tagNovels and NovellasThe Storytellers Ch. 10

The Storytellers Ch. 10

byParis Waterman©

"Baseball is the only sport where the team that has the ball is on defense."

Chapter 10

Recollections of Old Philadelphia

"So you came from Philadelphia. Tell me, what was Philadelphia like in those days?"

"Hmm," Bill sighed, closed his eyes, and gave it some thought, then said, "The air smelled of chimney smoke and cooked lard. There wuz old women wuz waddlin' along the half muddied streets. On the main streets wuz cobblestones and carts and horses seemed to be everywhere, and where they weren't, there wuz streetcars clanging past.

You could hear coughing coming from nearly every window. Babies squawking and crying at so high a pitch you'd want to cover your ears. In most tenements, hens roamed the hallways, goats shit on the stairwells, and sows nestled in torn newspapers and there wuz always this dull rage of flies.

Most folks tried to get jobs in the factories. Soot from the smokestacks along the Delaware River spewed chemicals and other shit into the air that we breathed. Most days it wuz kinda quiet though, I mean mornings you'd hear shop grates rolling up and the clop-clop of horse drawn wagons delivering ice, hay and fruit and vegetables, or wood or coal. Then the streets would fill with vendors and livestock and truant kids. Later some of the men would hit the saloons for a late breakfast, or lunch and some musicians would occupy a corner trying to drum up enough money to buy some food or booze, or both."

I was surprised at his eloquence in describing his native city, and told him so.

"You're surprised? What the hell for? I wuz born and raised there, you know I've lived a long time; been around the world more than once."

I was quick to apologize, and asked him quietly if he would do me the honor of continuing.

His nod told me he accepted my apology; then he went on as if nothing had happened moments earlier.

"Most people wuz poor. It wuz just about the same as the Depression we just finished with, thanks to the War Between the States and all. It seemed to get better with time, but really it didn't. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. It seems to be the rule of things. I doubt it will ever change.

"Oh, but things perked up some with the Exposition of '76."

"You mean the Philadelphia Exposition?" I said, having been caught off guard.

"Yes, of course I mean that Exposition. Philadelphia's my home town, how could I possibly miss out on that event; and it wuz a marvelous event at that.

"As I recall, we wuz playing the Philadelphia team that July 4th weekend. Now because of the game I couldn't get over to the opening day ceremonies. I could'a got there after though, but there wuz this young lady wanted to... well you know what she wanted. I wuz able to get there on the second day of the Exposition and two other times as well later on that year. They did a bang-up job, really made a mash of it.

"Why not give me your overall impressions... what you saw, what you liked."

"Sure," he said, spitting into the cuspidor at his feet, "I'd be happy too. One thing stays with me wuz the display of the Liberty Torch as a preview of the Statue of Liberty, which they wuz still putting together. But for 50 cents you could climb the ladder to the balcony, and the money raised this way was used to help fund the rest of the statue.

"I'll tell you something you probably didn't know about Lady Liberty."

"What's that," I said, anxious for a piece of hitherto unknown information.

"Bartholdi, the sculptor, modeled the statue's face after his mother's, and the story goes that the body was modeled after a prostitute."

"Are you pulling my leg?"

"No, I'm serious. I really am. You could probably look it up."

"The arm and torch wuz at the Exposition, but it took 'em years to finish the job on account of politics and insufficient monies to complete the job."

Bill laughed and spit unerringly into the cuspidor once again; and again I had to glance down at my shoes to ensure that he had not stained them with his expectorant.

"My aim is true, sir, of that I guarantee you."

Defensively, I responded weakly with, "Well you came awfully close."

"Close don't count, except in horseshoes."

I waved my hand, trying to dismiss the event, and Bill was kind enough to let it pass.

"Anyway, as politicians are wont to do, they formed a committee to finance and arrange for the construction of the pedestal. But when Bartholdi announced that the Statue would be completed in 1883, relatively little money had been raised for the pedestal.

There wuz opposition to the Statue, among them wuz artistic and religious criticisms; and of course, plenty of dissatisfaction with the proposed location. Surprisingly, plenty of people objected to New York City as the place where the Statue should be erected. And when they wuz pushed aside, some leading newspapers said New York should foot the bill and not the good old US of A.

"Actually, I found it funny. Here wuz France trying to honor us with the Statue and we couldn't afford to pay for the pedestal, or agree on where it should go. It might have become an international embarrassment had not Joseph Pulitzer, railed at the New York money boys for their lack of generosity and appealed to the "working masses" to make up the deficiency in the fund.

Other American cities started to make noises about providing a home for the Statue (Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Baltimore) but it wuz only after Joseph Pulitzer published the names of those who had already donated to the project that the funds really started flowing in.

That's how things like that work. Once it's known that so-and-so gave, the rest of the phoney-balonies want in on the act.

"I think it took about nine years to complete the statue in France, and then it wuz shipped to the States. It became a political football in that they couldn't figure out where to put the statue. It took a special trip by Bartholdi himself to discuss the location of the statue with president Ulysses S. Grant. Eventually it was decided to erect the statue on a small island in the harbor of New York City. The statue was erected in 1886; ten years after I'd climbed the arm in Philadelphia.

"Opening day of the Exposition saw about 185,000 people in attendance, but the crowds dropped off after that mainly due to a deadly heat wave began in mid-June and continued into July hurting attendance. But I remember reading some place that attendance picked up later on and that maybe upwards of ten million people attended the Exposition before it closed."

"What else of significance did you see?"

"That's a good question, Roy. I'm gonna answer it this way: It's not so much what I saw, but what the rest of the world saw. Our image before the exposition wuz that of an upstart country: a country not ready to join the biggies of Europe. America had just come through a difficult period; the years following the Civil War wuz marked by political scandal and lack of leadership.

Visitors and businessmen from abroad wuz astonished at our industrial productivity, creativity, and progressiveness. The country wuz hailed as the land of progress and increasing economic power. The Centennial gave Americans pride in the present and confidence in an even greater future."

I realized that Bill had just shown me his intelligence was far removed from that of the average ballplayer. I should have known this... well perhaps I did, but I hadn't understood the full weight of just how his "gift" had allowed him access to the finest minds of the century and the fact that he had taken advantage of it by "entering" world leaders whenever he thought it worthwhile.

I tabled that subject for another time, and let him finish his discourse of the great Philadelphia exposition of 1876.

"Representatives from other nations came over to display their own products had found a variety of products to purchase from American firms. So we found what amounted to a new market for many of our homegrown products.

"Well, you asked what else I saw that impressed me. Remember I wuz only a baseball player, so I probably missed some important things. But one of the most popular exhibits in the Machinery Hall was a prototype slice of the cable that the Roebling Brothers would use for the Brooklyn Bridge. The Machinery Hall also featured other novelties, such as the first typewriter and a telephone.

Telephones and typewriters wuz nice, but what people wanted was power. Towering over the hall was the gigantic Corliss Steam Engine, taller than a house, powering 13 acres of machinery in the great hall. The 1500 horsepower double Corliss steam engine connected to 5 miles of shafting used to move this power throughout the vast machinery hall. You had to see what wuz going on. The amount of activity in the hall boggled people's minds. The New York Herald, the Sun, and the Times all printed their daily editions in the hall. Machines started sewing, pins got stuck into paper, wallpaper printed, and logs were sawed. What really amazed people, though, was the Corliss Engine itself. The machine had only one attendant, who sat calmly on the platform and read newspapers."

"Other major attractions were the Main Building, devoted to manufacturing capabilities of the U.S. and other countries; Memorial Hall, dedicated to the fine arts; and Horticulture Hall, a conservatory for the display of native and exotic plants, to which I would take any lady accompanying me to the exposition.

"There wuz obviously more, much more, but a lot of time has passed by and I don't recall much more than that."

I thanked Bill for his lengthy explanation, and switched topics, asking, "How did your first season in the big leagues go?"

"Better than I had any right to expect," he said, and sent another line of brown juice past my shoe and into the bucket.

I pointed at the cuspidor, and asked, "Do you ever miss?"

He laughed, "Sure, every once in a while." He saw me wince and glance down at my newly shined wing tips.

"Don't fret none sonny, I won't hit them shiny shoes of yours though."

He paused, thinking about something, and then picked up his conversation. "I was just a kid back in '75. We had Candy Cummings the curveball ace, come over to the Dark Blues that year. He won about 35 games for us. I shouldn't leave out Tommy Bond, who was a pretty good thrower himself; won 19 or 20 games, although he lost a bunch. He was pretty good though. A Mick from Ireland, I think. Let's see, he won 40 games with Boston a couple years later, and they took the championship."

"That's right," he shouted, and slammed the table, "he won 40 again the following year, and 43 the year after that. But Monty Ward and Providence finished ahead of them. Yeah, Cummings made the Hall,probably for claiming he invented the curve ball; but Tommy was a hell-of-a-lot better thrower."

Just then, the nurse came back into the room with a burly attendant.

"Ah, shit!" Bill exclaimed before leaning back into his chair and looking down at the floor.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Shannon, but it's time for Burt's bath. Visiting hours are up too, so you'll have to leave. You can come back tomorrow at nine."

"Give us a god damn minute, willya?" Bill beseeched her and to my surprise, she relented.

"Only a minute, now, Burt, no stalling."

He beckoned me closer then whispered in my ear, "Don't come here tomorrow. Meet me at the Lord's Will Baptist Church over on Glenwood Avenue at nine. Sit in the back of the Church. I'll be there and I'll bring us coffee."

"I told him that was fine with me, and left him arguing with the nurse and attendant.

I drove to the closest diner, had dinner, and then I Ameched Belva in Los Angeles.

After the usual lovey-dovey hello's, she asked, "Is it really him?"

"It sure is. He's the real McCoy, Belva."

"How do you know?"

"He mentioned the alien. Said he met a man from Venus."

"Oh, my God!"

"Yeah. The man I met looked to be over a hundred years old. He also appeared to be near death's door."

"But your guy isn't near that old."

"Remember he changes bodies at will."

"You're saying he picked an old person? I thought he only picked baseball players."

"Well he doesn't. My guess is that he's taken over some of the world's renowned persons, including monarchs and maybe even presidents."

"Jeez! I think I'm going to flip my wig."

"It is scary, doll."

"Better be extra careful of him."

"I will. He seems to have the real goods on the old time ball players, although he played hard to get at first, denying he was the man I wanted. He kept asking for the money."

What money?"

"I mentioned a reward in the ad and he asked for $25,000 in his reply."

"You don't have that kind of money, Roy."

"I know, but it was only a come on on my part. When he kept yammering about the dough, I threatened to fade. He came around then and that's when I found out he was the real deal. Anyhow, I'm meeting him tomorrow morning at a Baptist church."

"Be careful, honey."

"I will. I'm pretty sure he wants me to write about him. Arthur was right, he's as anxious as I am to get things on record."

"I don't care," Belva said. "You better be careful."

"Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. He tried to enter me. I felt this thumping thing, like he bounced off of me."

"No!"

"And later on, it happened again, only he wasn't trying to get into me. He was lying. After it happened I recalled Arthur mentioning something about my knowing when he lied; that must be it."

The operator interrupted us to demand another $1.75 for another three minute's conversation. We said our goodbyes and I closed by telling Belva I didn't know when I'd call her again, but it would be soon.

The operator cut us off and I immediately regretted not throwing the additional quarters into the phone. But we really had said all we had to say, other than getting mushy and lovey-dovey, so it was probably best.

I went back to my room and transcribed my notes while listening to Amos & Andy on the hotel radio. Falling asleep proved difficult as my mind kept searching out new avenues of approach in uncovering Bill's secrets. It was well after eleven when I finally went out like a light.

*****

The following day brought a light rain and I walked two blocks to a small café getting moderately wet in the process. I had a breakfast of pancakes and crispy bacon, with several very tasty cups of coffee then set off for the Lord's Will Baptist Church, which was another two-block walk in the drizzling rain.

I entered the old white, wood framed building and sat down in the next to last row of pews. Ten minutes passed before a huge colored man wearing a white collar, approached me with a broad smile.

"Good morning, Roy!" he said in a deep baritone.

My face must have revealed my shock in seeing him in another body, although I did try to hide it when replying, "Good morning, Bill, I see you're not as wet as I am."

"Meet the Reverend Howard Pentecost, Roy. This is my place of business; of course I'm not wet. If I venture out, I've got my choice of umbrellas..." he pointed to an umbrella stand with at least four umbrellas in it.

I nodded in understanding.

"I will say you look a lot better today, Bill. Obviously a good night's sleep did wonders for you."

He laughed at my attempted humor and said, "It unnerve you seeing me as a colored preacher?"

"It's not the color of your skin, Bill. But seeing you in another body... well, I admit it set me back some."

After sticking a chew of tobacco in his mouth, he replied, "You fared better than many folks seen me change."

I thought nothing of the comment at the time, but it would come back and haunt me later.

Then Bill/the Reverend laughed again and got down to business. "So where do we begin today, Roy?"

I glanced at my notes and said, "As I recall, we were interrupted about the time you were going to tell me about your first season with Hartford."

"Yes," he said, and then waited.

I realized he wanted me to lead off with a question, and did: "So, how did you do?"

"Aw, I earned my pay, but I didn't get to be famous like Bonds, or Cummings, or Ward, or even Ferguson." Bill grew pensive, and said, "You know, there's something people don't know about those days."

"What would that be?"

"Because of the number of teams failing financially, you couldn't play out a full schedule; or the owners couldn't put enough teams on the field.

One year we'd play 80 some, the next, 70, and then 60. That's what I meant about Bonds winning 40 out of the 60 played. Sure, it was a short season, but look at what the man accomplished. He ain't in the Hall, but he should be."

"What about Bob Ferguson?" I asked.

"Well, he wuz good, maybe the best of that period, but he wasn't Hall of Fame material. Maybe if you lumped all the things he wuz good at, you might make a decent argument on his behalf, but if I wuz votin', I couldn't see giving him my vote, and I really liked him."

"How about telling me how the game was actually played back then... say, as opposed to the way it is today?"

"That's a good question, because it wuz played a lot differently back then; of course, you understand, they wuz still inventing the game."

He fed more tobacco into his mouth and chewed it for a minute before continuing.

"When I wuz playing back then you could say the game wuz played a lot like fast-pitch softball is today. The pitcher delivered the ball underhand from a distance of 45 feet, that's fifteen feet closer than now. The pitcher's arm had to be stiff, so as to control the speed of the pitch. But plenty of hurlers gave the ball a flick of the wrist, adding some additional spin, and sometimes a change in the ball's flight to the batter.

"Most things wuz about the same as they are now, except for the ball itself; the ball wasn't wound so tight, and remember it wuz handmade. It wuz so soft and all, I doubt anyone could have knocked it 400 feet. It took nine balls to get a walk, but no one really wanted a walk, and the batters would be hollering for the pitcher to "Put it over, so I can hit it."

"Did the players of '75 really know how to play the game?"

"Course they did."

"Sorry, I meant, did they have a feel for the basics of the game... the inner workings... as the players of today do?"

"Same damn answer. Go back into the archives. You'll be impressed with how much was already known about the fundamentals of the game. Take Harry Wright for instance. He wuz a baseball genius, a master of strategy and tactics. He had that something extra, that geniuses possess. He invented drills, including backup drills for infielders and catchers. I think someone dubbed him the 'Father of Baseball.'

He started with the first professional team out of Cincinnati. His teams played position baseball; what they call 'insider baseball' these days. Guy's played off of first base long before Comiskey did - that lying, cheatin' cocksucker."

"You have a problem with Mr. Comiskey?" I asked, hoping to pull some new detail from him.

"Me, and every other baseball player ever set foot in the big leagues, yeah!"

I was busy scribbling into my notebook and suddenly realized that Bill had stopped speaking.

I looked up at him.

"We're speaking of the 1870's right now. I'll come back to that prick, Comiskey later, you don't mind."

"That's fine with me, Bill. Go on with your story."

"Let's see, we wuz talking about first base, right?"

"Right."

"They wuz holding the runner on if need be, and played off the base when it wuz empty. It was recognized that a left-handed first baseman had an advantage in throwing the ball to second or third over a righty.

Um, let's see, okay, the pitchers tossing underhanded could change speeds, with some even throwing a curve ball. I caught Candy Cummings that year, and he sure threw one. He wasn't the best pitcher around. Certainly didn't deserve election to the Hall of Fame like I said earlier. But he talked it up, you know?"

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