better you shouldn’t ask questions. I’m asking you to hold it for me, not to act the private eye.”
I rubbed my sleepy eyes.
“Ok, sure, Butcher, I’m sorry, no more questions. I’ll keep it here and whenever you want it, you’ll know where it is.”
“Thanks, Talmed. It’s nothing, really. I just don’t want it at home. It’s very dear to me, and some things you can’t part with, no matter how long ago…”
“You don’t have to say another word.”
My mother knocked on the door, and Butcher put a finger to his lips. She had made us tea and brought it to us with mandelbrot.
Butcher hurriedly drank down his tea as we sat in silence on the bed. His large body seemed uncomfortable, as if there was something under his skin. In a minute he got up to leave.
“I’d better go. I’ll see you at the hotel later tonight, but I’ve got to get home before then and pick up some things.”
“How do you feel, Butcher? You know, some people are worried about you.”
“I am feeling better and I am feeling worse. But I think I’ll pitch a good game tomorrow. I feel it in my bones.”
“I’m sure you will. You’ve just got to clear your head, you know? You worry too much. You’re a hell of a ballplayer, if only you could keep the mishegass of the world from bothering you.”
“Something like that,” said Butcher, and he forced a smile. “But then, what is the world without its mishegass? I’ll see you tomorrow. And bring that girl of yours. Tomorrow’s going to be something special, I’m sure of it.”
“Sure, Butch. She’ll be there.”
“Good. I think I’ve got my beytzim back.” He walked out of the bedroom, thanked my mother for the tea, and then I heard the front door open and close.
I went out into the kitchen. My mother was leaning over the kitchen sink, and I quietly tucked the letter into an old book of fairy tales on the bookshelf. A film of dust came off on my fingers, and I washed my hands in the sink and went back into the bedroom. With a few hours left before I had to report back to our hotel, I wanted to get some sleep. But for some reason, sleep would not come.
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 21