Due to travel restrictions placed on major league baseball by the War Department, the World Series of 1918 was played in September and split into two home stands. The Chicago Cubs hosted the first three games, with the final four to be held in Boston. On September 7, after the Cubs dropped game three, the two teams boarded a Michigan Central train together to embark on the twenty-seven-hour trip, and Babe Ruth got drunk and started stealing hats.
They’d had to pour him onto the train in the first place. After the game, he’d gone to a house a few blocks east of Wabash where a man could find a game of cards, a steady supply of liquor, and a woman or two, and if Stuffy McInnis hadn’t known where to look for him, he would have missed the trip home.
As it was, he puked off the rear of the caboose as the train chugged out of Central Station at a little after eight in the evening and wound its way past the stockyards. The air was woolen with smoke and the stench of butchered cattle, and Ruth was damned if he could find a star in the black sky. He took a pull from his fl ask and rinsed the vomit from his mouth with a gargle of rye and spit it over the iron rail and watched the spangle of Chicago’s skyline rise before him as he slid away from it. As he often did when he left a place and his body was leaden with booze, he felt fat and orphaned.
He drank some more rye. At twenty- three, he was finally becoming one of the more feared hitters in the league. In a year when home runs in the American League had totaled ninety-six, Ruth had accounted for eleven. Damn near 12 percent. Even if someone took into account the three- week slump he’d suffered in June, pitchers had started to treat him with respect. Opposing hitters, too, because Ruth had pitched the Sox to thirteen wins that season. He’d also started fifty- nine games in left and thirteen at first.
Couldn’t hit lefties, though. That was the knock on him. Even when every roster had been stripped to its shells by the players who’d enlisted in the war, Ruth had a weakness that opposing managers had begun to exploit.
He said it to the wind and took another hit from his fl ask, a gift from Harry Frazee, the team owner. Ruth had left the team in July. Went to play for the Chester Shipyards team in Pennsylvania because Coach Barrow valued Ruth’s pitching arm far more than his bat, and Ruth was tired of pitching. You threw a strikeout, you got applause. You hit a home run, you got mass eruption. Problem was, the Chester Shipyards preferred his pitching, too. When Frazee threatened them with a lawsuit, Chester Shipyards shipped Ruth back.
Frazee had met the train and escorted Ruth to the backseat of his Rauch & Lang Electric Opera Coupe. It was maroon with black trim and Ruth was always amazed by how you could see your reflection in the steel no matter the weather or time of day. He asked Frazee what it cost, a buggy like this, and Frazee idly fondled the gray upholstery as his driver pulled onto Atlantic Avenue. “More than you, Mr. Ruth,” he said and handed Ruth the flask. The inscription etched into the pewter read:
Ruth, G. H.
He fingered it now and took another swig, and the greasy odor of cows’ blood mixed with the metallic smell of factory towns and warm train tracks. I am Babe Ruth, he wanted to shout off the train. And when I’m not drunk and alone at the back of a caboose, I am someone to be reckoned with. A cog in the wheel, yes, and you bet I know it, but a diamond- crusted cog. The cog of cogs. Someday …
Ruth raised his flask and toasted Harry Frazee and all the Harry Frazees of the world with a string of lewd epithets and a bright smile. Then he took a swig and it went to his eyelids and tugged them downward.
“I’m going to sleep, you old whore,” Ruth whispered to the night, to the skyline, to the smell of butchered meat. To the dark Midwestern fields that lay ahead. To every ashen mill town between here and Governor’s Square. To the smoky starless sky.
He stumbled into the stateroom he shared with Jones, Scott, and McInnis, and when he woke at six in the morning, still fully clothed, he was in Ohio. He ate breakfast in the dining car and drank two pots of coffee and watched the smoke pour from the stacks in the foundries and steel mills that squatted in the black hills. His head ached and he added a couple of drops from his fl ask to his coffee cup and his head didn’t ache anymore. He played canasta for a while with Everett Scott, and then the train made a long stop in Summerford, another mill town, and they stretched their legs in a field just beyond the station, and that’s when he first heard of a strike.
It was Harry Hooper, the Sox team captain and right fielder, and second baseman Dave Shean talking to the Cubs’ left fielder Leslie Mann and catcher Bill Killefer. McInnis said the four of them had been thick as thieves the whole trip.
“ ’Bout what?” Ruth said, not really sure he cared.
“Don’t know,” Stuffy said. “Muffi ng fl ies for a price, you think? Tanking?”
Hooper crossed the field to them.“We’re going to strike, boys.”Stuffy McInnis said, “You’re drunk.”
Hooper shook his head. “They’re fucking us, boys.”
“The Commission. Who do you think? Heydler, Hermann, Johnson. Them.”
Stuffy McInnis sprinkled tobacco into a slip of rolling paper and gave the paper a delicate lick as he twisted the ends. “How so?”
Stuffy lit his cigarette and Ruth took a sip from his flask and looked across the field at a small fringe of trees under the blue sky.
“They changed the gate distribution of the Series. The percentage of receipts. They did it last winter, but they didn’t tell us till now.”
“Wait,” McInnis said. “We get sixty percent of the first four gates.”
Harry Hooper shook his head and Ruth could feel his attention begin to wander. He noticed telegraph lines stretched at the edge of the field and he wondered if you could hear them hum if you got close enough. Gate receipts, distribution. Ruth wanted another plate of eggs, some more bacon.
Harry said, “We used to get sixty percent. Now we get fifty- five. Attendance is down. The war, you know. And it’s our patriotic duty to take five percent less.”
McInnis shrugged. “Then it’s our—”
“Then we forfeit forty percent of that to Cleveland, Washington, and Chicago.”
“For what?” Stuffy said. “Kicking their asses to second, third, and fourth?”
“Then, then another ten percent to war charities. You seeing this now?”
Stuffy scowled. He looked ready to kick someone, someone small he could really get his leg into.
Babe threw his hat in the air and caught it behind his back. He picked up a rock and threw it at the sky. He threw his hat again.
“It’ll all work out,” he said.
Hooper looked at him. “What?”
“What ever it is,” Babe said. “We’ll make it back.”
Stuffy said, “How, Gidge? You tell me that? How?”
“Somehow.” Babe’s head was beginning to hurt again. Talk of money made his head hurt. The world made his head hurt—Bolsheviks overthrowing the czar, the Kaiser running roughshod over Europe, anarchists tossing bombs in the streets of this very country, blowing up parades and mailboxes. People were angry, people were shouting, people were dying in trenches and marching outside factories. And it all had something to do with money. The Babe understood that much. But he hated thinking about it. He liked money, he liked it just fine, and he knew he was making plenty and he stood to make plenty more. He liked his new motor scooter, and he liked buying good cigars and staying in swell hotel rooms with heavy curtains and buying rounds for the bar. But he hated thinking about money or talking about money. He just wanted to get to Boston. He wanted to hit a ball, paint the town. Governor’s Square teemed with brothels and good saloons. Winter was coming; he wanted to enjoy it while he could, before the snow came, the cold. Before he was stuck back in Sudbury with Helen and the smell of horses.
He clapped Harry on the shoulder and repeated his estimation:
“Somehow it’ll all be fine. You’ll see.”
Harry Hooper looked at his shoulder. He looked off into the field.He looked back at Ruth. Ruth smiled.“Go be a good Babe,” Harry Hooper said, “and leave the talk to the men.”
Harry Hooper turned his back on him. He wore a straw boater, tilted back slightly from his forehead. Ruth hated boaters; his face was too round for them, too fleshy. They made him look like a child playing dress- up. He imagined taking Harry’s boater off his head and flinging it onto the roof of the train.
Harry walked off into the field, leading Stuffy McInnis by the elbow, his chin tilted down.
Babe picked up a rock and eyed the back of Harry Hooper’s seersucker jacket, imagined a catcher’s mitt there, imagined the sound of it, a sharp rock against a sharp spine. He heard another sharp sound replace the one in his head, though, a distant crack similar to the crack of a log snapping in the fireplace. He looked east to where the field ended at a small stand of trees. He could hear the train hissing softly behind him and stray voices from the players and the rustle of the field. Two engineers walked behind him, talking about a busted flange, how it was going to take two hours, maybe three, to fix, and Ruth thought, Two hours in this shithole? and then he heard it again—a dry distant crack, and he knew that on the other side of those trees someone was playing baseball.
He crossed the field alone and unnoticed and he heard the sounds of the ball game grow closer—the singsong catcalls, the rough scuff of feet chasing down a ball in the grass, the wet- slap thump of a ball sent to its death in an outfielder’s glove. He went through the trees and removed his coat in the heat, and when he stepped out of the grove they were changing sides, men running in toward a patch of dirt along the first base line while another group ran out from a patch by third.
He stood where he was and nodded at the center fielder trotting out to take his spot a few yards from him, and the center fielder gave him a curt nod back and then appeared to scan the trees to see if they planned on giving birth to any more white men today. Then he turned his back to Babe and bent at the waist and placed his hand and glove on his knees. He was a big buck, as broad-shouldered as the Babe, though not as heavy in the middle, or (Babe had to admit) in the ass.
The pitcher didn’t waste any time. He barely had a windup, just long goddamn arms, and he swung the right one like he was unleashing a rock from a slingshot meant to travel an ocean, and Babe could tell even from here that the ball crossed the plate on fire. The batter took a nice clean cut and still missed it by half a foot.
Hit the next one, though, hit it solid, with a crack so loud it could have only come from a busted bat, and the ball soared straight at him and then went lazy in the blue sky, like a duck deciding to swim the backstroke, and the center fielder shifted one foot and opened his glove and the ball fell, as if relieved, right into the heart of the leather.
Ruth’s vision had never been tested. He wouldn’t allow it. Ever since he was a boy, he could read street signs, even those painted on the corners of buildings, from distances far greater than anyone else. He could see the texture of the feathers on a hawk a hundred yards above him, in hunt, streaking like a bullet. Balls looked fat to him and moved slow. When he pitched, the catcher’s mitt looked like a hotel pillow.
So he could tell even from this distance that the batter who came up next had a fucked- up face. A small guy, rail thin, but definitely something on his face, red welts or scar tissue against toffee brown skin. He was all energy in the box, bouncing on his feet and his haunches, a whippet standing over the plate, trying to keep from busting out of his skin. And when he connected with the ball after two strikes, Ruth knew this nigra was going to fly, but even he wasn’t prepared for how fast.
The ball hadn’t finished arcing toward the right fielder’s feet (Ruth knew he’d miss it before he did) and the whippet was already rounding first. When the ball hit the grass, the right fielder bare- handed it and didn’t so much as stutter- step before he planted and let her loose, that ball leaving his hand like he’d caught it sleeping with his daughter, and no time to blink before it hit the second baseman’s glove. But the whippet, he was already standing on second. Standing tall. Never slid, never dove. Waltzed on in there like he was picking up the morning paper, stood looking back out to center field until Ruth realized he was looking at him. So Ruth tipped his hat, and the boy fl ashed him a grim, cocky smile.
Ruth decided to keep his eyes on this boy, knowing what ever he was going to do next, it would have the feel of something special.
* * *
The man on second had played for the Wrightville Mudhawks. His name was Luther Laurence, and he’d been cut loose from the Mudhawks in June, after he got into a fight with Jefferson Reese, the team manager and first baseman, big- toothed, smiley Tom who acted like a perfumed poodle around white folks and bad- mouthed his own people in the house where he worked just outside Columbus. Luther heard the specifics one night from this girl he ran around with some, fine young woman named Lila, who worked in that same house with Jefferson Reese. Lila told him Reese was pouring soup from the tureen in the dining room one night, the white folks going on and on about uppity niggers in Chicago, the way they walked the streets so bold, didn’t even drop their eyes when a white woman passed. Old Reese, he piped in with, “Lawse, it’s a terrible shame. Yes, suh, the Chicago colored ain’t no more’n a chimpanzee swinging from the vine. No time for churching. Want to drink hisself outta Friday, poker hisself out of Saturday, and love some other man’s woman straight through Sunday.”
“He said that?” Luther asked Lila in the bathtub of the Dixon Hotel, Coloreds Only. He got some froth going in the water, swept the suds up over Lila’s small hard breasts, loving the look of them bubbles on her flesh, flesh the color of unpolished gold.
“Said a lot worse,” Lila told him. “Don’t you go ’fronting that man now, though, baby. He a cruel one.”
When Luther confronted him anyway in the dugout at Inkwell Field, Reese stopped smiling right quick and got this look in his eyes—a hard, ancient look that spoke of not being far enough removed from sun- torture in the fields—that made Luther think, Uh- oh, but by then, Reese was on him, his fists like the butt end of a bat on Luther’s face. Luther tried to give as good as he got, but Jefferson Reese, more than twice his age and ten years a house nigger, had some fury in him gone so deep that when it finally let go it came out all the hotter and harder for having been kept down in the darkness for so long. He beat Luther into the ground, beat him fast and mean, beat him till the blood, mixed with the dirt and chalk and dust of the field, came off him in strings.
His friend Aeneus James said to Luther while he was in the charity ward of St. John’s, “Shit, boy, fast as you are, whyn’t you just run when you see that crazy old man get that look in his eye?”
Luther’d had a long summer to consider that question, and he still didn’t have an answer. Fast as he was, and he’d never met a man faster, he wondered if he was just heartsick of running. But now, watching the fat man who reminded him of Babe Ruth watching him from the trees, Luther found himself thinking, You think you seen some running, white man? You ain’t. ’Bout to see some now, though. Tell your grandkids.
And he took off from second just as Sticky Joe Beam came out of that octopus throwing motion of his, had a hair of a moment to see the white man’s eyes bulge out big as his belly, and Luther’s feet moved so fast the ground ran under him more than he ran over it. He could actually feel it moving like a river in early spring, and he pictured Tyrell Hawke standing at third, twitching because he’d laid out all night drinking, and Luther was counting on that because he wasn’t just settling for third today, no sir, thinking that’s right, you best believe baseball is a game of speed and I’m the speediest son of a bitch any ya’ll ever see, and when he raised his head, the first thing he saw was Tyrell’s glove right beside his ear. The next thing he saw, just to his left, was the ball, a shooting star gone sideways and pouring smoke. Luther shouted “Boo!” and it came out sharp and high and, yep, Tyrell’s glove jerked up three inches. Luther ducked, and that ball sizzled under Tyrell’s glove and kissed the hairs on the back of Luther’s neck, hot as the razor in Moby’s Barbershop on Meridian Avenue, and he hit the third base bag with the tiptoes of his right foot and came barreling up the line, the ground shooting so fast under his feet he felt like he might just run out of it, go off the edge of a cliff, right off the edge of the world maybe. He could hear the catcher, Ransom Boynton, shouting for the ball, shouting, “Hea’ now! Hea’ now!” He looked up, saw Ransom a few yards ahead, saw that ball coming in his eyes, in the tightening of his kneecaps, and Luther took a gulp of air the size of an ice block and turned his calves into springs and his feet into pistol hammers. He hit Ransom so hard he barely felt him, just went right over him and saw the ball slap into the wooden fence behind home at the exact moment his foot hit the plate, the two sounds—one hard and clean, the other scuffed and dusty—wrapping around each other. And he thought: Faster than any of y’all even dream of being.
He came to a stop against the chests of his teammates. In their pawing and hooting, he turned around to see the look on the fat white man’s face, but he wasn’t at the tree line anymore. No, he was almost at second base, running across the field toward Luther, little baby’s face all jiggly and smiling and his eyes spinning in their sockets like he’d just turned fi ve and someone had told him he was getting a pony and he couldn’t do nothing to control his body, had to just shake and jump and run for the happiness of it.
And Luther got a real look at that face and thought: No.
But then Ransom Boynton stepped up beside him and said it out loud:
Ya’ll ain’t gonna believe this, but that there is Babe Ruth running toward us like a fat fucking freight train.”
* * *
Can I play?”
No one could believe he’d said it. This was after he’d run up to Luther and lifted him off the ground, held him over his face, and said, “Boy, I seen some running in my day, but I ain’t never—and I mean ever—seen anyone run like you.” And then he was hugging Luther and clapping him on the back and saying, “Me oh my, what a sight!”
And it was after they’d confirmed that he was, really, Babe Ruth. He was surprised so many of them had even heard of him. But Sticky Joe had seen him once in Chicago, and Ransom had caught him in Cleveland twice, seen him pitch and play left. The rest of them had read about him in the sports pages and Baseball Magazine, and Ruth’s eyebrows went up at that, like he couldn’t quite believe there were darkies on the planet who knew how to read.
Ruth said, “So you’ll be wanting some autographs?”
No one appeared too interested in that, and Ruth grew long in the mouth as everyone found reasons to look at their shoes, study the sky.
Luther thought about telling Ruth that standing here before him were some pretty great players themselves. Some bona fide legends. That man with the octopus arm? He went 32–2 last year for the Millersport King Horns of the Ohio Mill Workers League—32–2 with a 1.78 ERA. Touch that. And Andy Hughes, playing shortstop for the opposing team of the hour, this being a scratch game, man was hitting .390 for the Downtown Sugar Shacks of Grandview Heights. And, besides, only white folks liked autographs. What the hell was an autograph anyway, but some man’s chicken scrawl on a scrap of paper?
Luther opened his mouth to explain this, but got one good look at Ruth’s face and saw it wouldn’t make no difference: man was a child. A hippo- size, jiggling child with thighs so big you’d expect them to sprout branches, but a child all the same. He had the widest eyes Luther’d ever seen. Luther would remember that for years after, as he saw them change over time in the papers, saw those eyes grow smaller and darker every time he saw a new picture. But then, in the fields of Ohio, Ruth had the eyes of a little fat boy in the school yard, full of hope and fear and desperation.
“Can I play?” He held out his St. Bernard paws. “With you-all?”
That just about busted everyone up, men bending over from the snickering, but Luther kept his face still. “Well . . .” He looked around at the rest of the men, then back at Ruth, taking his time. “Depends,” he said. “You know much about the game, suh?”
That put Reggie Polk on the ground. Bunch of other players cackled, swiped arms. Ruth, though, he surprised Luther. Those wide eyes went small and clear as the sky, and Luther got it right away: With a bat in his hand, he was as old as any of them. Ruth popped an unlit cigar in his mouth and loosened his tie. “Picked up a thing or two in my travels, Mr. . . . ?”
“Laurence, suh. Luther Laurence.” Luther still giving him that stone face.
Ruth put an arm around him. Arm the size of Luther’s bed. “What position you play, Luther?”
“Center field, suh.”
“Well, boy, you don’t have to worry about nothing then but tilting your head.”
“Tilting my head, suh?”
“And watching my ball fly right over it.”
Luther couldn’t help himself; the grin blew across his face.
“And stop calling me ‘suh,’ would you, Luther? We’re baseball players here.”
* * *
Oh, it was something the first time Sticky Joe whiffed him! Three strikes, all right down the pipe like thread following the needle, the fat man never once touching cowhide.
He laughed after the last one, pointed his bat at Sticky Joe and gave him a big nod. “But I’m learning you, boy. Learning you like I’m awake in school.”
No one wanted to let him pitch, so he subbed for a player each inning in the rest of the field. Nobody minded sitting for an inning. Babe Ruth—Lord’s sake. Might not want no sad little signature, but the stories would buy some drinks for a long time.
One inning he played left and Luther was over in center and Reggie Polk, who was pitching for their side, was taking his sweet time between pitches like he was apt to do, and Ruth said, “So what do you do, Luther, when you’re not playing ball?”
Luther told him a bit about his job in a munitions factory outside of Columbus, how war was a terrible thing but it sure could help a man’s pocket, and Ruth said, “That’s the truth,” though it sounded to Luther like he said it just to say it, not because he really understood, and then he asked Luther what had happened to his face.
“Cactus, Mr. Ruth.”
They heard the crack of the bat and Ruth chased down a soft- fade fly ball, moving like a ballerina on his stumpy little tiptoes and throwing the ball back into second.
“Lotta cactus in Ohio? Hadn’t heard that.”
Luther smiled. “Actually, Mr. Ruth sir, they be called ‘cacti’ when you talking ’bout more’n one. And, sho’, there’s great fields of them all over the state. Bushels and bushels of cacti.”
“And you, what, fell into one of these fields?”
“Yes, suh. Fell hard, too.”
“Looks like you fell from an airplane.”
Luther shook his head real slow. “Zeppelin, Mr. Ruth.”
They both had a long soft laugh over that, Luther still chuckling when he raised his glove and stole Rube Gray’s shot right out of the sky.
The next inning, some white men straggled out of the trees, and they recognized a few of them right off—Stuffy McInnis, no lie; Everett Scott, Lord; and then a couple of Cubs, dear Jesus—Flack, Mann, a third guy no one knew by face, could have played for either team. They worked their way along right field, and pretty soon they were standing behind the rickety old bench along the first base line, wearing suits and ties and hats in the heat, smoking cigars, occasionally shouting to someone named “Gidge,” confusing the hell out of Luther until he realized that’s what they called Ruth. Next time Luther looked, he saw they’d been joined by three more—Whiteman of the Sox and Hollocher, the Cubs shortstop, and some skinny boy with a red face and a chin that stuck out like an extra flap of skin who no one recognized, and Luther didn’t like that number—eight of them plus Ruth comprising a full team.
For an inning or so everything was fine and the white men kept mostly to themselves, couple of them making ape sounds and a few more calling out, “Don’t miss that ball, tar baby. Coming in hot,” or “Should’ve got under it more, jigaboo,” but shit, Luther’d heard worse, a lot worse. He just didn’t like how every time he looked over, the eight of them seemed to have moved an inch or two closer to the first base line, and pretty soon it was hard to run that way, beat out a throw with white men so close on your right you could smell their cologne.
And then between innings, one of them said it: “Why don’t you let one of us have a try?”
Luther noticed Ruth looking like he was trying to find a hole to climb into.
“Whadaya say, Gidge? Think your new friends would mind if one of us played a few? Keep hearing how good these nigras are supposed to be. Run faster’n butter on the porch in July is the rumor.”
The man held out his hands to Babe. He was one of the few no one recognized, must have been a bench warmer. Big hands, though, a flattened nose and axe- head shoulders, the man all hard boxy angles. Had eyes Luther’d seen before in the white poor—spent his whole life eating rage in place of food. Developed a taste for it he wouldn’t lose no matter how regular he ate for the rest of his life.
He smiled at Luther like he knew what he was thinking. “What you say, boy? Maybe let one of us fellas take a cut or two?”
Rube Gray volunteered to sit a spell and the white men elected Stuffy McGinnis as their latest trade to the Southern Ohio Nigra League, haw- hawing in that donkey laugh big white men seemed to share, but Luther had to admit it was fine with him: Stuffy McInnis could play, boy. Luther’d been reading up on him since he’d broken in back in ’09 with Philadelphia.
After the inning’s final out, though, Luther came jogging in from center to find the other white men all lined up by home plate, the lead guy, Chicago’s Flack, resting a bat on his shoulder.
Babe tried, at least for a moment, Luther’d give him that. He said, “Come on now, fellas, we were having us a game.”
Flack gave him a big, bright smile. “Gonna have us a better game now, Ruth. See how these boys do against the best in the American and National Leagues.”
“Oh, you mean, the white leagues?” Sticky Joe Beam said. “That what ya’ll talking about?”
They all looked over at him.
“What’d you say, boy?”
Sticky Joe Beam was forty- two years old and looked like a slice of burnt bacon. He pursed his lips, looked down at the dirt, and then up at the line of white men in such a way that Luther figured there’d be a fight coming.
“Said let’s see what you got.” He stared at them. “Uh, suhs.”
Luther looked over at Ruth, met his eyes, and the big baby- faced fat boy gave him a shaky smile. Luther remembered a line from the Bible his grandmother used to repeat a lot when he was growing up, about how the heart be willing but the flesh be weak.
That you, Babe? he wanted to ask. That you?
* * *
Babe started drinking as soon as the black guys picked their nine. He didn’t know what was wrong—it was just a ball game—but he still felt sad and filled with shame. It didn’t make no sense. It was just a game. Some summer fun to wait out the train repair. Nothing more. And yet, the sadness and the shame wouldn’t leave, so he unscrewed his flask cap and took a healthy swig.
He begged off pitching, said his elbow was still sore from game one. Said he had a World Series record to think about, the scoreless-innings-pitched record, and he wasn’t risking that for some bush league pickup game in the sticks.
So Ebby Wilson pitched. Ebby was a mean, flap- jawed boy from the Ozarks, who’d been playing for Boston since July. He smiled when they put the ball in his hands. “That’s right, boys. Be done with these niggers ’fore you know it. ’Fore they know it, too.” And he laughed even though no one laughed with him.
Ebby started it off throwing high heat and burned right through the top of their order in no time. Then Sticky Joe came to the mound, and that nigra had no other gear but full on, and when he uncorked that loping, tentacle- swing delivery, god knew what was coming at you. He threw fastballs that went invisible; screwballs that had eyes—soon as they saw a bat, they ducked, winking at you; curveballs that could circle a tire; breaking balls that exploded four inches before the plate. He whiffed Mann. He whiffed Scott. And he got McInnis out to end the inning on a pop- up to second.
It was a pitchers’ duel there for a few innings, not much hit past the mound, and Ruth starting to yawn out in left, taking longer sips from the flask. Still, the coloreds scored a run in the second and another in the third, Luther Laurence turning a run from first to second into a run from first to home, tear-assing so fast across the infield it took Hollocher by surprise and he muffed the relay from center and by the time he stopped bobbling the ball, Luther Laurence was crossing the plate.
What had started as a joke game went from surprised respect (“Ain’tever seen anyone put mustard on the ball like that ol’ nigra. Even you, Gidge. Hell, even Walter Johnson. Man’s a marvel”) to nervous joking (“Think we’ll score a run before we got to get back to, you know, the World Fucking Series?”) to anger (“Niggers own this field. That’s what it is. Like to see them play Wrigley. Like to see them play Fenway Shit”).
The coloreds could bunt—good Lord could they bunt; ball would land six inches from the plate and stop moving like it’d been shot. And they could run. They could steal bases like it was as simple as deciding you liked standing on second more than first. And they could hit singles. By the bottom of the fifth, it looked like they could hit singles all day long, just step up and poke another one out of the infield, but then Whiteman came over to the mound from first and had a chat with Ebby Wilson, and from that point Ebby stopped trying to play cute or clever, just unloaded heat like he didn’t care if it put his arm in the sling through winter.
Top of the sixth, the coloreds ahead 6–3, Stuffy McInnis took a first- pitch fastball from Sticky Joe Beam and hit it so far over the trees that Luther Laurence didn’t even bother looking for it. They got another ball from the canvas bag beside the bench, and Whiteman took that one long, got into second standing up, and then Flack took two strikes and fought off six more for fouls, and then pooched a single to shallow left and it was 6–4, men on first and third, no one out.
Babe could feel it as he wiped his bat down with a rag. He could feel all their bloodstreams as he stepped to the plate and horse- pawed the dirt with his shoe. This moment, this sun, this sky, this wood and leather and limbs and fingers and agony of waiting to see what would happen was beautiful. More beautiful than women or words or even laughter.
Sticky Joe brushed him back. Threw a hard curve that came in high and inside and would have taken Babe’s teeth on a journey through Southern Ohio if he hadn’t snapped his head back from it. He leveled the bat at Sticky Joe, looked down it like he was looking down a rifle. He saw the glee in the old man’s dark eyes, and he smiled and the old man smiled back, and they both nodded and Ruth wanted to kiss the old man’s bumpy forehead.
“You all agree that’s a ball?” Babe shouted, and he could see even Luther laughing, way out in center field.
God, it felt good. But, oh, hey, here it comes, a shotgun blast of a breaking ball and Ruth caught the seam with his eye, saw that red line dive and started swinging low, way lower than where it was, but knowing where it was going to be, and sumbitch, if he didn’t connect with it, tore that fucking ball out of space, out of time, saw that ball climb the sky like it had hands and knees. Ruth started running down the line and saw Flack take off from first, and that was when he felt certain that he hadn’t gotten all of it. It wasn’t pure. He yelled, “Hold!” but Flack was running. Whiteman was a few steps off third, but staying in place, arms out in either direction as Luther drifted back toward the tree line, and Ruth saw the ball appear from the same sky into which it had vanished and drop straight down past the trees into Luther’s glove.
Flack had already started back from second, and he was fast, and the moment Luther fired that ball toward first, Whiteman tagged up from third. And Flack, yes, Flack was very fast, but Luther had some sort of cannon in that skinny body of his and that ball shrieked over the green field and Flack trampled the ground like a stagecoach and then went airborne as the ball slapped into Aeneus James’s glove, and Aeneus, the big guy Ruth had first encountered playing center field when he’d come out of the trees, swept his long arm down as Flack slid on his chest toward first and the tag hit him high on the shoulder and then his hand touched the bag.
Aeneus lowered his free hand to Flack, but Flack ignored it and stood up.
Aeneus tossed the ball back to Sticky Joe.
Flack dusted off his pants and stood on the first base bag. He placed his hands on his knees and planted his right foot toward second.
Sticky Joe stared over at him from the mound.
Aeneus James said, “What you doing, suh?”
Flack said, “What’s that?” his voice a little too bright.
Aeneus James said, “Just wondering why you still here, suh.”
Flack said, “It’s where a man stands when he’s on fi rst, boy.” Aeneus James looked exhausted suddenly, as if he’d just come home from a fourteen- hour workday to discover somebody’d stolen his couch.
Ruth thought: Oh, Jesus, no.
“You was out, suh.”
“Talking about, boy? I was safe.”
“Man was safe, nigger.” This from Ebby Wilson, standing beside Ruth all of a sudden. “Could see it from a mile off.”
Now some colored guys came over, asking what the holdup was.
Aeneus said, “Man says he was safe.”
“What?” Cameron Morgan ambled over from second. “You’ve got to be funning.”
“Watch your tone, boy.”
“I watch what ever I want.”
“I do believe.”
“Man was safe. With change.”
“That man was out,” Sticky Joe said softly. “No disrespect to you,
Mr. Flack, but you were out, sir.”
Flack placed his hands behind his back and approached Sticky Joe. He cocked his head at the smaller man. He took a sniff of the air for some reason.
“You think I’m standing on first because I got confused? Huh?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
“What do you think, then, boy?”
“Think you was out, sir.”
Everybody was at first base now—the nine guys from each team and the nine coloreds who’d taken seats after the new game had been drawn up.
Ruth heard “out.” He heard “safe.” Over and over. He heard “boy” and “nigger” and “nigra” and “field hand.” And then he heard someone call his name.
He looked over, saw Stuffy McInnis looking at him and pointing at the bag. “Gidge, you were closest. Flack says he’s safe. Ebby had a good eye on it, and he says he’s safe. You tell us, Babe. Safe or out?”
Babe had never seen so many angry colored faces this close. Eighteen of them. Big fl at noses, lead- pipe muscles in their arms and legs, teardrops of sweat in their tight hair. He’d liked everything he’d seen in these ones, but he still didn’t like how they looked at you like they knew something about you that they weren’t going to tell. How those eyes sized you up fast and then went all droopy and faraway.
Six years back, major league baseball had had its first strike. The Detroit Tigers refused to play until Ban Johnson lifted a suspension on Ty Cobb for beating a fan in the stands. The fan was a cripple, had stumps for arms, no hands to defend himself, but Cobb had beaten him long after he was on the ground, applying his cleats to the poor bastard’s face and ribs. Still, Cobb’s teammates took his side and went on strike in support of a guy none of them even liked. Hell, everyone hated Cobb, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that the fan had called Cobb a “half- nigger,” and there wasn’t much worse you could call a white man except maybe “nigger lover” or just plain “nigger.”
Ruth had still been in reform school when he heard about it, but he understood the position of the other Tigers, no problem. You could jaw with a colored, even laugh and joke with one, maybe tip the ones you laughed with most a little something extra around Christmas. But this was still a white man’s society, a place built on concepts of family and an honest day’s work. (And what were these coloreds doing out in some field in the middle of a workday, playing a game when their loved ones were probably home going hungry?) When all was said and done, it was always best to stick with your own kind, the people you had to live with and eat with and work with for the rest of your life.
Ruth kept his gaze on the bag. He didn’t want to know where Luther was, risk looking up into that crowd of black faces and accidentally catching his eye.
“He was safe,” Ruth said.
The coloreds went nuts. They shouted and pointed at the bag and screamed, “Bullshit!” and that went on for some time, and then, as if they’d all heard a dog whistle none of the white men could hear, they stopped. Their bodies slackened, their shoulders lowered, they stared right through Ruth, as if they could see out the back of his head and Sticky Joe Beam said, “Awright, awright. That’s how we’re playing, then that’s how we’re playing.”
“That’s how we’re playing,” McInnis said.
“Yes, suh,” Sticky Joe said. “That’s clear now.”
And they all walked back and took their positions.
Babe sat on the bench and drank and felt soiled and found himself wanting to twist Ebby Wilson’s head off his neck, throw it on a stack with Flack’s beside it. Didn’t make no sense—he’d done the right thing by his team—but he felt it all the same.
The more he drank, the worse he felt, and by the eighth inning, he considered what would happen if he used his next at bat to tank. He’d switched places with Whiteman by this point, was playing first. Luther Laurence waited on deck as Tyrell Hawke stood in the box, and Luther looked across at him like he was just another white man now, giving him those nothing- eyes you saw in porters and shine boys and bell boys, and Babe felt a shriveling inside of himself.
Even with two more disputed tags (and a child could guess who won the disputes) and a long foul ball the major leaguers deemed a home run, they were still down to the coloreds by a score of 9–6 in the bottom of the ninth when the pride of the National and American Leagues started playing like the pride of the National and American Leagues.
Hollocher ripped one down the first base line. Then Scott punched one over the third baseman’s head. Flack went down swinging. But McInnis tore one into shallow right, and the bases were loaded, one out, George Whiteman coming to the plate, Ruth on deck. The infield was playing double- play depth, and Sticky Joe Beam wasn’t throwing nothing George could go long on, and Babe found himself praying for one thing he’d never prayed for in his life: a double- play so he wouldn’t have to bat.
Whiteman feasted on a sinker that hung too long, and the ball roared off into space and then hooked a right turn somewhere just past the infield, hooked hard and fast and foul. Obviously foul. Then Sticky Joe Beam struck him out on two of the most vicious fastballs Ruth had seen yet.
Babe stepped up to the plate. He added up how many of their six runs had come from clean baseball and he came up with three. Three. These coloreds who nobody knew, out in some raggedy field in Shitheel, Ohio, had held some of the best players in the known world to three measly runs. Hell, Ruth himself was hitting one- for- three. And he’d been trying. And it wasn’t just Beam’s pitching. No. The expression was: Hit ’em where they ain’t. But these colored boys were everywhere. You thought there was a gap, the gap vanished. You hit something no mortal man could chase down, and one of these boys had it in his glove and wasn’t even winded.
If they hadn’t cheated, this would be one of the great moments of Ruth’s life—facing off against some of the best players he’d ever come across with the game in his hands, bottom of the ninth, two out, three on. One swing, and he could win it all.
And he could win it all. He’d been studying Sticky Joe for a while now, and the man was tired, and Ruth had seen all his pitches. If they hadn’t cheated, the air Ruth sucked through his nostrils right now would be pure cocaine.
Sticky Joe’s first pitch came in too loose and too fat and Ruth had to time his swing just right to miss it. He missed it big, trying to sell it, and even Sticky Joe looked surprised. The next one was tighter, had some corkscrew in it, and Ruth fouled it back. The one after that was in the dirt, and the one that followed was up by his chin.
Sticky Joe took the ball back and stepped off the mound for a moment and Ruth could feel all the eyes on him. He could see the trees behind Luther Laurence and he could see Hollocher and Scott and McInnis on their bases, and he thought how pretty it would have been if it had been clean, if the next pitch was one he could, in good conscience, send toward God in heaven. And maybe . . .
He held up a hand and stepped out of the box.
It was just a game, wasn’t it? That’s what he’d told himself when he decided to tank. Just a game. Who cared if he lost one silly ball game?
But the reverse was true as well. Who cared if he won? Would it matter tomorrow? Of course not. It wouldn’t affect anyone’s life. Now, right now, it was a case of two down, three on, bottom of the ninth.
If he serves me a meatball, Ruth decided as he stepped back to the box, I’m going to eat. How can I resist? Those men on their bases, this bat in my hand, the smell of dirt and grass and sun.
It’s a ball. It’s a bat. It’s nine men. It’s a moment. Not forever. Just a moment.
And here was that ball, coming in slower than it should have, and Ruth could see it in the old Negro’s face. He knew it as soon as it left his hand: it was fat.
Babe thought about whiffing, sliding over it, doing the fair thing.
The train whistle blew then, blew loud and shrill and up through the sky, and Ruth thought, That’s a sign, and he planted his foot and swung his bat and heard the catcher say, “Shit,” and then—that sound, that gorgeous sound of wood against cowhide and that ball disappeared into the sky.
Ruth trotted a few yards down the line and stopped because he knew he’d gotten under it.
He looked out and saw Luther Laurence looking at him, just for a split second, and he felt what Luther knew: that he’d tried to hit a home run, a grand slam. That he’d tried to take this game, unfairly played, away from those who’d played it clean.
Luther’s eyes left Ruth’s face, slid off it in such a way that Ruth knew he’d never feel them again. And Luther looked up as he faded into position under the ball. He set his feet. He raised his glove over his head. And that was it, that was the ball game, because Luther was right under it.
But Luther walked away.
Luther lowered his glove and started walking toward the infield and so did the right fielder and so did the left fielder and that ball plopped to the grass behind them all and they didn’t even turn to look at it, just kept walking, and Hollocher crossed home, but there was no catcher there waiting. The catcher was walking toward the bench along third base and so was the third baseman.
Scott reached home, but McInnis stopped running at third, just stood there, looking at the coloreds ambling toward their bench like it was the bottom of the second instead of the bottom of the ninth. They congregated there and stuffed their bats and gloves into two separate canvas bags, acting like the white men weren’t even there. Ruth wanted to cross the field to Luther, to say something, but Luther never turned around. Then they were all walking toward the dirt road behind the field, and he lost Luther in the sea of coloreds, couldn’t tell if he was the guy up front or on the left and Luther never looked back.
The whistle blew again, and none of the white men had so much as moved, and even though the coloreds had seemed to walk slow, they were almost all off the field.
Except Sticky Joe Beam. He came over and picked up the bat Babe had used. He rested it on his shoulder and looked into Babe’s face.
Babe held out his hand. “Great game, Mr. Beam.”
Sticky Joe Beam gave no indication he saw Babe’s hand.
He said, “Believe that’s your train, suh,” and walked off the field.
* * *
Babe went back onto the train. He had a drink at the bar. The train left Ohio and hurtled through Pennsylvania. Ruth sat by himself and drank and looked out at Pennsylvania in all its scrabbled hills and dust. He thought of his father who’d died two weeks ago in Baltimore during a fight with his second wife’s brother, Benjie Sipes. Babe’s father got in two punches and Sipes only got in one, but it was that one that counted because his father’s head hit the curb and he died at University Hospital a few hours later.
The papers made a big deal of it for a couple of days. They asked for his opinion, for his feelings. Babe said he was sorry the man was dead. It was a sad thing.
His father had dumped him in reform school when he was eight. Said he needed to learn some manners. Said he was tired of trying to teach him how to mind his mother and him. Said some time at Saint Mary’s would do him good. Said he had a saloon to run. He’d be back to pick him up when he learned to mind.
His mother died while he was in there.
It was a sad thing, he’d told the papers. A sad thing.
He kept waiting to feel something. He’d been waiting for two weeks.
In general, the only time he felt anything, outside of the self- pity he felt when very drunk, was when he hit a ball. Not when he pitched it. Not when he caught it. Only when he hit it. When the wood connected with the cowhide and he swiveled his hips and pivoted his shoulders and the muscles in his thighs and calves tightened and he felt the surge of his body as it finished the swing of the black bat and the white ball soared faster and higher than anything on the planet. That’s why he’d changed his mind and taken the swing this afternoon, because he’d had to. It was too fat, too pure, just sitting there. That’s why he’d done it. That’s all there was to that story. That’s all there was.
He got in a poker game with McInnis and Jones and Mann and Hollocher, but everyone kept talking about the strike and the war (no one mentioned the game; it was as if they’d all agreed it never happened), so he took a long, long nap and when he got up, they were almost through New York and he had a few more drinks to cut the sludge in his brain, and he took Harry Hooper’s hat off his head while he was sleeping and put his fist through the top of it and then placed it back on Harry Hooper’s head and someone laughed and someone else said, “Gidge, don’t you respect nothing?” So he took another hat, this one off Stu Springer, head of the Cubs’ sales department, and he punched a hole in that one and soon half the car was flinging hats at him and egging him on and he climbed up on top of the seats and crawled from one to the next making “hoo hoo hoo” sounds like an ape and feeling a sudden, unexplainable pride that welled up through his legs and arms like stalks of wheat gone mad with the growing, and he shouted, “I am the ape man! I am Babe Fucking Ruth. I will eat you!”
Some people tried to pull him down, some people tried to calm him, but he jumped off the seat backs and did a jig in the aisle and he grabbed some more hats and he flung some and punched holes in a few more and people were clapping, people were cheering and whistling. He slapped his hands together like a wop’s monkey and he scratched his ass and went “hoo hoo hoo,” and they loved it, they loved it.
Then he ran out of hats. He looked back down the aisle. They covered the floor. They hung from the luggage racks. Pieces of straw stuck to a few windows. Ruth could feel the litter of them in his spine, right at the base of his brain. He felt addled and elated and ready to take on the ties. The suits. The luggage.
Ebby Wilson put his hand on his chest. Ruth wasn’t even sure where he’d come from. He saw Stuffy standing up in his seat, raising a glass of something to him, shouting and smiling, and Ruth waved.
Ebby Wilson said, “Make me a new one.”
Ruth looked down at him. “What?”
Ebby spread his hands, reasonable. “Make me a new hat. You broke’em up, now make me another one.”
Ruth smoothed the shoulders of Wilson’s suit jacket. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Don’t want a drink. I want my hat.”
Ruth was about to say “Fuck your hat,” when Ebby Wilson pushed him. It wasn’t much of a push, but the train went into a turn at the same time, and Ruth felt it buckle, and he smiled at Wilson, and then decided to punch him instead of insult him. He threw the punch, saw it coming in Ebby Wilson’s eyes, Wilson not so smug anymore, not so concerned with his hat, but the train buckled again, and the train shimmied and Ruth felt the punch go wide, felt his whole body lurch to the right, felt a voice in his heart say, “This is not you, Gidge. This is not you.”
His fist hit the window instead. He felt it in his elbow, felt it in his shoulder and the side of his neck and the hollow just below his ear. He felt the sway of his belly as a public spectacle and he felt fat and orphaned again. He dropped into the empty seat and sucked air through his teeth and cradled his hand.
Luther Laurence and Sticky Joe and Aeneus James were probably sitting on a porch somewhere now, feeling the night heat, passing a jar. Maybe they were talking about him, about the look on his face when he saw Luther walking away from that ball as it fell through the air. Maybe they were laughing, replaying a hit, a pitch, a run.
And he was out here, in the world.
I slept through New York, Babe thought as they brought a bucket of ice and placed his hand in it. And then he remembered this train didn’t run past Manhattan, only Albany, but he still felt a loss. He’d seen it a hundred times, but he loved to look at it, the lights, the dark rivers that circled it like carpet, the limestone spires so white against the night.
He pulled his hand from the ice and looked at it. His pitching hand. It was red and swelling up and he couldn’t make a fist.
“Gidge,” someone called from the back of the car, “what you got against hats?”
Babe didn’t answer. He looked out the window, at the fl at scrub of Springfield, Massachusetts. He placed his forehead against the window to cool it and saw his reflection and the reflection of the land, the two of them intertwined.
He raised his swollen hand to the glass and the land moved through it, too, and he imagined it healing the aching knuckles and he hoped he hadn’t broken it. Over something as silly as hats.
He imagined finding Luther on some dusty street in some dusty town and buying him a drink and apologizing and Luther would say, Don’t you worry about it none, Mr. Ruth, suh, and tell him another tale about Ohio cacti.
But then Ruth pictured those eyes of Luther’s, giving nothing away but a sense that he could see inside you and he didn’t approve of what was there, and Ruth thought, Fuck you, boy, and your approval. I don’t need it. Hear me?
I don’t need it.
He was just getting started. He was ready to bust wide open. He could feel it. Big things. Big things were coming. From him. From everywhere. That was the feeling he got lately, as if the whole world had been held in a stable, him included. But soon, soon it was going to bust out all over the place.
He kept his head against the window and closed his eyes, and he felt the countryside moving through his face even as he began to snore.
* * * * *
From the book The Given Day. Copyright 2008, 2014 by Dennis Lehane. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow and Company, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It is available for purchase here. A slightly different version of this appeared in Gulf Stream #23 (2005) under the name “Babe Ruth in Ohio”