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Authors: David O. Stewart

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Chapter 9
T
his guy—what the hell was his name?—he was driving Babe nuts. He was lingering over his putt on the eighteenth green like it was a crate of nitroglycerin, had to be handled just so. Babe didn't spend a lot of time lining up his putts. He looked at the green, the ball, the cup. Hit the ball into the cup, right? He got impatient with these old biddies who stare at the ground for two, three minutes, like some message was painted between the blades of grass and they could figure it out if only they looked long enough. Then they walk to the other side of the hole—see, there he goes—to check out how the grass is growing over there. Is it really greener? Christ. If you need to go through that rigamarole, maybe golf ain't your game. Think about chess, you know?
Then Spencer, who wrote for the
Tribune,
missed his putt, just like they all knew he would. Babe handed his cigar to his caddy. He stepped to the ball. About a twelve-footer. Looked at it. Looked at it again. Swung. Solid tap of putter on ball. Then the warm, hollow sound of the ball rattling into the cup.
After the handshakes, the payment of twenty dollars to the team of Ruth and Meusel, Ruth gave his share to the caddy along with his putter. He retrieved his cigar and pulled a jacket from his golf bag. “Next time,” Babe called to the sportswriters who were aimed at the club bar, “we play for real money.”
The afternoon shadows stretched toward the parking lot. That's where Babe was headed. Back to the hotel for a shower and fresh duds, then out to a country place that served the best fried chicken around, then on to where a different type of chicken was on offer, definitely not fried but extremely fresh.
He zipped up the jacket. The air was cool. Shreveport in February wasn't such a bargain for spring training. Warmer than New York, sure, but the Yankees' mornings on the ball field were on the frosty side. Frosty like that damned manager. That little Huggins—Babe snorted at the thought of the runt who had made them practice bunting for two hours that morning. Everyone but Babe, of course. Nobody came to the park to see Babe Ruth bunt, and he had better things to do than practice something he'd be goddamned if he'd ever do in a game. Huggins had been steamed about Babe not taking his turn, but what could he do about it? Babe was a hell of a lot more important to the Yankees than Miller fucking Huggins was.
“Hey, big fella.”
Abe Attell was leaning against Babe's car, a tan Buick on loan from a local dealer who asked in return only a bunch of photos of Babe behind the wheel. Attell wore a bold plaid suit and straw boater, like it was the middle of summer. He must've figured he was in the South, have to wear summer clothes. Jesus, this guy was all Babe needed now.
“If it ain't the Little Hebrew in the flesh.” The caddy held the door for Babe, having stashed his left-handed clubs in the trunk.
“Ride back to the hotel with you?”
“Sure. Hop in.” How the hell'd the guy get out here, walk?
Babe felt better when the car was moving at a respectable clip. This one had some pep. He grinned into the wind, the February sky still light even though it was nearly suppertime. Spring, the new baseball season, were on the horizon even if Abe Attell was in the next seat.
“So, Babe,” Attell called. He was trying to light a cigar behind cupped hands, his head ducked below the windshield. He gave up on the cigar and threw the match away. “I heard you were lucky to get out of Cuba. They took all your money, that's what I hear.”
“Damned spics. They run crooked games. I don't mind the house having an edge. Sure, that's how it goes. Everybody's got an angle. But they oughta give you some kind of shot at winning.”
“How much they get you for?”
Babe nodded his head. “I'm all right.” He gestured toward the dashboard. “Like the car?”
“Sure, Babe, it's a sweetheart.” Attell picked a piece of tobacco off his tongue and flicked it out the window. “You look like you're in pretty good shape.”
Ruth slapped his flank. “Best ever. Did workouts up in New York, when I got back from those thieves down in Cuba. This doc in my building told me about'em. They were a lot of work, but I did 'em. I think it'll pay off.” After a silence, he added, “You remember the guy, his wife was one of the producers for that movie.”
“Don't remind me of that movie. Worst deal I've been in for a long time.”
The Babe downshifted through a curve, mashed down on the accelerator to swing out of it. The transmission wasn't as smooth as a Packard or a Cadillac, but the motor had guts. He threw his cigar, not even half smoked, out the window. “What is it, Abe? You came down to the sunny South just to see what shape I'm in? I'll save your time. I'll hit even more homers this year. Okay?”
“Ah, you know, I like to see how all the players look, make up my own mind. Who's taking care of himself. Who isn't. What kids may have the goods to make a difference. It helps with my business.”
“Stop beating around the bush. You better not be thinking you're going to shove me around or anything.”
Attell looked over. “Babe, you and me know the score. No need for that sort of talk, am I right? I just wanted to make sure you understood about those confessions, the ones the White Sox guys were supposed to have given when they got arrested for fixing the Series.”
“Uh-huh.” Babe downshifted again as they entered the town. What there was of it. Down here they stashed all the fun outside town, in country places where no one could see you were eating good food and drinking hard and enjoying someone else's company. It was like they were ashamed of having a good time. “I heard those confessions were bad.”
“Did you hear about what happened to them?”
“Tell me. What happened to them?”
“Don't you take the papers?”
“People tell me what I need to know.”
“Those confessions, and like you say they were pretty bad, turns out they disappeared. Poof.” He puffed his cheeks out and blew away imaginary papers.
“No fooling.”
“What'd I tell you before? That there's nothing to worry about, if only people are smart. If only they don't go around blabbing about things they don't really know or understand. Hey!” Attell was pointing to the side of the main street they were on. “Set me down there. There's a guy I need to see.”
Babe eased the Buick to the curb. Attell turned and stuck his hand out for a shake. “I'm telling you, Babe. Chicago's a great town. A reasonable town. They understand that people have to make a living. And you need to remember to trust your friends, Babe. That's the key to the whole thing. You got to trust your friends.” With a two-finger salute at the brim of his boater, Attell stepped out. He didn't look back.
Babe relaxed as he waited for a trolley to clatter by, then pulled out behind it. Trust Abe Attell—that was a laugh. He wouldn't trust that guy as far as he could throw him. He trusted him once and look where it got him. Permanently behind the eight ball.
Inside the lobby of the Arlington Hotel, Babe stopped for messages. The desk clerk pointed to a large man seated near the front windows. He was folding his newspaper and rising. He looked like law. Working the bar at his old man's joint back in Baltimore, Babe got pretty good at sniffing out the law. Of course, lawmen tend not to hide what they are. More like they announce it, how they walk and how they stand. Like their problems are your problems and you'd better start worrying about them.
The man approached Babe and said, “The name's John Slaughter, Mr. Ruth. I wonder if we might have a word.”
This couldn't be good. No one called him Mr. Ruth except if he was bringing trouble. “I'm pressed for time, kid. How about an autograph?”
Slaughter was almost as tall as Babe but older, a bit thicker. He moved like there was serious muscle underneath his wrinkled suit. He smiled and took off his derby. “We really need to talk. Won't take long.” He indicated the passageway to the right of the front desk, then led the way.
They went down a flight of stairs, then through a thick door into a tunnel lit by overhead bulbs. “What the hell?” Babe said. His voice echoed in the narrow space.
“Just in here,” Slaughter said over his shoulder, pushing open another door as though there was no question that Babe would follow. “You'll be glad we did.”
Feeling stupid, Babe entered. The room looked ordinary enough. A few chairs, a table in the middle. A window near the ceiling looked out on the sidewalk at calf-level.
“So,” Slaughter said as he sat down, waving at another chair for Babe. “I represent the office of the commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.”
Babe nodded but didn't sit. He wasn't liking anything about this.
“You know the judge is in charge now.”
Babe nodded again. He was thinking about leaving, but didn't want it to look like he was afraid. Which he was.
“And you know the judge. He's been brought in to deal, first off, with this White Sox situation, them throwing the Series in 1919.”
Slaughter was giving him the straight look, right in the eye. The one that was supposed to make you tell him everything. Babe nodded.
“You got anything to say about that?”
“I never played for the White Sox. What would I have to say?”
“What do you know about it?”
“People talk, you know. I don't know what's true or not. Not my problem.” Babe pulled his watch out and looked at it. “I've got someplace I need to be, pretty soon now. Need to shower and change. Okay?”
Slaughter held up his hand. “What about Abe Attell?”
“What about him?”
“He's here in Shreveport, you know. And he's under indictment in Chicago for fixing the Series. Not a guy that a star player like you should be hanging out with.”
That's right, Babe thought. I'm a damned star and who the hell are you? But he said only, “Thanks. Glad to have your view.” He turned to go.
“One other thing, Mr. Ruth. What about the 1918 Series? That's one you did play in.”
“What about it?” Babe leaned forward with his fists on the table. Slaughter took his time, showing he wasn't impressed.
“The judge, he's been wondering how long this game-fixing business may have been going on. Seems like maybe a long time. That's what Eddie Cicotte says. You know him, Cicotte?”
Babe shrugged. “Just on the field. Pretty good pitcher.”
“Yup. For the White Sox.” Slaughter paused to stress that point. “Cicotte says we should be looking at the 1918 Series. You played in that one.”
Babe shrugged. He started to say something. He thought better of it.
“So we've got questions about some of the guys in that Series, that one you played in. About Max Flack. You remember him? And Phil Douglas. And, yeah . . .” Slaughter rubbed his forehead, like his fingertips were drawing information out of his head, “Charlie Hollocher, the Cubs shortstop. The way he played out of position so much?”
Babe grinned and shook his head. “You think I'm looking where the shortstops play? I don't hit the ball to shortstops. I hit it way past them. Shortstops could be sitting down eating peanuts for all I care. Anyway, in that Series I was still pitching. Only played in two games.”
“You were there.”
“Thousands of people were there, at every game. Maybe they were watching that shortstop, what's his name. You should ask them.”
“Tell me how it was, Mr. Ruth. Tell me about that train ride from Chicago to Boston and what went on during that ride. And what Abe Attell was doing on that train and who he was doing it with.”
Babe put his grin back on. “I can't help you, kid. I've been on hundreds of train rides. They all mix together, you know? Seems like you'd do better talking to guys on the Cubs, not me. I gotta take a shower, then I'm meeting someone. You know, someone you want to smell good for.”
“Your choice, Mr. Ruth. But remember—I came and asked you, politely. You chose not to say anything.”
Babe left without shaking the man's hand. He climbed up to the hotel lobby and then up to his room. When he was cleaned up, feeling good, he had an idea. On his way out, he stopped at the front desk. He wrote out a telegram to Speed Cook.
Chapter 10
C
ook made himself ignore the opulence of the Ansonia lobby. Rich folks. Some time back he decided to give up worrying about them, wanting to be them. It only made him hot and he got hot too easy. At least that's what other people seemed to think, especially Aurelia. So he set out to change what he wanted. He'd want to look after himself, his people. That would do. The rich folks could take care of themselves. They always had.
The elevator doors opened and Babe strode out in a red satin dressing gown. The green and white diamonds of his pajamas brought a low whistle from Cook.
“Morning, kid,” Babe said. “Lemme grab the papers.” He stalked over to the front desk, nodding at those surprised to encounter this mountainous legend in his sleepwear. When he returned to Cook, he held out the
Daily News,
opened to a half-page photo of him in full swing.
“Don't you love this?” he said to Cook. “They
show
you the damned news, don't screw around with a bunch of poetry and gas. Yesterday the season starts, so you can go to the game in their pictures.”
Cook noted a headline predicting the Yanks would be in the World Series by the end of the season. “They're expecting great things from you guys.”
“We got a hell of a team.” In the elevator, Babe didn't have to tell the operator which floor. “This kid Hoyt, the pitcher we got from the Red Sox? He's a good one. Mays is still a son of a bitch. The hitters are all afraid he's gonna kill 'em, and the bastard just might. And Meusel and me'll keep the runs coming across. Who's better than us?”
Despite Cook's policy of not paying attention to the ways of rich folks, the Ruth apartment was hard to ignore. Its scale matched the size and reputation of the young man who lived there, while its wood paneling and leather expressed his bank balance. Cook had to remind himself that the Babe was a year younger than his son Joshua, still a babe really, but also a national hero with New York City at his feet.
An eight-sided poker table dominated the parlor. Poker chips and several decks of cards mingled on the green felt with dirty glasses and overflowing ashtrays. On a divan, a middle-aged man snored, his collar open and askew, his tie drawn down, his mouth gaping. The Babe kicked the sole of the man's shoe. “Mac, hey, Mac! Time to get a move on. Game's been over for an hour.” The man groaned and rolled on his side, almost sliding off the couch. Babe reached down and shook his shoulder. “Gotta go, Mac. Want a cab?” The man sat up slowly, rubbing his face with both hands.
Babe raised a window and gave a token wave against the tobacco stink. “Someone'll come straighten up. Helen's up at our place outside Boston. You know, that's where she's from. She's not so crazy about New York. Want some coffee? Had breakfast?”
“Coffee would be great,” Cook said. The man on the couch was shuffling toward the door. Babe ignored him. He walked to a small table that held a telephone and a glass cylinder. “Watch this,” he said over his shoulder. He jotted something on a slip of paper, placed it in the cylinder, which he closed, then inserted it in a port cut into the wall. When he closed the port hatch, he pressed a button, which loosed a whoosh. Babe grinned. “Love that thing. Helen calls it the pneumonia cylinder. They'll bring the food and coffee in a few minutes.”
The sound of the front door closing signaled that the card-player was gone. The Babe gestured to two easy chairs next to the room's windows. “Let's take a load off, eh?” When they were settled, Babe asked what Cook had found out.
Cook raised a finger and cocked his head. He walked quickly out to the foyer and confirmed that the man was gone. When he returned, the Babe said, “You're pretty cautious.”
“That's how I got to be so old.”
“That old rummy, what's his name? Pretty harmless.”
“People can surprise you. They surprise me, anyway.”
“So, what do you know?”
“Before we do this, I've got a question. And I want to say that I'm glad to do this job, there's no problem there. But I need to know why'd you hire me? You don't really know me.”
“When we met, I could see a couple of things. First off, you ain't much of a drinker, not more than you can handle, which is good. And you seem straight. Near as I can tell. And the Frasers, the doc and his wife, they like you. That's in your favor. I know they're straight.”
Cook shook his head. “That's all nice, Babe, but it's not half enough.”
Babe leaned forward, his elbows on the arms of the chair. “How about this? If you screw up, it won't come back on me.” Cook gave him a puzzled look. “Think about it. Half the people in the country, maybe more, think I'm a jig. You've heard what they yell from the stands. Nobody thinks about how I got blue eyes, right?”
Cook nodded. Cook hadn't actually heard the racial taunts, but everyone knew about them. Where Cook sat, in the colored seats, the fans took a quiet pride in the general view that Ruth had to be at least part Negro. There were colored folks who had light eyes.
“So I figure,” Babe went on, “no one would expect me, of all people, to hire a jig for something this—you know—this sensitive. I figure if something goes wrong or you get in a jam somehow, I just say I don't know you from Adam and it won't come back on me.” Cook nodded as though the Babe was making sense. It sounded screwy, but maybe that's how the guy thought. “So,” the Babe said, “what do you know?”
Cook took a second to organize his thoughts. “This guy Slaughter, the one who approached you in Shreveport? He's been talking to a bunch of guys, grabbing them unawares, like he did with you.” The Babe nodded. “He's been real interested in that train ride from Chicago to Boston during the 1918 Series, after the first three games. When the players from both teams were together for so long. He knows there was lots of fraternizing between them.”
“Fraternizing? Hell, we were all just bitching. You know, about not getting paid right. When times get tough, you don't see the owners taking any losses. They sure don't say, okay there's a war on, no one wants to go to the ball games, we just won't make so much money this year. No, sirree. They figure out how to pay
us
less so
they
all make just as much.”
Cook wasn't real moved by Babe's complaining. The man was less than half Cook's age and was pulling down thirty thousand a year for playing ball. Even if he had made a lot less in 1918, he hadn't been over in France getting shot at like Joshua was. There were lots of soldiers who would have played baseball for free rather than spend that summer fighting Germans.
“Is that what guys like Harry Hooper will say?”
“Hoop? Why ask about him?”
“He was the leader, right? Took charge of that players' rebellion. And he's a friend of yours.”
“Hoop's a good guy, though he got hung out to dry pretty bad. I tried to tell him it wasn't going to get us anywhere, but he didn't listen. He'd got all heated up over how unfair it all was.”
“Well, listen, Babe, the problem here probably isn't Harry Hooper. It's the Cubs. They've been getting sort of a juicy reputation for this sort of thing. You know Cicotte said the White Sox got the idea for throwing the Series from the Cubs. And that grand jury out in Chicago started out by looking at whether the Cubs threw some regular season game against the Phillies. And then you add in the Cubs who played so bad in the Series—Max Flack, Phil Douglas.”
“Hell, that don't mean it was fixed. Everyone plays bad sometime. Especially in the Series. Especially some bush-leaguer like Flack who's got no business being in the Series in the first place.”
“You pick Flack off base twice in the same game, plus he misplays a routine fly ball into a triple.” Cook leans forward. “And what about Phil Douglas—he can't toss the ball to the first-baseman from twenty feet away?”
“Nerves'll get you. Anyway, Douglas was probably half in the bag when he took the mound that day. Tell you the truth, sometimes he pitches better half in the bag.” Babe leaned forward. “Anyway, we
won
the Series. If anybody threw it, it wasn't us. So how do I end up with any kind of a problem here?”
At that moment a white-jacketed, white-gloved waiter stuck his head around from the vestibule. “Mr. Ruth? Where shall we set it up?”
“In here. The grub's for me.”
The waiter entered. A second man pushed a cart that was covered with platters and a large pot of coffee. The two men carried over a table from the side of the room. When Babe stood, Cook copied him. The waiters placed the table between the chairs they had been using. With a flourish, one threw a creamy white cloth over the table, distributed place settings, and arranged the platters in a semicircle around the Babe's side.
After the waiters poured coffee and retreated, Babe began lifting the silver domes off the platters. A mound of scrambled eggs gleamed on one; nearly a pound of crisp bacon was stacked on another; a third held enough fried potatoes to end an Irish famine. The Babe started by slathering a biscuit with butter and jam. With his mouth full, he used his free hand to offer Cook his choice of the food. Cook shook his head and watched Babe pitch in.
“Go ahead,” Babe said indistinctly around a mouthful of biscuit, pointing at Cook with his fork.
“Okay, your question was why would anyone suspect you about the 1918 Series? A few things seem to be on Slaughter's mind. First, he's interested in you and Flack, this bush-leaguer. Apparently you two had some escapade back in Baltimore. You were with the Orioles and he was with the Federal League team.”
The Babe swallowed some coffee, then some more. “Flack's a guy can't hold his liquor. They should have a special Prohibition law applies just to him, Max Q. Flack. So a couple times, I run into him when I'm out and about, when he's pretty damaged, and I help the guy get home. Shoot me.”
“One of those times Jack Dunn had to get it hushed up?”
Babe shrugged and scooped up some potatoes with a large spoon. “Jack's a square guy.”
Cook put down his cup and sat back. He wanted to leave the Babe a little room on this one. “So one theory I've heard, not from Slaughter yet but I've heard it more than one place, is that you helped your friend Attell talk to your friend Flack about fixing the Series.”
“Abe Attell sure don't need anyone to introduce him to ballplayers, and he ain't no friend of mine.”
“There's another thing. I'm hearing that Attell's been loaning you money. The amounts I'm hearing about make it sound like Attell's not just a friend. More like family.”
The Babe concentrated on the food. He had the eggs down by about half. The potatoes a bit more. Only a couple of bacon slices still survived. He picked up a biscuit and sliced it lengthwise. He deliberately buttered each half, then smeared jam on each. He looked up at Cook when he bit into one of the halves. While he chewed, he shrugged, then swallowed. “That's private business.”
Cook spread his hands apart. “If a jig like me can find out about it, then so can John Slaughter and so can Judge Landis.” The Babe concentrated on making the biscuit disappear. After about thirty seconds, Cook started again. “Look, I know Attell was on that train ride from Chicago to Boston. So Slaughter knows, too. I know you owed Attell money. So Slaughter knows that, too. I know that the gamblers were swarming over the Series, what with all the racetracks closed, which meant there was nothing they had to bet on, coast to coast, except the World Series. You guys were the only game in town. In any town. And Slaughter knows that, too.” Cook stopped and took a couple of swallows of coffee. “So you need to tell me about it. If I don't know what really went on, I can't figure out what might put you in the clear.”
The Babe kept eating. He slid the last potatoes into his mouth, then wiped up with his napkin and sat back.
“Nothing happened.”
“Did you see Flack? On the train?”
“Sure I saw Flack. I saw all of 'em. Attell, too. Would've had to jump off the train not to see 'em, all of 'em.”
“Okay.” Cook knew there was more. Otherwise this whole conversation wouldn't be happening. Babe was afraid for himself, of course, but Cook knew the risk went far beyond him. Baseball couldn't stand a second scandal after the Black Sox. Not a second World Series fixed, especially one that tarnished its greatest star, wrapped him up with underworld gamblers who rigged the whole system. America might just find itself another pastime.
“Is there any actual
thing,
” Cook asked, “like a piece of paper or a gift or something, that might tie you to Attell or Flack or any of the others—you know, any of the Cubs, or any gamblers? Something that Slaughter might find.”
The Babe looked over Cook's shoulder for another silent moment. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe this one thing. But it's got nothing to do with baseball or the Series. Not directly.”
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