In 1949 The Japanese Goodwill Baseball Tour with Lefty O’Doul pretty much patched up the fractured relations between Japan and the US. The US had been the first country to use the Atomic bomb and had dropped two on Japan. History tells that it was General Douglas MacArthur’s idea. Others, in the unofficial history of families, tell a different story.
The first time he had visited Arthur Levitsky he had been picked up at the train station by boys who couldn’t have been much older than fourteen. And the youngest looking one, straw blonde hair sticking out everywhere, drove him in a Model T Woody four miles or so over mostly dirt roads, dusty and bumpy. God did his ass hurt. There was nothing he could do about it. Halfway there he caught sight of another boy running through the fields following them. He had squinted at him- Barefoot, was he? Then, that long ago, cynical town man that he had been, he had thought it was all too perfect. The sun, the waving wheat, free children-men running free, the postage stamp police station.
I hope it will be worth it, he had thought.
Arthur was in the fields. Somewhere.
The name Arthur Levitsky would never fly, of course. Art Levy. No. Art Levi. Perfect.
But, he had thought, walking through the field with his shiny shoes getting dusty--it could all be a waste of time.
There he had been, cutting with a damn scythe.
I hope it was worth the trip. At least there is another kid in Iowa. Out of some high school in Lawton, Iowa. Where they have ground keeps and sprinklers not just thunderstorms. He has a perfect name, too, something Red or Red something. Broke the high school record books already during his junior year. Something about the Iowa soil or air, his first boss, Guy Moore, had said, handing him the address. Or maybe the girls.
An unremarkable woman in a plain, sun-faded blue calico dress had brought out a pitcher of lemonade. He had not at first noticed the farm house behind her, as plain and unremarkable as herself, hidden in the sun tilting hard down on the land. She scattered the boys with one hand like they were flies and poured him a glass. He downed it and then another. Had she introduced herself? He had looked out for the figure of Arthur and when he put the glass back down on the hewn-slab, knotted table she was gone. The boys appeared and drank the rest of lemonade straight from the pitcher and then ran out to the field towards Arthur.
Arthur had appeared on the horizon, the wavy, heated air magnifying him like a shimmering giant. He had swung rhythmically unstoppable, indifferent but perfectly long arced strokes. What kind of man could do that work, twelve, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week?
The Scout had followed the boys.
On the way the Scout had come across a garden with an afterthought, bony rib--cage fence, and an elaborate iron entry gate standing perfectly, strongly yet beautifully out of place. The gate was the only construction he could see then that wasn’t tired or faded. Its swirls and crests and flowers were clear cut and strongly defined as was the structure itself which stood over nine feet. Perhaps a testament to a marvelous place where it had belonged. A path was worn under the gate where many small steps had persistently gone, as though to make the gate important and useful. In the garden were tomatoes, beets, string beans, onions, carrots. The Scout had remembered when he had helped his mother harvest and carried the heavy baskets into her kitchen.
The boys had gone towards a field that was sitting fallow and one whistled loudly. The figure on the horizon came closer growing smaller and then larger again. The Scout had shaded his eyes. The man, Arthur, had held out his hand to the Scout who looked at it dumbly. Huge! He took it quickly. Let it go quickly so as to maintain perspective, distance. He was here, after all, to assess the goods.
“Nice of you to travel this far.”
He was a boy after all. But not really. His shoulders were incredibly broad, his smile wide. Not particularly handsome. A boy-man face. But the eyes were man eyes. The Scout had found them sharp and disarming. And no hat, just unkempt long wavy brown gold hair.
One boy had stood on the make shift mound. The Scout had noticed the bleachers where out of nowhere other boys and girls had appeared. The bleachers were hay bales stacked tier-wise so there were several levels. The Scout didn’t bother pacing off the distance to home plate. Let’s get this over with, he had thought.
Arthur was handed a bat by the boy who had been the driver. The bat was an Adirondack 3902 Gehringer. A handsome bat. It looked like it was well used but cared for, smooth, like someone had oiled it over and over. Like the gate, it must have come from some place of beauty. The Scout had pulled out a regulation baseball from his jacket and threw it out to the boy on the mound who barehanded it.
“Let’s see what you got, kid.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Scout.”
Jesus, polite as a button too. That could be good or bad. Baseball patrons prefer some character flaws. Or personality wrinkles, like Guy had said.
The kid on the mound had leaned forward, looking for a signal, and had performed an admirable imitation of checking first over his left shoulder, and then fired the ball toward Arthur, right on the plate. It had hit the wood plate with a thunk and there were taunts from the stands and a girl had run out to second, waving her hands over her head.
“Stolen base already! “ A hay-bailer had yelled. The pitcher’s face had been red. He collected himself, looked over his right shoulder at the girl with flaming red hair on second base. She had stepped away from the base.
Next pitch went straight over home plate and Arthur hit it. Smack. The sound from the Adirondack 3902 had been beautiful. It had registered inside the Scout’s skull, right where all the good ones did. A sound and a sensation. He had lost sight of where the ball had flown but he saw boys scramble for it, way out, almost on the horizon. They had run the ball back and tossed it into the pitcher. The red-head had scored and was greeted with Yayee! from the hay-bailers.
The pitcher had gotten ready and the boys in the field moved further back.
Next pitch. Smack! Even further it had flown, over their heads. He had strained his eyes to see the boys.
The next pitch had seemed like it took some time for the boys to retrieve the ball. They had come back, panting this time.
“Four-hundred and thirty-seven,” one of them had said, out of breathe, dusty, reminding him of a happy dog.
“We marked it, sir. We got posts marked out to six hundred. Paced it out ourselfs.”
“Well, we know he can hit the ball when tow-head is pitching him. But can he hit against Sloppy Thurston?”
“No doubt, mister. In the summer league, he couldn’t afford no uniform, except the glove of course and the magic bat there, he hit against Melvin Miller, the Living Lightning of Emmet County, who can throw a wicked sinker, curveball, you name it. Hit four home runs in a row til they had to pull him on account everybody started to leave as it was too unfair. No market for perfection they said.” The boy had spit for emphasis, making his point like many umps, coaches and players did.
Arthur had smiled at the boy. “Got my own fan club.”
“You sure do.” The red-head had stood off by herself now looking with her head tilted.
The Scout had looked around. The wheat had waved in a light breeze which felt good on his forehead and neck, after he had loosened his tie. The four hits, their sounds had felt good-really good. The plain woman had been setting a table with food. He had seen her small figure right through the giant iron gate. He had felt hungry and had smelled chicken from all that way.
The smallest of the boys had hung back with Arthur and the Scout while the rest had run toward the table and food.
“You expect you’ll take him, mister?”
The Scout had looked down on him and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.
“It’s not up to me, son. He has to go be looked at by lots of people. Where they really can tell. But, I’ll recommend that he makes that visit, sure.”
“Where they can tell what? And who is that Sloppy fella?? Arthur grabbed the boy like air and swung him up on his shoulders.
“This one has to fill the air with questions. I guess he could be my travelling secretary.”
“What’s that?” Arthur shrugged and smiled at the Scout.
They had reached the table. He had sat down at the head after the plain woman, with a nod, indicated that it was his place. His hand had reached out for the chicken but he had pulled it back quickly as the woman and the children and Arthur had joined hands and bowed their heads.
“Lord, Bless this meal and the chance for Opportunity but mostly Happiness in the Fields You have created. Amen.” Her voice had been firm and strong and clear. She had sent some of the boys to the pump to wash better. The young red-head had sat next to Arthur, serving him. Some of the little ones had giggled at her.
“We never eat at this hour! Special day!”
Everyone had eaten.
The plain woman had looked over at Arthur. The Scout had noticed that her eyes were clear and sharp and he could see Arthur, he could see where Arthur’s peaceful but piercing look came from. She had folded her hands, watching everyone eat.
“We’ll discuss the opportunity when it is presented, won’t we, Mother? “
Arthur ate and then had stood up and sat beside her and put his big arm around her, making her look tiny. She had flickered the briefest smile and looked bashfully at the Scout as though she was revealing too much softness.
These are her Fields, the Scout had thought, catching himself in the unfamiliar realm of poetry.
The plain woman had pulled herself from under the large arm of Arthur and started to clear the table with the red-head’s help.
“Best catch the opportunities before the ones you can’t avoid swallow you up,” he had said to the smallest girl who was still sitting at the table, staring at him, her hand holding a partially eaten corn-in the-cob. She had smiled at his words.
The world was on a frightening precipice, he had thought, and some, like these boys, will be asked to leave these fields and fight in someone else’s.
The sound of a muffler-less truck bumping its way towards them drifted in.
“It is your real sweetie-pie, Art!” Arthur had looked over at the red-head next to him who was turning red.
“Your sister’s here, Louise!”
“I know.” Frowning. He had walked towards the truck while Louise finished with the table and disappeared into the farm house. She had tossed her hair.
“I can drive, too! No big deal.”
Arthur’s mother had walked back out. She had stood, arms folded regarding the Scout like he was one of the children.
“Best chicken I have had in…. And vegetables.” She had nodded. “Thank you, mam.” He had become a bit embarrassed, running out of words, which was unusual for him. He had felt unguarded.
“You gotta catch that train now. You can wash up at the pump if you want.” Her hand had flicked out ever so slightly and he moved, practically jumped. How did she do that?” Gabriela will drive you back.”
The Scout had walked towards the truck where the smaller kids had assembled. A tall girl with bright flaming red-gold hair had stood next to the Ford Flatbed Model B.
She held out her hand as Arthur introduced her. Arthur had kissed her forehead.
“Look, they love each other! Louise gonna be mad. She’ll be crying!”
The Scout had shaken hands with Arthur.
“My brothers and sisters are amazed at the sight of anything slightly normal. “
“I am your ride, Mr. Scout, sir. Arthur’s mother packed you some food in this basket, too.”
He got in the truck with the basket on his lap. All the usual conventions had seemed to slide away, unnecessary and unreachable.
Arthur had shut the door which had only partially closed and then he tied it up with a piece of rope.
“Don’t lean against it! Thanks for coming and sharing.”
The boys ran after the truck throwing dirt clods at the sides.
“Boys! Dust and dirt collectors. Always throwing something, hitting something and then trying to keep score. You got any?” Gabriela had driven with one arm draped casually over the steering wheel which had rolled lazily back and forth. “No,” he had said. She had smiled at him
“It must be hard being away anyway with your job, if you did have someone.” He had nodded. Some words had formed and he had turned to let them out but they hit a bump and he had hit his head on the cab roof.
“Sorry about that. That was one that snuck up on me. “
“Does he have a chance, Mr. Baseball Scout? “
“As much chance as splitting the atom, Miss. “
She had looked at him and he had felt a sudden cold feeling in his stomach.
She dropped him at the station with the food. She had nodded and disappeared into the sun. He had walked into a café. A hotel was next door to it. He had gone into the café and ordered coffee and pie. The waitress had served him and then had stood, he her only customer, with arms folded and just looked at him. She had nodded and sat down in front of him and lit a cigarette, expertly blowing it away in an expanding funnel.
“You staying the night? Next door? “
The ticket had been good for tomorrow morning as well. The Des Moines’s kid wasn’t going anywhere. And she had that red hair.
That had been his first visit.
The Scout walked home in the rain after his retirement party. Baltimore was always wet it seemed but he liked the shiny streets at night, the way street lights, neon signs and car lights hit them. It was pretty. So he walked the twenty-five blocks.
Taxis went by. He passed all night bars, lit up and beckoning. A group out front of one bar called out to him and when he passed in front of them –“Sorry, we thought you were Ned.”
He didn’t know if he felt good, old, retired, glad, what. He had worked all his life for The Game and now, like everybody else, he could sit and complain and yell at the umps and the GM. And then, go home and read about it in the morning paper.
After two weeks sitting at home, listening to the radio and cutting the grass, something he never did, he took a box from his closet to look at. Someone had told him it was good to stay busy after you retire. Get a hobby. Make a scrap book. Something. He had no family, no brothers or sisters with kids, no parents. No place to go.
The box had letters and pictures. Oriole greats that he had helped. Others he had missed and had gone to other teams. The scouts that had beaten him to somebody wrote letters to rub it in. There were pictures of players, their wives, kids. Cars, houses. Thanks Mr. B! Even his official deferment letter IV-F. He had worn out his knees is high school playing catcher. Uncle Sam had taken a pass.
A letter fell out on the floor. Arthur Levitsky, Gravity, Iowa. He had never answered it. The office had, but he had kept it anyway. He had just moved on to the next kid from You-Name-It-County. For some reason he sniffed the letter as though it held a clue, like a dog would, knowing where it would lead from the least molecule of scent. And then he started to pack. Just like that. He left a note for the postman. Paid some bills. Took out his old briefcase of maps.
It was almost the same time of year. The drive would take a few days.
I can car camp or “motel” it.
Arthur Levitsky. Six home runs, all off of pro pitchers, on his try-out day! He had liked the way Mo’s cigar fell out of his mouth and singed his tasseled loafers. Damn! Tell upstairs to get off their asses and come on down here!
The Scout had left the tryout. The big bonus a sure thing. And gone upstairs to look in the new files.
I may get to see California now.
But the bonus never came. Word was Arthur’s mother got cancer and he was II-C Deferred for farm labor. He had chosen to stay on the farm. And that was that.
As the Scout neared the town of Gravity, Iowa he saw huge clouds. The clouds were uninhibited and grand and made him think somehow about an invisible rope.
Some things were pulled by an invisible rope. Baseball, plowing, some human hearts. But maybe it didn’t attach or go through everybody. Just those patient enough. He saw the image of Arthur with scythe and heard its swish-swish. And that gives the idea to the rest of us that there is a rope pulling us, that we are attached to something bigger-like those clouds.
But then he had pulled over.
I’m practical, not notion filled. Definitely not a preacher like my father.
He got out and opened up the passenger side door and popped a beer. Barely cool but he drank the whole thing right down. A sweeping cold doubt went over him, that he didn’t’ belong where he was going and wasn’t really part of anything despite the rare poetic notions that came up from who knows where. A man’s heart. Not a place that many visited. Maybe he should just go to Florida. It was where you slid down to and everyone there was doing the same thing so it was okay. Why be disappointed? He had already seen a hundred, maybe a thousand towns that were almost perfect.
Then he thought about the Civil War vet, Horace Wilson, who had introduced baseball to Japan. Could it survive? Not just the baseball, the whole place. Would it survive after that? How does a place or a person re-start after…He, like others, had felt patriotic after the bombing, saving the newspapers but it hadn’t lasted for him? How could an American really be proud after that? Even if it did mean the end of the war.
He thought of Eiji Sawamura. Striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer! He wished he had been there. 1934 All Star Tour. Made up for the shellacking the Japs got on the other eighteen games.
Is that what I am doing out here? Escaping something. Maybe guilt. How far away do I have to go?
But, he tossed the bottle into the field and drove on, the clouds always ahead.
And then after some miles- she was there.
She looked the same, a few grey hairs in the red, but again stood in front of him with arms crossed, right there on the steps of the café. It was like she was expecting him.
“I quit smoking. Most of the time.”
“So you did. “
He ate the pie she had put down. She talked about her “little” sisters Louise and Gabriela who had quite the families now. How three of Arthur’s brothers who had served were buried next to Arthur’s Pop and Mom. About how they built a real baseball field. Real. And they needed a coach for the little ones, what with Arthur being mostly involved in the growing farming concern.
She took him there. The road was paved. Her car was smooth and quiet. They drove to the farmhouse which looked fresh, added-on and newly painted white. There was a big new barn with bright farming equipment in it. A new crop of boys and girls came out to stare at them. They were red-heads and tow-heads. They threw dirt and rocks, but not their direction.
They got out and walked and she had held his hand on the way. Smiled up at him.
“I was IV-F in the family way. So I know how you feel being left out and all. But there is place in space for everyone, my Dad used to say.”
The Scout walked over to the field. It had rolling spoke sprinklers out in center field and night lights and green fences and real stands, a by-hand scoreboard and snack shack. He stood on the mound and she went and sat in the bleachers.
I guess I am here now.
The Scout kicked the dirt, looked at the stands, the fresh painted snack shack, the Coca Cola sign. He watched Arthur advancing towards him holding a gold-haired young girl in one arm and a smiling, happy woman in the other. And who knows how many young ones spreading out around him, baseballs flying and bats falling out of a sack.
“Let’s see what they can do, Arthur.”
“Yes, sir. They need someone to trim off the extra. And get to what is.”
The Scout looked at the boys and few girls who roughly positioned themselves in the diamond and beyond.
“The geometry was perfect,” Guy Moore, had told him before he had retired and left him his files. And left him the key things to look for in future talent. Mostly character.
“It’s fitting the right folks into that geometry that’s the challenge. “
“Batter up! Two hits and then change positons clock-wise! Let’s go!”
Above them all, the huge clouds soared up and up were moved and shaped by winds that no one felt and no one below, anywhere had made.
It made the Scout, Andy R. Babcock, feel good to be there.
The answer was right there in front of him. The answer to even those questions that couldn’t be put into words. Beyond politics, religion. Even what they called now- International Relations. And maybe even loneliness.
He would write Lefty, his California pal.
It was – Baseball.