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 21 chapters here.
It’s usually not until the fourth or fifth inning that you turn the corner and bump into it: the realization that today might be the day the pitcher’ll toss a no-hitter. The game’s humming along and you think, sure, the other team is having a slow day and yeah, maybe your pitcher’s got some good stuff, but then… Wham, it hits you like a brick to the head.
“Hey, our guy’s keeping them hitless,” you might want to say to the fellow sitting next to you, but you don’t. You chew your lip and look around the dugout, see where the pitcher’s sitting because if he’s on the far end of the bench and there’s nobody talking to him, then that’s it: you’re the last sorry schmuck to realize what’s going on.
You immediately get to thinking, “Wait a second, did the pitcher throw four balls yet?” Because if he didn’t, then you’ve got the makings not just of a no-hitter, but of a perfect game on your hands. You don’t want to say anything, you’re afraid to ask, because baseball players are more superstitious than old maids and if the pitcher overhears you talking about him you might get into his head.
You look to the guy next to you on the bench and you start to form the word “Has,” as in, “Has he walked anybody?” but you don’t, because as soon as your lips start moving they get frozen. And your teammate, he knows just what you’re thinking, only he doesn’t nod his head because he’s afraid of making any false motions, afraid that the pitcher sitting there on the other side of the bench, as far away as Mexico, might as well be, will catch you talking about him. So the fellow just blinks slowly, is all, blinks slowly and gives you to understand what you’re dealing with. As you make your way along the faces of every player sitting in that dugout, you read it in their eyes: they all blink slowly, they all hold their breath, and they’re trying like the dickens not to let the pitcher see how nervous they are.
It’s one of the most beautiful moments a team can have: that silent communication, that moment when you’re in the game and you’re all feeling each other like nine identical brothers. It’s baseball at its best, because you’re rooting for somebody else — you don’t care what numbers show up in the rags tomorrow in the column next to your name, so long as the ace comes out with the zeroes where it counts. It’s selfless. The only other selfless act I can compare it to is carrying the coffin of a dead man to the cemetery. My mother once told me, “A dead man don’t say thanks.” Well, at least a pitcher can do that.
Butcher didn’t look extra tense on the mound, which was strange, because all he’d been doing lately was seem tense. The Dodgers were swinging their bats but the only thing they were landing was on their butts after Butcher’s fastball swept by them. Hack Wilson, the victim of the Great Kneidl Ruse, came up snorting mad, hoofing at the dirt like an angry bull. The only satisfaction he got was the distinction of fouling off four balls in a row, before finally swinging strike three on a slider that started at his chest and ended at the knuckles on his toes. It was the sweetest pitch of the game — one of the sweetest pitches I ever saw — and it belonged, in a way, to Hack as well.
Tony Cucinello and Butcher faced off a few times, too. Cucinello was the only Dodger at the All-Star Game in Chicago; Butcher’d been the only Lion. They gabbed with each other while they were there and since they were both New York boys, they had something to talk about. But now was no time for chatting. Cucinello wanted a hit as badly as any man who knows that what he does determines how his family eats; everybody wants to be the makher who breaks up a perfect game. But when Cucinello, batting in the six spot, came up a second time, it was all hot air. He whiffed big on three strikes and sat down looking like a struck cat.
In the top of the seventh, we were up five runs to nothing. We were finally batting like we had something to prove — the selfless determination of a team of men supporting a single outstanding player — but still, something seemed slightly off. Butcher was sitting all alone at the edge of the bench and kept looking towards us, itching for conversation. Reb Shlomo stood smoking nervously on the dugout steps, barely speaking a word. Once he came over to me and laid a hand on my shoulder, but in the end he turned away, thought better of opening his mouth. Finally Khotsh turned his head toward Butcher and caught his eye. Butcher smiled.
There was something false in it, though I’d never seen Butcher make a phony move in his life. I wish I’d gone over and talked to him but I didn’t have the courage. In the end it was Khotsh, a man who never had a nice word for anybody, who broke the ice.
“Hell of a game you’re pitching, boychik,” he said, taking a seat next to Butcher on the bench.
“I know it. I had a feeling. Yesterday I had a feeling and this morning I had a feeling. First damn feeling I’ve had in months.”
“You know the last feeling I had? A broad’s behind, in the elevator this morning coming down to breakfast.”
A long, rolling belly laugh erupted from Butcher’s body.
Next inning, Butcher took the mound again. Ebbet’s Field was so silent you would have thought the people had come for a ballet. The first batter flied out to left. The second batter hit a slow roller to second, which I easily scooped up and tossed to Janusz for out number two. Then, Buckshot Glenn Wright stepped up to the plate.
Buckshot, a shortstop, was known for his defense — in 1925 he’d recorded an unassisted triple play — but he also knew how to punch one through an infield. He watched the first two pitches go by for balls.
Butcher took a deep breath and stepped off the rubber. He looked around. All of us in the infield were crouched, perched on the balls of our feet, ready to pounce like wildcats on anything that came our way. Hester stood up from behind the plate and gave a long, searching glance at Butcher. They locked eyes; when they’re on, a pitcher and his catcher are as identical as two half pennies.
Butcher took off his cap and I knew he was reaching for the little seashell he kept in there. He turned it over in his right hand, patted his thigh with his left, then put the shell back. He wound up and threw the ball.
Like the report of a rifle, the pill cracked off the bat and shot up the middle of the field. Butcher lunged to his left, but couldn’t get a glove on it. It was coming nearly straight for the second base bag, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to stab it. I felt a punch to my gut as I thought about Butcher’s perfect game crumbling to dust.
Like a cowboy on a wild stallion, Khetzke came galloping over from short. His cap flew off as he dove hard. He extended his left hand and somehow the ball found its way into the webbing. On the ground now, he grabbed the ball with his right hand and gave it a backhanded toss all the way to first. Janusz grew two feet as he stretched himself out, his back foot straining to stay on the bag, his right hand, glove extended, opened, pushing through the air. There was a sound of leather smacking leather and the umpire pumped his fist to signal that Butcher’s perfect game was still alive.
We ran back to the dugout, jovial but subdued, although the cheering from the fans was deafening. Not even New Yorkers can boo a perfect game. On the bench, we were nervous and silent. As we made three quick outs, and Butcher got up again to take the mound to hopefully close out the game, he looked at us.
“A brokh!” he shouted. Dammit! “This is a perfect game, not a funeral. I ain’t dying. Cheer up a little, huh? Now come on — three more outs is all I’m asking for.”
He ran out onto the field and we followed him. I glanced back at Reb Shlomo, still standing nervously on the steps. There was something in his eyes that made me uneasy.
Jersey Joe Strip and Al Lopez, the 7-8 hitters, hit easy pop flies to center for the first two outs. For the final out, Chink Outen went down on three delicious pitches, and Ebbets field erupted in an uproar so loud I could barely hear myself holler. Hester and Butcher met in the no-man’s land between home plate and the mound and hugged each other like long-lost brothers; the infield jumped on top of them, forming a huge pile of wriggling humans in the middle of the diamond, and soon the entire Lions team was in the mix. Butcher had done it. He said he had a feeling and he wasn’t wrong. Not a hit, not a walk, just nine innings of flawless pitching.
In the locker room we busted open a dozen bottles of champagne and drank to perfection. Butcher’s face was serene and radiant as he drank from the bottle. I embraced him. In that moment, he was for me so many things: a role model, a brother, a teammate, a friend. It was one of the rare occasions in life when I felt another man’s joy as closely as my own. I had been on the field with him. I had sweated through every batter just as he had. We were like soldiers in the army of baseball, and we’d battled in the trenches all the way to the prize.
But then, as the champagne sprayed and leaked down our faces, and as the boys whooped and yipped, I felt myself floating around the room, and there came in me a certain sadness. I was sharing the happiness that someone else had created, and now, I wanted to pass that happiness on to another person whom I loved. The faces in the locker room were like drops of water outside a window, all out of focus, and all I wanted was to see the face of the one I knew I loved.
I wanted to see Rachel.
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 22