The hometown fans hollered and jeered as he stood there.
From the mound, Satchell Paige stared back at him, a faint smile curving his lips. Moving fast, he went into his lanky wind-up and stretched out with his long, rubbery arm, throwing a high, inside fastball.
No one noticed when the man in the bleachers closed his eyes and waved his right hand through the air in front of his face while his left hand clutched a talisman that hung from a strip of rawhide around his neck.
Bell knew the pitch would come close but he would not let Paige intimidate him. Refusing to even blink, he held his position. Without warning, the ball broke inside sharply, hitting him above the temple. He crumpled slowly, his thin body collapsing in on itself. A small puff of dust rose in the still air as Cool Papa Bell sprawled out on the ground.
There was a moment of silent hesitation before anyone in the park re-acted. Then, as Bell's teammates charged towards him, the catcher said to the umpire, "I've seen Satchell throw some real mean pitches, but I never saw one that did that before. Nobody ever threw a ball that could bend like that."
"Paige did," the ump said.
When Bell woke up, there was a familiar face leaning over him. He blinked and frowned and said, "Ain't you Lou Dials?"
"What're you doing here?"
"I wanted to talk to you, Papa."
"This and that and maybe something I could use your help with. How's your head?"
"Nothing wrong with my head. Why?"
"That was a nasty pitch you took."
Bell remembered then. Satchell Paige had beaned him. With a fastball.
"Am I dead?"
Still prone, Bell raised a hand to his head, feeling around to locate where the ball had struck.
"Not a mark on you," Dials said.
"That ain't possible. Folks don't get hit in the head by a Satchell fastball without getting a mark of some kind."
The other man shrugged his shoulders.
Bell stared up at him, gradually becoming aware of the hard bench beneath him, the murmur of voices around him.
Dials held out a hand. Bell took it, letting the man help him into a sitting position. He glanced around the room at the freshly painted lockers, the clean floor. He noticed the smells of disinfectant, linement, sweaty bodies, soap... There were ballplayers changing, heading for the showers. Wide-eyed, Bell stared at them.
"We best get out of here, Lou, before all these white folks notice us."
Lou Dials laughed. "They know we're here."
"And they don't mind?"
"Where the hell are we, anyway? This ain't where I come to play ball today. Nobody in all the Negro Leagues ever had a locker room like this."
Dials smiled and said, "Come on outside. There's another game starting soon. We can sit in the stands and watch it. I got two good seats right behind the plate."
Two naked, white ballplayers nodded at Bell on their way to the showers.
Stunned, Bell just watched them.
"Recognise them?" Dials asked.
"I think so, but I ain't sure I want to. Something's not quite right here, Lou."
"Everything's right, Papa. It couldn't be righter."
Shaking his head, Bell said, "That one fella, that was Arky Vaughan. He plays for the Brooks but I heard he went off to war and ain't back playing yet. And the other one, that was Country Enos Slaughter. I heard he come back from the fight and picked up where he left off with the Cards, hitting over three hundred."
"So what am I doing here? And what are they doing here?"
"Let's go outside and we'll talk about it."
"I can't go sit in the stands dressed in my uniform. People'll think I'm a circus clown."
"Well, I don't have a change of clothes for you. Why don't I ask Judy if we can sit in the dugout?"
"They got a woman managing this team?"
"No, you damn' fool, who'd let a woman manage a ball club? Judy Johnson, that fella who used to play third base for the Pittsburgh Crawfords."
"Oh. Okay. But if we're here to watch colored teams, how come we're in the white boys' locker room?"
Wrapping a large hand around Bell's bicep, Dials hoisted him to his feet saying, "Come on, this is easier to explain outside."
Cleats rattling on the floor, he followed Lou Dials out of the immaculate clubhouse and down a runway where the lightbulbs were bright and all in place. At the entrance to the dugout, Dials left him, going to talk with Judy Johnson.
"Hey," said one of the ballplayers on the bench. "Aren't you Cool Papa Bell?"
"You coming to play for us, man?"
"I, uh, well, I don't know. I'm just visiting," he stammered, staring at Dizzy Dean's tanned but white face.
"Well, I hope you do. We could use you. I hear you stole a hundred and seventy-five bases in one season. Is that true?"
Bell nodded his head, not wanting to say too much, knowing it would not be safe to say too much. They had played two hundred games that particular season and he was only twenty-five short of one per game. He had led the league in hitting that year, too. He was one of the best ballplayers around and he knew it but he would keep his thoughts to himself in front of these people.
"A hundred and seventy-five," Dean mused. "You're a pitcher's worst nightmare. Remember that all-star exhibition game back in '35 when the Negro League played the majors? I saw you there," Dean said, slapping the shoulder of the player beside him. "You should've seen him, Ted. He got himself a little single. I forget who was pitching but Roy Partee was catching. Anyway, Satchell Paige comes up to bat while Papa here takes a big lead off first. Paige lays down a short bunt up the first base line and Papa was already moving. Partee goes out to get the bunt, sets himself up to throw to first and, I swear to God, Papa scores behind him before poor Roy can get the ball away. Damnedest thing you ever saw."
Embarrassed by the praise, Bell looked around for Dials. As they made eye-contact, Dials nodded and waved him over. Papa Bell headed down the dugout, swaying slightly, dizzy and nauseated. As he stumbled past the team, he recognised Ray Dandridge from the Newark Eagles in the NAL, and Josh Gibson, who, he heard, had done some barnstorming with the Zulu Cannibal Kings a few years ago. And Roy Campanella, who winked at him, sitting right there beside Lon Warneke, the Arkansas Hummingbird, from the Cubs.
At the end of the bench, stunned, he flopped down hard and closed his eyes. Lou Dials sat down beside him, saying, "I guess this doesn't seem real to you..."
Eyes flashing open as he glared, Bell said, "Do you think I'm some dumb sharecropper who don't know the difference between what's real and what ain't?"
"Then why don't you just tell me what's going on here?" Bell demanded, waving towards the field where the opposing team was getting ready. Squinting towards the mound, he said, "That's Newk Newcombe out there, from Newark."
"That's right. In 1949, he'll be Rookie of the Year. In 1956, he'll win the Cy Young award with twenty-seven wins and an ERA of three-oh-six. He doesn't know any of this though, so if you're talking to him later, don't tell him anything."
"What year're we in right now, Lou?"
Eyebrows raised, Bell stared at Dials.
Dials grinned at him. "I know what you're thinking, Papa. But I'm not."
Bell looked away from him, studying the players on the field. In right and center were two white fielders who looked familiar but, in left, was a man he had played against often.
"Larry Doby," he said.
"Yeah, Larry Doby. He'll be the first colored man to ever play in the American League. The Tribe'll bring him up in '47, just three months after Brooklyn brings up Robinson."
"Jackie Robinson? That fella who's playing up in Canada with the white folks?"
"That's the one."
"And he'll be playing for the Brooks? What're you smoking? Ain't no colored ballplayers ever gonna get in the White Leagues and you know that as well as anybody, Lou. I mean, the way you been badmouthing them white ball teams lately, I'm surprised they haven't lynched you. Maybe they beat your brains out and that's how come you're talking like this. Is that it?"
"I guess you have a right to be thinking like that," Dials said, nodding his head, unwrapping a stick of chewing gum and putting it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully, savoring the taste. In 1943, some of the team owners from the Pacific Coast League had petitioned Commissioner Landis to let them sign Lou Dials and Chet Brewer to the Los Angeles Angels. Phil Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, protested loud and long. The idea was dropped.
Dials spat on the ground, saying, "Every time I spit this gum juice between my feet, I think of Mr. Wrigley. Yeah, Papa, I've been saying some bad things about the White Leagues and some real good things about the Negro Leagues. I even said they were scared to let us play `cause they knew we'd show them up. But I'm real careful about where I'm standing when I talk. Nobody's going to lynch me."
He laughed sadly, adding, "Of course, nobody's ever going to let me play in the White Leagues, either. But some of our boys will get there soon and, eventually, a whole lot of them will make it. Even Old Satch will get up there. In `48, with Cleveland. He'll be forty-two years old and one of the oldest rookies in the history of the world, but he'll make it. In 1971, they'll elect him to the Hall of Fame."
"Now I know you been smoking something, Lou. You expect me to believe a colored man'll be in the Hall of Fame? I was almost believing you, till you said that."
Dials reached inside his shirt, pulling out a small, leather bag on the end of a strip of rawhide. Waving it in front of Bell, he said, "See this?"
"So? You got some ratty old bag hanging around your neck. So what?"
"I'll tell you so what," Dials answered, returning it to its place of concealment. "When my old granny was just a little girl, she tended to a new slave who'd just been smuggled in out of Africa. He'd been whipped for being sassy and Granny looked after him till he was better. Anyway, he gave her this and told her that whenever things got bad, so bad she wanted to die, then she should hold this in her hand and concentrate real hard on being somewhere different, somewhere nice. And it worked real good for her, Papa, better than that old slave ever knew.
"Three years ago, when the Coast League was trying to get me, she told me I might as well forget it, some white fella in Chicago wasn't going to let it happen. She told me I'd never get in the White Leagues but that lots of our people would if I helped by stirring things up. She was a withered up old thing about a hundred and ten years old and she died right after telling me that, but not before she passed this charm onto me and taught me how to use it. Well, I've been using it even better than she did, like it gets stronger with age or with being passed along."
A cheer went up from the stands. Bell glanced out on the field as another player from the Newark Eagles, Monte Irvin, stole home on a wild pitch.
"Okay, Lou," Bell said after a long hesitation. "So what is this place?"
"Well, that's hard to say. Old Granny told me about the place where she went when things were bad, a place of nice, sandy beaches and the sweet smell of flowers. Well, this here is my place. A place of perfect blue skies and the scent of new mown grass and diamond dust heated by the sun. A place to play. A place where ballplayers have no color, just skill. And I can find this place whenever I want. So can these other players but I don't think they really know they're here. Maybe they dream it, maybe part of them just finds a way here when their spirits are low. I don't know. They're here, that's all. They started coming right after I found this place, right after the war started making a mess of baseball. They come to play the best baseball anybody ever saw. And the fans come to see it."
"I brought you here. I kinda turned Satchell's pitch a bit so it would hit you. That's the only way I could think of to get your attention."
Angry, Bell hissed, "You better have a good goddamn' reason for getting me beaned like that."
"Be cool, Papa. That's your name, isn't it? Cool Papa. So be cool. I need your help with something. This isn't the only place I go when I need to get away. Sometimes, I just go up the road apiece to see what's waiting for us in the future, you know..."
"That's how you know about Doby and Robinson and all?"
Dials nodded his head. "I tried going down the road apiece to see where we all came from, but that didn't work out so good. I can only go up the road. And some of the things I've seen there... You see Joe Black over there in the other dugout? He'll be the first colored man to win at pitching in the White World Series, only it won't be white anymore, just the World Series. Him and Campy and Jackie'll be there. And Ray Dandridge out there, he won't make it into the big leagues but he'll get assigned to Minneapolis by the Giants where he'll take this kid Willie Mays under his wing and teach him how to burn up the big leagues.
"We got amazing things ahead of us. Why, in 1974, a fella named Henry Aaron will break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record..."
"I heard we got a fella in our league who already did that, beat the Babe..."
"Records from our league don't count for much. But you wait till we get going in the White Leagues. Then you'll see some records."
"What about me, Lou?"
Troubled, Dials bowed his head, staring at his feet. He spat some gum juice, ground it into the dirt with his foot, saying, "I guess it won't happen for you, Papa. Up in the seventies, same year as some Yankees called Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, you'll get voted into the Hall of Fame. But you won't be playing in the White Leagues."
"No?" Bell said quietly.
Dials shook his head sadly. "In `51, the Browns will invite you up but you'll turn them down."
"I'll be forty-seven years old then."
"Why would they wait so long? Man, right now, even at forty-two, I'm one of the best in the game but who the hell knows what can happen in the next five years? I could be all worn out by then. Why the hell would they wait so long?"
"Integration won't be all that quick a thing, Papa. It'll be 1959 before the last holdout, the Boston Red Sox, calls up a man of color."
"Still, I guess the Hall of Fame ain't too bad," Papa Bell sighed sadly, shaking his head, staring into the blue sky beyond the outfield fence. "Okay, Lou, so if that's the way it is then that's the way it is. Why'd you bring me here?"
"I wanted you to see this place and I wanted to tell you you're welcome here anytime for as long as you like."
"That's real nice but that ain't all."
"I need your help with something."
"I'm waiting, Lou. Just tell me what it is."
Dials spat again. "See that Monte Irvin over there? He's twenty-seven years old and he's damn' good and he needs a shot at the White Leagues. If all goes well, he'll get called up by the Giants in 1949. He'll do real well and get himself inducted into the Hall of Fame in '73. But he needs your help to get there."
"How do you figure? I don't see how there's anything I can do for him. Maybe you reckon all those white folks out there are just waiting to hear the word from Cool Papa Bell before they make any of their decisions?"
Laughing, Dials said, "I can't really tell you what to do, Papa. But he's a sharp player and almost as good a hitter as you."
"Almost," Bell agreed. "He comes as close as anybody."
"But you're awful old compared to him."
"I don't suppose you're actually trying to get me mad, Dials, but you're doing it."
"Listen, Papa, you keep playing the way you're playing and the white folks aren't likely to notice Monte but you still won't get your shot till '51. And like I said, you're awful old compared to him. He needs a chance to get seen by the White Leagues and only you can help him."
"Only me, huh?"
"Hey, Papa," Judy Johnson called, interrupting them. "My batter just pulled up lame crossing the bag at first. I need a pinch runner. You wanna play?"
"You want me in for the rest of the game? Or just to run?"
"You can play short, can't you?"
"I can play anyplace."
"Then get in there. Get me a base. Williams'll hit you home for sure."
Trotting to first base, brain stuffed with new information that it could not quite absorb, Bell looked at Monte Irvin in the outfield. As he reached the bag, he put Irvin and Dials from his conscious thoughts. He focused on the game, watching Ted Williams step into the batter's box, then looking over to the mound. As Newk Newcombe stared at him, Bell took a short lead.
Newcombe went into his windup and Cool Papa Bell was halfway to second base before the man released his pitch.
Williams took a strike.
Bell went into second standing.
On the next pitch, with Bell on his way to third, Williams smacked a grounder between first and second. Bell scored before the ball was returned to the infield.
Feeling awed, stunned, he played out the rest of the game. Not one of his white teammates gave the impression that they thought his presence was peculiar. He let his body and part of his mind play on reflex while he tried to sort out Dials' information.
By the end of the game, he knew what he was going to do. As he made his decision, his eyes opened on a crowd of faces that were staring down at him.
"I'm all right," he said.
Hands helped him up and someone told him, "Sit this one out, Papa."
"No. I ain't quitting."
"It's all right, Papa. It's only one game."
He swayed and bowed his head, let his mates support him while he looked over their ragged uniforms and scuffed cleats and crumpled, battered caps. He thought about how good the future looked for some of them in their clean, white uniforms in clean, white locker rooms with clean, white teammates and much more money and honor.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe I better sit this one out."
They helped him back to the bench where he found Lou Dials waiting for him.
"I came over from the bleachers to see if you're okay," Dials said. "That was a helluva bean ball."
"That it was," Bell said. "I'd be mad, `cept I know Old Satch didn't mean it."
"I know," Dials said, pulling the talisman from under his shirt.
Bell nodded towards it. "I'm seeing double right now. I won't likely be too good for the whole rest of the season. Oh, I'll have a few great games now and then and folks'll think I'm back to normal. But I don't reckon I will be. I wouldn't be surprised if that Monte Irvin fella over in Newark takes the batting title away from me this year. People'll think Satch knocked the hitting right outta me."
"Some powerful folks'll notice when Monte finishes up with a three-ninety-eight average this year."
"A three-ninety-eight hitter ought to have a good chance at the White Leagues... if anybody does."
"That's for sure," Dials said. "It won't be long before people are talking about how Cool Papa Bell threw the batting title in 1946 so Monte Irvin could get his shot at the White Leagues. They'll all be saying, tens of thousands of them, even white folks, will be saying how they were at the games when he started missing pitches and their lies will take on a life of their own until these folks actually start to believe themselves. And they'll be saying Cool Papa would've hit over four hundred easy if he hadn't wanted to do that favor for Monte. They may never stop talking about him."
Bell closed his eyes, thinking about what he was giving up and remembering Dials' perfect blue sky and fresh cut grass and diamond dust and how the scent of hot dogs wafted down from the stands when the breeze was right.
Fraser lives in Burlington, Ontario and can be contacted at: email@example.com
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