Chapter 21: An Oscar-Worthy Finale

Skipping on out on my first game in Pittsburgh looks like a cinch. Southpaw Matlock’s on the hill for the Jordans, making it a Charlie Keller day in left, and I figure if I can rent or borrow the Packard convertible that Lawrence the club house man was bragging about the last time we were here, I might be able to make it to Detroit before Blossom gets arrested for removing Cool Papa Bell’s eyes—or worse.

Problem is that Lawrence is nowhere to be found before game time, and no one else at Greenlee Field knows where he is, and I finally resort to tracking down Jupe Dobbs in the press dining room.

“No whitey boys allowed in here!” barks the host, and thank god Jupe sees me from his table and races over to keep me from coldcocking the jerk. “I know the car you’re talking about,” says Jupe, which is no surprise because Jupe Dobbs knows everything and everybody, “Just wait outside the press box and I’ll be there in five minutes.”

I climb the stairs to the press perch, which with everybody eating their early lunch seems to be empty at the moment. I duck inside. Lean over the first row and can see Travis and Hayes taking batting practice turns down on the field. Kind of a nice view these press folks have.

I stroll past a few typewriters and stop at the fanciest Royal there, obviously Jupe’s. It has a gold nameplate for J DOBBS affixed to the side. Jupe’s stylish brown leather briefcase is open on the chair, and I can’t help peeking inside. Especially when there’s an open envelope with a return address for U.S. DEPT. OF RACIAL STANDARDIZATION sticking out the top.

No one’s around yet. I reach in, slide a letter out of the envelope:

Dear Mr. Dobbs:

Thank you again for the tip regarding J. Geoffrey Heath and Blossom Pickering’s recent attempt to flee the country for betrothal purposes. Your assistants performed their duties well, allowing us to intercept them minutes before they would have entered the Detroit-to-Windsor tunnel. Please do not hesitate to contact us again, should—

Hurried footsteps coming up the stairs. I stuff the letter back in, spin around just in time to see Jupe enter the press box. He’s sweaty, flustered. My face is flushed for a different reason.

“What are you doing in here? If they ever catch you—”

“Let ’em.”

He gives me a wary look, then fishes a slip of paper out of his suit pocket. “The address for the Packard’s garage. Tell the guy you know me and Lawrence and he’ll cut you a deal…What do you need it for, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Maybe to go to Detroit, take in the Armstrongs’ series. Why don’t you have your creeps follow me again and find out?”

“What? You got birds in your brain, Heath. Why would I—”

WHAM! In one motion I grab the front of his suit, plaster him to the wall.

“Cool Papa didn’t do a thing, did he? It was you the whole time, Dobbs, messing up our lives!”

“You’re crazy—”

BAM! One punch to his lip and he’s on the floor.

“Okay, okay!! It was too much for me!”

“What was??”

“The Dorseys, what do you think? Playing as good as you’ve been, making our major league look bad and wiping scrambled egg all over the country’s face. Think I was going to let you rub it in by marrying the daughter of a governor?”

“You coward sonuvabitch…”

“Oh, we might be integrating everything but our refrigerators and freezers some time soon, no question. But it’s going too fast, Heath. Gotta be done right and natural. And doing it because a whitey boy ball team got some lucky rolls—”

I haul him back up, coil my fist back for another strike…

…and reporters burst into the room. Shouting, wild-eyed.

And barely even noticing us.

“They bombed Key West!” yells one of them to Jupe.

“Huh?? WHO did?”

“The Italian Air Force, that’s who! They hit the Navy yard in Norfolk, too, with a whole squadron of Capronis! Those guinea bastards…”

Dobbs and me look at each other in disbelief. I shove him back. “You’re lucky.”

And bolt out the door…

* * *

It’s a little over 200 miles to Detroit, and with the Packard’s jazzed-up engine I can make it there in about three hours. But it’s the weirdest ride I’ve ever taken anywhere. News of the Italians attacking Florida and Virginia has people going nuts, flooding the square of almost every town I go through, crowding around radios anywhere they can. I pass riots of people in Akron and Cleveland trying to storm army recruiting offices.

More than anything I’m worried about Blossom in Detroit. Figure she heard the news by now and has hopefully decided to pass on Cool Papa Bell’s mansion and hunker down at Mack Park instead. If they’re still playing the damn game.

Turns out, they are, because a tidal wave of Birminghammers have invaded town for the series and riots of a more angry kind would happen if the games were called. And I guess right about Blossom. I buy a hiked ticket on the street, squeeze in and find her right behind the Armstrong dugout with a pack of her hometowners. I’ve never hugged anyone so hard in my life.

“Isn’t it awful?” she cries, “I hear they might bomb other cities on the east coast! Maybe even Niagara Falls” I convince her that’s a little hysterical, get her to calm down enough to watch the game.

The great thing about baseball, sometimes it’s so good it helps you forget about bombing Capronis.

* * *

Game 1, with the Armstrongs just having to win two of these three to take the flag, is a battle as tight and wonderful as the B-Hams’ extra-inning thriller in Newark last week. They go up 4-0 for Rogan but shabby errors by Pop Lloyd give the lead back, and the Calloways tie it 4-4 in the 4th.

Then Oscar Charleston punches in to work. With second and third and one out in the 5th he laces a double into the right field corner off Cannonball redding and the Armies go up 6-4. A T.J. Young homer makes it 6-5. Oscar walks in the middle of a 2-run rally in the 7th and it’s 8-5. Home Run Johnson singles in two off William Bell in the 8th to narrow it to 8-7. Blossom grips my hand till it just about bleeds, and it isn’t just because of the sirens we hear going off throughout the town.

Charleston hits a two-out insurance bash of a homer in the 9th, but Rube Foster gives one of those soloists right back to Frog Redus leading off the Detroit 9th. With a popcorn bag wrapped around her eyes, Blossom suffers as Rube gets Cannady, Young, and Candy Jim Taylor to end the game and make the magic number two!

Meanwhile, way out in Kansas City, Josh Gibson breaks a 3-3 tie in the 9th with a winning homer off Sam Streeter, makes Nip Winters 13-1 and keeps the Ellingtons just one game out with two to play.

We spend a crazy night at a fancy Detroit hotel, where everyone’s so distracted by the bombing news that my white face isn’t even noticed. President Hughes has already declared war on Italy, meaning their German and Japanese friends are no doubt right around the bend, and I actually worry for Joe DiMaggio’s safety on our team. Amazingly, Joe gets three hits including a homer in our 6-2 win down in Pittsburgh, which is a nice load off my mind.

The gates are open again for the second game, but there’s still a nervousness about its fate that ripples through the crowd. Then, while the packed crowd waits for it to start, they pipe in President Hughes’ live address right over the Mack park loudspeakers. Here’s some of it:

“Yesterday…September 9th…is a day…that will live…in our hearts and minds forever. While many of our citizens see this unparalleled and vicious attack on our naval facilities in Virginia and Key West as a call to arms, let us not forget the importance…of maintaining our time honored institutions here in America. It is for that reason…that I honestly feel that it would be best for the country…to keep the Bragging Rights League going through its exciting conclusion.”

A huge cheer goes up, along with assorted hats. Pop Lloyd steps in against Roosevelt Davis, and Game 2 is on. And it’s another gut-stretcher. Who else but Oscar homers in the 4th, but Detroit ties it up off Leon Day right away. Beckwith then doubles in a run and the Calloways take a 2-1 lead through seven. Out in K.C., Webster McDonald is spinning a brilliant 2-0 shutout against Newark, but Blossom doesn’t care, being a real despiser of “back door pennants.”

She doesn’t have to worry. Rogan doubles to lead the B-Ham 8th and Charleston works a walk. Willard Brown ties the game 2-2 with a single, and after Ray Brow takes over on the hill, Tubby Scales singles in the go-ahead! William Bell is on to nail down at least a tie the pennant in the last of the 9th and I’m standing with all my adopted Birmingham friends.

Except Frog Redus, a doer of absolutely nothing the entire season, hits his second 9th inning home run in two days to tie it with one out, and we go to extra innings. Groan!

But here’s Oscar Charleston, sandpapering his bat handle right in front of us to begin the 10th. “Hit one, Oscar!!” yells Blossom, and I swear we see him turn and wink at us.

And hit one out he does, a line drive rocket that Chino Smith can’t even begin to jump for before it clears the right field fence. A Ben taylor sacrifice fly makes it 5-3, Blossom screaming in my ear, before the expected bottom of the 10th heart attack. Two outs, no one aboard, Home Run Johnson triples. Chino singles and it’s 5-4. Rube Foster to the rescue again, but this time Beckwith singles Smith to third. The tying run 90 feet from the plate and that Froggy man Redus up again.

This time he grounds weekly to Scales at second, Blossom jumps in my arms, and the Armstrongs have clinched at least a tie for first!

That’s because the Ellingtons score seven times in the 9th out west, with the help of a Nip Winters pinch-hit single, to ambush the poor Basies 7-2. I call Cullenbine on the telephone after, and he begs me to come back for the last game. Seems that half the Pittsburgh Jordans jumped the team to go enlist, and the Dorseys took the second game 9-6 against Verdell Mathis and Frank Wickware. What I forgot about is that second place money we’re owed if we finish in third place, and right now we’re tied with the Basies at 30-29. No one’s sure if we’ll be allowed to fight in the war, and me being Canadian makes that really doubtful, so if we can get those third place shares it might ease the pain.

I also wouldn’t mind seeing my Dorsey boys one last time, even if it means leaving Blossom to see the last game herself. “I’ll be fine, sugar. Got my locals to take care of me.” I promise I’ll make it down to Birmingham for the parade somehow if they win it, and then it’s a final sweet kiss for my road.

* * *

We end up clobbering the Jordans 10-5 with 14 hits to sweep the series, beating Wickware and Mathis this time instead of Mathis and Wickware, and they have Frank Warfield playing shortstop and about three dozen fans in the stands and I can make out Dobbs at his Royal typewriter looking very sad and bored and ashamed to look in my direction. I start, go 0-for-2 and finish with a crummy .257 average but that’s fine because as soon as Keller takes over for me for the last time, I kick back in the cool dugout to scoreboard-watch with everyone else.

Blossom must be melting into a happy pool in Detroit, because the B-Hams homer early and often, the first by pitcher Chet Brewer, and two of the next three by Oscar Charleston, who goes positively bonkers on the final weekend. In three games the Armstrongs have to win, he goes 8-for-13 (.615) with five homers and nine RBIs. And counting his extra-inning winner in Newark, that’s six homers in the last four games.

Anyway, what’s left of the Greenlee crowd claps politely when the pennant-winning 9-2 score from Detroit is posted. Out in Kansas City, the Ellingtons score three times in the first for Double Duty Radcliffe, never look back, and from what I hear, stars from both teams ditch the place in the 5th after they hear the Birmingham final and race down to their recruiting stations.

Tommy Dorsey stalks around our club house later, angry beyond belief. We take third place with our late surge, but people in power are way too busy dealing with the important war to make good on our winning money. We remind Dorsey what’s really important, and as far as the league went, that we were able to finish better than three other teams.

I say warm goodbyes to most of my teammates outside the ball park. DiMaggio gives me his usual limp handshake but wishes me well, not an easy thing to do for a guy surrounded by private protection just by being Italian. I figure I’ll see some of these guys next year in whichever struggling white league I end up in. Assuming baseball is still being played, of course, despite what the President says.

If it is, Ted Williams, by far our best hitter, is pretty sure he’ll be invited to become the first white player in the majors next year. But I’m not all that convinced his attitude will wash. “Those major leaguers play seven days a week sometime,” he says, “How the hell am I gonna fish?” He lays one of his big arms around me. “Bring a rod, track me down, and we’ll go find ourselves a meaty river. Oh…and bring that honey of a girlfriend along.”

Clean sweeps for the road teams!

DORSEYS 6-13-2, at JORDANS 2-3-1
DORSEYS 9-10-0, at JORDANS 6-11-3
DORSEYS 10-14-1, at JORDANS 5-11-1

ARMSTRONGS 9-14-2, at CALLOWAYS 8-12-0
ARMSTRONGS 5-13-0, at CALLOWAYS 4-11-1 (10 inn.)

ELLINGTONS 5-14-0, at BASIES 3-4-0
ELLINGTONS 7-9-0, at BASIES 2-9-1
ELLINGTONS 7-11-0, at BASIES 3-6-0

COMPLETE FINAL STATS next week along with the epilogue.

Per usual, here are Team Hitting, Team Pitching, and Assorted Miscellany

Birmingham Armstrongs 36 24 .600
Newark Ellingtons 35 25 .583 1
Chicago Dorseys 31 29 .517 5
Kansas City Basies 30 30 .500 6
Detroit Calloways 24 36 .400 12
Pittsburgh Jordans 24 36 .400 12
Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 6:31 am  Comments (3)  

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well, 3rd place for the Dorseys ain’t half bad, considering the chips were stacked against them all season, and that they outplayed their run differential. Congrats to them, and especially to Birmingham. What a season! Very exciting stuff.

  2. B-Hams! B-Hams!! B-Hams!!!

    May I take the liberty of posting the verse of Oscar Charleston’s Bragging Rights and Negro Leagues teammate and eulogist Mr. Dave Malarcher? Charlie is of course far from deceased, but the high praise seems appropriate given his season-ending flurry.

    Oscar Charleston

    By David J. Malarcher*

    Sleep, Charlie! thou, the great, the strong!

    Within the depths of mud and mire!

    While high above the diamond throng

    Thy sterling statue in retire

    Proclaims the splendor of thy game,

    Thy paramount, unequaled fame!

    Thou wert the best who roamed the field!

    Thy stalwart fingers never failed

    The batters’ erring fate to seal,

    The pitchers’ powers wrought to frail!

    Oh! would thy skill could live always

    To stir the sportsman happy praise!

    Sleep, Charlie! I, who knew thee well,

    Do here declare to Earth and time

    In Heaven’s language, thus to tell,

    In poignant poetry divine,

    The glory of thy destiny

    Thus this undying rhyme to thee!

    Sleep, Charlie! now in holy dust!

    (As mighty Cobb and Petway rest)

    Bearing the praise of all of us,

    The diamond’s greatest and the less

    Here honor we on thee bestow,

    That ages will thy greatness know.

    * Dave Malarcher, a SABR member living in Chicago, was a Negro League teammate of Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston and, obviously, a great admirer.

  3. By the way, I didn’t mean above that Oscar Charleston is still among the living – he died in the mid-1950s. I meant he has one more week of Bragging Rights left in him.

    Looking forward to the closing Chapter 22.

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