Ruth vs. Bender
As far as hayseed James Atwood Gray knew, or even Moe Berg for that matter, there was no God of Peace. So in what god’s eye was the glint that gave light to Babe Ruth’s All Americans touring Japan as 1934 concluded?
The RMS Empress of Japan sailed from Vancouver on October 20. On the 25th it docked in Honolulu, where the team practiced against local professionals. Gehrig hit a ball into the press box 475 feet from home plate and fifty feet vertically from the outfield grass. Ruth blasted one, and even Gehringer homered, prompting Babe to augur, “We could beat any team in America.”
Maybe, thought Moe Berg. Make that ‘probably.’ But maybe not, too. And not to pick a nit, but Panama isn’t America.
The rest of the team hit well, too, except Foxx, who was somewhat anemic, still recovering from being plunked by Negro League star Barney Brown on the 8th in Winnipeg, rendered unconscious and hospitalized for four days. And Johnny Kerr plunked Gehrig in his last at-bat in Honolulu. That was the extent of his physical damage. Back on the Empress of Japan the damage would be psychological.
Connie Mack was on deck in the bow as the Empress pounded through heavy waves. He chatted with Gehrig about the possibility of hiring Babe to manage the Athletics. Suddenly, a fabulous show of flying fish distracted even silent Charlie Gehringer from his shuffleboard game. He leaned back against the railing, and in lieu of speaking, lifted his cue to direct Earl Averill’s attention to the fish. The show went on for some time, during which Lou didn’t notice the absence of his wife Eleanor. When he finally did, he gave up any idea of trying to find her on the enormous ocean liner that carried over a thousand passengers. She could be in the tanning salon, the beauty parlor, the Turkish bath, or any of the cocktail lounges or shops.
Had he checked out all of these, he would not have found her, for exploring the cavernous liner she found herself passing the open cabin door of the sultan himself, Babe Ruth, the door probably open to keep himself from suffocating in cigar smoke. He lay back in a bathrobe with a mess of caviar and a bottle of champagne. Doodlebug Babe? Eleanor, no neophyte to such delices, fell in and emerged inebriated two hours later by Lou’s watch and to his chagrin.
Ruth and Gehrig had already agreed not to speak to each other after Gehrig’s mother criticized Ruth’s wife Claire for letting her step-daughter flounce about in rags. And after rumors about Eleanor’s prandial liaison, the two sluggers re-upped their commitment to silence on all but baseball matters.
Moe Berg looked to be hiding in a corner, clearly not wanting to be disturbed. On the table along with a cup of coffee and three perfectly cut off crusts of his toast sat The Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, a Japanese newspaper, and a small pile of books. James Atwood made the common mistake of interrupting Moe or touching any of his material when he was reading. Without glancing at the interloper, he issued his standard reproach, “Don’t touch that. It’s alive. When I finish reading it, it’ll be dead and it’s yours.” Berg was notoriously touchy about all of his reading material. Newspapers alone could pile six inches high in a day, in numerous languages, and he’d devour them all.
“Can’t read it anyway. What is it, Jewish?”
James Atwood eyed the almost comically piled toast remnants. “Them crusts is like art. Three perfect rings, like Ballantine beer.”
The obsessive-compulsive catcher looked up. The cowlicked young man extended his hand.
“I’m James Atwood . . .”
Moe, with a pen in his right hand, declined to shake it. “I know who you are.”
“I’m a body . . .”
“Guard for the team,” Moe cut him off without looking up from his newspaper.
“You’re from Osage, like Pepper Martin, and you’re a kick-ass mumbletypeg player.”
James Atwood drew a two-second blank, then addressed the catcher, “I searched you out Mr. Berg because they say you know more than anybody, and judging by everything you know about me and I’m nobody, I guess they’re right.”
Moe looked up. “Can you get to the point, kid? I’ve got three papers to read.”
“They say you’re like Jewish and all, and . . . I was wondering, do you believe in the prophets of the Old Testament, the burning bush and all that?”
“I keep my beliefs to myself, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea if everybody did.”
“Thing is, I’ve seen signs, and I don’t know who to talk to about ‘em.”
Moe leaned back with a sigh. The hayseed kid was at least ingenuous, and he had an aura about him, along with piercing though not altogether trustworthy blue eyes. “All right, what kinds of signs?”
“It’s like I’m dreaming, but I’m awake. And I see like the rising sun, and then the sun explodes, and there’s a cloud and I almost black out. And I’m thinking, like, Japan or something.”
“Rising sun? How do you know it’s not the setting sun?”
“I don’t know. Just seems like it’s a rising sun.”
“You ever been hit on the head, really hard?”
“Couple times. I used to have to carry water from the river to the house, and that was awful hard for a little kid, so I’d unintentionally forget and my dad would slam me against the barn and I’d hit my head.”
“You see stars?”
“So your signs are the result of brain damage, or it’s possible you have some frontal lobe disease. You’re not a prophet, son.”
“I never said I was,” his tone mildly combative. “It’s nothing religious. It’s just, I always felt special. Even before I saw the signs I knew I was going to see ‘em, so I’m
thinking there’s something to it.”
“Not signs, kid. Trauma.”
James Atwood had never heard the word before, but he had a good idea what it meant, so he didn’t ask. Instead, he aired some of his religious doubts that he’d never had an audience for till now. His voice involuntarily raised, and it came out almost like a shout. “If God is gonna save everybody, why bother being a Jew—nobody likes Jews.
I’ve known Jews who don’t like Jews. You could save yourself a passel of trouble.”
“If you’re born a Jew you remain a Jew. You accept what you are, even if some folks don’t like you.”
“Back in Osage, they called Judaism ‘Jew-day-jissom.’”
“God bless the Okies.”
“That’s Kansas, not Oklahoma.”
“It’s generic. But frankly, I’m not surprised. You want to tell me why you’re so obsessed with Judaism?”
“It’s cuz Jesus was a Jew, and the Romans hated him, and now everyone hates the Jews, but Jesus was supposed to be all about love. So it’s damned confusing, but I aim to figure it out cuz I’ve got my own religion.”
“Well, that’s good, boy.” Berg looked down at his papers, then up at him. It was another sign James Atwood could read—that he was taking up Moe Berg’s time and Moe Berg had a lot to do. But the Osagian muleskinner had religion so pent up in him it was like his brain was constipated. “I gotta know, Moe, what the god of the Jews is all about.”Moe closed his newspaper with a finger twixt the pages. “In Judaism, God is eternal, omnipotent, the creator of the universe and the source of morality.”
James Atwood moved the wad of Redman to the rear of his throat and let fly a spate on the carpet at Moe’s feet. He ground it in with his shoe. “Omnipotent? What’s the god of the Jews gonna do about that?”
Moe for once was speechless. Was the kid nuts? Moe considered it, then decided in the negative. The kid had a look in his eyes that reminded him of a portrait of the abolitionist John Brown, a bit of a madman, but a man with passion in his beliefs and his doubts, which brought Moe to the brink of doubt in his own comparatively dowdy Judaism. He thought for a few moments and then aired his truncated, self-deprecating thought, his doubt as if James Atwood were not there. And it came out almost like an affirmation of the kid’s antics, his insult to his faith.
“Belief with no passion is like . . . is like . . . ” And words again failed him—Like what? Rain with no water, clouds with no sky, a trout without a stream, the voluttá of a lover’s legs defined by the cosine of the angle of bent knees?
“I know what it is,” said James Atwood with the tangent of a grin beneath his upper lip. “It’s like painting blood with no red.”
“Yeah,” assented Moe.
Yeah, echoed Spinoza, somewhere in the ether.
“Well, thanks for listening,” said the quondam muleskinner. He thought Berg might politely reply, ‘Any time.’ Maybe it was a sign that he didn’t. He picked up his cup and suddenly felt a thirst himself, and a hunger. He looked out a porthole at the sun that had, hours earlier, risen, and he thought about his vision, whether the sun was rising or setting. He couldn’t say for sure that he knew. But Moe Berg was one smart sonofabitch to think of it, even if his god wasn’t powerful enough to clean a spit stain from a rug.
James Atwood wandered off, and Moe had forgotten about him when, five minutes later, he reappeared with two steins of beer, placing one in front of Moe, who obsessively worried that the sweat from the beer would puddle and damage, desecrate, or simply wet his stack of newspapers. “Couldn’t you at least have brought a coaster?”
James Atwood tilted his head to try to make sense of the strange letters on the cover of the book Moe was now reading. “Japanese?”
“It’s Greek. Plato.” Moe grabbed a coaster from an adjacent table. “You may have heard of him.”
“Don’t think so. Read about Greek fire, though, in high school.”
“How about Socrates?”
“Nope. What’s he have to say?”
“Here he’s recounting Callicles’ argument that the state of desiring is undesirable.
We seek to annihilate that state. In other words, when you drink that beer, you annihilate the state of desiring it.”
James Atwood raised his glass. “Here’s to annihilating.”
“But is Callicles right?” Moe was energized by the argument and felt a need to discourse on it. “Fulfillment truly comes only after desiring. Without that state, we are never fulfilled. What I mean is, if you never had an itch, you would never scratch.”
“I’m gonna have to contemplate that. Y’all think too much.”
Never much of a drinker, Berg was inspired to sip his beer. “Good idea.
Contemplation allows us to possess an object without annihilating it . . . I forget who said that.” He stared at the ceiling and spoke to himself, “How strange.”
“What if I contemplate crushing it, like hitting an apple with a baseball bat? That would be destroying it, no?”
“Touché, James. We should have a dialog, like Plato. We’ll call it ‘Gray.’” Moe didn’t explain why, and James Atwood Gray didn’t much care why.
“I hope Plato plays ball. If he don’t, I ain’t much interested in having any dialog with him, cuz to tell the truth, I’m not just a bodyguard. I’m here on a mission. I’m signing up Ruth and his All Americans to play against a team of Indians. And after they’re in the bag, I’ll work on the Indian team. It’s all funded by . . .”
“Henry Ford. I know, kid. I know all about it. Harry Bennett’s been in touch— Ford’s henchman, in case you didn’t know. By the way, did he tell you that Ford decided to fund only the All Americans?”
November 5th, one day from Yokohama, the Empress of Japan found smooth sailing and James Atwood worked up the courage to confront Ruth, who was atypically alone in a cocktail lounge. James Atwood felt his armpits dripping. Everything depended on getting Ruth on board, and the man was nothing if not mercurial. Just two weeks earlier he had reneged on his promise to join the Japan tour after Yankee co-owner Jacob Ruppert refused to give him the job of managing his team.
“Your job is to hit home runs,” said Ruppert. “Don’t be distracted by the rigors of management. You’ve got the best bloodshot eyes in baseball. Use them. Hit home runs.”
“But Mr. Ruppert, I want this job. I can do it.”
“You can’t manage yourself, Babe. How do you expect to manage others?”
“The first thing I’d do is I wouldn’t try to change the name from the Yankees to the Knickerbockers. Nobody can spell it, for Chrissake.”
“By gad, I can. I’m sure you can’t.”
“You don’t have to be able to spell bunt to do it.”
“No, but you can’t do that either. And it’s good to have some experience. Why don’t you manage Minor Leagues? Show me you can succeed there, and there might be a job for you here. What about Newark?”
“I’m not gonna manage a bunch of bums. I play with the best and I want to manage the best.”
Ruppert puffed slowly on his pipe, leaving Babe anticipating. He stifled his own chuckle. “The Newark Dodgers. I’m sure they’d have you.”
“That’s a Negro team.”
“On your days off you watch Negro games. Some players say that you’re actually a Negro. Your lips, your face, color.”
“I’m German, like you, you . . .” The word ‘prick’ started to form on Babe’s lips, but he thought better of it.
“They’re not bums. There’s a lot of people saying they’d kick our ass. They’ve got a guy, Biz Mackey. They say he catches better than Cochrane. And, by the way, Mackey hit three balls out of Meiji stadium. I hope you’ll do the same. I wouldn’t want a Negro player outslugging the great Babe Ruth.”
Babe turned toward the door. He stopped, about to say something he would regret. Ruppert had just poured himself a glass of Old Underroof. He smirked. “Emil Fuchs of the Braves called me to see if you wanted to manage the dog-racing park behind Braves Field.”
Opening the door, Babe turned. “The Newark Dodgers are changing their name. They’re gonna be the Eagles next year. Can you spell that?”
James Atwood Gray had already been introduced to Ruth, who recognized his face but wouldn’t recall his name even if he reintroduced himself. Most of the world’s male population to Babe was always, ‘kid.’ James Atwood approached, swallowed, and stared at the slugger’s broad back., thinking that Wild Bill Hickok would never sit at a bar with his back to the door. He lurched into the chair next to Ruth and blurted, “Babe, a bunch of Indians are saying they can kick your ass. And they say if you gave the Japs a chance, they deserve one too since they were Americans before we were. They say Sockalexis was better than Joe Jackson and Chief Bender was the best money pitcher of all time, and they’re quoting John McGraw on both counts. They want to play your All Americans a month after y’ all get back.”
Laughter does not ordinarily reside in the eyes, but that’s what James Atwood saw even before the smile on the slugger’s face. “Slow down, kid. Sockalexis is ancient history. So is Bender, for that matter.” Just how ancient, in the case of Sockalexis, James Atwood hadn’t yet learned. As for Bender, James Atwood remembered reading that he was player-manager somewhere. And he had done some homework, asking players who the best players of Indian descent were.
“We’re gonna get the Johnson brothers and Rudy York, along with Pepper Martin. That’s two All-Stars and the American League MVP. What do you think of them apples?” What about the other half?”
“It’s gonna be good. Indians always have some tricks up their sleeves, some guys you maybe never heard of, but they’ll be A-number-one ass-kickers, like the Negroes that usually kick your ass.”
Getting contentious might not be the right strategy with Ruth, but James Atwood was like a pitcher that only threw fastballs; he had only one style. “What do you think, Babe? Could be fun.”
Babe blew smoke in James Atwood’s direction. “Fun, shmun. Where’s the dough? The Japs are paying us $40,000 plus a fat per diem and all expenses. I don’t play for wampum.”
“Five hundred bucks a day, for four days. One to settle in, one for practice, the next for the game, and then flying back home. Plus all expenses. Henry Ford’s paying, and you can confirm it with Harry Bennett. He’s handling the details and I’ll give you his cable address.”
The Babe was tempted. It took him a good ten seconds to say no. It took James Atwood’s following him to the bar and stuffing five-hundred dollars in his pocket for the mercurial slugger to change his mind. Harry Bennett was right. He had spotted James Atwood the cash, not without some tribulation, not without caressing the handle of the pistol he always carried.
Babe didn’t give it back. If he was in, everybody else was in. The money was good, and it would be barnstorming season for everyone—except Lefty Gomez. Babe didn’t like him, and he’d barnstormed with Dizzy Dean before. He poured himself a double shot of Johnny Walker Black from a half-empty bottle and a single shot for James Atwood.
“Kid, I don’t want Lefty Gomez on this team. That man is nuts. Did you know that he invented a rotating fishbowl to let his fish rest. He’s loonier than Van Lingle Mungo, and we all know how crazy he is.”
“So who do you want?”
“Old Diz. Jerome Hannah Dean. Best barnstormer out there.”
“Shit, Babe, ain’t nobody nuttier than Dean.”
Babe laughed. “Yeah, but it’ll be a hell of a lot more fun with Diz. So that’s final.”
Dizzy Dean would be their pitcher. What was curious was that the three nuttiest players in the Major Leagues not only were pitchers, but they were one, two, and three leading in strikeouts. And since Diz didn’t get along with shortstop Eric McNair, he insisted on Leo Durocher, despite Babe’s objections. It was just too hard to argue with Dizzy Dean.
After the reception in Tokyo, the team took a sleeper car from Ueno Station to Aomori and a ferry to Hakodate, the largest city in the northern-most island of Hokkaido.
From there, they worked their way south to Kokura, playing in rain, freezing weather, and knee-deep mud. On December 2nd, most of the team, minus the Gehrigs, who were off to Europe, boarded the Empress of Canada, Moe Berg contemplating the oxymoron of the ship’s name. A young man looking like a bellhop in what James Atwood thought was a monkey suit called his name in a cocktail lounge, making him feel important.
‘Get the Jap STOP Harry’
Harry had heard, before the press put it in print—and some of the American press declined to even print it—that the seventeen-year-old Japanese pitcher was the second- coming of the biggest non-secret in baseball, a kid named Bob Feller, who Sy Slapnicka had signed six months previously to the biggest steal in baseball history. Or maybe Feller was the second-coming of Eiji Sawamura, who was born five days before Feller, on February 1, 1917.
‘He’s not an Indian,’ James Atwood wired back.
‘He is now STOP Chief Eiji STOP Get him STOP And don’t tell anybody I told you to’ Harry was high on Chief Eiji Sawamura because the teenager had just struck out Foxx, Ruth, Gehrig, and Gehringer—consecutively, prompting Connie Mack to offer him a contract on the spot, but Eiji was more interested in signing with the Japanese Imperial Air Force. He said, “Problem is, I hate Americans.” Still, a one-month gig, thought Harry, might be different. A South American vacation. Eiji didn’t like Americans, but maybe Harry and his minions could use that to their favor—he would be playing for indigenous people against Ruth’s American team. And if the game were in Panama, he wouldn’t have to set foot on the land of what Japanese propaganda was selling as an enemy. Another chance to mow down the enemy might be just the ticket Eiji would accept.
Harry’s head was spinning. The Jap had nearly duplicated Carl Hubbell’s phenomenal feat in the last All-Star game. Hubbell struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin—consecutively. Sawamura had struck out Murderer’s Row plus one—Gehringer, who never murdered nobody and seldom a ball, at least not like the three guys batting after him, but Satchel Paige said he was the best White hitter he ever faced.
Harry covered his bases as well as he covered his bodies. At UCLA he talked to an anthropology professor and then cabled James Atwood: All you have to do is look at a Jap and an Indian and you know there’s a Jap in the Indian woodpile STOP So I did some research and I was right STOP Japs came across a land bridge to Alaska ten thousand years ago STOP They intermingled and they settled in Zuni land STOP Get this the Zuni Indians speak the same language almost as the Japanese, not much difference like the difference between what they speak in Brooklyn and what they speak in Yuma STOP Chief Eiji is a Zuni STOP No bones about it STOP We get another Zuni on the team and they’ll have a conversation STOP Check and see if any Zunis play baseball STOP Moe Berg will back me up on that STOP He speaks everything STOP Sayonara STOP Harry
November had come to a close, and so had the tour. For Moe Berg, in several ways, only one of which was baseball. Now he was back on board the Empress of Canada, not to sail with the gang but to say goodbye. He was having brunch by himself in a corner of one of the Empress’s restaurants.
James Atwood noticed that Moe’s books were neatly stacked, their top and side edges perfectly parallel to the top and side of his table. He would not have been surprised to know that Moe’s closet was occupied by eight identical black suits, hung at exactly the same distance from one another.
“Now, that ain’t Japanese.”
“French.” Moe seemed excited, intellectually, pondering the linguistics text he had been reading. “I want to show you something.” He turned a few pages and ran his forefinger down the page. “See that word?”
“Cheval,” said James Atwood, proving that he could at least read English.
Moe nodded. “Cheval. That means horse. One horse. Now what do you think the word for two horses is?”
“You would think so, logically. Cheval, chevaux—the plural has an x because typesetters didn’t have the right symbol for the handwritten curlicue at the end of the plural—chevaux, so they made it up with an ‘x’.”
James Atwood looked over Moe’s shoulder. Moe pointed at the two French words.
“So, you don’t have an Indian pitcher who can get murderer’s row out, so you make one up—Chief Eiji. In other words, James—in Harry Bennett’s words, ‘ get the Jap’.”
James Atwood jerked up. “How’d you know what Harry cabled me?”
Moe just smiled the familiar scrutable Berg smile, scrutable in the sense that one knew that no response was forthcoming and it was useless to probe further. Head spinning, James Atwood filled a tall glass with spiked punch, turned, then went back to get one for Moe, who didn’t know it was spiked.
They reminisced about the tour. James Atwood filled a plate with scrambled eggs and spilled half a bottle of ketchup over them. The conversation then turned to the game.
“I’ve got one more prospect for you—Smokey Joe Williams.”
A book looked like it was going to fall from Moe’s satchel. James Atwood grabbed it and noticed something peculiar about the binding, a kind of fisheye that reminded him of a camera lens.
A silence passed like a dish of cold, pork-belly stew on the Sabbath. It was the kind of silence that follows when a burning bush is extinguished. To Moe’s ears, James Atwood’s words then sounded like a fortune cookie cracking, “I knowed there was something fishy about a .238 hitter on an All-Star team.”
Berg gave James Atwood a malevolent look. “I came to Japan on a peace mission, to improve Sino-American relations. The Emperor said we did more for peace than a hundred goodwill ambassadors.”
It didn’t sound quite right to James Atwood, but he didn’t dwell on it. His thoughts turned back to Smokey Joe. “You’re saying I should recruit Smokey Joe Williams for the team?”
Moe was more than relieved at the change of subject. “Not exactly. He’s forty- six. He can’t run now, but he’s still got that arm, unlike the other Smokey Joe—Wood.
He threw his out. Joe Williams is tending bar somewhere on 8th Avenue in New York. I don’t know more than that, but you can find him. Not many 6’ 4” Indians walking around upper Manhattan.”
“What do you mean—not exactly?”
“Subterfuge. It’s complicated. I’ll explain later. Just get him on board.”
“Why’re you telling me all this?”
Berg stared at James Atwood as if the answer were obvious. Then he leaned forward over the table. “I’m a Jew. That means two things in this context. One—unlike Negroes like Smokey Joe, I’m eligible to play in the Major Leagues. And two—I take the same race-baiting shit Bender and those Indians take. I’m as white as you, but ethically you know whose side I’m on in this game.
“Now the other thing is your team will need practice. The guys on Ruth’s team have either played together in Japan or on barnstorming teams. They know each other.
Durocher and Gehringer work the double-play. Your team needs competition, and the only way they can get it at that level is the House of David. They’re better than any Minor League club, and I’ll be catching for them.”
James Atwood smirked. “They’ve all got beards down to their knees. I’ve seen ‘em. You’re clean-shaven.”
Berg brushed his chin. “This grows fast.” He laughed. “The plane for Panama leaves from Fort Lauderdale. We’ll meet you a few days before.”
James Atwood turned his head and stared at the ground as if he’d forgotten something. “I still don’t know why we need Smokey Joe?”
Berg patted him on the back, and as he spoke, James Atwood went back almost into a dream state. But he remembered almost word for word what Berg said. How long could 8th Avenue be? How many 6’ 4” black bartenders with long hawk-like noses were there on 8th Avenue? Smokey Joe was as good as in the bag. The question was—what good would he be if he was in the bag liquor-wise? As for Moe’s plan for team practice before the big game, James Atwood was not up to the logistics. It never happened.
“One more thing, I’m going back via the Trans-Siberian railway. In case I don’t make it in time for the game, you need another catcher. I suggest Ernie Lombardi. Hits the hell out of the ball, and speaking for myself, personally, it’s nice not to be the slowest guy on the team.”
Moe seldom drank, but James Atwood had refilled Moe’s punch glass several times now with the spiked kind. One might think that Moe would have figured that out, but either he hadn’t or he didn’t care, and now he was as much in his cups as the near-teetotaler ever was, which led him to perorate on whatever came to his mind, but mostly it was baseball.
“Baseball is like Homer’s Odyssey. The batter is the modern Ulysses who undertakes a hazardous trip, especially with men like Dean on the mound. And the bases . . . the bases are like the islands he visits before he returns home, catch? You set off on a journey and if you are good or just lucky you are home, safe. You feel that, don’t you?”
Moe grasped him by the forearm with a wide-eyed stare, to underscore the seriousness of his exposition. “When you come around and step on the plate? You feel it. Baseball is not just a game. I mean, why isn’t home plate square? It’s got a roof on it. But it’s not just a house, it’s home.”
He released his grip and continued, “The trouble with baseball is the fools who run it. The AAU is a bunch of major league WASP motherfuckers. They took away Jim Thorpe’s Olympic medals because he was an Indian. That poor bastard cried his eyes out. And mark my words—in next year’s Olympic Games there are two Jews who are going to make the relay team. AAU bastards will fuck those guys too. Don’t get me wrong—I love this country, but some things have to change. Racial things. Ethnic things. And it can start with some scalps in Panama. So now you get to work.”
Moe drew away, packed his books and newspapers in his satchel, and got up. A bit tippled, he swayed, then chuckled. He looked at James Atwood with a twinkle. “If a Chickasaw man marries a woman who is half Potawatomi and half Hualapai, what do you call the children? . . .Give up? . . . Chicken pot pie.”
It took a few seconds for the linguistic neurons to light up, but he did get it. He tried to remember the words to the joke but gave up. “I appreciate your confidence in me, Mr. Berg. But I got another problem I ain’t figured out yet. If the game is a secret, and Ford is only going to finance the white team, how am I gonna pay the Indians?”
“I don’t know.” Berg shrugged. “Rob a bank.”
Joke notwithstanding, James Atwood took him at his word. Not that he didn’t consider that Berg might not be serious, but it seemed like the most rational option. He couldn’t find John Henry, so he left a message on his bunk for fellow bodyguard and future partner in crime John Henry Seadlund:
We gotta rob a bank.
A full moon seemed to be flirting with the clouds when John Henry Seadlund joined James Atwood near midnight on deck in the bow of the Empress of Canada. He didn’t know it then, but his star pitcher would be an Indian from Canada.
James Atwood knew who his companion was without turning to see. His gaze remained fixed on the moon. One of his earliest revelations, before mumbletypeg, was that one thing the world was good at, perhaps the only thing, was biding its time. He’d had the revelation at fourteen. And it seemed right to emulate the world, to bide his time in synchrony with the world and its ways. But as adolescence progressed it came to him that he was a heretic and always would be, that the world might have its ways, but he would have his, almost in defiance. And the tether of biding one’s time from that moment on was broken.
He stared at the stars in the nights that followed, when the world permitted. And when it didn’t, he defied it with his imagination. There, he said to himself, was the Big Dipper. There was Orion’s Belt, and that is when imagination like a limp dick failed him for the first time, presaging an incident to occur in Mexico a few months hence. He really didn’t know constellations, and when they were assiduously pointed out by his father, mapped out, he didn’t see them either, though he assented that he did. So as not to disappoint the preacher, he said yes, that he had seen, but he saw nothing in the jumble that was all that the stars were, no more readable than the pattern of jacks tossed on a floor in a kid’s game, patterns imposed by dogmatic belief.
Or was there really something that the rest of the world understood but he didn’t?
He was different. Was he dim? Cursed? He wasn’t much good with numbers or the alphabet, but in time they fell well enough into place, but the characters in the stars were like the man in the moon that he never saw either. He was of this world and this world only. Anything above was just mythology.
But out of parental love he persisted, staring at the stars for what others saw. And one night the world relented, presented its stellar encore to the searching mind of an adolescent on a testosterone high. If others saw what they wanted to see, so would he.
He saw tits in the Milky Way. He saw Hershey’s Kisses and he saw, in spite of himself, an enormous dick poised to enter the crescent slit of a moon. But it didn’t. That was the trouble with the stars—all talk and no action. So he gave up on ever reading anything in the sky, anything that didn’t snow, rain, or hail, anything that did no more than just portend destruction.
“What do you see out there?” John Henry Seadlund asked.
It was a full half minute before James Atwood responded. “I seen things. Things a man ain’t supposed to see.”
“If you’re telling me you saw your mama’s pussy, I don’t want to hear about it.”
James Atwood laughed. “Funny you say that. Harry Bennett told me that Henry Ford saw his wife’s for the first time, not long ago.”
“You don’t say.”
“What I mean is things of a religious kind. I mean things that are gonna happen and there’s a rising sun and fire and it’s bad, so bad I have to close my eyes.”
“James Atwood, you’re just seeing things.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Things a man ain’t supposed to see.”
The chop was heavy. The wind through John Henry’s greased-back hair was stiff.
The phrase that came to him was ‘bounding waves,’ and how right it was. There was a repetitive bass thud in the hull like a whale getting punched in the gut. It wasn’t an unpleasant sound.
John Henry recalled the message left on his bunk. “When you were a kid and playing cops and robbers, which one did you like best?”
James Atwood smiled broadly. “When we was robbers, I got a tingling went through me like poop after four chichimangas.”
“You mean chimichangas.”
“It was like standing in the doorway in winter with the sun coming through the glass door, heating you, lifting you up almost in that shaft of hot sunlight like you died and was being taken up to heaven. Like a rapture.”
“James, if you was feeling hot in that doorway, it wasn’t cuz you was going up to heaven.”I’ve made mistakes, John Henry. I admit that but they say Jesus died for our sins, and I don’t want his death to be for nothing.”
Whatever John Henry had to say came out as a snort, followed by another snort, as if the words got tangled with the thought. It was too complicated for him to sort out, too non-sequitur. He leaned in and out of the deck railing, pushing himself with both hands. Was James Atwood helping Jesus out, some kind of disciple, by committing more sins? When John Henry did speak, it was with a broad sweep of his arm. “So, it’s like a big eraser comes across a chalkboard, and there’s your James Atwood, picking up the chalk and getting literate as all hell.”
“The way I see it is everyone’s got a soul, and the soul is that chalkboard and grace is what cleans it every day.”
“You got it all thought out.” It was both a question and a declaration.
He nodded. “Done some thinking.”
“Yeah? Where are you getting grace?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m not. But signs keep telling me it’s got something to do with baseball. I was never any good with a stick or a glove. But there’s grace in the game. It’s everywhere. It’s even in Ty Cobb sliding with them sharpened spikes and I don’t understand it but I know it’s so. I spent my whole childhood striking out. And it’s made me humble. And a humble man is a righteous man, and that’s somewhere to start.
Any man who stands up there with a piece of wood in his hands and a ball coming in ninety miles an hour is a humble man.”
“Some ain’t. Babe Ruth ain’t. Ty Cobb ain’t.”
“Gods,” said James Atwood in a whisper.
James Atwood thought about what it meant to blaspheme. There were cops and there were robbers, and the cops were the righteous. And there was Ty Cobb, human tumbleweed, tear-assing around the base path like a cyclone, mowing down everything in his way, stealing, never biding his time. Ty Cobb, in James Atwood’s imagination at that moment, stood in sunlight that wasn’t his, and Ty looked a lot like Adam, standing in stolen sunlight on a base path that led to or from Eden, it was unclear, like the sun that was rising or setting, or maybe he was smack dab in the middle of it. James Atwood saw God and Satan choosing up sides; he saw a bat tossed and caught on the label, then the hand of God over the hand of Satan, then the V of fingers, and he remembered how the last grasp had to be fingernails at the middle of the convex knob of the handle and to win you had to not lose your grip while twirling the bat around your head, and he saw Satan with nails that would not let go and that’s when he stopped looking.
“Did you get my message, on your bunk?
“John Henry, we gotta rob a bank.”
“That’s what it said.”
“I know. I wrote it. Now, we’ve gotta do it.”
Kevin King is the author of the novel All The Stars Came Out That Night (Dutton, 2005) and the novel Phantom (Open-bks, 2017). He is the recipient of a 2007 poetry fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and has published in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Stand, and Threepenny Review.