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Authors: Troy Soos

Hanging Curve

BOOK: Hanging Curve
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Praise for Troy Soos and his Mickey Rawlings Mysteries
“Soos deftly weaves fictional characters with legends.”
—Houston Chronicle
 
“Mickey Rawlings bats .250 on the field and 1.000 as an amateur detective. Troy Soos does a red-letter job of mixing the mystery into a period when all baseball was played on fields that had real grass.”
—St Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“An entertaining mystery series ... With each new book, Soos refines his mixture of fiction and authentic baseball lore.”
—The Orlando Sentinel
 
“Authentic old-time baseball atmosphere and absorbing stories. Troy Soos captures the period perfectly.”
—Lawrence Ritter, author of
The Glory of Their Times
 
“Great 1920s period detail.”
—Booklist
 
Rawlings turns double plays and solves murders with equal grace.”
—Publishers Weekly
 
“Baseball and mystery team up for a winner.”
—USA Today
The Mickey Rawlings Baseball Mysteries
Available from Kensington Publishing
MURDER AT FENWAY PARK
MURDER AT EBBETS FIELD
MURDER AT WRIGLEY FIELD
HUNTING A DETROIT TIGER
THE CINCINNATI RED STALKINGS
HANGING CURVE
 
Nonfiction Baseball by Troy Soos
 
BEFORE THE CURSE:
The Glory Days of New England Baseball, 1858—1918
HANGING CURVE
TROY SOOS
KENSINGTON BOOKS
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
This book is dedicated to Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, and all the
other Negro League stars who showed how the American game could
be played at a time when much of America refused to see.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
It is a pleasure to thank Kate Duffy, my editor, for her invaluable guidance and encouragement; my agent, Meredith Bernstein, for her continuing efforts on my behalf; Janice Rossi Schaus, for her splendid cover design; and Sara and Bob Schwager, for their fine copyediting.
I am also indebted to Negro League historian Jim Riley, for reviewing the manuscript; James Murray, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for historical information on civil rights issues; and Mark Potok, of Klanwatch and the Southern Poverty Law Center, for material on the Ku Klux Klan.
Providing valuable research assistance were Scott Allen, Steve Kelner, Bernie Rosenberg, Nat Rosenberg, Dean Hargett of the State Historical Society of Missouri, Vanetta Ellis of the Society for American Baseball Research, Debbie Mize of the Seminole County Library, the staff of the St. Louis Public Library, and the staff of the Indiana Historical Society.
I am deeply grateful to all of these individuals and institutions for so generously sharing their time and expertise.
CHAPTER 1
S
pringtime. The enchanted season of rebirth and hope, when every wishful dream seems destined to become reality. The exhilarating time of year when career .200 hitters imagine winning the batting championship, dead-armed pitchers feel strong enough to win thirty games, and St. Louis baseball fans believe that this will be the year the Browns finally capture an American League pennant.
The postgame crowd straggling out of Sportsman’s Park certainly had the seasonal fever. As I lingered near the Dodier Street gate, I overheard confident predictions of a championship. According to some, the Browns would be powered to success by the bats of George Sisler and Ken Williams. Others put their faith in the pitching arms of Urban Shocker and Dixie Davis. Not one mentioned the name Mickey Rawlings, but since pennant hopes rarely ride on a team’s utility players, I was accustomed to being overlooked.
A few fans claimed that the city’s National League Cardinals, managed by Branch Rickey and sparked by the hitting of Rogers Hornsby, would also win their first title. If so, the entire 1922 World Series would be played right here in north St. Louis, in the classic ballpark that both teams called home.
I began to drift along with the crowd toward Grand Boulevard, where packed trolleys slowly shuttled fans home. I sidled close to a group of men near me, eavesdropping on their optimistic discussions and hoping their fever would prove contagious. Because, so far, I didn’t have it. Spring was arriving late for me this year.
The traditional signs of early April were abundant. Robins sang in the elms and sycamores that lined the street, and daffodils bloomed in the city parks. Mild weather had relegated winter overcoats to the closet, and most of the automobiles crawling by were open-topped touring cars and roadsters.
But, of course, the true harbinger of spring is the start of a new baseball season. Here, too, the outward indications were all positive. With the Browns’ opener four days away, the roster was the strongest in the club’s history, and the team was already on a winning roll. Today’s 6—3 victory over the Cards, before a record crowd of almost thirty thousand in the final game of the city series, gave us the championship of St. Louis and a 20—1 record for the preseason.
By any objective criteria, everything looked promising. However, the
feeling
of springtime—the internal buoyancy that lightens every step—eluded me.
So, in my mind’s eye, I jumped six months ahead, imagining that today’s game had indeed been a preview of the World Series, and trying to envision myself playing in my first Fall Classic. I could see the packed stands draped with bunting and streamers, and hear the cheers, and smell fresh-roasted peanuts. But I couldn’t conjure up an image that included me in any part of the
action.
All I could imagine for myself was watching the Series from the bench. Well, at least that would be an improvement over the way any of my previous seasons had ended.
Could that be the problem? Perhaps it was the experience of seasons past that kept me from getting my hopes up about this one. After ten years of big-league ball, with six different teams, I’d been through enough Aprils and enough Septembers to know that the promise of spring is a hollow one. I wasn’t going to win a batting championship—hell, I’d be lucky to end up within a hundred points of the champion. And if I managed to last the entire season with my new team, would I end up playing in my first World Series? Unlikely. I’d already played for some of the best clubs in baseball history, and never got to fulfill that dream.
So here I was, a thirty-year-old utility infielder, in a new city, with a new team, but no reason to believe that the new season would bring a change of fortune.
Stepping more quickly, I was about to catch a streetcar for home when a gruff voice behind me called, “Hey, Rawlings! They don’t even let you play in a game that don’t mean nuthin’?”
I turned to see a hulking, bareheaded man of about forty approaching. His homely face was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. “I know you?”
He smiled, exposing several brown teeth and a great deal of barren gum. “Chicago. 1918.”
It took another moment, then I pictured him in a Cubs’ uniform. “Wicket Greene,” I said. “I’ll be damned.” His hands remained jammed in the pockets of his ill-fitting Norfolk jacket, and I didn’t offer mine. Our acquaintance wasn’t one that I’d ever hoped to renew.
Greene’s dark eyes seemed to withdraw deeper into their sockets. “Nobody calls me that no more.”
“Oh, sorry.” When we were teammates on the Cubs, Greene had picked up the “Wicket” tag because of his knack for letting ground balls roll through his legs at third base. His real name didn’t come to mind.
“It’s ‘Tater’ now,” he said, sounding proud of the new nickname. He probably got it because his balding, lumpy head resembled a spud, but at least it was no slur on his playing skills.
“What are you doing now?” I asked. Greene had remained on the Cubs’ roster during the Great War primarily because he was too old to be drafted. As far as I knew, his baseball career had ended when the Armistice allowed younger players to leave the battlefields for a return to the ballfields.
“I’m in the automobile business,” he answered. “Monday to Friday, anyhow. Weekends, I still play ball.” He gestured to a row of curbside pushcarts, where vendors were aggressively hawking their last sausages and pretzels to the dwindling passersby. “You want a dog?”
I was tempted, but shook my head no. Margie would have dinner waiting at home.
“I’m gettin’ one.” As we walked over to the cart, Greene said, “I play in East St. Louis. It’s only semipro, but the club’s a good one—better than a lot of minor-league teams I seen.” He flipped the vendor a dime for a hot dog with kraut. “Always room for improvement, though—and you can help with that.”
“Me? How?”
Greene hooked one of his remaining teeth into the frankfurter and tore off a bite. As he chewed, he spit out the answer. “Want you to play for us.”
I stifled a laugh. “Why would I want to go from the St. Louis Browns to a semipro outfit?”
“We’ll give you ten bucks to play in one game. Tomorrow afternoon.”
“Sorry, can’t do it. Fohl wants us rested for Opening Day.” Browns’ manager Lee Fohl would fine me a lot more than ten dollars if he learned that I’d hired myself out to another team.
Greene snorted, and a piece of bread fell from his lip. “Browns give you any more rest, you might as well trade in your mitt for a pillow.”
His comment hit me like a kick in the stomach. It was an accurate assessment, and it probably explained why I couldn’t catch the spirit of the season: It’s hard to dream of batting .400 when they won’t even let you in the batter’s box. The Browns weren’t giving me enough of a taste of the game to be teased into hope.
“Besides,” Greene coaxed, “the Browns won’t find out. You’ll be wearing our uniform, and you won’t be using your real name.”
“You mean—”
“What the other team don’t know won’t—” His mouth gaped open in an ugly grin. “Come to think of it, if you play good, it
will
hurt them.”
I was flattered that they wanted to bring me in as a ringer, and mulled it over for a moment. I could use the practice, after all, and maybe some game action would give me that spark of spring fever I so badly needed. But I wasn’t convinced that it was a wise idea; if Fohl got wind of it, I might not get into a Browns’ game for a very long time. “Sorry. Wish I could help you, Wick—uh, Tater.”
“We could really use you,” Greene persisted. “We’re going up against a helluva club, and need to field the best players we can find. Got a lot riding on this game.”
As much as I liked being counted among “the best players,” I again declined.
“Might be something a little different for you, too. Team we’re playin’ is colored. You ever play against coloreds?”
“No. Always wanted to, though.” I’d wished for years that I could get in a game with Negro players. Since it didn’t appear that such a game would ever be played on a major-league diamond, this might be my best chance.
“Them boys can sure play ball,” Greene said.
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been to their games.” I’d seen some of the Negro League’s best teams—Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, Detroit Stars—and was impressed by their talent and their style. “I’d like to,” I admitted. “But I’m not sure ...”
Greene pulled a pencil and scrap of paper from his pocket and scribbled a number. “Gimme a call tonight.” He sounded confident that he had me.
Remembering some of the colored pitchers I’d seen, like Bullet Joe Rogan and Dizzy Dismukes, I imagined myself stepping to the plate against them. And I knew he had me, too. “You sure nobody’ll find out?” I asked.
“Hell, you think we want ’em to know we had to bring in ringers?” He handed me the paper. “By the way, it ain’t just your bat and glove we need. You still know how to use your dukes?” Greene had had some experience with my fists when we were on the Cubs; his and mine hadn’t been a friendly relationship.
“I can fight if I have to,” I said. “But if I go, it’s only to play ball.”
“There’s been some bad blood between the teams the last few years.” He gave me a playful punch to the shoulder. “Expect to be doing both.”
 
Half an hour later, I hopped off a streetcar in the western part of the city, a few blocks north of Forest Park. During the short walk home, I looked around with curiosity at my new neighborhood.
I was still getting acclimated to the Mound City. When the year began, Margie and I had been living in Cincinnati, expecting that I’d be playing another season with the Reds. Then, for the third time in three years, I was sold to another club in another city.
Tired of the repeated uprooting, I wanted to sell the furniture we’d bought for our Cincinnati house and look for furnished rooms in St. Louis. But she convinced me to have our old furniture shipped so that the new place—a four-room flat on Union Boulevard—wouldn’ t seem quite so foreign.
As I opened the door and stepped into the parlor, I knew that once again Margie was right. It was comforting to see the familiar things from our last place: Margie’s bronze mantel clock above the fireplace, her mahogany Victrola in the corner, my rolltop desk by the window, and, across from the overstuffed sofa, my throne—a Morris chair of solid white oak and soft burgundy leather. While I’d been at the Browns’ spring-training camp in Mobile, Alabama, Margie had turned this apartment into a home.
I was hanging up my straw boater when she came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel. At the sight of her, I thought that as nice as it was to see the old furnishings, what really made this place a home was having Margie here with me.
She brushed a few unruly strands of chestnut hair from her face. Her long, curly tresses were always out of control, but I liked the old-fashioned style and hoped Margie’s hair would never fall victim to the bobbing fad.
“How was the game?” Margie asked. She tucked the towel into a pocket of her blue-and-white-checked gingham dress.
“Good. We won.” There was no need to mention that I hadn’t played. Margie was aware that I’d been relegated to the dugout for most of the spring. That’s why she’d elected not to come to today’s game; she claimed it was a protest against the Browns for not playing me, but I knew she really wanted to spare my feelings—it was embarrassing for me to ride the bench when she was in the stands.
After a hug, and a kiss that didn’t seem nearly long enough, Margie said, “Dinner’s just about ready,” and bustled back to the kitchen.
I watched as she walked away, thinking that the sway of her hips was tremendously appealing. Baseball hadn’t kindled a feeling of springtime for me this year, but the sight of Margie always did—I loved her big brown eyes that glowed with intelligence, the mischievous smile that came so easily to her lips, and even the little hitch in her step that she’d acquired after a mishap during a moving-picture stunt. The attraction wasn’t merely because the only company I’d had for the last six weeks was that of my teammates. I simply felt more alive whenever Margie was near.
From the kitchen wafted the aroma of Margie’s special spaghetti sauce, which included a great deal of garlic and a number of secret ingredients which I preferred not to know.
I walked up behind her as she drained the pasta. With the stove unguarded, I swiped a fingertip through the simmering red sauce and brought it to my tongue. “Mmmm, almost as good as army food.”
Margie gave me a playful swat with the dish towel. “Go set the table.”
I obediently went back to the parlor, got the dishes from the sideboard, and began setting them on the small dining table near the fireplace. As I did, I thought about how much I enjoyed sharing my life with Margie. Although we’d never formalized our living arrangement into that of husband and wife, I wanted to come home to her always.
I called to her, “I asked a couple of fellows at the ballpark. They say the Marquette Hotel has a good dance band.”
“You still want to go?” she asked hopefully. We hadn’t had a Saturday night together since February.
“Of course. But probably not too late. I, uh, I might have a game tomorrow.”
Margie brought out the spaghetti. “I thought today was the last one until Chicago.”
“For the Browns it was. Tomorrow’s game is in East St. Louis.”
She put the bowl on the table and turned to give me a quizzical look.
“A fellow I played with on the Cubs, Tater Greene, came to see me. He’s with a semipro club now, and he offered me ten bucks to play for them tomorrow.”
“Do you need ... ?”
I shook my head. “No. In fact, Phil Ball gave us each a hundred-dollar bonus for beating the Cards.” The Browns’ owner wasn’t known for his generosity, so winning the city championship must have meant a lot to him. “It’s funny: I just got a hundred bucks from the Browns for doing nothing, but I really want to play with this semipro club.”
BOOK: Hanging Curve
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