The Storytellers Ch. 13byParis Waterman©
The Master -- Napoleon Lajoie
I met Bill the following day at Morrison's Restaurant at exactly 6 pm. He had changed again. No longer a colored preacher, he was now a tall, gaudily dressed gentleman in a camel's haired jacket and dark brown slacks. He had a corn colored pompadour that most women would covet, and he was unabashedly good-looking.
He greeted me in a loud, but modulated voice that I soon learned was that of a popular local radio announcer, named James Dennis.
The waitress tripped not once, but twice in her eagerness to serve him his coffee and then his breakfast of ham and eggs. ("Over lightly, please!") I had to smile at his choice of persona.
"You like it?"
"It is different," I admitted.
"I'm keeping it for a couple days. I'm a well known, at least in these parts, announcer on WQAN. Scranton. Mostly I sell Pall Mall's. You know," he grinned, and I saw a mouthful of tobacco stained teeth. "Pall Mall. Wherever particular people congregate."
I had heard him deliver those very words the night before on some already forgotten radio program.
"Catchy," I said, returning the smile.
"You're taking me lightly, Roy. It takes a lot of hard work to deliver those lines and others like it to a huge audience. What's more, I have to please the sponsors more than the listeners."
After forking a portion of scrambled egg into my mouth, I told him, I appreciated his choice of persona.
"Oh and why is that?"
"Makes it easier to listen," I said, carefully chewing my eggs.
Dennis laughed. "That's true. But my reason is slightly different."
"I might have expected it to be," I replied.
He nodded and bit off a piece of toast. The waitress was hovering nearby and refilled his coffee and ignored my empty cup until Dennis motioned toward it.
After swallowing the toast, he pointed the rest of the toast at me and said, "How'd you like to go into New York City with me tomorrow and catch the World Series?"
"That sounds like a great idea," I said. "I've never seen a series game."
It occurred to me that there had been no meeting of the congregation for the Reverend Howard Pentecost; he had watched the first game of the Series on a television somewhere. And I strongly suspected he had done the same earlier that day. Why else set up a meeting at 6 in the evening?
For my part, I had listened to the radio broadcast of both games, bemoaning the fact that the Yankees had won both games. I was a Cub's fan; which meant I rooted for the National League team no matter what.
"I'll call in a favor; get us a couple ducats for tomorrow's game at Ebbets Field."
"You can get them at this late hour?"
"It's who you know, chum. It's who you know!"
The waitress came by to see if he − not me, that was for sure − wanted anything else. I saw Dennis' hand reach out and caress her lower thigh. She stiffened, but made no move to get away from the hand. By the time I finished my coffee, she was grinding her pelvis against his knee. It seemed I was the only one with a view of what was happening. Dennis had a shit-eating grin on his face. The waitress a rapturous expression on hers.
Just when I thought they couldn't continue their sordid rutting at the table without being seen by the manager among others, Dennis pulled his knee away and asked her what time she got off work.
"Eight, but if you want I could ask to get off earlier," she rattled off as if reciting the specials on the menu.
"Eight is fine, sweetie. What's your name?"
"Rosie. That's great; I'll have time to...."
She didn't finish, for Dennis stood up, left a generous tip and was walking out the door by the time the word 'great' left her mouth.
We left the diner and in an unbelievably off-handed manner, Dennis said, "I might just get us laid while we're in New York."
I didn't doubt him at all.
We adjourned to a nearby bar, took a booth in the rear and began talking about baseball.
But we didn't discuss the 1880's or '90's, we both began talking about the game of the present.
Dennis opened with, "Who's gonna win the MVP in the American League?"
"Ted Williams, of course," I said. "Hell's Bells, he won the Triple Crown. He's locked the MVP up."
"Sorry to disagree," Dennis smiled.
"Oh, you're gonna tell me DiMaggio takes it?"
"I am," he said calmly. "I know Williams hit... what was it .343? While Joe managed only .315."
"Williams also belted 32 homers to DiMaggio's 20."
"I know," Dennis said with a knowing smirk. "He even routed Joe D. in ribby's, 162 to 97. Still and all, Joe D's gonna win it."
"And you know this how?"
"The Boston writers hate William's guts. They won't vote for him. Well, I mean enough of them won't vote for him to cost him the MVP; which, in my opinion, he very much deserves."
"I've heard them talking, but I never thought they'd stoop to leaving him off the ballot."
"He hit .401 in '41 and they gave it to DiMaggio for the same or similar reasons."
"Yeah, but that year, DiMaggio had a 56 game hitting streak, and he led his team to the pennant."
"One could make an argument either way that year, I agree. But those Beantown writers have a thing against the Kid. He snubs the writers. I'm not saying he's right or wrong here. But they resent him and if at all possible, will vote the other player over him."
I decided to change the subject, and brought up the two teams we'd watch the next day at Ebbets Field. "Ya know that kid, Robinson is really special."
"Well, yes, but in what way?"
"For starters, he was a four-sport star at UCLA."
"I meant with regard to baseball," Dennis said laconically.
I nodded. I was well aware of Mr. Robinson's accomplishments. "I wrote an article about him when Rickey signed him for the Dodgers last year."
"Did you?" Dennis smiled almost scornfully. "Have you seen him play?"
"No, I missed him when the club came to Chicago. I was covering a murder in the spring, and in July I took a vacation and went to Los Angeles."
"What brought you to Los Angeles, Roy?"
I realized he was interrogating me, and having prepared for it, or so I'd thought, I answered truthfully. "Like many G.I.'s I wanted to write the great American novel."
"Ah, the great American novel; so how did it go? I don't recall seeing your name on the New York Times Best Seller List."
I couldn't help but flush from his sarcastic, but very accurate summation of my feeble attempt to solve the Short murder.
I held up a hand, telling him he needn't go any further with his remarks and when he stopped and waited, I told him about my trip west. Not everything, but most of the details; how I met Arthur, although I'd touched on that earlier, and how my search for clues in the Black Dahlia murder had been a waste of time.
"You thought..." he began and then burst out laughing. "No one's going to solve that one, Roy, I'm glad you realized that. So I'm the next subject in line for your novel. I gotta tell ya, I'm offended at being your second choice."
"I don't know about the Dahlia murder never being solved, Bill."
He dismissed my statement with a wave of his hand and I decided to take a different tact. "I understand it was a really long shot and all, but if you examine the information Arthur gave me you might understand why I wasn't anxious to chase down a ballplayer that died in, what was it, 1924?"
"Are you currently employed, Roy?"
Coming out of the blue, the question caught me off guard. "Yes and no."
"Interesting answer," he replied as he lit up a Chesterfield and blew the smoke through his nostrils. "You smoke Chesterfields but work for Pall Mall. I find that interesting too."
"Answer my question, Roy. I sell Pall Mall's; I don't have to smoke the damn things."
"I lost my job with the Chicago Tribune. I told them I was going to LA to see a sick aunt. They saw it differently. My guess is they figured I was casting an eyeball at an offer from one of the LA Dailies. I wasn't. I was hot to trot on the Elizabeth Short murder.
"And drew a complete blank there, I'll bet."
"So to compensate for a complete loss you came looking for me."
"Actually I nailed a job at the Times, and it was only after Arthur ran me down and gave me enough money to last me awhile."
"Find me interesting enough for the great American novel, Roy?"
"You're certainly worth writing about. As for the great American novel... I'll let others be the judge. I'll write it and let the chips fall where they may."
Dennis shrugged and resumed talking about the Dodgers again. "Well, Jackie Robinson has made quite an impression on me. I know he only hit .297, but consider the pressure he was under. I mean, people threatening to kill him, opponents trying to hurt him so he couldn't play; and everyone doing their best to drive him out of the league."
"Rickey got the league offices to back him up on Robinson," I said.
"But he left Robinson to face his enemies all by his lonesome."
"I think I recall Reese taking up for him one time," I said trying to make a point.
"One time... and that was a maybe he was and maybe he wasn't kind of a thing."
"Well I think he's here to stay. With Cleveland bringing Doby up in the American League means others will follow."
"Oh, you're right as rain, Roy. The floodgates are open. Don't expect a tidal wave of darkies to sweep into the big leagues, though. Some teams, like Washington, Boston and even the Yankees will resist hiring any of them until they can't afford not to."
"Don't forget Cincinnati and St. Louis in the National," I said. Then added, "I know the Brown's have signed a couple to contracts."
"The Giants will be signing some too. They have to keep up with Brooklyn. But to get back to the Series, I like the Dodgers chances, even if they lost the first two games."
I agreed with him, and said, "Reiser's made a significant come back this year."
Dennis smiled, and said, "He's one of my all time favorites."
"Really, I wouldn't have expected you to favor him that much."
"Did you see him when he first came up?"
"No, I was off to war."
"It was before the war, but maybe you enlisted early."
"He was what I call a five-point player. He could hit for average, had power, ran like a deer, fielded with the greatest ever to play the field and had a cannon for an arm."
"He kept finding walls to run into," I said reminding him that I too had at least heard about Pistol Pete.
"He did. But he was making plays that no one thought possible in running into them. But you're right. The collisions took a lot away from his game. For a time..." His voice trailed off.
It was the first time since he'd told me of his long ago sweetheart, Julie, that I'd heard him sound so wistful.
He glanced at me to see if I'd caught him, decided I had and changed the subject. "The Yankees have superior pitching. Connie Mack once said pitching is 90% of the game. He may have gotten it right. Pitching is the most dominant part of the game, always was, always will be."
"Brooklyn's pitching isn't all that bad. Branca won 21 games and Joe Hatten won 17."
"And Hugh Casey picked up another ten in relief," he added.
"You weren't kidding me when you said you could get tickets for tomorrow's game?" I said, hoping he hadn't been pulling my leg.
"Either first or third base, guaranteed."
There was no nudge after he'd uttered those words and I knew he was telling the truth.
I picked up my notebook, turned to a blank page and said, "Bill, can we go back to your career? Um, I note in your records that you hardly played at all during 1879 and 1880. And that you didn't play at all, in fact you weren't with any team in 1881. What happened?"
He scowled and nervously tapped his fingers on the table we were seated at.
"Wuz my fucking knees," he said, reverting to the voice I had heard him use the past two days. "First the left one, then the right. It started shortly after the season started. Then it got progressively worse. I wound up going home to try and nurse it back so's I could play. While I wuz recuperating, I met and married, Florence, my lifelong wife. Bill died in 1924, you know. Florence survived another thirteen years, passing on in 1937."
"Anyway, in '80 I reported for spring training and did as well as could be expected. I wuz hitting the ball better than ever. It seems my hitting improved with age. The season started and I had just won the starting catcher's job back when my other knee buckled on a play at the plate. Nine games in and I wuz fucked for the rest of that year and all of the next. But rest and easy living -- thanks to an inheritance from my father's passing, allowed me to recover completely. If you bother to check, you'll find that my game numbers... hell, all my numbers wuz up in '82 and '83."
"So while I'm recuperating, this is 1881, I'm talking about... President Garfield got himself shot at the Washington railroad depot. I think it wuz around July 4th, but I ain't positive about the date. One bullet grazed his arm, the other lodged in his abdomen. That wuz the more serious of the two bullets.
"I won't bother with all the gaudy details of President Garfield's medical treatment except to say that in more competent hands the man would have lived to fill out his term in office. The so-called leading medical experts of the time flocked to Washington and probed his wound with their fingers and dirty instruments. And though the President complained constantly of numbness in the legs and feet, which implied the bullet was lodged near the spinal cord, his witch doctors thought it was resting in the abdomen and treated him accordingly.
"I understand that by the time Garfield died in September of that year, his doctors had turned a three-inch-deep, harmless wound into a twenty-inch-long contaminated gash stretching from his ribs to his groin and oozing more pus each day. He lingered for eighty days, wasting away from his robust 210 pounds to a mere 130 pounds. He died of a heart attack caused by the constant pain from the gash."
"That sounds typical of those more interested in making a name for themselves then actually performing to the best of their ability."
"It wuz, Roy, sad to say it wuz. During the war, that would be WWI, I saw some surgeons pull off what some might consider miracles with wounded men. Others, I'm speaking of the medical profession back in the States, would have taken those doctors medical licenses' away, simply because they failed to follow proscribed methods, medically speaking."
"God bless 'em, they got the job done," Bill said, and I could tell he meant it.
"Well let's get back to your career, Bill."
"Yeah, sure. I wuz healthy enough to play in '82. That would have been with Troy. Truth is, I didn't play very well. Anyway, you know that after that season I met up with Arthur and got the power.
"Now that year, 1882 wuz the year the American Association began competing with the National League by lowering their ticket prices and placing several teams in the opposition's cities forcing an accord between them.
"You may ask why I bother mentioning it. Well, the agreement introduced the Reserve Clause, now this is why I mention it; it granted teams the rights to unilaterally renew a player's contract preventing him from entertaining other offers. And that bastard clause still keeps the players under the owner's thumb to this day.
"Infuriated, the players formed the Union Association in 1884 and siphoned off dozens of the better players. Unfortunately, they lost too much money and wuz done after the one season. They tried again six years later with the Players League. The best players joined, but like its predecessor, the Players League went bankrupt after one season. However, the competition and loss of players forced the American Association to fold too, with four of its best teams joining the National League."
"What about you, Bill? You were nearing the end too, weren't you?"
"Yeah, although I wuz much better with Philadelphia the next year, which wuz um, '83. I managed to play in most of the games, although I only hit .221. It's worth noting that this wuz the first year of the Philadelphia Phillies.
He grinned at me and said, "I'm proud to say that I played in their first game over at Recreation Park on the corner of 24th street and Ridge Avenue. Of course, I'm from Philadelphia, but you know that. We lost, wuz a harbinger of things to come, for the Phillies. We only won 17 games that season, but I would return in a few years as Nap Lajoie, and the team would fare a little better."
Actually, the team fared better the following season when Harry Wright was named manager. He led the team to respectability during the next decade, with the team finishing out of the first division only once during his reign. It would seem that Bill attempted to mislead us ever so slightly on this. Perhaps because the Phillies performance rose after he left, and he resented being cut loose by them.
Bill jumped back into the conversation, to tell me of his last season.
"My last year, which wuz with Cincinnati, I hit .279 in 82 games, but by the end of the year I knew I wuz finished as a player. When your legs go, you go. That could be the motto for a baseball player, you ask me. But I did get to catch a no-hitter by Dick Burns. Now there's a name you can remember, hee, hee, hee. Old Dick finished with a respectable 23-15 record, but threw his arm out the following year and wuz washed up just like me."
"Well, Bill, with your retirement at the end of the 1884 season, did you go on a spree with your power, or settle down as a happily married man?"
"Roy, I didn't use the power at all until I come across Lajoie in '95."
I felt that all too familiar nudge, at these words, signifying a lie and so I pushed him, saying: "You want me to believe you went eleven years without using the power one time?"
"I don't give a rat's ass what you believe. That's my story and I'm sticking to it."
I changed the subject rather than get into an argument. "Any children with Florence?"
"Actually, not while I wuz Harbidge. A year or so after I became Lajoie, Flo got pregnant and had the first of two children. But I had nothing to do with it."
I stopped for a moment to tap a Lucky Strike out of a pack I had in my shirt pocket. I offered one to Dennis, but he declined, lit one of his own, and then lit mine.
As he tossed the matchstick away, I said, "Let's talk about you and Napoleon Lajoie, Bill."
"Fine, happy to do it. I had been scouring the east coast... mostly Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey to tell the truth, but hadn't found the player I wanted. I did happen on a couple of decent players, but I wuz looking for potential greatness. I kept telling myself I'd know it when I saw it. And that turned out to be the case, although I didn't find him, I ran into a fellow I'd played with and against a few times named Tim Murnane. He was a decent enough player, and like me bounced from team to team until his legs betrayed him. I met him just before he landed a job as a sportswriter for the Boston Globe. He did very well there. But I happened on him in a saloon following a Phillies game, and he seemed to think I was a scout for them, and I didn't tell him otherwise.
"I saw this kid up in Rhode Island last week, bill. He knocked the snot out of the ball every time."
He did, did he?' I said, getting interested.
"Has a great arm too. He's just a kid, mind you, but they have him playing shortstop, and they're a pretty good semi-pro team."
"Well, Tim, semi-pro is just that."
"I saw him against a bunch of the Red Sox, and he was hitting major league pitching."
"So, the Red Sox are hot to trot over him, then?"
"No, and that's the thing. He embarrassed them. And I heard them disparaging his abilities. Said he was a fluke, but they're dead wrong, Bill. The kid has what it takes, believe you me."