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By David Finkle
— FOREWORD —
In presenting the following manuscript, I’m asking you, the reader, to recognize as true a series of (almost entirely) serendipitous incidents that will strain credulity to the breaking point, and possibly far beyond it, as far beyond as the other side of the grave.
I ask you to take my word that what are included here are no more nor less than events experienced by myself and others over several years. The others are men who trusted me with their accounts after they had learned of mine.
I have to confess that I never recorded the men’s stories as I listened attentively. I only relay them as I remember them—as accurately as possible, to be sure. They are too indelible to be forgotten. They are absolutely not the sort of unexpected happenstances I—or they—would have been able to concoct out of whole cloth. I am not convinced that anyone could, though others might deem it possible.
Nevertheless, without further explanation, here the manuscript is for your perusal. Whether or not you believe what you read is not up to me—any more than what I maintain as occurring in the first place was, or is, a matter of my volition or that of those whom I represent.
I also ask that, if you choose to reject what you’re about to read as a series of impossibilities in the world you know—or think you know—please withhold your scorn and simply dismiss the accounts as fantasies dreamed up in the kind of fertile mind I only wish I had.
You wouldn’t think I’d be the one to whom Babe Ruth would reveal himself when hustling around the corner of Trenton, New Jersey’s Stockton and Perry Streets. Yet, there he was, as if loping towards home after knocking a bases-loaded home run in the bottom of the ninth.
There he was—the Babe, the Behemoth of Bust, the Big Bambino, the Colossus of Clout, the Mammoth of Maul, the Prince of Pounders, the Sultan of Swat, the Wazir of Wham!—and under the weirdest circumstances. I grant you that Babe Ruth revealing himself to anyone after his August 16, 1948, death would be weird, but that he should make himself known, and to me, on the day I’d decided to take the train from Manhattan to wander around my old neighborhood, was mighty weird.
To begin with, it was already weird that I was there. I’m not even sure why I was there. It was a whim. It was an urge I couldn’t pinpoint. Earlier that morning, I just had the feeling I wanted to walk down the street where I lived for the first nine years of my life. I wanted to sit on the stoop of the Perry Street building where I’d got bitten by the stoop-sitting bug from the time I was three or four. (I still set great store by sitting on a stoop.)
I wanted to size up the building where my dad, general practitioner Julius Levi Reithauser, had his office on the first floor, and he, my mother Hannah, my brother Arthur and I lived on the second floor. The three elderly O’Reillys, two unmarried sisters and an unmarried brother, lived on the third floor.
What had I expected to glean from perching on that stoop as I had when I was a kid playing with other kids and regarding the stretch of land I could see to the right and the left as the entire universe? Memories, of course, surfaced. I won’t say, as some might, that they flooded back. What I experienced was more like a rain of memories, even more like a hail. I was pelted with stinging recollections, all of them random.
Some of them weren’t even memories of things that had happened. They were fantasies about dad, or Julie, as my mother called him, and about my mom, Hahn, as he called her. I imagined him taking her, an Atlantic City girl to whom he’d been introduced and about whom he’d become serious, to see, for the first time, the office where he practiced. I imagined him coming home from the hospital the day I was born and knowing he now had a son.
When these thoughts had crowded my head to the extent that I was beginning to have not a standard headache but a head something, I started thinking I’d only be able to alleviate it by a method having nothing to do with ibuprofen. I stood up, shook myself off and decided I was on a fool’s errand. I felt that whatever I had come for was eluding me. Taking the next train back to New York City, where my post-Trenton life was, would be the smartest, safest, most practical thing to do.
I’d barely gotten thirty feet from that old stoop with its rounded club-chair arms (that hadn’t brought me much club-chair comfort over the last hour or so) when I saw a burly figure turning the corner on the run. Everything about him was rounded or round-ish, including his face. What’s more, everything about him looked familiar.
If I didn’t know better, I thought to myself, I’d say I was watching the revered Babe Ruth hurtling himself my way. That’s a laugh, I thought—Babe Ruth coming towards me and not towards some oldtime baseball fan. Some old baseball fanatic, I thought, like my father, like Julie Reithauser. There’s someone who would have appreciated the moment bigtime.
I never had much of an interest in the game, the so-called national pastime. I was so uninterested that it was tantamount to an unspoken wedge between Julie and me. On hot afternoons during the baseball season, Julie—no office hours scheduled, his morning hospital trip completed and no pressing house calls—would have two radios going, one in his and Mom’s bedroom and one in the kitchen. He’d be running in his baggy boxer shorts from one to the other, changing stations to catch up with as many games as he could beam in from the local airwaves. Was there static? He’d strain to hear through it.
I’d be coming back from Traver’s bookstore in the center of town with the latest entry in the Hardy Boys series I followed. I’d pass him on the way to my room where I could read to my heart’s content. Julie had long since given up on trying to get me to share his love of the sport. If I passed him as he jogged between radios, he wouldn’t say much more than “Hi, Dougie, how’s my boy?” and keep going. I’d counter with an affectless “Hi, Dad, the games exciting?” That was as much interest as I could muster on his behalf.
But it wasn’t Dad or anyone like him for whom Babe Ruth was appearing. It was “baseball’s so boring” me, who was startled as the man slowed to a halt, gave me a smille that for sure looked like the smiles I knew from photographs and said, “Excuse me, pal. I’m trying to find the train station, but I must have made the wrong turn.”
“I guess you did,” I said.
“I must’ve turned left when I should have turned right after the last guy I stopped gave me directions,” he said. (I’m still saying “he,” because I was trying to convince myself I wasn’t losing it.)
“You did, unless you’re looking for the bus station,” I said. “If you’re looking for that, you’re going in the right direction.” I turned and pointed in the opposite Perry Street direction. It had slipped my mind for the moment that the Perry Street bus branch had long since ceased operating.
“No, buddy, I want the train station.”
“In that case,” I said, “you’re definitely going in the wrong direction. I can tell you the way, since I’m from around here. As a matter of fact, I’m headed to the station myself. You’re welcome to join me.”
Things were getting weirder and weirder, weren’t they?
“Thanks, fella,” he said. “Don’t mind if I do.” He fell in beside me.
“Of course, if you want to run there,” I said, “I can just tell you which way to go.”
He said, “I already tried that, and look where it got me. Besides, I’m pretty sweaty.” He wiped his face with his thick right forearm. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and gabardine trousers. When he raised his arm, he exposed a sizable sweat stain.
“Okay, then,” I said, “I guess we’re off.”
“Mighty nice of you to do this,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” I said and then remained silent for most of the next block. But curiosity was mounting in me. I could feel it surging. After we’d proceeded a fair distance up Stockton Street, which wasn’t looking any too affluent (not that it ever had), I said, “Excuse me, but I wanted to ask you if anyone has ever told you you look like Babe Ruth?”
At that, he stopped altogether, laughed and said, “I get it all the time.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said and started to say something else along those lines, but he interrupted me.
“But there’s a good reason for it,” he said, adding the Babe Ruth smile. “I am Babe Ruth.” Anticipating my response, he said, “You don’t believe me. After all, I passed away some time ago, but I am the Babe.”
To illustrate his claim, he struck an at-bat pose, pulled his cupped hands back and swung like every Sultan-of-Swat pose and effortless swing you’d ever seen in newsreel footage. (I never said I knew nothing whatsoever about baseball. For any young American boy, it would have been impossible not to know something—if only to know what to avoid.) It would have wowed Julie: Babe Ruth miming a home-run swing not a couple hundred feet from where the old man practiced medicine, a couple hundred feet from his crackling radios. (This is before we moved and he could add a television console to his network.)
By the time he mimed his swing we’d walked far enough along Stockton Street to reach the place where the Stockton Street Paper Company had once been housed. It had been torn down. Now it was a large empty space surrounded by a chain-link fence.
If the intention was to keep trespassers out—it was; a sign marred by graffiti said as much—the expectation had been violated. From what I could see, the fence had been cut open at three places, leaving the scruffy area available.
It so happened that as Babe Ruth offered his impromptu Babe Ruth’s swing demonstration, I wasn’t the only one who observed it. Others passing by may have noticed and not thought anything of it, but a bunch of kids around eight or nine did. They were the ones who’d laid temporary claim to the prohibited ground, and wouldn’t you know it, they were playing baseball.
Only after the Babe completed his swing—and I’d taken in the sweet follow-through—did we realize we had company. Only then did the kids begin running up to the fence yelling “Hey, you, hey, mister!” in overlapping appeals.
Babe Ruth and I turned. Eight of the boys pressed against the fence, while two of them wedged through the nearest chain-link opening. Those two planted themselves by us with their hands, the gloved hand and the free hand, on their hips.
“We saw you,” the one closest to us said. “We ain’t never seen a swing like that.”
Instead of responding to the remark, Babe Ruth faced them with his hands on his hips and said in a mock-stern tone, “Ain’t you boys supposed to stay out of that field?”
One of the boys crowding the fence said, “We s’posed to, but no one ever bothers us.” “’Sides,” another one blurted, “Where else we gonna play ’round here? Do you see anything looks like a real diamond?”
“I guess I don’t,” the Babe said. “Would you boys mind if I joined you?” As he said that to a chorus of encouraging young cries, he looked at me, winked and said, “You mind if I do? You can go ahead, if you like.”
As if I was going to miss this. I said I wouldn’t mind at all.
“The problem is,” Babe Ruth said to the boys, “I’m a pretty big guy. I’m not sure I can get through any of these holes in the fence.”
“Sure you can,” one said with a kid’s enthusiasm, and the others chimed in with similar reassurances. “Over here,” one of them said, running to an opening a bit further along. “Bigger men than you have made it.”
Running to it with the easy lope I’d seen earlier, the Babe said, “I didn’t know there were any guys bigger ’n me.” He laughed, and the kids laughed, too.
In their laughter were glimmers of suspicion that they’d just encountered a grown-up kid, a mature man who liked to play as much as they did. Anyway, it’s always seemed to me that there’s no sport like baseball to bring out the boy still lurking in the grown man, in someone like my baseball-crazed dad.
Babe Ruth could have been the poster man for that truism. If the boys had only known, but it was plain that they didn’t. It was plain that if they’d ever heard about Babe Ruth, he didn’t mean much to them these many years after their new fellow trespasser built Yankee Stadium. “You want to learn how to swing like what you just saw?” he said as the boys crowded around him. The “yeah, man”s were unison. “Okay,” he said, “we’ll take turns.” He pointed to one of them. “You, what’s your name?”
“Cliff,” the boy said, lighting up at being called first, “but they call me ‘Bunter,’ ’cause I always bunt, and I’m good at it.” His preadolescent chest swelled when he said that.
“Great, Bunter,” Babe Ruth said, “but now I want to see you swing for the bleachers. It’ll be good for you. When they see you come up to bat, they think you’re going to bunt, don’t they?” Bunter nodded yes. So they move in. Every once in a while, you hafta fool ’em. When you do, they’ll never know what to do when they see you. They’ll get flustered.” He pointed at his round head. “You gotta fake ’em out. Now let’s see your swing. Who’s the pitcher here?”
“I us’ly am,” two of them answered simultaneously. “Chucky,” one added. “Rolly,” the other one said.
“Rolly,” the Babe said, “You pitch for now.” Rolly visibly swelled with pride. Chucky was abashed. The swat sultan said, “Chucky, you’ll take over in a few minutes.” He looked them over. “Let’s play ball.”
The boys ran back onto the field. Rolly pitched one. Bunter swung at it. “That’s not it,” Babe Ruth said. He adjusted Bunter’s grip on the bat—but only after handling the bat himself and throwing me a look that said he wished the boys had something better to work with.
Bunter tried again and then again. After four or five more tries, he connected with one that caused the others to chase deep to the back of the field, where someone or someones had heaped plenty of trash.
That was the Babe’s signal to call the next batter and then the one after that. Some of them got into—forgive me for this—the swing of things better than others, but they were all improving their grip, their stance, their eye, their power.
Incidentally, I’m observing this from the street side of the fence. I felt like an anxious father, and by now I wasn’t the only one there. It occurred to me that maybe some of the others were anxious fathers and mothers. Several other pedestrians had stopped for a few minutes each. One of them said before moving on, “Those little league coaches don’t know when to stop.” “Maybe he needs players for a losing team,” another said to no one in particular. “Could be he’s scouting ringers for a rich kids team.”
Finally, only Chucky was left and what he said as he took the bat was, “You know what they call me? Babe Ruth.”
So these kids had heard of Babe Ruth.
“Yeah?” the Babe said. “Why is that?”
“’Cause there was an oldtime baseball player who was once a pitcher.”
“I think I heard a’ him,” the Bronx Bomber said.
“And he hit a home run every time he came up to bat,” Chucky said with a pinch of awe.
“Every time,” Babe Ruth said. “Imagine that.”
“Yeah,” Chucky said. “And I’m a pitcher who hits a home run every time I come up to bat.” He must have noticed a look cross the Babe’s face. “Okay, maybe not every time. But lots. And not many pitchers can do anywhere near that. Not even in the major leagues. Especially in the major leagues.”
“Then let’s see what you got,” Babe Ruth said.
Rolly was pitching again. He hurled the first one. Chucky, a. k. a. Babe Ruth, pulled a long drive into what passed for left field.
“You’re right, Babe, you got something there,” the man himself said. “Now let’s see how we can make it even hotter.” The Babe had Chucky cannon a dozen or so more, and sure enough, Chucky upped his game.
By this time and after they’d all had their turn at bat, the boys were intensifying demands they’d been making all along. They wanted to see the Babe swing as he’d been instructing them to, although they didn’t call him the Babe. They already had one Babe Ruth—Chucky—in their midst. They were still calling the real Babe Ruth “Mister.”
“Show us how you swing, Mister,” they’d been shouting. Knowing I was with him, a couple of them came over to the fence. “Mister, tell him to show us his swing,” they implored.
Finally, the honest-to-God Babe Ruth finally gave in, with a shrug of his broad shoulders towards me. The gesture patently meant, “What else can I do?”
He had Rolly pitch a few and then Chucky. Knowing the force he could apply, he pulled his swing, knocking the ball in different directions so that all the boys had a chance to field it.
But they only enjoyed that for so long. They knew the Babe wasn’t swinging as he’d been insisting they should. They could tell he was holding back. After only about ten minutes, they started to yell for him to give it all he had. “C’mon, Mister, we know you can do better than that,” they yelled, or versions of it. They kept it up, too, until with another what-else-can-I-do shrug, the Babe agreed but told them, “Just one.”
Chucky wound up and pitched the ball at Babe Ruth as fast as his ten-year-old right arm allowed. The Babe swung. The bat met the ball and went sailing high and long. It sailed over the field gaining height as it went. It sailed for a city block and then another. The boys had all turned to watch it go. They were hollering “Wow!” and “Jeez!” and “Would you watch that sucker go!” and whistling.
I was in awe myself, but now I have to talk about Trenton real estate. It’s been on the slide for some miserable time. Much of it in the immediate vicinity has been torn down but not rebuilt. Only a few ramshackle, barely habitable tenements remained between the two blocks over which the ball had traveled and Trenton’s main drag, East State Street, which farther along became the somewhat tonier West State Street. What hadn’t been razed on the other side of East State Street at this juncture was City Hall, an edifice that looked like any City Hall in any American city—a set of steep stairs to a squatting structure with long rows of tall windows to the right and left.
It was into one of those windows that Babe Ruth’s connected ball crash-landed with no center fielder to catch it.
Don’t take my word for this, but I think the boys, the Babe and I heard the window shatter. I could be imagining it. What I didn’t imagine were the half cut-off figures that appeared in the window frame or windows to the right and left of the window. Besides that, not one of us missed seeing three burly uniformed men run out of City Hall’s main double-door and down the steps, heading for where we were standing.
Looking at me with a look I can only interpret as confidence-instilling, Babe Ruth turned to the boys and said, “Don’t worry, fellas. You got nothing to worry about.” He pulled something from his pocket and handed it to Bunter.
It was a baseball. From where I was pressed against the fence eight or ten feet away, I could tell it was a ball that had been walloped many times.
“You boys go on playing,” the Babe said, “and don’t forget what I taught you.”
At that, he scrammed to the opening through which he’d pushed before. He emerged on my side, stood up and headed to me. “I gotta get out of here and fast. When those guys coming this way get here, they’re not going to believe that any of these kids could have whammed a ball that far. They’ll think someone else right outside that building did it, that it was just a coincidence the boys were playing here at the same time. You can corroborate that. You can tell them nothing like it happened from here. Sorry about not catching the train with you, but, wait a minute, I never got your name.”
It hadn’t occurred to me I’d never told him who I was. I certainly knew who he was. “Douglas Reithauser,” I said.
“Reithauser,” he said and shook his head. “That’s a heavy load of a name to carry. How do you spell that?”
I spelled it for him. When I did, a quizzical expression took over those familiar snub-nosed features.
“I’ve heard that name before,” he said and furrowed his brow. “That’s a name you don’t forget. I’ve autographed thousands of balls, and I never remember the names of the fans who ask. But that one I remember. I never heard any like it. The kid spelled it like you just did, all methodical like.”
The quizzical look returned to his face. “And I remember where I signed it, too.” He hit the side of his head with the edge of his right palm. “It was here. Right here in Trenton. Summer of 1920. I was on a tour. Signed it for a kid just about the same age as these kids here. Had to be somebody related to you, don’t you think?”
He asked that as he was looking up Stockton Street. The burly trio was fast approaching. “Gotta go,” he said. And did. It was as if he vanished in a cloud of sandlot dust.
Whether anyone else noticed, I can’t say. The boys were intently focused on their game, making like nothing else mattered to them.
The first of the burly men came to the fence and shouted to the boys. They pretended not to hear the first and second time he called. Finally, they stopped what they were doing and looked at him. “This ball belong to you boys?” the man asked and held up the Babe-battered missile.
“No, sir,” one of the boys said. Holding up his mitt with the baseball Babe Ruth gave them in its worked-on pocket, Rolly said, “Here’s our ball, sir.”
“Funny,” a second burly man said, “a ball just came through a City Hall window. You boys don’t know anything about that?”
The boys all shook their heads. Some of them muttered “No, sir,” as if butter wouldn’t melt in their lying mouths.
The third of the burlies looked at me, questioningly. I looked him in the eye and said. “Look where we are. Look at them. Do you think any of these kids could smack a ball from here to City Hall?”
The three of them looked at each other. “Guess not,” the first one said. They nodded to each other in tacit agreement. They shook their heads and started walking back where they came from.
Watching them go, the boys started laughing among themselves. They stopped when Rolly, having removed the ball from his mitt, said, “Hey, would you look at this. There’s an autograph on it. You can hardly read it, but it says ‘Babe Ruth.’” “Maybe he knew Babe Ruth,” another one said. “The real Babe Ruth?” another one said. Then there was a group “Wow!”
As the boys were passing it around, I started to leave for the station. I wasn’t thinking of that autograph. I was thinking about the baseball the Babe had signed in 1920. I knew who that Reithauser boy was, of course. He was Julius Levi Reithauser, my father, at that time an eleven-year-old boy.
I could see him, beaming at meeting a hero, at getting him to sign a baseball. I’d come to Trenton for memories. Now I had a new one. It wasn’t mine. It was Julie’s. He’d never shared it with me, perhaps because he thought it would mean nothing to me, that my lack of enthusiasm at being told he’d once met the great Babe Ruth would hurt him, would tarnish the memory. He didn’t want to take the risk.
But now I know. Now I have the memory, his memory. What’s more, I’ll have it forever.
DAVID FINKLE is a New York-based writer and the author of People Tell Me Things and The Man With The Overcoat. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Village Voice, The New York Post, The Nation, The New Yorker, New York, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and American Theatre. He is currently chief drama critic on The Clyde Fitch Report, the only magazine of arts and politics.
This is a series that David Finkle has written for Manhattan Book Review. Read his other short stories:
Great Dates With Some Late Greats: Archie Horgan’s Story, or Jesus, Meet Elvis
Great Dates With Some Late Greats: Anton Reynolds’s Story, or Mona Lisa, Smile!
Great Dates with Some Late Greats: Paul Engler’s Story, or Marilyn Monroe is Hamlet