The Legend of Mickey Tussler

BOOK: The Legend of Mickey Tussler
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ALSO BY FRANK NAPPI

Echoes from the Infantry

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

THE LEGEND OF MICKEY TUSSLER
. Copyright © 2008 by Frank Nappi. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

ISBN-13: 978-0-312-38109-7
ISBN-10: 0-312-38109-3

First Edition: May 2008

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Julia

No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined.

—PAUL GALLICO

Contents

INDIANA—1948

TUSSLER FARM—SOME YEARS BEFORE

MILWAUKEE

BORCHERT FIELD—MAY

INDIANA AND BACK

SUMMER—1948

JULY

MIDSEASON

SUMMER SWOON

TUSSLER FARM—AUGUST

DOG DAYS

WARMING IN THE PEN

TUSSLER FARM—LATE AUGUST

PENNANT RACE

BAKER'S WOODS

MILWAUKEE—SEPTEMBER

THE RACE TIGHTENS

SEPTEMBER 9, 1948

MID-SEPTEMBER

STILL RACING

MILWAUKEE—LATE SEPTEMBER

LAST STAND

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

INDIANA—1948

The dirt beneath the wheels of Arthur Murphy's car rose and swirled like the breath of angry giants, lingering in the heavy morning air even after his blue-and-white Plymouth Road King had disappeared around the bend like an apparition. He had been driving all night, with nothing for company but endless rows of cornstalks, a diamond-dotted sky, and a brown paper bag whose torn front exposed the worn words
Southern Comfort
. He rubbed his eyes with one hand—they burned from the firebrick sun that had slipped over the rolling hills of clover up ahead—and drummed the top of the steering wheel impatiently with his fingers on the other. He was getting too old for this. Twenty-six years with the Braves organization; he had played for them, coached, and was now in his third year as manager of their farm affiliate in Milwaukee. But there he was, still doing a job more commonly associated with guys half his age.

“I need you on this one, Murph,” the club's owner explained. “Do yourself a favor and get your ass out there and find something to help that sorry lot you call a team or
I'll
be scouting for
managers
.” He paused deliberately for effect. His forehead wrinkled. “You're a good man, Murph. But this is no time for pride, Arthur. We've lost our best prospects the last few years to Uncle Sam. Goddamned war. They say it's over now. Sure. It's over. But everyone wants to be a soldier all of a sudden. Fucking Japs. Ruined everything. Feels like the whole world's against us.”

Murph's stomach burned as he recalled the conversation. It may have been true, all that Dennison had said, but the owner's tone irked him. And that gratuitous line about him being a good man. Who was he kidding? Murph was inclined to consider the sentiment not so much a compliment but more as bullshit designed to cajole him into accepting another scouting trip that nobody else wanted. Warren Dennison, the owner of the minor-league-affiliate Brewers, didn't give a rat's ass about him. Never did.

Murph's eyelids were heavy and struggled beneath the weight of sleeplessness. The rows of fruit trees were endless and hypnotic. Many times during the drive he'd felt like a rat, negotiating a series of narrow corridors, searching for the elusive prize at the end. He rolled down the window and hit the knob on the radio. The cool air and Johnny Mercer's “Sweet Georgia Brown” got his left foot tapping.

Thoughts of his past returned as well. His life had tumbled well short of the aspirations he'd had during his playing days when he was touted as the best left-handed hitter since Ty Cobb. He recalled happily all of the attention he received those first few months. He and another young stud, Chip “Hollywood” McNally, had begun their careers in the American Association the same year. They were both lionized by everyone in the Braves organization as the finest prospects they had. Milwaukee was going to be just a brief stop en route to the big show in Boston. Both were exceptional outfielders; each could run like a deer and could hit every bag with a tracer from anywhere in the outfield. McNally was probably a little stronger, and Arthur's red hair and freckles were no match for Hollywood's square jaw and golden locks. Still, Arthur was the one that all of the real baseball people whispered about, especially around the batting cage. He was a natural. Could flat out hit. Turn on the fastball. Shoot the curve the opposite way. Had excellent power to all fields. Whitey Simpson, the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers the year he arrived, swore that Arthur was the best bad-ball hitter he had ever seen.

Arthur was maybe five or six games away from being sent to Boston when the incident occurred. They were up by one with two outs in the top half of the ninth. The first two pitches were called balls. The batter, Clyde Simmons, stepped out and tapped his spikes with the knob of his bat and smiled at the crowd.

“What the hell is he doing?” McNally yelled to Arthur from right field. “Is he for real? He hasn't touched a ball all game.”

Arthur shook his head. He was tired. He scanned the grandstand from his position in center field. It had been a good game. Everyone was on his or her feet, anticipating the final out. Some were clapping, while others yelled out encouraging words through rolled-up newspapers. Most were screaming for McNally and waving signs, expressing undying affection for number nine, the handsome right fielder. He was their darling. Arthur hung his head. He was tired of that too. Shit, McNally hadn't done a goddamned thing all day either. Three whiffs and not one putout from the field. Arthur was three for four and had thrown out two runners at home. But that day was no different from any other. Hollywood McNally was the favorite at Borchert Field. The poster boy. Arthur never quite managed to endear himself to the crowd the way Hollywood did. The press loved him, sure; couldn't stop talking about his prowess and unlimited potential. But the hometown crowd—that was something else. They never warmed to him. So all he ever got was a smattering of placards displaying his name and number and the same group of elderly men who sat behind him each game, in suit coats and fedoras, smoking cigars and critiquing his every play. Even the diminutive second baseman, little Nat Riley, who barely broke .200 every season, had a better following—a group of fifteen scraggly kids who always sat in the same section and only cheered for him. They were a coterie of misfits, from their dirty faces and torn knees to the baseball caps each one wore askew. Lefty Wilkins used to kill Riley about his admirers.

“Hey, Nat,” he always said shortly after their arrival. “The orphanage just checked in.” Arthur was still trying to reconcile the gross inequity in his mind when he heard the crack of the bat. It was a screaming liner, earmarked for the right-center-field gap. He broke as soon as he saw the ball emerge from the faces of those seated behind home plate. “I got it! I got it!” he screamed, eating up the turf with each stride, galloping with the grace and dexterity of a gazelle. It was one of the things he did best.

Hollywood hadn't caught a ball all game. He had spent the majority of the afternoon tipping his hat, for no apparent reason, to the adoring crowd each time he made his way out to right or stepped to the plate. He was always smiling.

“Where's the camera, Hollywood?” the guys all teased the first day he arrived. The name stuck. He was always on. Nobody at Borchert Field would ever have known how frustrated he really was that day at not having had the chance to show off his stuff. Now, with the game in its later stages, opportunity had finally knocked.

He never broke stride. And he never heard Arthur calling for the ball. His spikes glistened in the high afternoon sun, leaving behind shards of grass that fell softly to the ground like confetti. He followed the trajectory of the little white sphere, wedded to the vision of a game-saving catch and the adulation that would follow.

Neither happened. They collided just as each arrived at the ball. The sound was loud and piercing, a crack of thunder that reverberated as if it were produced in a deep canyon of stone. Those in the little ballpark groaned and sighed, then all at once lapsed into an eerie silence as the two men crumpled helplessly to the turf. No one even noticed Clyde Simmons circling the bases.

The Brewers' dugout exhaled, and out poured Whitey, followed by a handful of coaches and a few of the players. A ring formed around their fallen teammates.

“You two idiots!” Whitey bawled. “How many times have we practiced this? Call for the ball! Call for the goddamned ball! Jesus, how many times—”

Arthur was the first to stagger to his feet. His eyes were glazed and his forehead split at the left temple. A thin line of crimson ran down his cheek and across his jaw, ultimately finding a resting place in the collar of his uniform top.

“I
did
call for it,” he mumbled weakly.

“Where'd you get it, Murph?” one of the coaches asked.

Arthur pointed to his shoulder. Then he looked down at McNally, who lay motionless except for the grimacing.

“I'm okay,” Arthur said. “I think McNally took it worse.”

He was right. Chip “Hollywood” McNally's career ended that day at Borchert Field. There would be no more flashbulbs. No one would ever scream his name again or wave a sign professing undying affection for good old number nine. A fractured skull and busted knee had taken care of that.

Arthur did not escape unscathed. Sure, he recovered. But he was never the same. He went on to have a modest but successful career as a utility player. He played for nine seasons, ending his playing career with a .277 batting average and 108 home runs. But the numbers did not tell the whole story. Oh, what he might have accomplished had it not been for that arrogant bastard McNally. His ego destroyed two careers that day. It was a long time ago, but Arthur could not forget. He still heard the sound. At night sometimes, when the air outside his bedroom window was still, he could still hear it.
Crack
. That sound. It still made him shiver. And McNally's eyes as they carried him off the field. Arthur couldn't forget those either. Those eyes. Black and venomous. And those final words.

“My ball,” McNally said bitterly. “My ball.”

McNally kicked around the minors for a while, refusing to believe his career was finished. People said it was one of the most pathetic things they'd ever seen. He could barely run, could not reach the cutoff man from his position, and, as the old joke goes, could not hit water if he fell out of a boat.

Then, with virtually nothing left of his pride and self-respect, he finally resigned himself to coaching jobs whenever he could get one. The million-dollar smile was gone, replaced by a bitter scowl and an irrational hatred for Arthur Murphy that just continued to fester.

The radio cut out momentarily and brought Murph back to matters at hand. He was on his way to check out some hotshot first baseman from Bargersville, Indiana. One of Dennison's cousins had spotted him during a pickup game.

“Murph, you've got to see this kid,” Dennison told him. “I hear he's a real god!”

Arthur was unimpressed. He had heard it all before. If he had a dollar for every “sure thing” he was told about, he'd be somewhere else right now.

He looked down next to him at the papers on the seat and shuffled them around. “Thirty-seven twenty-one Marbury Lane,” he read off one of the sheets. Without a map, the address was really of little use. “Where the hell is Marbury Lane?”

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