English Reading

Jay Neugeboren

When I was in the seventh grade at p.s. 92 in Brooklyn, Louie Hirshfield was the only one of my friends who wasn’t a good ballplayer. Which is putting it mildly. Louie was probably the worst athlete in the history of our school. He was also the smartest kid in our class and you’d think this combination would have made him the most unpop¬ular guy in the world. It didn’t. He wasn’t especially well liked, but nobody resented him. Maybe it was because he let you copy from his homework—or maybe it was just because he didn’t put on any airs about being so smart. In fact, Louie didn’t put on airs about anything. He was one of the quietest kids I’ve ever met.

The only time I ever saw him excited—outside of what happened with him and our baseball team—was when our fathers would take the two of US to baseball games at

Ebbets Field. Louie lived one floor under me, in my apartment building on Lenox Road, and we had grown up together, so I knew lots about Louie that nobody in school knew. He was an interesting guy, with lots of hobbies—tropical fish, rocks, stamps, Chinese puzzles, magic tricks, autographs.

That was the one thing the guys in school did know about. I don’t know how many days he’d waited outside of Ebbets Field to get them, all I know is he had the best collection of baseball players’ signatures of any guy in school. Lots of them were addressed personally, to—like, “To Louie, with best wishes from Jackie Robinson.” What amazed me most about Louie, though, was that he could figure out a player’s batting average in his head! If a guy got a hit his first time up in a game, Louie would say, “That raises his average to .326—,” or whatever it was, and sure enough, the next time the guy came up, when the announcer would give the average, Louie would be right.

Louie had no illusions about his athletic ability either; he was never one of those guys who hang around when you’re choosing up sides for a punchball or stickball game so that you have to pick him. And whenever he did play— like in gym class at school—he did what you told him and tried to stay out of the way.

That was why I was so surprised when he came up to my house one night after supper and asked if he could be on my baseball team.

“Gee Louie,” I said, “we got more than nine guys

already—anyway we’re not even an official team or any-thing. We’ll be lucky if we get to play more than five or six games all year.”

“I don’t really want to play,” said Louie. “I—I just want to be on your team—”

“Well, I suppose you can come to practices and games,” I said, “but I can’t promise you’ll ever get in a game.”

“Honest, Howie—I know all the guys on your team are better than me. I wasn’t even thinking of playing. What I’d like to do is be your general manager—”

His eyes really lit up when he said that. I looked at him, puzzled.

“Look,” he said. “What do you think makes the Dodg¬ers draw almost as many fans as the Yankees? What was it that made people stick with the Dodgers when they were hardly in the league?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “They were just Dodger fans, I guess.”

“Sure—that’s it. Don’t you see? Being a Dodger fan means something because being a Dodger means some¬thing colorful to the fans. And you know why? Because the Dodgers have what my dad calls ‘a good press’—they know how to get headlines in the papers whether they’re winning or losing.”

“I guess so,” I said. “But what’s that got to do with US?”

“What’s your team like now? I’ll tell you. It’s the same as ten thousand other teams of guys our age all over Brooklyn. Nobody cares if you win or lose—except maybe you guys. If I’m general manager, Howie, I’ll promise you this—your team will be noticed. Guys won’t say, ‘We got a game with Howie’s team’—they won’t come to the Parade Grounds to see all the older guys play. They’ll come to see the Zodiacs—/”

“The who—?”

Louie stopped for a second, and I realized that I’d never heard him speak so fast before. “That’s—that’s the first thing you have to do, it seems to me.” He spoke more hesitantly now, the way he usually did, not looking right at you. “You have to have a name that’s different.”

“What’s wrong with calling ourselves the Sharks?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it—but don’t you see, nothing’s right with it, either. I’ll bet there are a hundred teams in Brooklyn alone called the Sharks. Sharks, Ti¬gers, Lions, Phantoms—every team has a name like that. But calling ourselves—I mean, your team—the Zodiacs, will make them different—”

“Sure—but giving US a crazy name isn’t going to win us any games.”

“Right. What will win you games? I’ll tell you—a good pitcher. I’ve been going down to the Parade Grounds to watch games, making a study of the teams there, and I’ve found that pitching is about ninety percent of winning. Especially at our age, when we’re not built up yet. Did you know, for example, that on high school teams pitch¬ers average about eleven strikeouts a game? It’s like with baseball teams in spring training—the pitchers are way ahead of the hitters because the hitters’ reflexes aren’t developed yet.” 

“Izzie’s a pretty good pitcher,” I said. Izzie was my best friend and the pitcher for our team.

“Sure, but let’s face it, he’s not a top-drawer pitcher. He’s just not big enough to be. He’s got good control, I’ll admit that—but his fastball is almost a change-up. If you let me be general manager, Howie, I’ll get the best pitcher in our school to play for US—”

“Who’s that?”

“George Santini.”

I gulped. “Him?”

“That’s right.”

George Santini was a year ahead of US at p.s. 92 and he was always getting in trouble with the teachers and the cops. He was about six feet tall, had black greasy hair which was long and cut square in back, and the biggest pair of shoulders I’ve ever seen on a guy. He was also the best athlete in our school. The coaches and teachers were always talking to him about going straight and being a star in high school and college. But George never seemed to care much. He was the leader of this gang, which as far as everybody in our section of Brooklyn was con¬cerned, was the most dangerous gang the world had ever known.

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What made George’s reputation even worse was his older brother, Vinnie. Vinnie was about nineteen years old and had already spent two years in jail. He was a skinny guy—not at all like George—and the word on him was that he was really chicken. To listen to George, though, you would have thought that Vinnie was the

toughest guy ever to hit Brooklyn. Whenever he wanted an audience, George would sit down on the steps of the school—on Rogers Avenue—and start telling tales of all the jobs he and Vinnie had pulled off. Sometimes, if we’d pester him enough, he’d tell US about the gang wars he had fought in with Vinnie—in Prospect Park, in Red Hook, in Bay Ridge. If he was sure no teachers or cops were around, he’d show US his zip gun, the gun that Johnny Angelo—one of George’s lackeys—claimed George had once used to kill a guy with.

“I don’t know,” I said. “If my mother ever caught me hanging around with him, I’d really get it—and anyway, how would you ever get him to play for US?”

Louie smiled. “You leave that to me.”

A few days later I got all the guys together at my house, and I let Louie speak to them. He told them what he’d told me about how he would make our team special, maybe famous—and he also told them that George San¬tini had agreed to pitch for US. A few of the guys reacted the way I did to this news: they were scared. But when Louie insisted he’d be able to handle George, Izzie and I were ready to back him up.

“I say it’s worth a try,” said Izzie. “Even though I’m pitcher and he’ll take my place. I’ll bet we could beat lots of high school teams with him pitching for US—”

“Sure,” I said. “You ever see the way he can blaze a ball in?”

A few more guys followed our lead, and after a while we all agreed that we’d probably be invincible with George Santini pitching for US. 

“One thing, though,” asked Kenny Murphy, our second baseman. “How’d you get him to play for US?”

“Simple,” said Louie. “I offered him the one thing he couldn’t refuse—fame. I told him I’d get his name in the newspapers—”

“Really?”

“Sure,” said Louie. “It’s not hard. All you have to do is telephone in the box score to the Brooklyn Eagle and they’ll print it. My father knows the managing editor there. We go to the beach with him sometimes.”

For the next few weeks Louie was the busiest guy in the world—calling up guys at other schools, arranging games, getting permits from the Park Department, talk¬ing to George and keeping him happy, coming to our practices. . . When he started giving US suggestions on things, nobody objected either. He may have been a lousy ballplayer, but I’ll say this for him—he knew more about the game than any of US. Izzie and I gave up playing basketball in the schoolyard afternoons and weekends and spent all our time practicing with the Zodiacs.

Our first game was scheduled for a Saturday morning, the second week in April. Louie had gotten US a permit to use one of the diamonds at the Parade Grounds, next to Prospect Park, from nine to twelve in the morning, and we were supposed to play this team of eighth-graders from p.s. 246. I was at the field with Izzie by 8:30, but the other team didn’t get there until after nine. We ran through infield practice and then let them have the field for a while. Kenny Murphy’s father, who had played for

the Bushwicks when they were a semi-pro team, had agreed to umpire the game. By a quarter to ten neither Louie nor George had shown up and the other team was hollering that we were afraid to play them.

Since George had never come to any practices, some of us were a little worried, but at about five to ten, he showed up. He was wearing a baseball hat like the rest of us, with a z sewn on the front, and he looked a little embarassed. He was smoking and he didn’t say much to anybody. Just asked who the catcher was, and started warming up. He wore a T-shirt, with the sleeves cut off. Looking at him, you would have thought he was too muscle-bound to be a pitcher, but when he reared back and kicked his left foot high in the air, then whipped his arm around, he was the most graceful, coordinated guy I’d ever seen. As smooth as Warren Spahn, only righty, with this natural straight overhand motion that every coach spends his nights dreaming about. Stan Reiss, our catcher, had to put an extra sponge in his mitt, but he was so proud, catching George with all the guys looking at the two of them, that I think he would have let the ball burn a hole in his hand before he would have given up his position.

“C’mon,” said George, after a dozen or so warm-ups, “let’s get the game going.”

“We were waiting for Louie,” I said. “He should be here any minute.”

“Okay,” said George. “But he better hurry. I got better things to do than spend all day strikin’ out a bunch of fags.” 

He said the last thing loudly, for the benefit of the other team. Then he turned and spit in their direction, daring one of them to contradict him. None of them did.

A minute later I saw Louie. He was getting out of his mother’s car, on Caton Avenue, and he was carrying this tremendous thing. From my position at shortstop I couldn’t make it out, but as he came nearer, running awkwardly, holding it in front of him like a package of groceries, I realized what it was: his old Victrola.

“Hey, George!” Louie called. “You ready to break Feller’s strikeout record?”

George laughed. “Anytime they get in the batter’s box—”

“Wait a second,” said Louie. He put the Victrola down next to the backstop. He started fiddling with it, cranking it up the way you had to to get it to work, and then he started playing a record. At first it wasn’t cranked up enough and you couldn’t tell what kind of music it was. But then Louie cranked some more—and I whipped off my hat and stood at attention as the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” came blasting across the infield. I looked at George and he was smiling as broadly as he could, holding his cap across his heart, standing rigid, at attention. The team from p.s. 246 must have been as shocked as we were, but by the time the music got to “and the rockets’ red glare—” both teams were standing at attention, saluting, listening, while Louie kept cranking away so that the music wouldn’t slow down. People sit¬ting on benches, guys playing on other diamonds, men

and women walking along Caton Avenue, a few park cops—they all stopped and started drifting toward our diamond. When the record was over, Louie—in the loudest voice I’d ever heard—shouted, “Play Ball!” and we started the game. We must have had a crowd of over fifty people watching US play our first game, and I’ll bet if George had been pitching for a major league team that day he would’ve pitched at least a shutout.

He struck out all but two of their men—one guy hit a grounder to me at shortstop, and another fouled out to Corky Williams at first base. He also hit four home runs. I got a double and two singles, I remember. We won 19-0, and the next day, as Louie had promised, our box score was in the Brooklyn Eagle.

Louie got us six more games during the next two weeks, and we won all of them. George gave up a total of three hits in the six games, and he was a pretty happy guy during that time. He had clippings of the box scores of all the games in his wallet, the way we all did. Clippings of the box scores—and then, the first week in May, the best clipping of all: an item in Jimmy O’Brien’s column in the Brooklyn Eagle about our team, mentioning George, and Louie’s Victrola. I think I carried that clipping around with me until my third year in high school.

After that, we began getting even more attention, and teams from all over Brooklyn were challenging US to games. We played as many of them as we could—and George kept shutting out every team we played.

In the meantime, Louie had devised another plan. He

called a meeting of the team the second week in May to discuss it. He told US that a team of our ability and pres¬tige had to live up to its name. We said we were. We were winning games, weren’t we?

“Sure,” said Louie. “But what do you look like out on the field? People are starting to come in pretty large numbers to see US play—they hear about US, we got a reputation—and then when they see US, we look like a bunch of pickups.”

“What do you think we should do?”

“We have to develop some class,” said Louie. “And I have a plan worked out. It’s not a new one, I’ll admit— lots of the high school guys use it, but it’s a good one. I say we run a raffle and use the money to buy ourselves jackets and uniforms.”

We all liked the idea of jackets and uniforms, naturally, but they cost a lot of money—especially the kinds of uniforms and jackets we wanted to have.

“I got it all figured out,” said Louie, answering our objections by pulling out some pieces of paper. Then he started talking about numbers, and once he did that, I knew we’d get those uniforms and jackets. It turned out that Louie could get a clock radio at a discount from an uncle of his. Then he said he could get Levy’s sporting Goods Store, on Flatbush Avenue, to donate a glove and ball for the raffle. He also said they’d sell US the uniforms and jackets at cost if Jimmy O’Brien would mention them in his column sometime. Louie said his father could take care of that. We’d make the radio first prize and the glove

and ball second prize, but we’d tell the kids at school that if they won first prize we’d give them the glove and ball anyway. There were fifteen of US, and if we each sold five books of ten raffles at a quarter apiece, that’d be almost two hundred dollars. Louie said that he himself would sell at least fifteen books, and he expected most of US to sell more than five. If we took in three hundred dollars in the raffle we could have the uniforms and jackets.

George was at the meeting this time—right in Louie’s house—and he volunteered to get his gang to sell chances, and I think all of US were pretty glad then that we’d be on the selling end of the raffle during the next few weeks. Louie said he had already had the raffle books printed and that the drawing would take place on Friday after¬noon, June 1st. On June 2nd, we all knew, we had a big game with the Flatbush Raiders, a team from p.s. 139 that had lost only one game. Louie said that if we could give Levy’s a down payment of one hundred dollars they’d go ahead and get the uniforms and jackets made in time for the game against the Raiders.

We had only two games during the next week, and the rest of the time all of US were running around getting everybody we knew—friends, relatives, neighbors, teach-ers, store owners—to buy chances. By the following Fri¬day, Louie reported that we had more than a hundred dollars and that Levy’s had already started making the uniforms and jackets. The uniforms would be gray with orange lettering and the jackets were going to be made of this orange and black material that felt like satin, with Zodiacs written across the back in bright yellow. 

By the middle of the following week, Louie reported to us that if we went over three hundred dollars, as it looked like we would, the extra money would be used to get Louisville Sluggers and official National League base¬balls for the team. Louie also told US that his father could probably get Jimmy O’Brien to come down to see our game against the Raiders.

On Wednesday afternoon, two days before the raffle-drawing, Louie rode out to Marine Park on his bicycle where the Raiders were playing a game, and when he showed up at our big meeting on Friday, June 1st, he had a stack of scouting notes.

“Before we get to our skull session on the Raiders,” he said, “we have to get this raffle business over with. First, some of you haven’t given me all the money—or the leftover raffles.”

While Louie took care of the final accounts of the raffle, George stayed by himself in a corner, looking through Louie’s sports magazines. Although he spoke to a few of us a little more, you couldn’t really say that any of us had become pals with him. At school he still stayed pretty much with his gang, and after school—on the days when we didn’t have games—we knew that he still hung around with his brother.

“Okay,” said Louie. “I got it all figured out. Just a few things don’t check. You, Marty, you took out seven books and only gave me fifteen dollars.”

“I forgot,” said Marty. He handed Louie a book of tickets. “I didn’t sell these.” 

Louie crossed his name off. He seemed to be stalling, because he kept adding and subtracting figures and I knew that he never had that much trouble figuring things out.

“George?”

“Yeah?”

“According to my records you gave raffle stubs from sixteen books, which means you owe forty dollars.”

“So?”

“You only gave me twenty-eight so far.”

We were all quiet. George wasn’t looking straight at Louie. He had a magazine out, with a picture of Sal Maglie on the cover, and he made believe he was thumb¬ing through it.

“Maybe you didn’t give me sixteen books,” said George.

“I did. It’s right here in writing.”

“Hell, anybody can phony up figures.”

“I didn’t phony them up.” Louie’s voice was loud. “You still owe twelve dollars.”

“Prove it.”

“Prove it? It’s down here in black and white—”

“Oh yeah? My word’s as good as yours.”

“It’s not!”

“Are you callin’ me a liar?”

George stood up now and walked toward Louie.

“I’m just saying you owe twelve dollars. You better pay up, or—”

“Or what, smarty?”

“Or—’’Louie stopped.“Or you can’t play tomorrow.” 

George laughed. But his laugh was forced. You could tell. “Who needs to play with you guys, anyway? You can’t win without me and you know it.”

“You pay up or you don’t play. I mean it, George. You won’t get to play in front of Jimmy O’Brien either . . .”

“I don’t give a damn,” George said. He walked up to Louie and pushed his fist into Louie’s face. Louie didn’t move. This surprised George. “I never should of given you the twenty-eight dollars either. And you know what you can do with your raffle—”

George didn’t finish his sentence. Instead, he picked up the clock radio, raised it over his head, and then flung it to the floor, splattering its parts all over the room. Louie leapt at George, screaming curse words, but with an easy push, George shoved him to the floor. Then he kicked him a few times and Louie started crying. He got up and went after George again, but this time I was ready. I grabbed George’s right arm.

“C’mon, you guys, help me hold him. Nobody’s gonna ruin our raffle and get away with it!”

Izzie jumped on George’s back and got him in a stran-glehold. George tried to throw him off, but by this time, Kenny and Corky and Stan and the other guys were all holding George. He fought and it took all our strength to hold him, but it was fifteen to one, and these odds were too much even for him.

“C’mon, Louie,” I said. “Give it to him now.”

“Yeah, c’mon,” the guys yelled. “Let him have it. . . right in the gut… he deserves it… give it to him good …” 

Louie was still crying, but he came at George. “You’re— you’re nothing but a bum!” he screamed.

George spit at him.

“C’mon,” said Kenny. “We can’t hold him all day. Just give it to him—”

“Yeah, c’mon, ya little sawed-off runt—I hear they’re gettin’ up a girls’ team at school for you to play on—”

“You’re just a big bum,” said Louie, whimpering. He was breathing heavily. “I wouldn’t waste my knuckles on you. Just get out of my house. Get out. We—we don’t need crooks on the Zodiacs. Get out. Get out. . .”

Then Louie started crying again. We all pushed and pulled George to the door and somehow we managed to slam it with him on the other side.

We ran off the raffle anyway—Louie said that the money that was going to go for bats and balls would be enough to get another radio—and a few hours later, we all left Louie’s house. I was glad I lived in his building.

The next morning there were over two hundred people gathering around the backstop and baselines at the Pa¬rade Grounds. Izzie warmed up and he looked pretty good. I think the new uniforms made US all play a little over our heads that day. The pitcher on the Raiders was really fast and our only chance, we knew, was if his control was off.

When Louie cranked up his Victrola before the game, most of the onlookers started laughing. We ignored them. In fact, I think hearing the National Anthem, the way we had in all our games, made US play even harder, because in the first inning, Izzie held the other team, and in our half, Kenny Murphy doubled and then I hit a single which drove him in. That was the last time we had the lead, though. The Raiders tied it up in the third inning, and went ahead in the fourth, by 4-1. The final score was 7-2.

When the game was over and we were picking up our gloves and stuff, and changing out of our spikes, nobody said anything to each other and nobody looked at Louie.

We waited for one another and were walking away from the diamond when Stan spotted George.

“Uh-oh,” he said, pointing. “He’s got his gang with him.”

We all looked and sure enough there they were, about ten of them—in their motorcycle jackets and pegged pants.

“Hey!” George shouted, coming nearer. “Ain’t those guys got pretty uniforms.”

“Yeah,” said one of his guys. “And look at those jack¬ets. They look like my mommy’s underwear—”

This seemed to strike George’s gang as a pretty good joke.

“Hey, you bunch of fags,” George said. “Who won the game?”

Nobody answered. George and his gang had almost reached US now.

“Aw, c’mon—you don’t mean you let those other fruit-boots beat you, do you? How could anybody beat a team that’s got a manager like Louie? He’s real smart, ain’t he?” 

George was in front of US now, about fifteen feet from Louie, his hands on his hips. Louie stopped.

“C’mon, smart boy. Cross my path. I dare you.”

“Don’t do it, Louie—” I shouted. I looked around, hoping a policeman was nearby. I wasn’t in any mood for a fight. Louie put down his Victrola.

“I don’t want any trouble,” he said.

“Hey, listen to this, guys. He says he don’t want no trouble. Ain’t that nice—I don’t want none either, see. Only I say you called me a liar and a crook and I don’t take that from nobody—”

“I—I didn’t mean to call you that,” said Louie. “Why don’t we just forget the whole thing?’

“I don’t forget easy.”

I was holding one of the bats and I gripped the handle firmly. The other guys had already let their gloves and equipment drop onto the grass. I spotted a cop about a half block away. He was moving toward US. I tried to stall.

“What’s the gripe, George?” I asked. “You mad ’cause you didn’t get to pitch today?”

“What’s the matter? Can’t Louie fight his own battles?”

“We just don’t want no trouble, that’s all.”

The guys in George’s gang began to move toward US and then George shoved Louie. I ran at him, the bat raised over my head. “We got bats, George—one of you is gonna get a bloody head.”

“You don’t scare US with your toothpicks!”

Somebody grabbed my arm and then the fight was on. It didn’t last long—probably less than a minute, but by

the time the cop got there and started bopping guys on the head with his nightstick, most of US, myself included, were glad it was over. I had managed to get a leg-scissors on George and even though he was really blasting me in the gut, I held on long enough so that he couldn’t get at Louie. A few more cops were on the scene pretty quickly and when we were finally separated they asked the usual questions about who had started the fight. When they saw that nobody was going to give them any answers, they told us to beat it.

“Okay, all of you—get on home. You, kid,” the cop said, pointing to Kenny. “You better get some ice on that eye in a hurry—”

George’s gang started to move away, then George turned and called to US. “We’ll get you guys at school—”

One of the cops ran after George and grabbed him by the front of his jacket. “Okay, tough boy,” he said. “If I find out that one hair on the head of any of these kids was touched I’ll throw you and every one of your cronies in jail. You hear that?”

George nodded.

“Hey,” said the cop. “I know you. You’re George San¬tini, ain’t you? Vinnie Santini’s brother?”

“So what?” George tried to squirm out of the cop’s grip-

“It figures,” the cop laughed. “You know who Vinnie Santini is,” he said to one of the other cops. “He’s that punk we had down at the station last week. I never saw a guy turn yellow so quick.” 

“It’s a lie!” George shouted. He almost broke away. “You shut your damned mouth—”

George kicked at the cop, and the cop whacked him across the arm with his club. Another cop held George while the first cop put his nose right up to George’s face and continued: “I never seen a guy yellow so quick,” he said. “We didn’t have the light on him more than ten minutes when he started ratting on every petty thief this side of Bensonhurst. And you’re probably the same.”

George didn’t say anything. He just sort of hung there, held up by the cop. “Get goin’, punk,” said the cop, shoving George. “And I better not hear that you touched these kids.”

George and his gang walked away. We all picked up our stuff, Kenny and Marty carrying Louie’s Victrola, and then, suddenly, Louie started running after George.

“Hey, wait a minute! Wait!—”

George turned and waited till Louie caught up with him.

“Yeah?” George said.

Louie stopped, as if he had forgotten why he had told George to wait. Then he spoke, in that slow, hesitant way of his. “I was going over the records last night,” he said. “And I discovered that I made a mistake yesterday. You really only owed eight dollars. I was thinking that if you gave me the eight dollars, then—then you could pitch for us against the Raiders. We play them a return game next week.”

“Who’d wanna play on your sissy team?” said one of the guys in George’s gang. 

George looked at Louie, then at the guys in his gang, then back at Louie.

“I’ll let you know,” he said, and walked off.

The next day he gave Louie the eight bucks. On the following Saturday, with George pitching, and wearing his new uniform, we beat the Raiders, 4-0, and were we happy! George too. We won about a dozen more games that month. At the end of June, though, lots of the guys, myself included, went away to camp or to the country, and the team had to break up. The next year when George was a freshman at Erasmus Hall High School he didn’t play for US.

When he was a sophomore at Erasmus—I was a fresh-man that year—he played fullback on the football team and was starting pitcher on the baseball team. In the middle of his junior year, though, he quit school. The next time I heard about him, somebody said he had taken off for Florida with his brother.

Interpretive Questions

1. Why does George want to play with the Zodiacs?

2. Why does Louie want to manage Howie’s baseball – team?

3. How is George affected by having a brother who is a coward?

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