It was hot. The early afternoon sun was scorching the pavement in front of the ticket windows. The windows were closed and up the street some kids shouted and splashed along the curb where a fire hydrant had been turned on. Aloysius, “Big Al”, Friday watched a few moments before walking into the shade under the grandstand of the ballpark. It was a little cooler there. A groundskeeper stood nearby looking out at the infield, mopping his brow.
“Whatcha’ doin’ here in all this heat, big guy?” he asked Al.
“Gettin’ kinda’ nosy ain’t ya’ little brother?”
The groundskeeper stood looking up at Al, his brown face sweating and grinning. He liked Al and he told all his pals he and Al were friends. By nature Al smiled easily and was friendly to most everyone he met.
“Mr. Franklin up in his office?” Al asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”
Al nodded and walked to the iron stairway up through the girders. It had been a useless question. He had been summoned. He stopped briefly at the landing outside a half opened office door, knocked gently, stepped into the opening, and waited. Ezra Franklin looked up from his desk. His shirt sleeves were rolled up and his tie was loosened. There was a fan at the window behind him whirring air across the room.
“Come in Al,” Franklin said. “It’s hotter than hell itself but this fan helps some.”
Al moved partway toward a chair near the desk and stood awkwardly looking about the office. He had been here several times but it never ceased to fascinate him; the pictures of, stiff posed, players with big moustaches and sideburns, displays of team records from Leagues long gone. At the corner of Franklin’s desk sat a baseball mounted on a little stand with a small inscribed brass plate on the base. Al looked at it for a moment before dropping his eyes and glancing at the floor.
“You wanted to see me Mr. Franklin?” he asked.“ “Sit down, Al.” Franklin waited a few moments before going on. “Al, there is no use shooting all around this. Tinker Connors has been managing our Evertsburg farm club and yesterday he had a heart attack. A bad one too.”
He’s got some good young talent down there too. A couple of more wins and they are in their own little Class D playoffs. Those playoffs will be over in two weeks or so. We want you to go to Everetsburg tomorrow and manage the team. You are good at judging and helping young players.”
Al looked puzzled. This was sudden and unexpected. “We win tonight and we lock up a place in our own playoffs and I’m gone. I know I ain’t been hittin’ too good but I always get up for playoffs, you know that. Besides, Hank’s still out with that bad ankle. Who’s goin” to play right field?”
“Al, when, and if we go to the playoffs, Hank Desmond will start in right field. His rehab is over. He’ll be back in two days.”
“What about next year?” Al asked. Tinker’s back and where do I fit in?”
“Tinker’s not coming back. He is retiring. His wife called me this morning. Evertsburg is yours. We want you in the organization. I know in time you can move up and stay with baseball.
Al looked away and both men stayed quiet for several seconds. “What happens if I say no?”Al asked.
Franklin sighed and looked directly at Al Friday. “Then we have no choice but to give you your unconditional release.”
Something grabbed at Al’s stomach. “Just like that. What ‘bout a trade?” he asked.
“Al, Watson’s been after me to bring Desmond back for the last two weeks. He’s been ready but I held off awhile. I checked around and tried to place you with another club. No takers.”
The idea of a release had never occurred to Al. He felt a sense of loneliness and fear, even a touch of betrayal. The comfortable pattern of his world was going to change and he never liked sudden change. There was no talk for several more moments, only the whirring sound the fan. Al stared at the baseball on the corner of Franklin’s desk.
Franklin watched him before speaking quietly. “It was the greatest hit I ever saw but it was several a few years ago,” he said. “Over the center field scoreboard. Nobody did that before or since.”
“Took the “Little World Series” in forty nine, it did. Seems like just the other day,” Al mused.
“That was four years ago, Al. You were given the gift of athleticism, strength, coordination, and speed and you used those qualities honorably,” Franklin began. “You’ve had a long ride. But those things don’t last forever. People are like machines and over time machines wear out and you can’t replace the wear in the human body. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, and some artists stay productive up to old age and sometimes beyond, but not athletes, not as performers, at least. But some have something extra born into them. Most people call it leadership and you’ve got it Al. The organization wants you. I want you, I’ve taken this to the top and you’re wanted on board. I’m telling you to take this for your sake, for Lucy’s sake.”
Al made no reply. He looked past Ezra Franklin at the fan in the window and waited, thinking back before he spoke.
“You know it bothered me but a little when the Sox sent me down, years back. I knew they was building with younger guys. Besides, this league ain’t but a little off the majors. I just never thought about the day I’d stop playin’.”
“Hell, you can play once in awhile in Evertsburg. Managers substitute themselves once in awhile. It can help the morale with the younger guys. Think about it carefully Al. Talk it over with Lucy. Give me your decision tomorrow.”
Al got up and shrugged but said nothing. He nodded and walked out the door and down the iron stairs. He stopped a moment and looked out across the playing field. The groundskeeper was raking the base path around second. He was glad he did not have to talk to him.
He walked up the short block to the street corner. Pigeons were waddling boldly along the sidewalk by the big Gothic church where the bus stopped. He looked down the street but he could not see a bus. People began to gather and this made him uncomfortable. He thought about taking a cab. He took his wallet from his back pocket and looked to see how much money he had. More people came to stand and wait and he did not want anyone to recognize him or speak to him; not now.
He walked part way down the block and waited until he saw a cab coming. It was empty and he hailed it but the driver just looked and kept going. The son of a bitch, he thought. Shortly, a second cab approached and he waved his arm. The driver pulled over to the curb, stretched his arm over the back of his seat and opened the rear door.
“Thanks a lot,” Al said. Another guy just went right me. He was empty too.”
“He probably had a call to pick up a fare. Hot ain’t it.” The driver responded.
“Hotter than hell,” Al answered.
“Where ya’ wanna’ go, Mister,” the driver asked.“ Just drive along Main St. a ways. The air comin’ in the window will cool me some.” He did not want to go back to the apartment and talk to Lucy. Not just yet. They drove along several blocks and both men stayed quiet. I hope he doesn’t talk, Al thought.
They passed the big new shopping plaza at the edge of the city where the suburbs began. Over half the parking spaces were empty. It was too hot to go out and shop. The driver looked back inquisitively.
“Turn off at the next street and drive around a little before we go back,” Al said.
Shortly they were in a new residential area. Half naked children played sluggishly on front lawns while young mothers in shorts sat on steps or porches watching them, young white mother’s probably many with veteran husbands. The little box houses built almost a decade ago now displayed varied colors, new garages, and many with small additions. Spindly trees that once accented the sterility of the tract had grown thick with foliage now casting welcome shade. This was the springboard turf from which the American dream had been re-launched into an optimistic atmosphere following ten years of a grinding Depression and four years of a consuming war.
But Al Friday was looking out at terrain, alien to him. It was the white people’s milieu to which he neither, aspired and only vaguely resented. He grew up in Mississippi and for him white privilege had been the natural of order of things. His privilege was to be a ball player, recognized and paid for his talent. It was a common dream; ability, opportunity, and reward. But, the stirrings of change had begun to crack apart the pattern. His ball playing days were coming to an end. The color line was bleeding from black and white to grey. Maybe that was a good thing but, as always, change made him uncomfortable.
The driver turned his head part way over his shoulder. “You got anywhere special you wanna’ go from here?” he asked.
“Yeah, Al said. “Take me back to 104 Gannon.”
Al Friday sat back; the warm breeze from the open window blowing across his face. He wondered what he would say to Lucy. She grew up in this city. Her mother and two brothers still lived here. She had a job here. Would she want to move? Maybe he should get a job here. At what? What did the men that owned those houses back there do to make a living? Could he learn to do something like they did? Maybe, but he was different. A lot of gates were still closed to that difference. But, there was Evertsburg. Was it really an opportunity? Mr. Franklin made it sound like it was, or was it just a way of easing him out of the way because he got a little too old ? Lucy and Evertsburg kept rotating through his mind with no answers, only disquieting uncertainty. The driver interrupted his thoughts. “Here we are, 104 Gannon,” he said. He barely noticed the cab had stopped. He looked at the familiar façade of the apartment building and fished his wallet out from his back pocket.
“You Al Friday?” the driver asked.
The driver had twisted around and had his right elbow up on top of the front seat. He was smiling. “I thought so. I was there that night you hit the big one. I was just a kid, still in high school back then. That was some blast. Bet you’ll never forget it. I sure won’t.”
“How much I owe ya’?”
“Four and a quarter.”
Al gave him a five dollar bill and opened rear door.
“Thanks and good luck,” the cabbie said.
“Good luck to ya’ too.” Al replied. Then he walked up the front steps and into his first floor apartment.
“That you?” Lucy Friday called from another room.
“Yeah, how’s ya’ mama?” Lucy had shopped for groceries and driven to her older brother’s where her mother now lived. It was ritual on this morning each week.
“She’s okay. Wonders if you can’t come by next week. Hasn’t seen you in awhile.”
Al stood in the living room when Lucy came in wearing shorts and a halter. She had changed clothes after shopping because of the heat.
“Where you been?” she asked.
“Had to see Mr. Franklin.”
“Never mind.—-Damn that outfit get’s me. What’s ya’ say?”
“Don’t be silly, it’s too hot. Besides, it’s after one o’clock . I got to get ready for work in a few minutes.”
“Hell, in the beginnin’ you didn’t do no clock watchin’. When it came on we just when on and did it. No matter what.” Al spoke with more dejection than anger. Lucy’s intuition kicked in.
“What’s wrong Al? What did you see Mr. Franklin for?”
He spit it right out, no use dancing all around it. “I’m through after tonight; gonna’ give my release.”
“Just like that?” Lucy asked. “Nothin’ else?” She was more incredulous than angry.
“Yeah, there’s somethin’ else. Wants me to manage the class “D team in Evertsburg.
“Who’s the manager now?”
“A nice old guy named Connor’s. He had a bad heart attack the other day. Now he’s gotta’ retire. Hank Desmond’s finished his rehab. He’s been released to play tomorrow. Watson wants him back for the series, so I’m gone after tonight. Just like that.”
Lucy watched Al. She knew he was hurting. It was time to be a good wife. “I think it’s great they want you. Nobody’s dumpin’ you.“
“ I don’t know if I can handle it. I Just want to keep playin’ ball.” Al said.
“Al, your well past forty, baby. It’s time to let up. You could be the first Black manager in baseball. At least I think so.”
“It scares me. I’m no big mind. Besides, I’d be bossin’ young white kids. I ain’t too sure I could handle ‘em.”
“You’d handle them good. Tommy’s always telling me how younger guys on the team come to you for advice. They’re not all Black either. You’re a natural leader and don’t know it. What’d you tell, Mr. Franklin?”
“I said I’d answer him by tomorrow.”
Lucy’s tone became more incisive. “Don’t blow this Al, she said. It’s a chance to step up, not just for you and me, but for all of us.”
“Now don,t go makin’ a damn crusader outta’ me. That was for Robinson and Doby and them early guys. I just wanna’ go on playin’ ball.”
“Well that seems like it’s not going to be possible. So then, there’s something else you’re not thinking about.” She was getting angry.
“Yeah, what,” he challenged.
“Money! What the hell are we going to live on? My earnings aren’t going to carry us.”
“ You gonna’ start on that ,huh? Ya’ ever gone hungry since ya’ married me ?”
“No, and I don’t want to start either. You got no special education, baseball’s all you know.” She was losing a measure of control and was starting to hurt him.
“Stop it, that’s enough! I can still play godammit.” He was shouting angrily; out of character. For the first time since he was a young man he was frightened. Lucy stayed quiet. He became calmer and spoke softly. “Ya’ know we got some money saved up. It can carry us over ’till I get hooked up again.”
Lucy knew there was only Evertsburg, no other hook up. She sensed his anguish. “I suppose so,” she offered. “But we could sure use that five hundred dollars you loaned that friend in Mississippi. Any chance they’d pay you back now?”
“That wasn’t exactly a loan,” He became flustered and turned to look away.
“What do you mean, you gave that money away?”
“More or less payin’ back a favor. Let’s just forget it, huh?”
Lucy’s anger was building, but along with it, her curiosity. No dammit, I work part time hustling hash at Deco’s. Some of those savings are mine too.” I’ve got a right to know. What kind of a favor is worth five hundred dollars?” She had moved to confront him face to face, with her chin raised, giving him a supercilious look, waiting for his answer.
“Forget it! Let’s say it’s all outta’ my part of the savin’s.”
“No, who the hell did you give it to? I got a right to know.”
“Mrs. Strump. Her old man needed an operation bad and they ain’t got the money and no way to get any,” he blurted.
“Is that the old lady we stopped to see when we went down to your mother’s funeral.”
“For her husband; you gave money to save that old honky son of a bitch. You got a bad memory or something? I remember that man saying baseball was a dying game now that they let burr-heads play with real big leaguers, right to your face. What’s the matter with you?”
“I did it for her, not him, Al said.
“Why, what did you owe her?”
“Most everythin’. Without her help I’d probably have been stumblin’ behind the ass end of a mule the rest of my life.” Al wanted to drop it but he’d opened it up now and Lucy pressed him.
What happened, Al ?” she asked.
Al backed away from Lucy, looked straight her and heaved a big sigh. “You grew up in the North. You’d a had ta’ live in Mississippi in those days ta’ know how it was. I knew I was special when it come t’ playin’ ball, but if a black person had a talent, it was like he was a threat. The only chance ya’ had is if some white people gave ya’ one. One day I got a look at a Memphis paper and seen where a scout was lookin’ for some guys to see if they was good enough for the Negro League. I always dreamed of playin’ professional ball. I thought I was good enough. I just had to get to Memphis.
“I didn’t have any money so I started around town askin’ some more prominent people to see if I could get a loan for ten dollars. Most knew I was pretty good at playin’ ball. Some said no right out and some said maybe they’d give me some jobs later but I couldn’t wait. The scout was only goin’ ta’ be in Memphis for four more days. I even went ta’ see people at the bank about a loan. They smiled and listened real polite and then said I didn’t have no collateral. I was sure I could hear some of ‘em laughin’ as I left. Guess I got ta’ be a big joke around town.
“Then I went out ta’ see Mr. Strump. Like you found out he was a mean guy but I’d done a few odd jobs for him and Mrs. Strump, mostly her in her garden. When I asked him he started laughin’ and I still hear clear what he said. He said, ‘Hell boy, in Memphis you’d just get mixed with some bad nigger pussy and get yourself a big dose of clap. Doin’ a favor not loanin’ ya’ any money’. He told me ta’ get my ass over in the mornin’ and he’d give me a dollar ta’ bust up some wood piled up out back. All the while Mrs. Strump is lookin’ at me. I said yes sir and dragged on home. I even started cryin’ and I was over eighteen.
“Next mornin’ I went over and split up a bunch of logs. It took well into the afternoon. When I was about done Mrs. Strump came out. ‘Gotta’ pay ya’ , she said and she grabbed my hand and pressed a twenty dollar bill in it. ‘Go to Memphis, Al’ she said. ‘Go be a ballplayer or whatever you want. Get away from this dead end town’. I saw the tears come to her eyes. Then, she turned and went back to the store with me yellin’ thank you to her but she never looked back. I can see that like it was yesterday.”
Lucy had stood silent, listening, waiting, until Al finished. “Why did she do that for you?” she asked.
“I don’t really know. My mama used ta’ do chores for her years before and said she played a fine piano; high class stuff. Then Mr. Strump sold the piano; said there was no sense her wastin’ time with somethin’ that didn’t pay out. After mama got sick and couldn’t help her she sent my sisters. But they were too scared of the old man so I’d go over and help her with the garden. She’d come out sometimes with some lemonade for me. She seemed real lonesome. Strump was half drunk most of the time and insultin’ ta’ customers a lot. You’ve seen how he was like when we was there. He’s such a bastard they didn’t have any friends; never had any kids neither.”
“How’d you know for his need for an operation?” Lucy asked.
“My sister told me when she called last time. She felt sorry for Mrs. Strump. She said Mrs. Strump had gone all around town tryin’ to get a loan; even went to the bank like me tryin’ to mortgage the store; found out the old man had took one out some time back. People were sayin’ it would be a blessin’ for her if he stayed bad and died. I guess keepin’ that old son of a bitch alive is as important to her as playin’ ball is to me. He’s probably all she’s got. Funny, seems like everybody’s got a need.”
“Does she know where the money came from?” Lucy asked.
“Naw. I wired the cash ta’ Ellie and told her ta’ take it ta’ the Reverend at Mrs. Strump’s Church and tell him it came from a person who didn’t want to be known,”
“I think she ought to know.” Lucy said.
“Maybe someday. Maybe someday you and me’ll go down to visit and walk in and right after the old bastard drops another insult we’ll tell him. That’d be real fun.” Al broke into a big smile and began to chuckle.
Lucy had been listening pensively and smiled for an instant before looking at the clock. I gotta’ go or I’ll be late,” she said. She went into the bedroom and reappeared shortly dressed in her skirt and blouse uniform.
Al looked at her. “You take the car and pick me up after the game,” he instructed. “I’ll call Tommie and have him give me a ride,” he said. “Wait for me in the parking lot.”
“I’ll be there,” Lucy reassured him. “Maybe I’ll let you take me out for something to eat after.” as she left pulling the door shut behind her.
Al stood a few moments before calling Tommy Jackson’s house. Sarah answered and he told her to have Tommy pick him up at five. Then he went into the bedroom and lay down. He set the alarm and tried to sleep, but it was no good. His mind was too alive.
Lucy was prepared, even enthusiastic, about a change. Any excuses would have to be his. He drifted back in thought to more halcyon times seeking comfort in nostalgia.
He thought about his first paycheck as a ballplayer with the good feeling of having his own money in his pocket and sauntering into Western Union and wiring twenty dollars to Mrs. Alvira Strump. She’d know where the money came from. His papa taught him that if ya’ owed it and ya’ had some ya’ paid up. That way nobody can say ya’ ain’t an honest man.
His papa; it seemed to him that his papa had spent most of his life payin’ one way or another right up to that day he found him in the field, the mule standing a few feet away content not to drag the plow and his papa laying across the ruts of fresh turned earth with slack jaw and glassy eyes. Too bad he didn’t make it to see his daughter study to be a nurse or me earning money playing ball.
Baseball; barnstorming through the country with the old Negro League, finally moving up to the Indians after Robinson broke through, getting older, losing a little bit of the full package, going down to double AA with plenty of experience and playing smarter. And then there was the “big one”, that warm dead aired night in early September nineteen eighty nine. No homer had ever been hit over the Bulldog center field scoreboard before or since and it won the “Little League World Series. But there was the other “big one”, his first.
It was in Pittsburg with the old “Homestead Grays” early in his second year. It was a cool dreary day in May with only a few hundred fans in the stands. His first time up, he faced the best pitcher of the time. He’d never faced him before. He fouled the first pitch and the second was in and tight. Then the third came like a rocket right down the middle at the waist and he hit it square, way out of the ballpark. As he rounded third he saw the pitcher trotting in toward home plate and when he came across home there was Leroy with his hand out smiling.
“Congratulations Kid,” he had said. “Enjoy it for a good long time, cause you ain’t gonna’ do that again off me.” The next two times at bat he struck out.
He lay there chuckling at the memory. Memories, good memories, he thought, are things nobody can take away from you. They are your property that nobody can ever take away. They are yours to call up when it was good to do so, like now.
Then, his thoughts turned to his mother. When his sister Ellie got to be a nurse and he was making good money in the old league they bought their mother a new house. It had neat clapboard siding painted clean white with a front porch where she could sit and just watch and rest. Ellie and her husband lived with her until she died, so she wasn’t alone. All that had been good, he thought.
But, there was the here and now; time for a change. He had to make a decision. Was Evertsburg a good chance to stay with baseball or just a way for the organization to fill a need for now? Was there a real opportunity to move up? Mr. Franklin told him there was. He knew he could manage, but he was fearful of organizational politics and an intimidating sense of being viewed as a man “out of his place”. Maybe he should talk it over with Tommie. But, he knew he wouldn’t.
He got up and began to think about tonight’s game, his last as a Bulldog. His spirits lifted. It’s still baseball and me, he thought. I’m going to give it the best I got left.
As soon as Lucy started the car leaving work, she turned on the radio and tuned in the ballgame. Harry Hamilton and Martin Frye were doing the play by play and commentary as they had for the past ten seasons.
“We’re two down in the bottom of the eighth folks and our Bulldogs are trailing two to one. Tough game, huh, Marty?”
“This kid Donovan is pitchin’ a great game for the Chiefs, Harry. All our boys have gotten so far are two scratch singles.”
“Okay, here we go. Chip Burke’s coming to the plate He’s zero for two; flied out and struck out. He’s only hittin’ two thirty five but he’s a great glove at short. That last put out on the Chiefs Ollie Brown was a work of art.– Donovan sets and delivers a strike on the outside corner. He seems real confident and as fast as when he started. The kids going to be a great one, Marty. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was up with the Tigers next year. They say his big problem is his temper; gets riled sometimes and loses his discipline.”
“Look at that, Harry. Burke’s Chocked up on the bat and really crowding the plate. Do you think he’ll bunt?”
“I doubt it, Marty, with two out and Friday due up. Let’s see if Donovan dusts him back. Here’s the pitch. Oh, oh,– the pitch hit him on the left shoulder.”
“It sure did. But Burke didn’t try very hard to get out of the way either. Donovan’s really upset. He’s pointing at Burke and yelling at the umpire. Burke’s taking a slow trot to first rubbing his shoulder. He got what he wanted, Harry.”
“Oh boy. Donovan’s kicking the dirt on the mound like an angered up bull and here comes Tag O’Toole the Chiefs manager jawing at the umpire. Hang on folks, Tag’ll give a performance. Look at this, Marty. Tag’s at the plate giving a reenactment of Burke leaning into the pitch. The ump just folds his arms and turn’s his back on him.”
“That’s Lake Gibbons behind the plate tonight, Harry. “Tag’ll die on stage before Jake gives him the time of day. Boy oh boy, come out to a Bulldog game folks and get a little burlesque with your baseball. There goes Tag running around to face Jake and Jake just turns the other way.
“Meanwhile, Friday’s due up but there’s nobody on deck, Marty.”
“Yeah, I notice that. There goes Tag back to the dugout waving his arms and looking up like he’s pleading with God.”
“He might as well, Marty. Jake’s not going to listen to him. Do you think “Bump” Watson’s going to send up a pinch hitter for Al ?”
“I wouldn’t blame him. Al’s struck out twice tonight. He’s sure not the Al of old. There was talk earlier today about giving him his release. Too bad too. The guy was the franchise for years and one of the most popular players in Bulldog history.”
“But here comes big Al, Marty. It looks like “Bump” wants to give him one more shot for old times sake. The Bulldog’s have got to win only one out the last four to sew up the Division.
“I doubt the old times sake part, Harry. “Bump’s” about as sentimental as a hognose snake eatin’ a toad. You play to take the Division in every game. Maybe he figures Donovan’s rattled and Al can intimidate into walking him. It might be a good move. The big guy still looks awesome up there.”
“Well, here we go. Friday’s set deep in the box. He’s flickin’ the bat like a Tom cat’s tail watching a barn rat. Donovan throws over to first but Burkes back in plenty of time. Now he sets and delivers – strike one, a fastball low and away. Just nipped the outside corner. Friday steps out and looks at the umpire.”
“It was a great pitch, Harry. Donovan doesn’t appear to be shaken in the least.”
“Doesn’t look like it. Okay, now he sets, looks over at first, and fires a fastball low. Ball one.”
“The kid is just trying to overpower him, Harry. He probably figures he’ll just overpower him; no sense trying to get cute. He struck him out twice on nothing but fastballs. What do you think?”
“I think I hate to see a guy who’s been a great hitter being pitch to like he’s a routine out. To me Al Friday will never be routine in my book, Marty.”
“I know; I feel the same way.—Donovan is just standing there taking his sweet time, looking off. Now Friday steps out of the box and looks at the sky.”
“Gibbons has had enough. He motions Al to get in the box. Donovan’s got the ball cradled at his chest and looks over at first. Now he delivers. Friday connects and sends a high deep fly ball to left center. That ball is out of here, way out of here! Holy Hannah’s catfish— Marty, that ball was still climbing going over the fence. It looked like it bounced off a rooftop over on Riley street.”
“It sure looked like it, Harry. I saw it bounce too. What a hit. A little more to the right and I’m sure it would have cleared the scoreboard in center field like the big one a few years ago.”
Everybody is up and yelling now. Al’s taking the big slow trot around the bases. Burke’s standing back of home waiting for him and now the whole team is up and out of the dugout. Here comes Big Al and he’s being swarmed by the players. Well Marty, that has to make you feel good. The big guy really unloaded. What a shot!”
“Listen to the crowd, Harry. They won’t shut up. Al started for the dugout but he has to stop and tip his hat to the crowd. Oh, baby. Just listen to that crowd.”
“The Bulldog team is settling back into the dugout and Eddie Conrad is up, bat in hand, waiting. The crowd is still carrying on. Now Jake Gibbons motions Conrad to the batters box and things quiet down. Conrad is one for three tonight, an infield single in the fourth.–Donovan shakes off the sign.–Now he shakes off another, waits, nods, and sets.
“I guess Al brought back his concentration, huh, Harry?”
“Could be.— Now Donovan fires and Conrad sends a bouncer to deep short. Ramos comes up with it and throws on to first in time for out number three. In the eighth our Bulldogs get two runs on one hit, a tremendous blast by Al Friday with Chip Burke on base. Going into the ninth, folks, it’s Bulldogs three, Chiefs two.”
Before the advertisement came on Lucy snapped off the radio. She was halted at a red light. The empathy of joy she had felt for Al quickly faded. How would he use this flash of glory, she wondered? She knew his career as a professional ballplayer was through and she felt Al knew it too. She was sure Mr. Franklin was sincere. She always trusted him. Suddenly a horn honked and she realized the light was green.
She drove several blocks into the stadium parking lot and parked in an area reserved for management and players near the door from the locker room. The night air was still unusually warm and the wind of the day had become a steady soft breeze. A haunting melancholia began to settle on her. The crowd noise changed level and character but she left the radio off.
Lucy Friday was intelligent and perceptive beyond her level of formal education. Very few of her decisions were based solely on faith or intuition. She could think. She handled the finances, picked out the furniture, bought most of Al’s clothes, Dressed herself in good taste, and avoided pregnancy. At times her good sense and self assurance came close to a controlling bossy posture. Just today she had found out there were parts of her husband’s life he had not shared with her in their three years of marriage. Suddenly, she wondered if he had ever cheated on her. She had never cheated on him and until just now she felt he had not either. But, what about road trips, other cities, possibly an old girlfriend? There had to have been other women before her even though Al had never spoken about any. She began to feel a little guilty for her thoughts.
Lucy met Al almost four years ago when Sarah Jackson invited her to a party at the Jackson apartment. Sarah’s plan had been to line her up with a young guy who had just joined the team but it was Al Friday who drew her interest; the big well built older guy who smiled so easily and seemed so solid and secure. Her own willowy beauty had not been lost on Al that evening either. They kept catching each other’s eyes and then Al drifted over to her and asked if she liked baseball. She played that wonderful time through her mind.
The crowd noise suddenly got louder and she reached forward and turned on the radio again. Hamilton’s voice droned away.
“Jackson’s completed his warm ups and Jimmy Bell is getting ready to step into the batters box. It’s not over yet folks. Chiefs are two out with men on second and third. Top of the ninth. The Bulldogs are one out from taking the Division.”
“I don’t understand why Watson is leaving Friday in right field, Harry. Billy Batson is sitting on the bench and he moves like an antelope. Al would lose a race with a turtle.”
“Maybe Bump remembers Batson dropping that third out fly against the Royals a couple of weeks ago. Who knows? Sometimes I don’t think Bump knows why he does what he does. Besides, Bell’s a right handed pull hitter and Higbee’s got good range in center. It’s a low percentage Al will see the ball.”
“Let’s hope so, Harry,”
“Here we go. Jackson sets and fires a fastball low and away. Ball one. He’s going to keep that ball away from Bell and neutralize that power to left.”
“He better not walk him, Harry. A walk loads them up with Dickie Miller on deck.”
“You’re right, Marty. No walk. Okay, runners lead away, Jackson sets and delivers low, almost in the dirt. Ball two. The infield is shifted to the left and Higbee is straight away in center. Jackson looks over at first. The runner is off the bag dancing around but Jackson ignores him and pitches a perfect strike right down the middle with Bell just looking at it.”
“That pitch was so good it must have surprised him, Harry. Jackson better be careful. He does that again and Bell could send it downtown.”
“You’re right, Marty. That was a big fat one. All right, two balls, one strike, runners lead, and Jackson delivers. Bell reaches outside and slices it to right. Oh, boy! Friday starts back on the track. He reaches up and slams into the fence. He hit against it and bounced back on the ground.”
“Do you think he held it, Harry? He’s still down. He right shoulder hit that fence like a Mack truck. He may be hurt.”
“I hope not. Higbee’s running over to him. I can’t tell where the ball is. The two runners are coming home. Higbee’s helping Al to his feet and now Al holds up his glove. He’s got it. Games over! Holy smokes what a finish. The Bulldogs win three to two and win the Division.”
Lucy turned off the radio. Listening, she had become tense and worried. She felt herself release. It was over. Her eyes filled and tears drained slowly down her beautiful high cheekbones.
Aloysious Friday sat on the wooden slab bench in front of the row of steel lockers looking at the floor and fending off exhaustion. His shoulder ached and he knew he should get into a warm shower. As his teammates passed by they all congratulated him but they didn’t stop and their remarks were perfunctory. By now, they all know, he thought.
Sammy White, the starting pitcher, came by. He stopped, smiled, and slapped Al on his sore shoulder. Al winced.
‘Sorry, I wasn’t thinkin’.” White said. “I want to thank ya’ for savin’ my game. Ya’ gave us the Division tonight. It’s been great playin’ with ya’.
Now I’m sure they all know, Al thought. He looked up and smiled. “Damn near lost it for ya,” he said.
Al could see Bump Watson standing inside his office looking through the glass upper half of the partition. Their eyes met for an instant and they both looked away quickly. Bump slipped down into his chair, eased open the bottom right hand drawer of his desk, and extracted a half empty bottle of bourbon. He took a long draw directly from the bottle. Al took a deep breath and rose slowly. He finished undressing and lumbered to the shower room.
While Aloysious Friday let the warm steamy water play on his aching body and William Bump Watson let the anesthetic of “good ole boys” comfort his psyche, Ezra Franklin walked through the locker room and into Watson’s office.
“where’s Al?” he asked.
“Takin’ a shower.” Bump looked flat away. “Want a shot?” he asked.
“Not now, William. Sometime soon, however, you and I will sit down with a bottle of your southern elixir while I try to explain to you how our world is changing.”
“Your world.” Bump replied. “Mines locked tight and safe right here.” He pointed to his right temple and tapped his forefinger. Franklin stared back blankly.
“Friday had a great night. It may cause a problem. He’s balking at the Evertsburg offer.” Franklin said.
“You’re problem, not mine. It’s all agreed, Friday goes.”
“You are absolutely right, William. I only hope he agrees to Evertsburg although, sometimes I’m not certain he has the full mind for leadership that management demands— considering his background and the racial thing.”
Bump Watson knew he was being baited and he was visibly annoyed at Franklin’s obvious probe.
“Goddamit, Ezra, Paint him white and he could probably manage a big league tomorrow, a class A for sure. What’s more you know it a well as I do.”
Ezra Franklin smiled faintly. “The pity is he need be painted at all. William, you should make a serious effort to shake that Georgia clay from your soul and let your mind tell your heart the truth.” Bump’s only reply was a short grunt as Franklin left the office and walked back into the locker room.
Al had dried himself off in front of his locker trying not to think about the finality of the routine. The rest of the team had all gone. Tommy had gone by and said he’d call tomorrow, looking quickly at Al and then away, not stopping. It was over, time to make a decision. He opened his locker and took out his clothes, slipped on his underwear and slacks, and sat putting on his socks and shoes when Ezra Franklin walked up behind him.
“Great game, Al.” Franklin said, slapping Al on his sore shoulder. Al winced once again.
“Sorry, I didn’t think.”
Franklin waited a few moments before speaking. “You know, Al what you did tonight changes nothing. What we discussed this morning still stands, no changes.”
“Didn’t expect tonight to change anything.”
“Good. Do you want to give me your answer on Evertsburg now? It might give you a good night’s sleep to get it resolved.” Al said nothing and Franklin pressed on. “Did you talk it over with Lucy?” he asked.
Al stood and finished tucking his wonderfully colored Hawaiian sport shirt into his slacks. He turned and faced Mr. Franklin. “Where we gonna’ live?” he snapped.
“Where we gonna’ live?”
“You mean in Evertsburg?”
“Yeah, that’s a small mostly white town ain’t it? Is there a nice house for us among the “folks” where Lucy can plant a garden out back and everybody’s friendly and welcomes us?”
“Al—Al, don’t beat back so hard. Changes take time. There are people who want to make those changes and set out opportunities but they can’t solve all the problems at once. Live where you will, where you can; the Black community in Pittsburgh. It’s only a thirty five minute drive.”
“Ya’ mean come out and do your special thing for us but then go away—get out and live someplace else where we don’t have ta’ see ya’ or be with ya’. No mixin’.”
Ezra Franklin had been taken to the brink. He was an upper middle class white, intelligent, perceptive, and decent. What he thought should be a grateful response to a rare opportunity suddenly was met with a challenge; the lingering persistence of racism. He knew things were changing and he wanted to help foster the change, but he was not a revolutionary.
“I can’t change everything all at once, Al. I am just one man doing a little bit as part of something that is coming and will take more time.”
Al realized he had begun to level the discussion to the personal. He knew Franklin was sensitive. It was important for him to have others believe in the sincerity of his convictions.
“I know it ain’t you, Mr. Franklin. It’s just I never thought much about these these things before. Playin’ ball and lovin’ it was enough. Now the ground’s been cut away. Lucy’s okay. She thinks me managin’ is good. But, I gotta’ get used to the idea. I gotta’ be sure I’m gonna’ be part of the system and not just a good ole Black guy gettin’ a little somethin’ special to make it all seem like baseball’s fair ta’ everybody.”
‘I thought I made that clear to you. I like you. I respect your talent and knowledge of the game . It’s you not your race. I made my decision and recommendation based on you as a man with the qualifications.”
“Mr. Franklin, I know ya’ to be honest and a friend. It ain’t you I get worryin’ about. It’s that long hangin’ system and the thinkin’ that keeps it. Some people give but systems hang on like hound dog ta’ a raccoon’s hinder.”
“Al, ten years ago there wasn’t a Black player in the majors. Look now; things do change. Take the step. It’ll be the best for everybody. You can teach, lead, and still play occasionally.” Franklin’s tone softened, became almost patronizing.”Evertsburg has no fences to slam into either, only a soft hedgerow framing the outfield to tumble into if you have a little trouble with a fly ball. It’s a pretty little ballpark.
“With a fence slam ya’ get kicked back right away and get hurt right then. Then ya’ work it out and after a few days the soreness goes and ya’ forget it. But, bushes let’s ya’ fall in and ya’ get a lotta’ little scratches and some can infect and stay sore awhile. Little hurts add up.”Al looked at Mr. Franklin and smiled.
Franklin was surprised at the metaphor and a little annoyed. Metaphors were his specialty. He responded tersely. “I’ll be in my office at nine tomorrow morning, Al. We can’t hold on your decision past then.”
“I know; I’ll be there.”
Ezra Franklin was sober faced as he turned and started to the door to the parking lot.
“Mr. Franklin.” Al called. Franklin turned and looked back. “Thank ya’,” Al said. He held a small wistful smile as he looked straight at the other man’s eyes. Franklin nodded and left.
Bump Watson was having a problem. Disquieting ethical urgings were dumping contrary signals into his mind over his wall of inherited prejudice. Friday had been a model ballplayer, never late for practice, even tempered, followed instruction, and gave a splendid sense of leadership without pretense. He never usurped authority that belonged elsewhere and he could always be counted on for full effort. Tonight Bump had played a hunch and Friday had come through.
Watson took another short drink of bourbon and was about to get up and act honorably when he remembered the half dozen envelopes in his desk drawer. Each contained the notice of a gratuity appropriate to a local business advertised on a thin slice of outfield fence. Bump had noted that Al’s towering homer was very close to passing over an area advertising the “Batter’s Box Café” with a message extending a “free chicken dinner for two to any Bulldog player who hits a home run over this sign.” Maybe off a little but close enough, he thought.
“Friday.” He called.
Bump pushed up out of his chair, grabbed the envelope, and shuffled out of his office. “Almost forgot. Got this for ya’. I figured ya’ hit that pop over one of them give away signs. Here ya’ can take Lucy out for some fine fried chicken. That oughta’ suit ya’ good.” Bump chuckled good naturedly.
Al took the envelope with a small gracious smile that belied his irritation. Suddenly, Al grabbed Bump’s hand firmly and began pumping Bump’s arm slowly. Al was smiling broadly now. “I sure appreciate the time I been on this ballclub, Bump,” he began. “I understand how it was with ya’ about me bein’ Black makin’ it uneasy for ya’ back when I first come before the others. But, ya’ been fair enough with me.” Al maintained the firm grip on Bump’s hand and kept up the slow pump and big smile. Bump was becoming uncomfortable. He began to pull his hand free but Al just squeezed a little tighter, pumped a little more briskly, and smiled even brighter.
“Ya’ know Bump,” he continued. “It’s too bad ya’ wasn’t born Black or me born white. We mighta’ been good friends.”
By now Al’s face had a contemplative pensive expression. Wilson mimicked Als look but with a slight frown. “Maybe so,” he mumbled.
Al dropped Bump’s hand and grabbed up his duffle. “Well gotta’ get movin’,” he said.
“Yeah, guess so. Good luck Friday.”
“Thanks. Maybe I’ll see ya’ sometime.”
“Maybe so.” Bump replied.
As Al walked away he had a fleeting notion to do an amateurish tap dance out the door. That would be pushing it a little too far he conceded.
Bump turned and plodded back to his office and slumped into his desk chair. The whiskey had dulled his perception slightly and mellowed his thought. He began ruminating on Al Friday’s hypothetical postulation. He made mental concession that had Al been born white they could have been good friends. But, when he considered the converse, he drained the last of the bourbon from the bottle. “Impossible,” he muttered.
As Al walked across the parking lot he could see Lucy’s silhouette on the driver’s side of the forty nine Chevy coupe. When she spotted him she opened the driver’s door and slid over to the passenger side. Al threw his duffle in the trunk, settled in behind the steering wheel, and let out a deep breath.
“You okay?” Lucy asked.
“Yeah, just a little tired and sore.”
“No wonder. I heard the last couple of innings in the car.” She was looking straight ahead but now, as she spoke she turned toward Al, smiling. “You’re some real man you know tyat?” she said.
“Yeah.” He grinned and began to pass his hand up her leg.
“Stop that! Not now,—besides that’s not what I meant. She pushed his hand away.
“The ball game? Hell, that’s routine baby—or it used ta’ be,” he said quietly.
That’s not it either,” she replied. They both remained silent for several moments before Lucy spoke again. “It’s that I learned some things about you today. I already said what I feel about Mr. Franklin’s offer. But what I feel even more is that whatever you decide to do is going to be okay with me.” Al remained silent, not looking at Lucy. “But one thing I decided for myself,” she continued. “Like I said before, you can take me out to eat right now. Then we’ll go home and do that thing you were messing around for this afternoon,” she declared.
Al broke into a broad grin. “Whatcha’ wanna’ eat, baby?” he asked.
“You decide; whatever you want,” she answered.
He remembered the envelope. He slipped it from his shirt pocket and dropped out the open car window. Before it reached the ground, the breeze caught it and tumbled it across the parking lot.
“Steak!” Al pronounced. W’ell go ta’ Rudy’s and get a couple of big steaks.”
“Sounds good to me.”
He started the engine, drove to the parking lot exit, and stopped. Waiting for traffic to pass, he looked in the rear view mirror. They had turned off the stadium lights. The dark hulk of the grandstand stood silhouetted against the backdrop of the city lights. Empty ballparks look abandoned and sad, he thought. Then he pulled out into a gap in the stream of traffic.