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Murder at Ebbets Field
By TROY SOOS
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 1995 Troy Soos
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAncient hostilities, rooted in tradition and nurtured by each generation, were once again about to explode into open warfare. And I was in foreign territory, about to serve as one of the combatants.
I gave my uniform one last check. It was clean and pressed and needed no adjustment, but I rebuckled my belt a notch tighter anyway. The biting grip around my gut made me feel meaner, more primed for battle. Ready now, I hopped out of the visitors' dugout and onto the turf of Ebbets Field.
"Go back to the Polo Grounds, ya jerk ya!" greeted my entrance.
I immediately told myself to ignore the hoarse yell and tried not to flinch any acknowledgment that I'd heard. I knew it wasn't aimed at me personally. One of the few advantages of being an underutilized utility infielder was that hecklers cast most of their invective at the stars. They rarely squandered it on Mickey Rawlings.
That Dodger fan behind the dugout probably didn't even know my name. It was my uniform that incited him. The road gray of the flannels identified me as a visiting player—the enemy. And the black interlocking NY on my left sleeve branded me a mortal enemy—a New York Giant.
This was my first experience with a baseball rivalry so fierce. Two years ago, when I played for the Boston Red Sox, our matches against the Yankees were often more brawls than games, but I don't think it was really a "rivalry" since everybody hated the Yankees. Whatever it was, it was kids' stuff compared to the blood feud that existed between the Giants and the Dodgers.
Although it was still an hour until game time, both decks of the intimate ballpark were more than half-filled; today was sure to be a sellout, and soon there would be 20,000 Brooklyn rooters crammed into the park. The boisterous Saturday crowd seemed to hover over me, pressing against my back. The seats were so close to the playing field that a fan who tired of hurling jeers could almost reach out and throw a punch—not an uncommon means of expression here in the wilds of Flatbush.
I quickly walked toward second base, stepping past the row of bats on the ground in front of the dugout. The infield grass, what was left of it, crunched underfoot. New York had been in a scalding dry spell for two weeks, and despite the best efforts of the groundskeepers, the turf was now little more than scanty yellow thatch.
While my teammates exchanged warm-up tosses in left field, I inspected the basepaths. I wanted to see how a ball would play on this ground—how high it would bounce, where it would roll. As I walked, my spikes clacked without making a dent. The sun had baked the clay of the basepaths to rock and left the burnt brown surface cracked and peeling. With the hard earth and sparse grass, ground balls would shoot across this infield. To have a chance at fielding them, I'd have to play deep, all the way back on the edge of the outfield grass.
I didn't get into many games, but I prepared for each one as if I was a starter. A utility player's career depended on attention to details and doing the little things right. I wasn't a slugger who could win a game with one swing of the bat, but I'd be the one to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move the winning run into scoring position. And if we needed a base runner, and the pitcher threw me one inside, well, I'd manage to take it on the hip while pretending to twist out of the way.
A sudden roar of taunting jeers from behind the third base dugout told me another Giant had emerged. And the vigor of the cussing told me it had to be John McGraw. The Giants' manager was a lightning rod for abuse at every park in the National League, but he was especially hated here in Ebbets Field.
McGraw, impervious to the badgering, calmly strode to the bullpen along the left field foul line where Christy Mathewson was pitching to Chief Meyers. McGraw carried himself as if he fully believed himself to be the "Little Napoleon" the sportswriters had dubbed him.
"Yer headin' for the cellar, McGraw!" a voice screeched from the bleachers.
I looked above the left field wall and quickly reassured myself that we were not heading for the cellar, though we had been slipping lately. The flags of all eight National League teams flew above the outfield wall, arranged from left field to right according to their order in the standings. The one next to the left field foul pole was the black and orange banner of the New York Giants. We were going into the first day of August in first place, three games ahead of the Chicago Cubs. If we could hold the lead, the Giants would win the 1914 pennant, their fourth in a row. And I would be going to my first World Series. To play in a World Series, even in only one inning of one game, was my greatest ambition. That and to someday bat over .250.
The Dodgers' blue and white flag was above the right field wall. All the way in right. They were in last place, out of competition for the league championship. The Dodger fans were cramming this ballpark not to cheer their team on to a pennant, but to demand that they do the second best thing: kill the Giants' chances.
A loud plocking sound reverberated below the Brooklyn flag. The noisemaker was Casey Stengel, the Dodgers' star right fielder. Wearing dark glasses to fend off the intense sun, he was throwing a baseball at the concrete wall and fielding the rebounds. Not an easy task because the wall had a fold that ran along its middle. The right field fence was constructed in a way that gave it a buckled look, with a bottom half that sloped back and an upper section that rose vertically. The only thing odder than the shape of the fence was the advertising that covered it. Stengel was throwing at a billboard that bragged:
Casey Stengel Caught 400 Flies Last Season Tanglefoot Fly Paper Caught 10 Million
I thought maybe he didn't like the comparison. Myself, I'd have been flattered.
* * *
After batting practice, McGraw sat in the middle of the dugout bench, penciling in the lineup card. I sat a few feet away from him, peering from the corner of my eye to see if I'd be on it.
"Mr. McGraw!" A husky ruddy-faced man of about thirty-five stood in front of the bench. He was casually dressed in a light blue soft-collar shirt and tan trousers that hung from burgundy suspenders. The straw boater he wore was tilted so far back that it made his head look like a big sunflower. "A word if you please," he asked.
McGraw's pencil stopped. "What?" The tone suggested he didn't please.
"Allow me to introduce myself, Mr. McGraw. I'm Elmer Garvin." He stuck out his hand. McGraw dismissed it with a glare. Garvin quickly slipped his hands in his pockets and coins began to jingle. "I'm a director with the Vitagraph Motion Picture Company—" I paid close attention now. Baseball was my life, but the movies were my passion.
"What's that got to do with me?" McGraw grunted.
The pocket change rattled louder and Garvin's face grew redder. "We're making a baseball picture, Mr. McGraw. With Miss Florence Hampton." He jerked his left hand out of his pants long enough to point to a box seat on the home plate side of the Dodger dugout. There, wearing a broad-brimmed pink bonnet, was a lady I'd seen many times before, in a dozen Vitagraph productions and on the covers of Photoplay and Moving Picture World magazines. The details of her face weren't clear from this distance, but I could see a toothy white smile that shone out from the shadow of her bonnet. On the field in front of her, two men were carefully placing a wooden box on top of a hefty tripod. While I watched the camera being set up, I heard Garvin say, "We'd like to use one of your players for a few shots—give the picture some realism, you see—" At this, I turned back to Garvin and McGraw.
"My players got a game to win. We ain't in the picture business."
Garvin's voice became higher and his hands worked his pockets so vigorously I thought he'd tear a hole through them. "The Dodgers are letting us have Casey Stengel," he said plaintively.
"The Dodgers ain't in a pennant race."
Garvin pulled both hands from his pockets and flailed them about in the air, pleading incoherently. I felt sorry for him. McGraw wasn't exactly known for cooperation. There had been no World Series in 1904 because McGraw had refused to play an American League team—"minor leaguers" he'd called them.
A tall elderly gentleman approached from behind the director. He was overdressed for ninety-degree heat but appeared entirely comfortable in a charcoal gray tweed suit. Most men in the stands had removed their coats and some had undone their collars; this one not only wore a high tight collar but a navy cravat was around his throat, a pin-striped vest covered his lean torso, and spotless white spats topped his high-button shoes. "Mr. Garvin, perhaps I can be of some service," he said. "Mr. McGraw and I are fellow Lambs, you know." He spoke with a foreign-sounding accent—and it wasn't Brooklyn. It was stilted and proper. English, maybe, but not exactly English.
Garvin stepped back and spread his hands as if to say, "He's all yours."
His reinforcement stepped forward and lifted his black Homburg enough to expose a fringe of snowy hair. "Arthur V. Carlyle, Mr. McGraw. Perhaps you'll recall that we've met at the Club."
McGraw said with little enthusiasm, "Yes, how are you, Mr. Carlyle?"
"Very well, I thank you." Carlyle made a slight bow. "Did Mr. Garvin here explain to you about this baseball picture he's filming?" McGraw nodded. "Well, to be frank, he's in need of some assistance. He needs something special for the picture, something that will make it more than just another flicker."
Garvin gave Carlyle a look that showed he didn't think it would be "just another flicker" with or without McGraw's help.
Carlyle went on soft-soaping McGraw. "If you would be so kind as to allow one of your players to be filmed, it will give the picture much greater realism—and stature, of course. Please, Mr. McGraw. For a fellow Lamb."
McGraw paused. I wasn't sure what a Lamb was—and it didn't seem a description that could ever apply to McGraw— but this appeal to Lamb loyalty appeared to be working. "All right. You can use one player," he conceded. "After the game."
Garvin piped up, "How about Christy Mathewson?"
McGraw shot back, "How about Mickey Rawlings?"
"Who's Mickey Rawlings?" Garvin asked. I was thinking nearly the same thing: Who, me?
McGraw jerked his thumb at me. "This is Rawlings." Garvin looked unimpressed.
Carlyle said, "Thank you, Mr. McGraw. We do appreciate it." Then he turned to me. "Mr. Rawlings, would you be so good as to join us after the game?"
I gulped and nodded.
Carlyle touched Garvin's elbow and led him away. I heard Garvin mumble, "Who the hell is Mickey Rawlings?" and Carlyle respond, "They're only baseball players, Mr. Garvin. I expect one is the same as another."
McGraw finished the lineup card and I wasn't on it. It didn't seem quite so disappointing this time. I was going to be in a movie!
* * *
The game started with Brooklyn's Sloppy Sutherland facing the top of our batting order. Sutherland was short for a pitcher, about five foot eight, and his build was slight. In fact, he was about my size, but he had a whipping right arm that had won twenty games for the Dodgers in his rookie season. Now in his second year, he already had seventeen wins with two months left to play. He quickly showed himself ready to garner number eighteen, striking out the side on an economical ten pitches.
In contrast, fifteen-year veteran Christy Mathewson struggled from the beginning. By the fourth inning, it was clear that his trademark fadeaway pitch wasn't fading sufficiently far away from the Dodger bats. To the vocal delight of the Brooklyn partisans, they pounded him for six runs, with Stengel driving in three of them on a pair of doubles. The mood in our dugout grew grim. For the league champions to lose to the cellar dwellers was bad enough, but for that team to be the Dodgers and for us to lose on their home ground was humiliating.
As the game progressed, I divided my attention between the movie crew and the ballfield. The cameraman cranked away at the action on the field; Garvin stood near him, waving his arms as if directing the game. Between innings, the camera was swung toward the stands to film crowd scenes. The hams in the crowd obliged, standing and waving whenever it was aimed in their direction.
In the top of the sixth inning, McGraw barked at me, "Rawlings! You're up for Matty." With the game a lost cause, it made sense to rest Mathewson for the pennant stretch.
I picked up my lightest bat, one that would give me a quick swing. As I walked to the plate, I glanced at the infielders. I noticed the second baseman move in a few steps. Normally it would be a wise move since I wasn't a power hitter. But with the ground rock-hard, he had just made a mistake.
Stepping into the batter's box, I quickly went through my standard ritual: a scrape of the ground with my right shoe, two half-swings with the bat, and then the involuntary part— the nervous flip of a stomach that tended to be overly impressed by big-league pitchers.
Sutherland loaded the horsehide with talcum powder from his hip pocket. A talcum ball, a more hygienic version of a spitball, was the only pitch he threw. Like a spitter, it would squirt out of his fingers as hard as a fastball but with no spin. It was an unpredictable pitch, as likely to veer at my head as to bounce on the plate.
Sutherland's first pitch didn't go to either of these extremes; he put it waist-high on the outside corner, right where I wanted it. With an inside-out swing, I slapped down at the ball, driving a bouncer toward second. A routine groundout, nine times out of ten, but the second baseman hardly had a chance to react before the ball scooted past him to right field.
A fine piece of hitting, I complimented myself as I arrived at first base. If the cameraman caught it, maybe it would be used in the picture. I looked back next to the Dodger dugout. To my horror, blue-suited stadium police were removing the camera from the field and escorting the Vitagraph crew out of the park. What about my movie?
Florence Hampton was the only one of the movie people who remained. Of course, since she owned a share of the Dodger team, she couldn't be kicked out.
I didn't get beyond first base as Sutherland retired the rest of the side. When Rube Marquard took Mathewson's place on the mound, I was out of the game, my work done. Back on the bench, I stared wistfully at Miss Hampton. She showed no embarrassment at the eviction of her coworkers. Instead, she threw herself into cheering her team, waving a Dodger pennant and yelling encouragement to the Brooklyn hitters.
The Dodgers added two more runs to none for the Giants by the time Sutherland struck out Chief Meyers to end the game. Before the umpire lowered his arm from the strike call, I was off the bench and on my way to the railing in front of Florence Hampton.
She rose to her feet, displaying a tall shapely figure well-defined by a ruffled white shirtwaist and an ankle-length pink skirt. A broad scarlet sash was tied around her narrow waist, giving her something of an old-fashioned but very appealing hourglass form. Long locks of strawberry blond hair that had escaped from her bonnet hung down along her cheeks in loose curls; they framed a face that featured large bright blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a slim nose with a slight upturn at the end.
"You must be Mr. Rawlings," she said. "Thank you for agreeing to help us with our picture."
"Am I still going to be in a movie?" I blurted. "The camera's gone."
She flashed a warm smile. "Yes, you'll still be in the picture." I noticed she was holding a white-gloved hand over the rail. It was palm down, with her fingers bent. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to shake it or kiss it.
Remembering my manners, I said, "It's nice to meet you, Miss Hampton." I took her hand lightly and shook it sideways.
By now, Casey Stengel had trotted in from right field. Instead of shaking her hand, he doffed his cap and made a deep bow, proclaiming, "Charles Dillon Stengel, at your service."
Florence Hampton laughed. It was an easy honest laugh that lit up her eyes and rocked her shoulders.
Stengel looked delighted at her reaction, his face contorting into a massive grin.
Miss Hampton said, "We've had to make a small change in plans. Mr. Ebbets decided he doesn't want us filming in his ballpark, so we're going to finish the picture at the studio. That's only fifteen minutes from here by automobile. If you pick up whatever you need in the clubhouse, I'll drive you boys there."
"Yes ma'am," I said, and took off for the locker room. Stengel sprang away, too.
She yelled after us, "I'll meet you outside the right field gate. And don't change clothes. Keep your uniforms on!"
Trotting to the clubhouse, I remembered hearing rumors that she often asked ball players to do just the opposite.
Excerpted from Murder at Ebbets Field by TROY SOOS Copyright © 1995 by Troy Soos. Excerpted by permission of Kensington Publishing Corp.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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