August 16, 1920
It was a hot one out there at the Polo Grounds.
The stinging heat of the late summer day sliced right through the heavy wool uniforms we were wearing, soaking them with sweat and dirt until we felt like buttered toast.
It was the top of the fifth inning. Boy, those damn Yankees fans were really on our case all day. It was a big game after all, but those Bronx bums just wouldn’t zip it. Boos and smart guy jive rained down from the moment we took the field. Mays was on the bump – Carl, not Willie – for the Yanks. Who’s Willie Mays? Why do I know that name? I feel like I shouldn’t, but somehow, I do.
Mays was a tough hurler. His strange submarine delivery made things even tougher – I don’t know how the hell he kept from slamming his hand square into the mound on delivery. By the fifth the ball was fully covered in dirt and tobacco and God knows what else, so it was hard to see. I remember Speaker telling me before the game to back off the plate against Mays, but I loved challenging the pitcher, and if the third sacker was playing far back, I could get a bunt down.
Mays went into his wind up and delivered the pitch.
I remember being in the stuffy, bronze elevator, grateful that the light was dim. It was hot and hard to breathe. “For God’s sake don’t call Kate” I said to John Henry, my closest friend, who seemed like he was holding me up – I wasn’t sure why.
Present Day – Somewhere…Out There
An old tune that I knew to be called “Good-Bye Boys, I’m Through” kept ringing in my head.
I used to whistle this little ditty out of habit, every place I went. I kept hearing it, as though a band were playing it, though it sounded disoriented now; distant, and unsettling.
Suddenly a voice thundered over the wispy music.
“Chappie? Chappie! There you are kid! Boy am I glad to see you!” It was a familiar voice.
“Spoke? What are you – where are – what’s happened?” I said to my old manager, teammate and friend, Tris Speaker. I could tell it was him, but not what he was wearing, either of us for that matter. We seemed to be half-transparent like we were made from fog. I figured it must have just been the sleep in my eyes.
He let out a hearty laugh.
“Been looking for you for a while, Chap. Knew you were here someplace.”
The song started playing again.
I looked around the strange, bright room. If it can even be called it a room, that is. There were no walls that I could see, but the ground felt solid. A silvery sky shone brightly overhead and other ephemeral shapes like us were phasing in and out in all directions, like a mirage on the horizon. It was a fast and confusing scene, but felt oddly comfortable, like I had been here before.
Where is here? Why do I keep thinking about Carl Mays? And why do I keep hearing this song?
“What’s going on?” I asked, looking around. “The game, Spoke. What happened?”
Spoke, yes, that was his nickname. That much I knew with certainty.
“Then John was with me in the elevator…then you were here. What – “
“Relax,” He smiled reassuringly. “You’re right where you are supposed to be, kid.”
Speaker put a strong hand on my shoulder, which I felt despite not fully seeing it. “It happened to me too, the confusion. It’s just some kind of a rule here, I reckon. We had to see if you were supposed to come with us.”
“Come where?” I asked.
“Follow me, kid.”
“Wait a second, Spoke. Where’s Kate? Where’s Rae?”
“They’re here,” he said, gesturing behind him. They are right where they are supposed to be too.” Spoke answered.
Little by little my memories were coming back: Growing up in southern Illinois; playing ball; the Indians; Spoke; my wife Kate and our daughter.
My beautiful daughter Rae, whom I never met.
She died when she was young – and away from me. Or was it me having been pulled away from her?
As I walked with Spoke, we chatted. With each step things felt a bit clearer and I was remembering now – but this part was new. There were others around us now. I couldn’t fully see them though. They were more like outlines that breezed in and then away, like wisps of morning fog. But I heard them. I recognized their chatter – they sounded like ballplayers yackin’ it up!
Through all the voices, clear as a bell, I heard someone shout “stick it you bastard!” followed by a roar of laughter. I noticed that I was standing alone now. The silvery mist rolled away and there stood my friend Tris again, still grinning, but we were in a different setting now.
“Look.” he said, his arms outstretched.
A surge of surprised excitement rippled through me. We were in an old clubhouse. Our clubhouse at League Park in Cleveland.
Amazingly, Spoke and I were both fully solid now, in our old uniforms, and the distant thrum of a crowd could be heard droning on above and around us, as if it were minutes before a game. Yet somehow, I just knew that League Park was torn down long ago. This very clubhouse was demolished, now just a concrete tomb under the ghostly land above. How could we be here?
Spoke’s smile widened along with his eyes. I know this smile. It feels like I haven’t seen it in a hundred years, but only the great Tris Speaker could whip up an excited grin like that; like a schoolchild waiting the final seconds for arithmetic to end and recess to begin.
He only smiled that way when we were about to play ball.
“You’re going to love this, Chap. The game goes on forever here.”
“This is the one part you’ve been missing.”
“What part, Spoke? What the hell does that even mean?”
“We just had to make sure you were ready. The waiting is tough, I know. But let’s go,” he said, tilting his head as an invite toward the doorway.
With a warped creaking, the wooden door closed behind us. We trotted down a short flight of stairs and into a tunnel. After a few steps, I turned and looked back and saw the door had vanished and the damp, concrete enclosure seemed to go on endlessly. Then another small stairwell appeared before us – these I knew. They led right up to our dugout at League Park. I began to wonder again.
We emerged not into our first base dugout but instead, strangely, in left-center field.
Instantly, we were engulfed by the bright, sunlit blue sky of a perfect summer day. Ballplayers were warming up on the field, only this was a field unlike any I had ever seen before.
“I told you, Chap. Worth the wait.” Spoke said proudly, clapping his hands together.
We walked toward the third base dugout and as we got closer the huge, double-decked grandstands began to materialize from out of nowhere, the seats filled by enthused fans. The unmistakable smells of the ballpark – cigars, roasting peanuts, stale beer and hot dogs – erupted around me like an ocean wave. Sounds of countless voices on the field and in the stands burst with pregame energy, increasing with each step we took.
In the first row just beside the dugout stood Kate and Rae, waving their arms frantically in my direction. I ran to them.
“My darling!” I said, pausing a lengthy moment to make sure it was really her. I tossed my cap on the dirt before kissing my wife and picking up my daughter to become enveloped in one of her neck-crushing hugs. It felt like I hadn’t seen either one of them in ages.
“If perfect could be more perfect, this is it,” Kate was absolutely beaming with her auburn-brown hair spilling playfully below her yellow bonnet. Her light brown eyes that so captured my gaze the day we met sparkled with flecks of gold in the sunlight. “This is the last part for you – for us. Go get ‘em!”
I still wasn’t sure what this “part” was about, but I think I understood well enough. I nodded to her as she smiled, and then pinched little Rae’s rosy cheeks, setting off a whirlwind of giggles.
Looking around the diamond, I noticed that Spoke and I were the only Indians players out here. Fellas from the White Sox, Athletics, Browns, Cubs, Senators and more, were all here too, like this was a monumental game of all stars. There were even players here from the minors and some other teams I never heard of. Some of their uniforms looked strange to me, even futuristic.
Teams were chosen like we would in a schoolyard, and an announcer bellowed the lineups to the crowd behind home plate through a megaphone.
Then we played. Oh, how we all played!
It was the greatest game I’ve ever been part of at any ballpark. There was more joy, more pure bliss in this game than I ever experienced on any field before. It was different at first, having to get used to new teammates – guys like Rogers Hornsby and Cap Anson. Luckily, Spoke was on my team. He seemed to be looking out for me from the moment we got here, always making sure I was paying attention to something or expecting the unknown. The great Addie Joss took the mound for our team and we were to face a lad named Pud Galvin. Looking toward the bullpen, we had Smoky Joe Wood and my old pal Stan Coveleski ready to go just in case. The other team had Rube Benton and Lefty Williams among others in their pen, prepared to step in for Galvin if our batsmen got to him.
It was the two greatest teams ever assembled.
Throughout the game, more and more memories came back. Only they were deeper than memories. They felt like knowledge. I didn’t think I knew everyone on the field, nor the fans in the stands except my family, but something sure felt like I did, or was about to. Maybe even supposed to.
Something felt right here. I just didn’t know precisely where here was. Only that I belonged.
The great contest went to extra innings and ended in just as spectacular a fashion as it began.
It was the bottom of the eleventh with two outs and the score tied, 2-2. Galvin gave way to Williams in the ninth and he brought the same great trickery I had faced before. We pushed runs across in the fourth and eighth innings, but the other boys matched them each time. Spoke stood in the third base coaches’ box and gave me the hit away sign, although I had a bunt single earlier in the game – which I pushed down the first base line. Nobody dared bunt toward third base, where Buck Weaver prowled the grounds like a hunter cat set to pounce on a daring mouse. Not even Cobb would lay one down toward third when he played against the Sox. Weaver was too good, too fast and had too strong of an arm.
I fouled off the first pitch. Then took ball one low and away. I noticed my teammate, a nice foreign fellow named Roberto Clemente shuffling far off second base with the pitch. He was going to get a good jump – a single would score him easily.
Williams rocked back and fired, going low and away again. I waited back on the changeup as the pitch caught just enough of the plate. I whacked at it, slicing a blue darter toward right center field. I got underneath it just a tick but still hit it well. But with that speedy gent Cool Papa Bell playing center, who already killed three would-be triples in the game, I feared it might not get down. As I ran toward first base with my eyes on the ball, Clemente was already rounding third. All the ball had to do was land anywhere other than Bell’s glove and we would win.
As if by some ethereal breeze blowing suddenly in, the ball held up just a hair and dropped right in front of Bell’s diving attempt. Safe hit.
The overflow crowd roared in approval as I rounded first base. My teammates burst from the dugout and were mobbing around Clemente who had scored the winning run. My Lord have I missed this, I thought to myself, wondering just how long it’s really been.
I ran to join the others and we celebrated on the field, jumping around, shaking hands, patting each other on the cap, as you do after a big victory. In the stands, Kate and Rae cheered and clapped, their smiles warming every single part of me. I had never felt such pure contentment. Yet, something still felt unanswered.
I ran to Kate, eager to share my excitement.
“You were great Ray! I’m so happy Tris brought you here!” Kate said, basking in the celebratory atmosphere.
“Me too, only where is –,” I began before Kate shushed me.
With her little demure smile that I so loved, she motioned toward the outfield cut just behind second base.
There stood Spoke, with two others. All the other players had apparently gone – how so quickly, I could only guess. I walked to them, as they jeered and laughed after such a fine ballgame.
“Way to go Chappie,” said the great Shoeless Joe Jackson, my old friend and teammate in Cleveland, whom I later played against when he was sold to the White Sox. He played on the other team today, collected a pair of hits and even stole home on Joss in the fifth.
“Thanks Joe, you too!” I said as we shook hands. “Up to your usual tricks swiping home like that!”
Joe shrugged with that you-know-me expression of his.
“See you boys tomorrow.” Joe said as he nodded slowly and knowingly to Spoke, which drew my curious stare. He then walked off, slyly winking at me as he did.
The other man, our busher of a catcher, remained near but said nothing. In all the activity of the game, we hadn’t spoken, despite being on the same team. He looked wide-eyed at Spoke and I like we were some sort of heroic figures. I looked back at Tris.
Images burst forth into my mind, rapidly, one after another: The boys, traveling on trains, the crowds, my family, the Polo Grounds…Mays’ pitch…the hospital…and lastly, the lingering sight of a pale gray headstone that read:
Raymond Johnson Chapman
I couldn’t move for a beat.
“You know, now.” Spoke said, giving me an understanding look and wrapping an arm around my neck. “You’ve been here for a bit, Chap. Longer than me actually, if you want to know. You had to be with others first, but it’ll all come back to you.”
“How long has it really been?”
He shook his head.
“How long, damnit?” I insisted.
“Time don’t matter here, Chap. What may have been a hundred years to some folk was just an instant here. We just had to wait until you were ready. Some gotta wait longer than others, and that’s the test. You’ll learn it all…just like you had to learn to hit the curveball.”
I shot Spoke a sideward look at that last remark, but otherwise stood motionless and then looked around, feeling an unstoppable peace, as Kate and Rae joined us. We began strolling toward the outfield. The sun was setting as though in a painting, putting the sky ablaze in a dozen shades of orange, pink and purple – a rewarding image after a great victory.
Kate hooked her arm around my waist and little Rae jumped up in my other arm. Instinctively, I knew that my parents, the rest of my family, Kate’s family, and everyone we’d ever been close to, were waiting for us just steps away.
“If this is heaven, I never thought it would be quite like this.”
The busher in the Yankees uniform patted me on the back and chuckled.
“It’s only Iowa, Chappie.” He said with a smile. I couldn’t tell if he was serious.
“Chap, John. John, Chap,” Spoke said from behind us as we continued our stroll to the outfield.