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 23 chapters here.
Blessed Is the True Judge
A furious wind whistled past me as I stepped into the room. The lights were on, but both beds were empty. Hester and Butcher, sharing a room as usual, were supposed to be here. Butcher’s uniform was lying in a pile by the bed. His bed was unmade, while Hester’s had been turned down. Not finding anybody, I was just turning back to leave the room when the sound of screaming reached me from the street.
I ran to the open window and leaned my head out: a crowd of people, forming a horseshoe on the sidewalk, had gathered below. Some of them had their hands raised and were pointing upwards, right towards me. A woman in a green hat — that’s what it looked like, anyway, in the middle of the night with the street lights allowing for confusion — suddenly fell backwards, and a large man caught her before she hit the ground. Finally I saw what the commotion was about: In the center of the crowd, there was a big bundle. At first I thought that someone had dropped a laundry sack, but I quickly realized that people don’t stand around staring at an oversized bag of whites.
With everything that had happened that night — Butcher’s perfect game, knowing Rachel under the stars at Ebbet’s Field, the long walk across the silvery river all the way to Manhattan — I was nearly too tired to think. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much thinking required: A terrible idea started to come together in my mind, and I saw things as though through an underwater fog.
The lights. The empty room, the one unmade bed. The open window. The people looking up when I leaned outside… A knot the size of a baseball rose up in my stomach and lodged itself in my gullet. I looked down again: It was a man lying there, an imprint on the sidewalk, one hand raised above his head, elbow slightly crooked, the other hand hidden beneath his stomach.
I ran out to the hallway, where I must have pressed the elevator button just about hard enough to break it. I couldn’t stand there and do nothing so I flew down the stairs and I darted through the lobby before I realized what I was doing.
Khetzke caught me as I ran out onto the street. He smelled sour, like whiskey and sweat, and I knew that if he’d been capable of crying, he would have. I tried pushing him away. He gripped my shoulders; I clawed at his hands. Finally I dragged him along with me far enough so that I could see the body, surrounded by a gawking crowd, fallen from such great heights. Reb Shlomo ran out in his bathrobe, out of breath and wishing he was still dreaming. Khetzke let me go, and I fell on Reb Shlomo’s shoulder, crying.
It was Butcher, of course, lying there on the sidewalk like a vegetable sack. I had the feeling that my stomach was about to burst out the roof of my brain, and Reb Shlomo’s muttering became the only sound I could hear. All the other noise of the street — the clanking of trash cans, the midnight laughter of happy revelers, their pangs of surprise when they saw the body in the street — fell away.
“A different type of fire, a different type of fire,” was what Reb Shlomo kept repeating.
Khetzke left us to go track down Hester. He found him at the hotel bar, kibitzing with a bunch of makhers, cigars hanging out of their mouths, talking about the perfect game. Hester’s face looked like crumbling marble when he came out on the street. Pitcher and catcher — they’d been roommates since the season began, and now Hester Panim would be the one to bring Butcher’s widow the news.
“Barukh dayn emes,” he said, and hailed a cab going north. Blessed is the True Judge.
What was there left to do? Some people came and took away Butcher, and Khetzke and Reb Shlomo and I stood around, eyes blank except for tears. It was like we’d all just been brained by a frying pan.
So we started walking. We had nowhere to arrive at; we weren’t heading towards something. We walked because we hoped to leave something of ourselves on each square of pavement we crossed over. We wanted to drop our grief and shock like birds dropping their waste in flight. We hoped this dung of misery would fall out of our hearts as we stepped, stepped, stepped.
We barely talked, for there was nothing to say. Talk would come later. By traipsing around the city — we went east, walking into the sun that was slowly rising from its bed behind the wall of Brooklyn — we hoped to bring order to our brains. That’s the beauty of Manhattan, with its streets and avenues labeled like a diagram. Never mind the meshugas that goes on in the streets. If you let your feet and the street signs decide things for you, it all makes sense. In life it ain’t always like that.
Finally, after five hours of walking, it was nearly eight o’clock. The sun had come up full over the East River and it was hard to believe, staring across it, that only yesterday we’d played baseball there, and celebrated Butcher’s perfect game in the locker room. The buildings in Brooklyn were like a team of squat wrestlers compared to the graceful dancers of brick Manhattan. Reb Shlomo forced me to eat something at a lunch counter tucked away in a pocket of Delancey.
Of course, the funeral would be in a few hours. Jews like to bury their dead right away. We think the body’s rotten and the spirit’s the only thing that matters. With Butcher, it seemed like the opposite. His soul had turned sour, but his body was still capable of slinging a fastball past any major leaguer you like.
At Butcher’s home in the Bronx, his widow had locked herself in her bedroom. The only proof of her existence were the loud wails coming from behind the door, interspersed with angry shouting and curses that would make a prostitute blush. In the den sat all of The Lions of Zion. Janusz the Shabbes goy had brought flowers, expecting a wake. He didn’t know that Jews only mourn a dead man once he’s gone. We leaned against the walls or sat around in a daze, all of us, nobody with a word to say.
Finally Mrs. Block emerged from the bedroom. She asked Reb Shlomo if he’d lead the service at the cemetery. It would be short, just the prerequisites. A suicide doesn’t get eulogies.
I couldn’t stand it at the cemetery. Butcher was one of the greatest men I ever knew — so kind, so full of love and warmth, and here they wouldn’t even let him be buried with the rest. They threw into some forgotten corner, marked in death as an outcast, where the weeds grew high as your knees and nobody came to put stones on the graves. When his coffin was lowered into the ground, I left the crowd and walked along the fence. I couldn’t bear to shovel dirt on top of him.
The sky was the lightest shade of blue you ever saw, and there wasn’t a cloud around. It was hot, but there was a breeze coming through the cemetery and it would have been a hell of a day for a game of baseball.
I looked down again and Khetzke was at my side. He put his arm around my shoulder and I started to cry.
“They couldn’t have put him with everybody else? They had to throw him off here to the side? Dammnit, Khetz, he deserves better than this… Aw, hell. Why he’d have to go and do such a stupid thing?”
“Listen, Kid. He went out on a high note. What can I tell you? We’ll probably never know. But don’t think of him as being pushed off to the side here. More like he’s waiting in the bullpen, ready to come in and pitch another game.”
We left the cemetery and accompanied Mrs. Block back to the shiva house, but had to say goodbye for good. We had a baseball season to get back to. We were leaving on the early train the next day for Chicago.
I went back to say goodbye to my mother and Rachel and before we headed out of town again. Rachel was waiting with my mother. They had heard the news; it had been in the afternoon papers.
Rachel looked pale and her eyes were red, like she’d been crying all day. My mother, too.
“A real mensch, that man,” said my mother, sitting down at the kitchen table with great hardship.
“He was your friend. Barukh dayn emes.” said Rachel, and put her hand on top of mine.
I was still too stunned to do anything but feel a distant comfort, not in the words of these two women, but just by their presence close to me.
The season was almost over. I’d be back in New York in no time. This time it wasn’t the parting that was sorrowful, but the fact that one person wouldn’t be coming with us.
The street was busy with the summer evening traffic: boys playing stickball, peddlers dragging their carts full of pots and pans from one corner to the next, young boys shouting the headlines, their fingers stained black from newsprint. I was thinking about Butcher, of course, and how only two days ago, I awakened from a dream to find him standing in front of me. I half expected I’d awaken this time, too.
And that was when I remembered the envelope he’d given me. I dashed back to the apartment and nearly knocked my mother over when she opened the door for me. I ran to the bookshelf and took down the volume of fairy tales where I’d slipped the letter.
There was no name or address anywhere, and the envelope was sealed.
I explained to my mother.
“Open it,” she said, her voice gentle, and I trusted that she was right.
It was no love letter. Well, at least not the kind of letter he told me it was. I sat down on the floor, my back against the peeling greenish wallpaper, and read:
“When you get rid of all the khazeray of life, what’s left? For me, there was love and baseball. I was lucky — once I had them both. But now I feel like I’ve been out on the mound too long. The sun’s going down, it’s breezy. I can’t barely grip the ball no more. The catcher’s calling pitches what I can’t throw. If he’d take off that damn mask he’d see the look on my face, but he can’t. And I can’t tell anybody about it. Not really.
“I am miserable. Why share it? Who needs it? Better to hit the showers now.
“I can’t wake up anymore.
“Rosie, my lovely wife, I’m sorry I been such a mamzer. To the boys: no longer will I be a dark spot on what should be a green field. I wanted to go out on top. I had one more game in me. Now — I’m kaput.
“Shver tsu leyben, shver tsu shtarbn.” Hard to live, hard to die. “I hope that once you’re dead, it gets easier.”
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 24