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When two young brothers join the Brooklyn Dodgers, one becomes team manager and is faced with the task of uniting a team rife with dissension and prejudice against the new Jewish rookie catcher.
From the dugout where Grouchy sat, the whole field spread itself out before him, the diamond not a diamond at all but what it really was, a square with players at every corner. Save for the pitching mound which rose above his forehead, everything was on a level with his eyes. He swept a glance around the familiar scene, seeing things no one else could see because managing this team was his business, his life. Then, bringing the scorecard up horizontally to his nose, he waved it slowly to the right. Immediately and imperceptibly, the three men in the outfield shuffled over nearer the right field line.
The manager's gaze took in everything: Lefty, the pitcher, towering above him in the box, his glove hanging from his wrist as he roughed up the new ball; the Mugger standing truculently at the plate, swinging his bat; the poised runner on first; and last of all the two boys near second base. Especially those two who had made the team what it was.
In deep short the tall thin figure pawed the ground restlessly with his spikes and almost at once smoothed out the furrows at his feet. Then he leaned over, picked up a pebble and tossed it behind him, spit into his glove and banged it with his fist. From the bench Grouchy watched him. He was tense, alert, as he concentrated upon the man at the plate and the signals from the catcher. On second base itself stood his brother and from him came that strident chatter, the tonic which had kept them all on their toes, which silenced rival dugouts in the verbal exchanges of the bench jockeys, which had spark-plugged them all through the season and helped them into the lead. Because with the end in sight the Vols were in first place, two games ahead of the Crackers.
The pitcher leaned forward and rocked slightly on the rubber. Grouchy gripped his scorecard.
This next pitch could mean the game. The pennant, too.
Lefty took the signal and nodded. Instantly Grouchy noticed what no one else did. The boy in deep short raised his glove as if he were stroking one side of his face, and the youngster on second, without ceasing the flow of words for an instant, edged over quickly toward first. One person, old Schultz the coach, at Grouchy's side, noticed it also.
"That kid thinks his brother knows more than Joe McCarthy."
Grouchy agreed. "Sometimes he makes me think so, too. But I ain't telling him!"
Then the Mugger swung. There were two hundred pounds behind his swing as he caught the ball, sending it along the grass between first and second, well over toward the right. The Mugger started with the ball and so did the boy in the field. Only from his position almost two-thirds of the way to first had he any chance, and only a chance measured in fractions of a second, the chance that comes off once in a hundred times, the chance every good ballplayer takes.
He raced over, low, glove outstretched, and stabbed at the ball. He had it. Hardly pausing in his motion, he tossed it underhand, the only way he could, to the man on first. The first baseman jumped clear of the on-charging Mugger and burned the ball to second. The tall boy, waiting coolly, took the throw and put it on the base runner as he thundered desperately in. It was a doubleplay, the doubleplay, the most difficult, the most intricately timed play of all. The side was out.
They stormed jubilantly in toward the bench, the fans roaring. The younger boy, waiting a moment for his brother, exchanged insults with the Mugger, now returning slowly toward his dugout. Then his brother trotted up and the boy put one arm over his shoulder, turned to yell at the Mugger and, grinning over the applause, reached up and tipped the other's cap. The fans yelled louder, and the older and taller boy gave him an affectionate little shove. Cocky, sure of himself, pulling slightly at his cap, still hurling insults back at the Mugger, he came into the dugout. Grouchy spoke as he passed.
"Listen, you fresh young busher, quit needling that guy, will ya? Lay off him, Bob; he's poison. One of these days you'll get yourself hurt."
The boy yanked his bat from the rack. He started toward the plate. "I'll send you a night letter if anything happens, Grouchy."
The old manager shook his head. He started to reply and checked himself. After all, when you don't say anything you never have to eat your own words.
Through the sixth, the seventh, and the eighth innings they preserved that one-run lead. In the ninth, with victory only three putouts away, they were still leading one to nothing. Then Lefty tired, and a batter got a two-base hit. He was sacrificed to third and the Mugger, swinging his great club, came angrily to the plate.
Grouchy at once signaled from the bench and he was passed. Now the Mugger was really angry. Cut down stealing, nailed by that doubleplay in the fourth, he had struck out in the seventh and was passed in the ninth. Three for nothing! That meant both those boys would pass him in the batting averages. So the Mugger was angry. Especially as he was the man the scouts had come to watch. Everyone knew there were scouts in the stands that afternoon to see whether he was ready for the big time.
He stood on first, hitching up his belt and glaring over at the young second baseman, while the crowd roared. One out, men on first and third, and the Volunteers one run ahead. A hit might mean the game. It could mean the pennant and the Dixie Series.
Then the batter swung, and even with the swing Spike, the shortstop, knew the ball was his. A clean grasscutter, fast and easy to handle, a doubleplay ball just where he wanted it. One toss, one throw, and bang! There you are back in the dugout and the game over. Bob stood waiting on second as the Mugger roared wildly down the basepath and came riding in with his spikes glistening in the late afternoon sun. There was a screen of dust, the sound of body contact, the ripping noise of spikes, and Bob was rolling in the dirt behind the bag.
"Hey! You can't do that, Mugger! You can't rough up my brother. When you rough up my brother, you rough up me!"
The Mugger slapped the dust and dirt from his pants. He stood on the bag, his lips snarling. "I can't, can't I? Consider yourself roughed, young fella."
There was no ballpark, no game. There was no large crowd, no Dixie Series waiting for the winner. Nothing but his brother in agony on the basepath and the Mugger standing contemptuously on the bag. So Spike cranked up his Sunday punch and let fly. The Mugger went down, head over heels in the dirt.
Confusion! The Crackers were swarming out of their dugout and his teammates were holding Spike back and Grouchy came running up. Soon everyone was involved in the battle. Fans ran onto the field, and it was half an hour before they were cleared off and the two teams separated. By this time Bob had been carried in to the dressing room, a substitute came in to play second, and the game was resumed.
All the time Spike was thinking not of the fight nor the game but of his brother. Gosh, if he's really banged up, I'll finish the Mugger. So help me, I will.
The next batter popped out and a minute later the inning ended with the score one to one. They came in, hot and panting, to the bench.
"Hey, how is he? How is he, Grouchy?"
"Him?" There was scorn in Grouchy's tone. "He's O.K. Torn his legs a little, that's all. You young fool, why you wanna do a thing like that? You like to get yourself benched for a week right now when we need you bad. You'll get a good stiff fine slapped on you as it is. Go in there and play ball. Get me back that run, you young hothead."
Knowing his brother was all right, Spike went up to the plate loose and easy. Not even the realization that the Cracker pitcher would be throwing at his head bothered him.
Just so the kid isn't hurt, that's all that counts. Pennants, Dixie Series, sure. But we depend on each other; he depends out there on me and I depend on him.
As he expected, the first pitch flattened him. He sprawled in the dust, not angry, amused. Slowly he picked himself up.
O.K., big boy, lemme see another one of those high pitches. You oughta remember what I did to one of those in Atlanta last month. That's what I get paid for hitting, mister, that pitch. I love it.
It wasn't another duster. The pitcher pulled the string on him. It was a floater, slow, tantalizing. He was cool now, and waited. Here it comes!
The right field fence in Nashville is one of the shortest in the game. The ball struck a big warehouse across the street and bounced back into the midst of a crowd of boys on the opposite curbing. Inside the park the fans rose yelling. This was what they'd come for, this was it, a ninth inning homer in a crucial game. Now the Vols were ahead by three games. Before Spike had reached second, hats were being passed round in the stands. In Nashville, like many minor league towns, the fans know how to show appreciation, and Spike would get an extra hundred dollars for that homer which won the game. He wasn't interested. He was galloping past the bags, hurrying to reach the bench and the locker room.
At the door he saw Bob lying naked on the table. Bloody clothes were on the floor, and the Doc was snipping away at the plaster about his legs and thighs. Spike stood in the doorway a second, looking at the slim figure, and something brought back a scene that had happened years before. The Old Lady was alive, keeping that dreary boarding-house on West Forrest. One night after dinner when they'd helped wash the dishes, she took them on the street cars to Marbridge, front seat all the way there and back. When they got off at the corner nearest home, the popcorn man was there, his gaslight flickering in the darkness.
Hey, Ma! Can we have some popcorn, can we?
About the stand were half a dozen kids from the Richman gang. But the popcorn wasn't ready and the Old Lady had to return. Bob said he'd wait, so she gave him ten cents for two bags.
All the time Spike had known he shouldn't go off and leave Bob standing there alone with the gang. They reached home and he didn't come and he didn't come. Then he came. He came crying, with blood over his face and arms, and two torn bags with only a fistful of popcorn.
The memory of that evening came back to Spike as he stood in the doorway and saw his brother stretched out on the rubbing table, his thighs patched with surgeon's plaster. Then the others came up behind, pushing him inside, and Bob on the table looked up and saw him. His eyes shining with pride, he reached with both arms for the shoulder of his elder brother.
"Boy ... I bet you could lick Joe Louis."
He meant it, too.CHAPTER 2
They sat together in the hotel room, Grouchy in the easy chair under the lamp, Ted Fuller, the Dodger scout, facing him. Fuller was talking.
"As you see 'em, Grouchy, just what's different about these boys? What makes 'em tick?"
"Well, for one thing, those two kids can do everything around the bag and do it faster and with more sureness than any pair I've ever seen."
"Yeah! What've they got?"
"Dunno. Mebbe it's the way they get rid of the ball. You musta noticed it when you was here last spring. You musta seen it out there this afternoon on that doubleplay ball in the fourth. It's bang, bang, bang, every play. No sooner get their hands on the ball, than flash!—they get rid of it. Seems like they have that split-second quickness you need for doubleplays. A few players just naturally have it but not many."
"No, that's right. Not many. They're plenty fast, all right."
"Fast! Why, they're acrobats, that's what they are. They make plays you wouldn't believe."
"Would you say, now, Grouchy, would you say they're the best doubleplay combination in this league?"
"The best?" He sat up in his chair. "The best in the league? Look here, Ted, I'll tell you what. I'll say they're the best doubleplay combination I've seen for many years."
"Well, I'll admit you've seen plenty. This kid at short covers ground pretty good."
"And he'll improve, too. Spike's tall but he isn't filled out yet. Give him another season, wait until ..."
The telephone rang. "Here he is now. Yes? O.K. Send him up. Now then, Ted, you'll see what I mean when I say he's a cool customer. He's good and he knows he's good, and he won't mind saying so, either. Y'see they're orphans, and this one acts as business manager for 'em."
They sat for a minute or two in silence. Then there was a knock.
Spike wore a faded sports coat with a kind of leather patch over each sleeve where his elbows had begun to come through. His sleeves were too short, his trousers were baggy, and hardly reached his shoes. But, unlike many tall boys, he had no gawkiness in his movements as he came easily into the room.
"G'd evening, Mr. Devine." It was Grouchy on the bench and in the ballpark, but it was Mr. Devine in his room at the Andrew Jackson. Besides, he was due for a dressing-down over the afternoon's incident, and he knew the manager didn't like familiarity at such moments.
Then he saw the stranger.
"Ted, this is Spike Russell, our shortstop. Spike, shake hands with Ted Fuller of the Dodgers."
Ted Fuller, the Dodger scout! They were going to ask him first-off about the Mugger. Things get around a ballclub fast, and everyone knew there were scouts in the stands that afternoon. I must be careful what I say, he thought.
"Yessir. Glad to see you, Mr. Fuller."
"Sit down, Spike, sit down. I've been watching you out there some time now. You boys handle that ball nicely."
"Yessir, thank you, Mr. Fuller. Me and Bob been playing together quite a while."
"You sure manage to get that ball off fast, Spike. How many doubleplays you think you've made this year?"
Should he tell him or shouldn't he? Was there a catch to that question? Well, here goes. "A hundred and seven so far this year, sir. We led the league last season with a hundred and thirty-two. It's basketball, you see."
"Yessir. We both played basketball lots back home in Charlotte when we were kids. All that quick handling and passing, the pivoting and so forth, helps a man in this game."
"I can see it does. Never thought of that. Suppose you're right. You like basketball better than baseball?"
"Nosir, no, Mr. Fuller. We like baseball." When was he going to get down to business, to the Mugger and his chances? If a call-down was due, he wanted it over and done with.
"Tell me about yourself, Spike. You and Bob now, how long you been at it?"
"Why, 'bout six-seven years. We played together quite some time. Started in the Tobacco League in Carolina. Then we jumped outlaw ball and got us a job on the Greenwood team down Mississippi way."
"Greenwood? Oh, yes, that used to be a Giant farm. Where'd you go from there?"
"To Savannah, sir."
"The Sally League! D'ja like it?"
"Yessir. 'Cept it's awful doggone hot there. Why, sir, you wouldn't believe it, come August the flies and bugs are so thick you can't hardly see the ball in the air at night. They come round in the bleachers and spray the fans with Flit for ten cents; but they don't ever spray the players."
"Ha! That's a good one, Grouchy. Spraying the fans with Flit for a dime. I never heard that before. What then? Where'd you go from there?"
"Why, we got a chance with the Dallas Rebels. Next year we managed to hitch up as utility outfielders with the Little Rock Travelers, and the year after that they put us in the infield. Then we come on here with Grouchy."
He paused and looked closely at the stranger. The visitor wore an expensively cut, beige- colored suit, and a handsome necktie. He seemed immaculate and dressy beside Grouchy, sprawled in the easy chair in shirtsleeves and slippers.
"Spike! How'd you like to come up to the Dodgers?"
A fan whirred on the wall. Otherwise silence hung over the room.
"You want us to come up to the Dodgers? Right now?" There was anxiety in his tone and firmness also.
"We want you to come up."
"You mean I should leave Bob, Mr. Fuller?" Was that what the man was saying? Leave Bob, the best guy that ever lived, and go up there alone to that club? Not a chance!
The other was laughing. He shot a glance at Grouchy. Then he laughed some more. It was a pleasant, agreeable laugh, a laugh that said: I know. I am used to dealing with folks, to getting along with people.
"Well now ... maybe ... we could even find a place for Bob, too."
Excerpted from Keystone Kids by John R. Tunis. Copyright © 1970 Lucy R. Tunis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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