The Rabbi of Swat

The Rabbi of Swat

by Peter Levine


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The Rabbi of Swat is a re-imagining of the baseball season of 1927-the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and led the Yankees to the American League pennant. The hero of the novel, Morrie Ginsberg, pitches for the New York Giants and struggles with his team to win the National League pennant and face the Yankees in the World Series. While the novel follows Ginsberg's exploits, Babe Ruth is also a narrative voice, commenting on the action and revealing his thoughts and emotions.The Rabbi of Swat uses baseball as a template to reflect and explore the immigration experience, religious prejudice, class issues, and the relationship between fathers and sons. It is, in a sense, a coming-of-age novel, as Morrie Ginsberg reconciles his father's expectations, societal pressures, and his own desires to become a man in the new American world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870135170
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 04/01/1999
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.08(w) x 9.06(h) x 0.73(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Babe Ruth he wasn't. Not a chance he'd be mistaken for the slicked-back, black—haired Yankee Strong Man—a contradiction of lithe muscle and midwaist fat on a 220 lb., 6'2" frame—baseball's biggest man in every way. Six inches shorter, all skin and bone—curly brown hair and a large bent nose—Morrie Ginsberg didn't care; even if the papers already were poking fun at John McGraw's latest experiment to outdraw the Great Bambino. So proclaimed the World's Mike McConnell: "The Rabbi of Swat doesn't stand a chance against the Sultan of Swat, not at the box office and never face to face",—the lead line on his story that Jake read to his son over breakfast in the kitchen at 737 Sackman Street.

    "Let McConnell have his fun. It sells newspapers. The fact is I'm on the train to the Polo Grounds today to play against the Pirates—not bad for a nice Jewish boy from Brownsville, huh, Pa?"

    Jake grunted incomprehensible acknowledgement—more often than not what passed for conversation between father and son—his eyes focused on the paper, his lips occupied with a sugar cube through which he sucked his tea in the yahrzeit glass in front of him. Such a practical country—memorial candles for the dead in reusable drinking glasses. No such thing in the Russian shtetl he had left over twenty years ago to come to America to escape the pogroms and avoid getting killed in the Tsar's war against Japan.

    No baseball there either. Or stoop ball, stick ball, or punch ball. Streets there took young boys to work or to cheder. Herethey doubled as baseball diamonds and football fields. Streetlights became baskets and sewers outfield fences.

    This much Jake understood. Occasionally, when Morrie was younger he helped him wrap up old socks and rags into a makeshift ball. Once, for his birthday, he even bought him his own pink rubber ball the kids called spaldeens. He didn't even get upset when Morrie and his friends dug holes in the small dirt patch next to the front stoop that passed as their front yard and played golf with their bats and balls. When Morrie played basketball for the evening recreation center and baseball at Boys High, Jake sometimes went to see him play. After all this was Brooklyn in America—a place, if not for himself then at least for his son, that offered a better, safer life than any Russian childhood he might have experienced. Not even in the wildest parts of his imagination, however, did he ever dream that his own flesh and blood would end up playing a child's game for a living.

    Mama had less trouble. Although Jake was her husband, Morrie was her pride. Baseball she knew from nothing. But love and loyalty to her own came from the heart. Sometimes it wasn't so easy—to be proud of Morrie without hurting Jake or to love her husband without excluding her boy required a delicate touch that she blundered more often than not, unconsciously meting out indiscriminate punishment on one or the other as situations arose. Today, however, belonged to Morrie. She knew it, he knew it, and Jake, enveloped in his tea and his paper, knew it too.

* * *

    Jake rarely left Brooklyn. Once or twice a year they went to the Bronx to visit Mama's cousin from Smolensk, and then only reluctantly. He hated the elevated—the crush of people, the looks and smells of others who were not his kind—"melting pot, shmelting pot," he complained to Mama whenever they left the familiar world of Sackman Street. True, he didn't go to shul very often but Mama kept kosher and always lit the Friday night candles. But every time he stepped out of his house, he knew who he was and where he came from. The candy store where he bought his cigars on his way to work sold more copies of the Jewish Daily Forward than it did the New York World; the fruit stall, butcher, bakery, and fish stores all displayed their merchandise under banners in Hebrew letters proclaiming the virtues and prices of their stock while their owners, many with yarmulkes on their heads and their tzitzit hanging over their belts—on floors strewn with sawdust—engaged their customers in Yiddish chatter. Here no one was a stranger. The streets smelled of his past and defined his present—the names on the mailboxes and the faces in the windows on hot summer days like this one—no matter what he was thinking or feeling inside—always told him he was home.

    Today, however, he was going to the Polo Grounds at Coogan's Bluff. It would be hot, but Mama insisted he get dressed up, like it was Morrie's bar mitzvah all over again. Putting on his woolen, blue suit, he entertained incongruous visions of rich, Manhattan goyim riding horses and swinging mallets on some land owned by a drunken Irishman. His own acquaintance with horses involved sturdier breeds that pulled plows and milk carts on the dirt streets of his Russian boyhood or the wares of street merchants on the Lower East Side where he lived when he first came to America.

    He thought of sharing his imagination with Esther—Mama, he called her, when he and Morrie were both around her—Esther, when she seemed there for him alone, but she was too busy stuffing a basket with lunch to listen.

    "Jake, give me a tomato from the window" she barked. "You'll like it with the hard-boiled eggs and herring sandwiches we'll take."

    "Yes, Mama," he sighed, wiping the soot off an overly ripe one that had sat on the ledge one day too long. Even if he had told her, she wouldn't have understood how clever he had been. To her, polo was a shirt not a game. It wouldn't have been worth the trouble to explain the difference. Besides, as he already knew, although the food she was packing was for him, her head was full of Morrie.

* * *

    Morrie stood on the platform as the train pulled out of the elevated station, leaving him a view of the Polo Grounds and the Harlem River coursing below it. On its murky, dirty surface he could see Columbia College boys rowing their thin, spider-like boats across the water. Across it, only a few blocks up from the Polo Grounds, loomed Yankee Stadium, "The House that Ruth Built" and packed along with the rest of Murderer's Row, as the sportswriters fondly called the invincible men in pinstripes.

    Morrie had been there before. Not to the Polo Grounds but to the Bronx Jewish Community Center across the Grand Concourse when he and the Dux came to play basketball against its varsity five. Major travel for the Dux then, he recalled—Sammy, Dudie, Jammy, Nat, Whitey, Burtie and Morrie—veterans of Nanny Goat Park and the evening recreation center at P.S. 184 where they won the Brooklyn championship their last year of junior high school—named the Dux because Sammy's older brother who was in high school when they formed the club, told them that Dux meant "leader" in Latin. "Besides, it's short," he reminded them, requiring only three pink felt letters for their team jackets—black satin jobs bought at discount at Modell's, $5.00 each, money earned in the early evening hawking newspapers, gum and candy at corners and subway kiosks, confronting people as they hurried home from work with sensational headlines and penny treats in chase of dimes and nickels.

    Mama sewed them on while Jake watched. "Put the money away for something important," he reminded his son. "Why waste it on a jacket that will end up with the junk man or in the closet?"

    "You don't understand, Pa. This is important to me."

    "You're right. I don't understand. You spend all this time with balls and your friends when you should be saving and thinking about your future."

    But it was precisely in places like the Bronx JCC where his future took hold. "The city's alive for us, Ginnzie" Burtie proclaimed that first night on the Grand Concourse as the Dux, surrounded by admirers, flush with victory and their share of the gate, headed for Times Square for a late dinner and show.

    Sweaty excitement, the sense of possibility, of breaking away from the familiar, of being somebody other than "Jake and Esther's boy," of being "alive" to the world outside Sackman Street, the noisy adulation of friends and strangers who applauded his physical talents, the chance to travel to new places, even as far as Hartford and Springfield to play other center and Y teams, doing something he was good at that pleased other people and even occasionally getting paid a few dollars—was lure enough. And baseball was his game.

    That is what he tried to tell Jake the night Harold Leary, the New York Giants' chief scout came to the house on Sackman Street only three days after he graduated from high school to offer him a spot on the Giants' Tuscaloosa, Alabama Class B farm team. Sure, Alabama was not the Bronx, but the unknown was familiar enough; the risks more enticing than frightening.

    "That's what they teach us in school. You always tell me to put my education to use, well I am!" But Jake didn't understand.

    "You risked life and limb to come to America, Pa. And now you're afraid to leave the block! Well, I'm not you. You can't make me into what I'm not!"

    "And what are you? A bum who spends all his time in that park—all the time with the balls. Is this what I work so hard for, so you can go away and waste your time with these farshtinkener games?"

    "A waste of time! I'll make more in a month than you make in two and have a good time doing it. Isn't that enough for you?"

    "But the future, Morrie, think of the future...."

    Such words between father and son! Such words to the father who held a son's future in his hands! Although a man by Jewish law since his bar mitzvah, Morrie was still a minor four years later, according to the state of New York, requiring his father's signature on the unsigned Giants contract that Leary explained to the entire family over the kitchen table: "A $200 bonus for signing and $50.00 a month plus expenses while your boy gets a taste of the game in Tuscaloosa. And we'll make sure he writes home every week, Mrs. Ginsberg," Leafy laughed, "don't you worry."

    "Sign, Jake, sign," his mother finally spoke. "It has to be Moey's choice."

    And he did, without another word.

    "You won't regret this, Mr. Ginsberg," Harold Leary assured Jake as he shook his reluctant hand. "Your boy here has a fine arm and a solid future with us." Jake looked away—his face marked by that combination of disgust and disappointment so familiar to confrontations between father and son. And Morrie's face, angry and embarrassed at the same time....

* * *

    The clang of metal wheels on rails announced the arrival of still another car filled with eager Giants' rooters, separating Morrie from his memories and propelling him down the stairs, through the turnstiles and onto a street already crowded with vendors selling pennants, pretzels, and hot dogs to the early arrivals. No one recognized him as he walked around the park to the players' entrance even though the World had carried an old picture of him in his Syracuse Chief's outfit with a caption announcing the late-season arrival of a new "Hebrew" star, alongside McConnell's column. Even the groundskeeper had to call into the clubhouse to see if one Morrie Ginsberg, whose face he did not recognize and whose name was not on the gate list, was really playing for the Giants today. John McGraw assured him he was.

    McGraw had kept his eye on Morrie all year. The kid had impressed him in Sarasota that March. He was only 20, the same age Mathewson had been when he came up to the club. He didn't have the overpowering stuff that Matty had. They sure didn't look alike. And this Jewish kid was not a college boy like Christy. But he knew the game, was a quick learner, and played with a zest and enthusiasm that reminded him of his protégé and friend, who had died that past fall.

    There was even a trace of himself in this young kid. Not in appearance certainly. Overweight now at 220 lbs, his 5'7" frame constantly torn from clogged sinuses and allergies that swelled his face and commanded a steady flow of snot and mucous from his nostrils—dressed in a white linen suit, tie, silk Cuban shirt, and straw hat—even McGraw sometimes had trouble remembering himself as the lithe, fiery ballplayer who, with his pal Huey Jennings, had led the Baltimore Orioles to pennants and championships in the 1890s. But watching Morrie in spring training taking his turns in the batting cage and bearing down with each pitch, rekindled those feelings of intensity and determination that had made him the most combative player on one of the game's most contentious teams. It wasn't for nothing that he had earned the nickname Muggsy, although it had been years since anybody called him that.

    He almost brought Morrie east in April. The pressure was there. After a run of four consecutive pennants—three memorable World Series clashes with the Yankees and even two championships in 1921 and 1922—the club had faltered. Injuries and his own illness had taken their toll. The Giants had dropped to fifth place—their worst showing since, finishing last in 1915. Nor had things been too good at the gate since Ruth moved in across the river.

    "Bring up the Jew boy," Horace Stoneham, the Giants' chief stockholder, urged. "He'll be worth his weight in gold whether he can play or not."

    But Mac resisted. He wasn't Little Napoleon for nothing. Although he didn't own as much of the club as Stoneham, the Giants were his team—had been since he came over from Baltimore in 1902. He called all the shots, set the strategy, made decisions about who played where and when; even told the pitchers what to throw.

    And it had worked. The magic had returned. The club started slowly, tell behind the Pirates and Cubs early, even trailed the "trolley" Dodgers from Brooklyn until well into June. But here it was the last week in August and the club was only five games behind Pittsburgh. He had been right to wait until now. Ginsberg had matured upstate. He had put together a nice change-up to go along with his curve so even his fast ball seemed quicker than it was. And the kid could hit. The Chiefs even used him as a pinch hitter and several times in right-field just for his bat.

    "Maybe he will be worth his weight in gold" thought McGraw, as he finished pencilling in Morrie's name as pitcher and last in the batting order on his lineup card, puffing on the cigar that hung out of the side of his mouth—but not only because of his name and his nose."

    Morrie's knock on the manager's door brought Mac face to face with his new starting pitcher and Morrie with baseball legend.

    "Mr. McGraw? I'm Morrie....

    "Hey young man, glad to see you here. I've had my eye on you since training camp. I think you can help us down the stretch. You just listen to me and pay attention. Come on, let me show you around."

    Straightforward and to the point this John McGraw, just like Hal Woodhouse, the Chiefs' manager had advised him when he told Morrie that the big club wanted him in New York. "This is your chance Morrie, don't blow it. The bats come around faster, the crowds are bigger, but the game is still the same. Remember that."

    Well at least the clubhouse wasn't much different, Morrie thought, taking in the shabby confines of the locker room—peeling paint and iron mesh cubby holes for your clothes, as Mr. McGraw—all the players called him that—introduced him to some of the Giant regulars and then sat him down with Zack Taylor to go over the Pirates' line-up.

    "Don't worry about anything but getting the ball into Zack's mitt," McGraw instructed. "I'll signal him what pitch to call and he'll let you know."

    "These guys don't hit the long ball but they're pesky—especially Traynor and the Waners," added Taylor. "Just watch my fingers for the sign and my glove for the spot and we'll be Okee Dokee," he continued, flashing the gnarled and battered tools of his trade, as if to reassure Morrie that everything was in good hands.

    Morrie hoped so. Not that he doubted his arm—but this was the Polo Grounds—the papers anticipated a crowd of 30,000 fans, the Giants were still in the hunt for the pennant, and his parents would be somewhere in the grandstand. He found his cubicle just where the clubhouse boy told him it would be ("the last one on the right next to the john,") sat down on a stool and began unpacking the paper bag that contained a fresh change of underwear, his leather glove, and his shoes. "Maybe a little prayer to God wouldn't hurt," he mused. "Who knows? Maybe he's a baseball fan too."

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