That put Reggie Polk on the ground. Bunch of other players cackled, swiped arms. Ruth, though, he surprised Luther. Those wide eyes went small and clear as the sky, and Luther got it right away: With a bat in his hand, he was as old as any of them.
Ruth popped an unlit cigar in his mouth and loosened his tie. "Picked up a thing or two in my travels, Mr. . . . ?"
"Laurence, suh. Luther Laurence." Luther still giving him that stone face.
Ruth put an arm around him. Arm the size of Luther's bed. "What position you play, Luther?"
"Center field, suh."
"Well, boy, you don't have to worry about nothing then but tilting your head."
"Tilting my head, suh?"
"And watching my ball fly right over it."
Luther couldn't help himself; the grin blew across his face.
"And stop calling me 'suh,' would you, Luther? We're baseball players here."
Oh, it was something the first time Sticky Joe whiffed him! Three strikes, all right down the pipe like thread following the needle, the fat man never once touching cowhide.
He laughed after the last one, pointed his bat at Sticky Joe and gave him a big nod. "But I'm learning you, boy. Learning you like I'm awake in school."
No one wanted to let him pitch, so he subbed for a player each inning in the rest of the field. Nobody minded sitting for an inning. Babe Ruth--Lord's sake. Might not want no sad little signature, but the stories would buy some drinks for a long time.
One inning he played left and Luther was over in center and Reggie Polk, who was pitching for their side, was taking his sweet time between pitches like he was apt to do, and Ruth said, "So what do you do, Luther, when you're not playing ball?"
Luther told him a bit about his job in a munitions factory outside of Columbus, how war was a terrible thing but it sure could help a man's pocket, and Ruth said, "That's the truth," though it sounded to Luther like he said it just to say it, not because he really understood, and then he asked Luther what had happened to his face.
"Cactus, Mr. Ruth."
They heard the crack of the bat and Ruth chased down a soft-fade fly ball, moving like a ballerina on his stumpy little tiptoes and throwing the ball back into second.
"Lotta cactus in Ohio? Hadn't heard that."
Luther smiled. "Actually, Mr. Ruth sir, they be called 'cacti' when you talking 'bout more'n one. And, sho', there's great fields of them all over the state. Bushels and bushels of cacti."
"And you, what, fell into one of these fields?"
"Yes, suh. Fell hard, too."
"Looks like you fell from an airplane."
Luther shook his head real slow. "Zeppelin, Mr. Ruth."
They both had a long soft laugh over that, Luther still chuckling when he raised his glove and stole Rube Gray's shot right out of the sky.
The next inning, some white men straggled out of the trees, and they recognized a few of them right off--Stuffy McInnis, no lie; Everett Scott, Lord; and then a couple of Cubs, dear Jesus--Flack, Mann, a third guy no one knew by face, could have played for either team. They worked their way along right field, and pretty soon they were standing behind the rickety old bench along the first base line, wearing suits and ties and hats in the heat, smoking cigars, occasionally shouting to someone named "Gidge," confusing the hell out of Luther until he realized that's what they called Ruth. Next time Luther looked, he saw they'd been joined by three more--Whiteman of the Sox and Hollocher, the Cubs shortstop, and some skinny boy with a red face and a chin that stuck out like an extra flap of skin who no one recognized, and Luther didn't like that number--eight of them plus Ruth comprising a full team.
For an inning or so everything was fine and the white men kept mostly to themselves, couple of them making ape sounds and a few more calling out, "Don't miss that ball, tar baby. Coming in hot," or "Should've got under it more, jigaboo," but shit, Luther'd heard worse, a lot worse. He just didn't like how every time he looked over, the eight of them seemed to have moved an inch or two closer to the fi rst base line, and pretty soon it was hard to run that way, beat out a throw with white men so close on your right you could smell their cologne.
And then between innings, one of them said it: "Why don't you let one of us have a try?"
Luther noticed Ruth looking like he was trying to find a hole to climb into.
"Whadaya say, Gidge? Think your new friends would mind if one of us played a few? Keep hearing how good these nigras are supposed to be. Run faster'n butter on the porch in July is the rumor."
The man held out his hands to Babe. He was one of the few no one recognized, must have been a bench warmer. Big hands, though, a fl attened nose and axe-head shoulders, the man all hard boxy angles. Had eyes Luther'd seen before in the white poor--spent his whole life eating rage in place of food. Developed a taste for it he wouldn't lose no matter how regular he ate for the rest of his life.
He smiled at Luther like he knew what he was thinking. "What you say, boy? Maybe let one of us fellas take a cut or two?"
Rube Gray volunteered to sit a spell and the white men elected Stuffy McGinnis as their latest trade to the Southern Ohio Nigra League, haw-hawing in that donkey laugh big white men seemed to share, but Luther had to admit it was fine with him: Stuffy McInnis could play, boy. Luther'd been reading up on him since he'd broken in back in '09 with Philadelphia.
After the inning's final out, though, Luther came jogging in from center to find the other white men all lined up by home plate, the lead guy, Chicago's Flack, resting a bat on his shoulder.
Babe tried, at least for a moment, Luther'd give him that. He said, "Come on now, fellas, we were having us a game."
Flack gave him a big, bright smile. "Gonna have us a better game now, Ruth. See how these boys do against the best in the American and National Leagues."
"Oh, you mean, the white leagues?" Sticky Joe Beam said. "That what ya'll talking about?"
They all looked over at him.
"What'd you say, boy?"
Sticky Joe Beam was forty-two years old and looked like a slice of burnt bacon. He pursed his lips, looked down at the dirt, and then up at the line of white men in such a way that Luther figured there'd be a fi ght coming.
"Said let's see what you got." He stared at them. "Uh, suhs."
Luther looked over at Ruth, met his eyes, and the big baby-faced fat boy gave him a shaky smile. Luther remembered a line from the Bible his grandmother used to repeat a lot when he was growing up, about how the heart be willing but the flesh be weak.