Fiction

The Greatest Ever

By Mark Kodama

            When the wrought iron gates of St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys swung wide, George was just an unwanted reform school boy destined for oblivion. But George Herman Ruth could play baseball better than any other kid in school. And he had hope.

            George turned to Brother Matthias. Like a mother bird, edging her chick toward the edge of her nest, urging her to fly Brother Matthias said “Go on, George. The gentle giant Brother Matthias clutched the small plain gold cross that hung from his immense neck and smiled. “The whole world is out there for you. Make the best of your opportunity for sometimes it only makes itself known to you in only an instant. Trust in God.”

            The 17-year-old George left the reform school with Jack Dunn, the owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles, his new legal guard. Three months later, Dunn sold his contract to the Boston Red Sox.

            The Great War ended followed by the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic. Prohibition started. Jazz music played in Harlem and New York City.

            Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the new baseball commissioner, like the angry God of Moses, banned the eight men who threw the 1919 World Series from the sport for life.

            It was the roaring 20’s. People had enough of high ideals, hard work, pursuit of the American dream. The economy boomed. It was time for fun.

            The Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, the Babe – the most uncommon of common men – was a new type of hero for a new age.

            What if it never happened? What if it all was a dream? What if it was something that happened in an alternate universe?

***

            Big George Lonigan was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. He pitched great before he became a great hitter. Had he pitched his entire career, he would have made the Hall of Fame. His World Series streak of 27 consecutive scoreless innings still stands unbroken in the record books.

            But he America would forever remembered him as the greatest hitter who ever lived. Nobody could hit the baseball like The Kid.

            Four homeruns in a game. Sixty in a season. Six hundred in his career, one far from over. They said he was finished – all washed up – the womanizing, hard drinking and overeating – had destroyed him – only for him to roar back – better than ever.

            Yankee Stadium – the House that Lonigan Built – home of Murderers Row – Combs, Koenig. Gehrig, Lazzeri, Meusel and of course The Kid. Perhaps the best team ever.

            World Champions. Sweeping the vaunted National League Champions Pittsburgh Pirates in four games. One hundred ten wins, .307 batting average, 975 runs scored. Six players, plus their manager and president were inducted in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. They steamrolled themselves into baseball history. And certainly The Kid was the straw that stirred the drink.

            In 1928, the Yankees did it again, finishing first in the American League and then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in four games in the World Series.

***

            Lonigan took a cab to downtown Manhattan to his favorite speakeasy bar the Rabbit Hole. He and a couple of his teammates wound through the warren of backstreets of New York City to a cobblestone alley, reeking of garbage and urine.

            They moved swiftly in the night with Lonigan in the lead. At 6-foot-two, 240 pounds, Lonigan dominated the other players but was surprisingly agile on his feet. It was the Winter solstice. Snow blanketed the city. He wore his great bear coat that hung to just above his two-toned shoes.

            He turned to his teammate Bill. “Jiminy! What the fuck was that password again?” Vapor emanated from his mouth in the chilly winter air.

            “Is Alice there?” Bill said.

            He banged on the steel door in the dark alley. A man opened a slot in the door. “Yes.”

            “Is Alice there?” Lonigan asked.

            The door opened and the three men entered the bar. As they descended down the creaking wooden steps, loud jazz music blasted the stairwell each time the downstairs door opened.

            The maitre d greeted them at the door. Although it was 10 p.m., the politicians, mafia kingpins, the businessmen, lawyers and sportswriters smoked and drank in the already crowded bar. Hundreds of faces he would remember but whose names he had forgotten.

            Beautiful women – flappers – with their tight rounded bodies – danced to the live jazz band of black musicians through the white smoke clouds. The bar was festooned in Christmas cheer.

            The maitre d with a slight French accent checked in their overcoats and showed them to their table covered with white linen cloth. “Kid!” the politicians and sportswriters called to him. Lonigan flashed his boyish smile.

            “Who’s that?” a beautiful young woman at the bar asked as she took a drag of her cigarette, her musical voice not yet coarsened by her chain smoking. She was drinking whiskey sours with a middle-aged sportswriter.

            The old newspaperman had a tumbler in one hand and a cigarette between in yellow nicotine stained fingers in the other. A cloud of smoke blew into the cloudy miasma of the underground bar as the woman exhaled.

            “That is the great Lonigan” the reporter said.

            Lonigan and his teammates ordered drinks and plates of chicken wings as they scanned the smoked-filled room for available women. They hid their thick gold wedding bands in their pockets and flashed their fine gold watches for all to see. Their breath smelled of fresh mouthwash and bodies of expensive cologne. 

            A beautiful young woman eyed Lonigan from the bar. She noted his expensive watch and shoes. She had dark black hair and red ruby lips that formed into a kind of pout. When the waiter bought their drinks to them, he raised his whiskey tumbler to her and drank it down in one gulp. She smiled.

            When her girlfriend returned to the bar, they both came over. Lonigan stood up and pulled their chairs for them. The young woman sat next to Lonigan and put her hand on his thigh.

            Later when his teammates left and the women were at other tables, a man in a dark pin-striped suit and fedora hat, sat at his table.

            “I’m Marty,” he said.

            “George Lonigan.”

            “The baseball player, right?”

            “Yeah, that’s me.”

            “I hear you need help on a problem.”

            “I don’t know what you mean.”

            “Wife troubles.”

            “Who are you?”

            “A friend of Sal’s.”

            “I don’t know no Sal.”

            “Well, he knows you.”

            “What are you suggesting?”
            “Let’s just say I know a great lawyer – a lawyer who is good at fixing marital problems.”

            “Yes.”

            “He can fix them.”

            “I ain’t got no problems with the missus.”

            “I hear otherwise. Here is my card.”

***

            Lonigan returned to his apartment sometime after 4 a.m. His girlfriend Jennifer was away with her 12-year-old daughter taking her back to her private school in upstate New York.

            There was always a new girl but Jennifer was his steady. She was 30 years old, a university graduate, and sometimes model.

            Unlike his wife, Jennifer liked New York City and the nightlife. Annie was a fish out of water here. He rarely saw Annie anymore. She depressed him. She was shacking up with a doctor named Kennedy in Boston. She even claimed to be married to him.

            Last month, he asked Annie for a divorce so he could marry Jennifer. He was 18 when he married Annie; she was 16. They both were too young. Annie was now 30. She was heavier but her face was still young and beautiful but her sunken eyes looked ancient. She wore her diamond brooch and her large diamond wedding ring, trappings of happier bygone days.

            To complicate things, Annie also was taking care of their adopted nine-year-old daughter Miriam. Fortunately, Mariam was away at boarding school.  

            The whole thing went so badly. Annie and her sister met him at his publicist’s office. When Annie demanded $100,000, naturally he stormed out. He would not be black mailed.

            Lonigan pulled off his silk shirt and his white and black kangaroo leather shoes and hand-made New York suit. He would figure this out in the morning.

            He needed a smoke. He reached into his suit pocket for another cigar and found Marty’s business card.

***

            In the morning Lonigan called Marty and agreed to meet him at his law firm in Brooklyn Heights. Kid Lonigan drove his new Cadillac out to the Law Office of Luca and Luca.

            “Don’t worry, Mr. Lonigan. We’ll take care of everything,” Mr. Luca said, his dark hair was slicked back as was the style back then. He wore a dark pin-striped handmade suit. He looked more like a mobster than a lawyer.

            “How much?”

            “We’ll need a $10,000 retainer,” Mr. Luca said.

            “That’s a little steep.”

            “A lot less than $100,000,” Marty said as he put his hand on the big guy’s back. “We will get a private eye on her tail. That will get her off your back. Here, let me help you with your bear coat.”

***

            About a week later, Kid Lonigan cruised the night for excitement. He was an adrenaline junkie. Unlike his teammates, he fed off the nocturnal delights of the city, the drinking and carousing. It only made him play better.

            Growing up in reform school was not easy. It was like being in prison, shut off in a kind of time warp existence, removed from regular society. Seldom did his mother and father come to see him.

            Now, he was loved by everyone. Everyone was falling over him to be his friend. During the winters he flew to Los Angeles to make movies. All the women wanted to sleep with him. Children looked up to him. All his jokes were funny; everything he said was wise.  Even presidents wanted to shake his hand and be seen with him. And the more he was loved, the more he needed to be loved.

            He had come a long way for the unwanted boy they called “Nigger Lips.” As a rookie, the veterans hated his brashness and called him the “Big Baboon.” At one point, he challenged the name caller through his tears to a fight.

            And now, he was married with a family; he was an American hero; he saved baseball from the gamblers. Kid Lonigan made more money than the President of the United States. He embodied the American dream.

            When he got home, it was a little after 5 a.m. He thought about the four girls he had fucked that night, the last one worked on him while he guzzled beer and wolfed down handfuls of peanuts, throwing the shells onto the wood floor.

            He shrugged off his bear coat and threw it on the settee. Jennifer was still with her daughter in upstate New York.

            He went to the ice box for a beer and to make himself a baloney sandwich. The phone rang. It was Marty.

            “All taken care of chief,” he said.

            “What?” Lonigan said, angry at being called at this hour.
            “All taken care of?”

            “What do you mean? This better be good.”

            “Your wife. Annie.”

            “Why are you calling me now?”

            “I tried to call you last night. I saw you at the club but you seemed a little busy.”

            “What news do you have about Annie?”

            “I’ll hop in a cab and come right over,” he said.

            When Marty arrived, Kid Lonigan was in a foul mood.

            Marty threw a large envelope into his lap with something thing heavy in it.

            When Lonigan unsealed the envelope he found a diamond brooch that was burnt. It was the one he gave to Annie for their first anniversary.

            “What the  . . .” he said.

            “Your wife or shall I say your ex is dead,” Marty said nd grinned.

            Lonigan looked up in amazement.

            “Killed in a house fire in Boston last night,” Marty continued.

            “What? . . .  what do you mean?”

            “It will be in the newspaper tomorrow.”

            “Look Marty, I don’t like you joking about my wife.”

            “Kid, she’s dead. It will be in the Boston Post tomorrow. Except, it will not say it is your wife.”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “She goes by Annie Kennedy. She’s been shacking up with Dr. Kennedy.”

            “What about our daughter Miriam?”

            “She’s fine. She is in boarding school.”

            “Does she know yet?”

            “No. It only happened last night.”

            Kid Lonigan began to weep. “Oh . . .  oh . . .  Annie.”

            “Take it easy, Kid. You are free. Don’t do anything crazy.” Marty patted Longigan on his shoulder and left, closing the door behind him with a click.

***

            Annie’s body was embalmed and ready for burial. Dr. Thomas Kennedy her purported husband told police that he had gone out to the fights that night. When he returned his house was in flames and his wife dead on the bedroom floor, asphyxiated by the smoke and burned by fire.

            Her sister saw her face in the newspaper and reported her death to the police. She was not Annie Kennedy but Annie Lonigan, estranged wife of the baseball star. The burial was stopped and the police brought Dr. Kennedy in for questioning.

            Dr. Kennedy was a family friend. An autopsy revealed that Annie died from smoke inhalation and trauma from fire. The fire started on the first floor caused by faulty electrical wiring. The police detetives found the death to be accidental.

            At Annie’s funeral, the Kid broke down and wept. He could feel her presence everywhere. Her spirit was in the casket, in the flowers in the chair next to him. He saw her face everywhere. He had to be carried from the funeral.

            Kid Lonigan met Annie in June 1914 during his rookie season with the Boston Red Sox. He was 18; she was 16. He met her at a diner where she worked as a waitress. They were married three months later.

            The marriage was a rocky one. Annie was quiet and liked her privacy. The Kid was loud and demanded attention.

            One time they went to a carnival. The Kid had them stop the Ferris wheel while they were at the top. The Kid violently rocked the Ferris wheel scaring Annie.

            Later, when the Kid and a chimpanzee imitated each other, Annie said “Look, Kid, he knows you.”

            The Kid and Annie tried to have children but Annie kept having miscarriages. Finally, they separated after Annie was hospitalized because of a nervous condition.

            Friends whispered that the Kid had given her syphilis and that she finally broke down.    She became addicted to opium.

***

            Three months after the funeral, the Kid married Jennifer. After his marriage to Jennifer, the headaches started. The Kid began to get migraines behind his left eye.

            “I didn’t do it,” the Kid said to no one in particular. “I only wanted for us to go our separate ways. Why didn’t you just listen to me?”

            The Kid began to slow down, get injured. He was soon washed up and retired from baseball. His new wife henpecked him incessantly. “You have chased away every friend I have ever had,” he shouted.

            “I made you everything you are today,” Jennifer replied.

            Kid Lonigan started to slide into a kind of madness.

***

            One summer day, a giant electrical storm descended upon New York City. The wind howled; day turned into night; thunder shook the very foundations of the hotel he lived in as lightning appeared to shatter the sky into a million pieces of glass.   

            Kid Lonigan began to shake and sweat in his bed. The headaches made him feel like his head turned into a giant watermelon and somebody was smashing it to pieces with a baseball bat.

            Lonigan climbed from his bed and knelt on the floor and began to speak to a phantom that only he could see. “I’m sorry, Annie,” he sobbed. “I never meant to hurt you.

            “I’m a nobody,” he said. “I have never been anybody and I will never be anybody. I am just a poor unwanted reform school kid from Baltimore.”

***

            When Kid Lonigan awoke he was in the prison hospital ward, lying in row of beds separated by white curtains, dying of cancer. He could not remember who he was. It was as if it was all a dream.

            Outside his window through the bars, prisoners were playing baseball in the prison yard.

            Another prisoner turned on the baseball game on the radio. It was the 1932 World Series. Babe Ruth was batting against Cubs pitcher Charlie Root.

            “The Babe is pointing to centerfield,” the announcer said. “There has been bad blood all day. The Cubs and Yankees have been merciless.”

            You could hear the crack of the bat over the radio. Babe Ruth hit the ball out of the park, over the centerfield wall, near the flag pole. His famous called shot.

            Babe Ruth – the greatest baseball player ever.

Categories: Fiction

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