The Veracruz Bluesby Mark Winegardner
Based on actual events during the turbulent, postwar baseball days of 1946, this captivating, darkly comic novel tells of a group of American players who, frustrated by their treatment at the hands of the major league owners, begin defecting to a Mexican baseball league.
- Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.36(w) x 7.74(h) x 0.52(d)
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The Original Mexican Standoff
On February 1, 1946, my own season of gold began as I, Frank Bullinger, Jr., arrived at the front door of La Finca Vigía, expecting to be Hemingway's only guest, clutching in both hands the manuscript of my novel. Suddenly, several charming famous men with guns plus two wary-looking women, also with guns, came bounding down the front steps, drunk and dressed in peacoats and flannel, leather patches in all the right places. Me, I wasn't drunk, struggled to be charming, and never would become famous. I was a slight man, drenched from the storm that hit the Cuba Line on my way from Miami, dressed in a blue sport coat and a tie I'd gotten for Father's Day. Gene Tunney brushed past me, portrait of the working-class hero turned patrician millionaire. Babe Ruth patted me on the head and said, "Hiya, kid."
Although I knew them, the surreal sight of Hemingway, Ruth, and Tunney -- those icons from the twenties, together in one hunting party -- rocked me back on my heels. I'd met Ruth once -- when he came to St. Louis begging Bill DeWitt to hire him to manage the Browns. Tunney, the gentleman rags-to-riches heavyweight champ, had been my boyhood hero; I'd managed to stammer through an interview with him during the war, when the Fighting Marine headed the armed-services athletic program. I'd known Hemingway for fifteen years, and had benefited from his acquaintance, but in truth I did not know him well.
"The late Mr. Bullinger," said Hemingway. "You know everyone, right?" The gun he held was big. It was a big gun. It was good (I suppose he felt) to have a big gun and to hold it.
"Most," I said. "I haven't been introduced to this lovely creature. Mary, I presume?"
Hemingway's new, blond wife winced. She was wife number four, younger than Hemingway, and clearly not one for flattery. Neither was I, but I was tired. I shook her hand. She smiled then. She was the kind of woman who liked it when a man shook her hand.
As for the others, three were Cubans I'd never seen before. The woman was Polly Tunney. I knew Lou Klein and Fred Martin (my job was to cover the St. Louis Cardinals), but not as friends. For years I'd covered the Browns and had friends among them (Jakucki, Kreevich -- the drunks). But the Cards writer died, as I've told you, and the Browns writer came home from the war and I got given the Cards. Theoretically it was a promotion, and if I'd thought of myself as a sportswriter I might have seen it that way. It's a curse to be good at a job you hate; what's worse is to need that job.
Before I got a chance to ask about the Cubans, or how journeyman ballplayers like Klein and Martin got invited to join this bunch, Hemingway thrust a rifle toward me. He had a shotgun slung across his back. "C'mon," he said. "We're hiking to the gun club."
I held up my manuscript. I had been working on the novel for ten years. "What should I do with this?"
Hemingway frowned. "Shove it up your arse!" He pressed the rifle firm against my chest. He smelled of whiskey. Then he roared with laughter. "Aw, just kidding, kid. Go set it inside the house, fix yourself a drink, and let's get going."
I did as I was told. I was thirty-six years old and had just been called "kid" twice. I had never been to Cuba, didn't speak Spanish, and had never hunted -- never fished, either, which is what I'd been invited to come do. Whichever it was we were doing, it was a new one on me.
I made myself a Tom Collins and ran through grassy fields and scrub woods to catch up to the group, far ahead of me by now.
At the Club de Cazadores we were followed around by a man with a portable bar. We shot both clay and real pigeons and at targets. Klein and the big Okie Martin took beer and went out to shoot grouse, which were raised for the sport of club members. The best shots were (1) Jorge Pasquel, the most dashing of the men I thought were Cubans, (2) Tunney, the only one not drinking, and (3) Mary, who was a crack shot. I don't know exactly what it means to be a crack shot, but Mary was one, and I called her that. She smiled at me again. I was on good footing with her, and she was the one who finally introduced me to the Pasquels.
Only one of the Cubans was really Cuban. The other two were Mexican businessmen, Jorge and Alfonso Pasquel. Jorge was a man about my age with a pencil-thin mustache, a diamond stickpin in the lapel of his field jacket, and a habit of spraying his hard or sibilant consonants. The diamond must have been two carats. Alfonso was thinner, younger, and bald, with the same mustache as his brother but no jewelry and no presence. The lone actual Cuban, a man as squat and bellicose as Hemingway, turned out to be the great Dolf Luque, who'd pitched in the World Series for the 1919 Reds and the 1933 Giants and who, Hemingway said, raised excellent fighting cocks. I had not recognized him. He had started out shooting better than anyone but soon got too drunk to hit anything and his face got redder and redder until he grabbed hold of the barrel of his rifle and shattered the stock against the cement walls of the gun club.
"Old Luke never could hit worth a shit," said Ruth. "Gotta keep the trademark up, Luke!" He laughed his horse laugh, gone raspy from years of smoking, then looped a big arm around the sputtering Luque. The two headed off to the clubhouse in search of a few big steaks. Polly Tunney, who looked as uncomfortable as I felt, got Gene to go for a walk with her.
As for Hemingway, he was having a bad day with his guns, and so he was talking. The novel he was writing was about two sets of lovers and the loss of identity within each pair's lovemaking. "It's filled with great fucking," he said, and could be the book people would think of centuries from now when someone said "Hemingway." He'd written four hundred pages since Christmas. Throughout his long explanation, Hemingway did not once ask me about my writing.
My shoulder was sore from shooting skeet. I wanted to go join Ruth in the clubhouse, but he was, after all, Babe Ruth, and I just couldn't figure out how to relax and bullshit with Babe Ruth. Same with Tunney. A younger writer might have felt the same about Hemingway. But I had known him in Paris, in '31, right after I graduated from Oberlin and right before he left.
More than my shoulder, what got to me was how badly I missed my son, who was back in St. Louis with his mother, my putative wife, who'd found out about Frances, and about the poet in New York, too, and who had already filed for divorce. Given the circumstances under which I'd left -- my belongings strewn on the treelawn, Harriet screaming on the other side of the front door with its new lock -- I was unclear when or how I might see Jerome again. He was seven years old and a pistol. Maybe that's why I missed him so much, all this shooting and the fact I called him a pistol, and when I did he would laugh and make his hand into a gun and say, "Pow."
After dark at La Finca Vigía, Hemingway's Chinese cook made mariscos veracruzanos in honor of the Pasquels, who were from Veracruz. They were joined by a dark and striking woman whom Mary introduced as "María Félix the famous actress." She had just finished a film and had been sleeping all day in the guest room. She kissed Jorge Pasquel full on the mouth and sat down beside him.
Throughout dinner no one spoke to me. Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway, both drunk, at a single dinner table, swapping suspiciously exciting tales of manly prowess (here a dead beast, there a pair of friendly twin redheads, everywhere a sweaty triumph), provided little chance for others to talk. And Lou Klein, a loudmouth's loudmouth, grabbed most of what chance remained. The Tunneys couldn't get a word in. Even Jorge Pasquel said little, which I did not, at the time, know to be odd. What was normal was my feeling of being alone in the midst of a loud group, which was how I'd spent most of my life.
Above the sideboard were framed photos of Hemingway with famous men and dead animals. I was in none of them. I had taken one of the ones from Paris, a blurry shot of Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald (in for a brief visit), each in a brand-new beret. In another, Hemingway and Jorge Pasquel sat side by side, Indian-style, atop a fallen rhinoceros.
After dinner everyone, even the women, lit Mexican cigars -- coals to Newcastle, brought by the Pasquels from their factory. The boozing grew serious and the conversation sank to the level of baseball talk. What did I expect? That Hemingway and I would go fishing alone and reminisce about Paris, and then go back to the house and eat like kings and Hemingway would sit in a good chair and read my novel straight through, chuckling approvingly as I watched and was redeemed, and Hemingway would finish and say, What a damn fine book, Frank, what say I cable Perkins and tell him to publish it? Is that what I expected? Yes, that.
But it was baseball. First the Cuban League season, which is how Martin and Klein came to know Luque, who managed their Cienfuegos club, and the Pasquels, who were in Cuba to recruit players for the summer Mexican League, which they ran. At least this is what I gathered from the conversation, much of which was conducted in Spanish. Polly Tunney said she had a headache from the cigars and went to lie down.
Then it was on to American baseball, especially the Cards and the Dodgers, the favorites for the '46 pennant. Hemingway knew many of the Dodgers from the years up until '43 when they trained in Havana, and favored them, though he allowed that St. Louis, with Max Lanier and Stan Musial back from the war, would be damn tough. Dolf Luque, a pitching coach for the New York Giants, did not in any way defend that team. He sat in a corner, in a red wing chair that seemed to swallow him up, drinking wine from a bottle. He was stone quiet.
"What about you, Frank?" said Hemingway. It was the first time all day anyone had made an attempt to draw me into the conversation. "How do you see it coming out this year?"
"Whoever wins, wins," I said. "Whoever loses, loses. I just go to the park and write about whatever happens."
Everybody laughed. They thought I was joking.
"Okay," I said. I did not want to talk baseball, but I wantedto talk. And so I talked baseball. "I'll tell you what the biggest baseball story is this year," I said. I paused for effect, and it worked, and I felt powerful. "It's the rumors about a players' union forming."
This brought about even more laughter.
I frowned. "Why is that funny?"
"Bawl-playahs," said Lou Klein, taking a long pull from a beer bottle, "don't cotton to unions." Fred Martin drank beer, too, and nodded in agreement.
And I thought: You dumb-ass hayseeds. "You've got no pension, you've got no minimum wage," I said. "They have you coming to training camp this year a month earlier than usual, and you don't get paid five cents extra for it. Attendance could double this year, but the owners won't give you guys any of that money if they don't have to."
"Son," said Klein, who was seven years younger than me, "your American bawl-playah is an individualist." Klein was from Louisiana and drunk. He milked that word: ian-dihv-ID-you-a-lisst. "If we wanted to be a bunch of damn Wobblies," he said, "we'd go back to the shit towns we came from."
Everyone laughed at this, too. Except Jorge Pasquel. Jorge Pasquel did not laugh, and he was looking at me. His eyes shone. I couldn't help but look back at him.
Everyone was done talking about unions. Then Hemingway opened a bottle of Cutty, which he drank from and passed to me.
"Boy, it must be great to write about these men and baseball," Hemingway said. "I'll tell you, Frank, after all that nasty business in the war, writing baseball sounds pretty damn good. Even back in Paris, when you were just a pup and I helped you get this job, I thought, Jesus, why am I getting Desmond to give this job to young Frank when I'd like to have it myself? I don't for the life of me know why you want to write fiction. Fiction tears your soul end to end if you let it, and sometimes even if you don't. By God, Frank, if I could, I wouldn't mind chucking everything to go write about baseball."
I meant to stop drinking, but that made me take a long swig. "Do it," I said. "Chuck everything."
More laughs. People thought I was a comedian.
I went for a walk to clear my head and to pee, and when I returned, the Babe, Mary Hemingway, María Félix, and a revived Polly Tunney had moved to the kitchen table to play gin. I would have given anything to join that game. I stopped to watch. I wondered if the Babe would try to steal the lovely María, but there were no eyes being made. Unless you count Mary, who was sexy in an aging-tomboy way, and who kept looking at me. I did not count this.
Back in the living room it was still baseball. I was sure it was some kind of record. Jorge Pasquel, whose English was perfect, had the floor, that beautiful terrazzo floor, and was holding forth on how it was true, Mexico could support a third major league -- all this while Gene Tunney was lacing boxing gloves onto Pasquel's hands. Klein and Martin were nodding and grinning, as if they half-believed what Pasquel said, but mostly didn't. Alfonso Pasquel looked worshipfully at his brother. Hemingway went to pee. By now everyone was spectacularly drunk in that big raw way that lived and died in the 1940s.
"The major leagues will not give one of the best baseball minds alive today," Pasquel said, pointing a gloved fist at Luque, "an opportunity to be a manager." Now he pointed the glove at himself. "I will. Adolfo Luque will manage for me in the Mexican League." Tunney was getting annoyed with Jorge Pasquel's gesturing and slapped his glove, hard. "The major leagues will not give the great Bambino, the game's greatest player, an opportunity to manage. I will."
"Thanks, George," Ruth called from the other room. "You're a sport."
From down a darkened hallway came Hemingway. He was stripped to the waist. He already had his gloves on. Somehow he must have pissed with his gloves on. He had a mean look in his eyes but was also smiling. He was getting fat.
"If," said Pasquel, "with all the competition on the Cardinals of St. Louis, you gentlemen should have dissatisfaction, please consider joining us in Mexico."
"Right," Klein said. He rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, thanks," said Martin. "Thanks a lot."
Alfonso Pasquel cleared his throat, loudly, for attention, then looked eagerly around the room, smiled like a happy child and, apropos of nothing, blurted, "My brother once killed a man in a duel."
It was the non sequitur of all time. I broke out laughing. I was the only one.
"Up on your feet," said Hemingway.
I stood. But Hemingway was talking to Jorge Pasquel.
Pasquel had taken off his holster. His pearl-handled pistols lay on a coffee table, on top of a copy of Look. He also had taken his shirt off. He was not fat, but neither was he thin. Hemingway was more muscular.
"You know, I sparred with Heeney in '35," said Hemingway, referring to an Australian meatbag Gene Tunney had carved up in the Polo Grounds in '28. "Gave him all he could handle."
"Right," said Tunney. "I know. We all know."
"This is not 1935," said Jorge Pasquel. "In 1935 you were as young as I am now."
Hemingway laughed at this. It was a mirthless laugh.
Tunney agreed to serve as referee. Everyone came in from the kitchen. "Hey!" said Ruth. "Watch how long Tunney counts!"
"Good Christ." It was Mary Hemingway. "This again."
"It's all in fun," Hemingway called.
"Your head," she said, pointing at her own. Hemingway called her a hateful name. She did not say anything. She stood her ground.
"I bet on the Mexican," said Ruth. "One hundred dollars American on George."
Alfonso took the trouble to correct the Babe. "Jorge."
María Félix laughed. "I will take that bet. I bet on the great Hemingway."
Jorge Pasquel shouted something at her in Spanish, and it was hard to tell if it was angry or teasing.
At last, Pasquel and Hemingway came out, from a corner by a bookcase and a corner by a floor lamp, and began to box. Pasquel had a longer reach, Hemingway had a better punch, but they were both awfully drunk, and Tunney began to laugh at them.
They went dancing around in circles and knocked over the floor lamp. End of round one.
Dolf Luque slumped down in his chair. I figured he waspassed out.
At it again, Pasquel and Hemingway kept circling, circling. It was not a good fight, but it took a long time, and things kept getting broken -- ashtrays, highball glasses, another lamp. Little things. For me this made the fight worthwhile.
Mary Hemingway watched with her arms folded across her chest. She did not move to pick up any of the broken things.
The fighters got into a clinch, fell together over the back of a sofa, and popped back up, still together in that clinch.
Gene Tunney separated them.
Hemingway feinted with his left, then, just as it looked like he was going to throw the right with all his power, and just as it looked like he had an opening to do it, he swung his right leg forward and narrowly missed kicking Jorge Pasquel in the balls.
At that, Dolf Luque sprang to life, leaping to his feet, drawing a long-barreled revolver and firing a shot into the ceiling. Plaster rained down upon him. We all dropped to the floor. Then Luque leveled the gun at Hemingway, and fired. He missed. "Fight fair," he said, and sat heavily down.
For a long time, no one knew what to do.
"Fight fair," said Luque. "No tengo intención de matarlo." His voice was deep. He was a bantam of a man. "If I want to kill you, you die. Get up. Fight fair. I no try to kill anyone."
There was another long pause. Finally, from the floor, Alfonso piped up, "My brother once killed a man. In a duel." And this time everybody laughed like hell.
While everyone was still laughing, I caught sight of what Luque's second bullet had ripped into: the manuscript of my novel, sitting atop a small desk in the vestibule. A dead hit. Papers flew everywhere.
Hemingway stood. "I'm sorry as hell, Jorge. I don't know what got into me."
Pasquel said something in Spanish -- some kind of quip, obviously, because Hemingway laughed. "True," Hemingway said. "At least a fifth."
Alfonso frowned. "So is my brother the winner?"
Hemingway smiled. "Let's call it the original Mexican standoff," he said, which fortunately Jorge Pasquel found funny. It was that part of the cycle of drink where everyone found everything funny.
Near dawn, Hemingway stood in his moonlit yard, bleeding from a cut to his eye, seeing everybody off. He handed each male guest an autographed copy of one of his books. Tunney said he had already read, and greatly admired, For Whom the Bell Tolls, so Hemingway gave him Winner Take Nothing, too. Everyone else accepted whatever he was given.
Mary Hemingway had gone to bed before things completely wound down. As she'd said good night, I thought I caught a look from her. I did not know what kind of look it was. No, that wasn't it. I knew. I would have liked to fuck her, for all sorts of reasons, all of them the wrong reasons for fucking a woman. Also, I was drunk, and maybe wrong about that look.
Klein and Martin had both vomited on the front lawn of La Finca Vigía and passed out. I liked those boys better already. "You men have a game in eight hours," I said, shaking them. The Cardinals were playing an exhibition in Havana against the New York Giants, the first of the spring. I had to be there, too. Luque, of course, was now employed elsewhere. "Plus Hemingway's giving out books. You fellows can read, can't you?"
Luque and the Babe sat on a stone bench talking about the old days. They were drinking Cuban beer. They were the oldest men there, and the only ones still drinking. I heard them making plans to go to a casino.
That was when I noticed a strange thing. Ruth had come here not with the Tunneys, as I'd presumed, but with the Pasquels' entourage, of which Klein and Martin were not a part. Alfonso was calling to Luque and Ruth to get in the car.
"How'd you guys get here?" I asked the two Cardinals.
"Cab," Martin said.
"Cuban cabbie," said Klein. "Fuckin '35 Chevy."
By then, the Pasquels had loaded Ruth, Luque, and María Félix into their car.
Hemingway's chauffeur had the car idling, the Tunneys sitting in the back. Hemingway handed Klein and Martin copies of The Torrents of Spring and showed them into the front seat.
Hemingway was out of books, having given two to Tunney, and he insisted I wait while he went to get one. I thought I had all of Hemingway's books, but I relented.
The Pasquels' car pulled away, turned out onto the road, and then came to a stop. Jorge Pasquel emerged from the car and called my name. "Come quickly!" he said. "I have a proposition for you. I think you'll find it amusing."
I was dog tired, and sick of being bossed around by the likes of these people. Still, I found my legs obeying. I hated my legs for obeying.
Pasquel handed me a stack of business cards. His lip was puffy, but he was not as bad off as Hemingway. "I believe what you said about the union," Pasquel whispered. "I have lately learned a great deal about the enslavement of the American baseball player by the magnates of the major leagues. If you know of men who would be interested in playing in Mexico -- where our players earn more, work less, and receive better treatment -- please, will you pass along my card?"
I nodded, automatically, without real commitment.
Pasquel pulled a wad of bills from the game pouch of his field jacket. He peeled off a C-note and stuffed it into the breast pocket of my sport coat. "An advance," he said. "For your troubles. I will pay you twice this amount for any men you help my brothers and me to sign."
In my head I heard myself refusing the money, but my heart said Take it. "I don't know ..."
"I am not asking for your soul," said Pasquel. "Just your assistance. No strings attached. If you can help, splendid. If you cannot, buy yourself some clothes and a woman." He laughed. "I am giving you the scoop of the year, Mr. Bullinger. Perhaps the scoop of your career."
"That's all I need."
We stood together on the side of the road. Hemingway's car pulled past us. Pasquel hugged me. I am an American midwesterner. I stiffened. Nonplussed, I forgot to ask for a ride to my hotel in Havana. Pasquel got back in the car, which spit pea gravel as it roared away. I was alone in the dark.
I sank to my knees and threw up. This was what I had come to: I was a smelly, retching drunk beside a dark gravel road in rural Cuba. I had not served my country in time of war. I had just accepted $100 from a stranger. I was deeply in debt. I was without a home. My belongings were stored in the corner of my neighbor's garage. I was going through a divorce. My son might never see me again. My mistress, a classics professor at Washington U. named Frances Kingston, whose husband was still overseas, was pregnant with my child. The woman I believed myself to be in love with was a tiny redheaded twenty-three-year-old raw talent of a poet in Greenwich Village, Diana James, who was the best lover I had ever had but who did not love me. I had published seventeen short stories in little magazines, including one, "A Dream of Cincinnati," that had been reprinted in The Best Short Stories of 1940. Since then I had published nothing but journalism. For a decade I wrote and rewrote a novel that now lay shot up and haphazardly reassembled in the house of a famous writer who would probably hate it and whose wife I had considered fucking. It could happen to anybody.
"There you are, Frank," said Hemingway. "Thought you left without your book." I looked up expecting to see my own manuscript being handed to me. Instead it was Three Stories and Ten Poems, Hemingway's slim first book.
In a daze, I stood.
"This one's kind of rare," said Hemingway. "I only have two other copies myself. Worth some money, probably."
We began to walk back toward the house.
"Damn sorry about your novel. That crazy Luque."
"Yes. Jesus. What a day."
"I looked at the manuscript, Frank. Most of it's readable. I'll read what's there. You made a carbon copy, didn't you?"
"Damn shame. You must have notes. Longhand."
"That's good. Say, Frank. You want to go for a swim? A swim can get the blood going so the hangover isn't too bad."
"I didn't bring my suit."
Hemingway laughed. "Aw, go without."
"That's fine," I said. "A swim sounds good."
We went around to the back of La Finca Vigía. We took off our clothes, dove into the pool, and began to swim laps. I was a much better swimmer than Hemingway. He did not seem to need to compete. Our unerect penises were, for the record, both on the small side of perfectly normal.
Hemingway pulled on his pants, then made coffee and brought me a steaming mug of it. We sat on chairs beside the pool and watched the sun begin to rise. "I'm going to need to start writing in about an hour," he said.
I nodded. I could hear the chauffeur, on the other side of the house, returning with the car. "I have to go, anyway. I have a goddamned baseball game to cover."
"You want to be in my shoes, don't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know exactly what I mean."
I did not want to give him the satisfaction. "You don't even have shoes on, Hem."
Hemingway shook his head sadly. "I have to go to work," he said. "This book could be the one. And I have to get it finished. I must. Lately I've been getting a big impending sense I might die within a year. So, Frank, you want to be in my shoes, I've got one piece of advice."
I could think of no way to keep from hearing it.
He gave me an avuncular slap on the back. "I look forward to reading your novel, Frank, and I'm sure it's fine work. But you're a good baseball writer. I have ex-wives from St. Louis, and I see your columns sometimes. You're good. Problem is, you're the kind of man who only wants what doesn't come easily."
"That's true of everybody."
"The opposite's true of everybody. My advice is, go cover that goddamned baseball game. Go cover thousands more goddamned baseball games, Frank, and write about those games and the men who played them. Write true sentences about that great game."
And then we rose and shook hands, and I caught the chauffeur before he went to bed, and Hemingway trudged to his study to go write more of that book he thought would be his masterpiece, a novel which would grow to fifteen hundred manuscript pages but which he never quite managed to finish. A portion of that manuscript was published, twenty-five years after its author shot himself, as The Garden of Eden. The critics, alas, were not kind.
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