SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Denise Heinze
Nadine took a breath and carefully wrapped the athletic tape tightly across her meager bosoms. Though she was in a hurry to get out of her dim room in the Chattanooga boarding house, she passed the tape around her chest three times, until she was flat, then secured the ends with a metal clasp. Her hands trembled as she slid into the white linen shirt, flipped the ends of the blue silk tie into a knot, then yanked on the cream cotton trousers. She splashed oily hair tonic into her short-cropped auburn curls and combed them straight. Nothing left but the jacket, hat, and shoes. Where were the damn shoes? There, by the bed, next to the high heels she probably wouldn’t need, thank God.
She slipped on the beige and white wingtips and the cream jacket, then grabbed her straw hat and a cigar. Smelling of musk and cheap, rolled tobacco, she took a quick look in the warped mirror. “Good enough,” she said aloud. She clutched her notebook and pen, re-checking her assignment. Nobody had wanted it back in New York, not even the cub. She had held back from jumping at it. The sports editor had cajoled, fumed, but the men bayed at him, at the thought of having to cover an exhibition game between a hick minor league team with a girl pitcher, of all things, and the mighty Yankees.
“Who wants to read about some she-man?” Joe, the star columnist, had asked the editor, Sam.
“Well, a lot of people, if you look at how she draws.” Sam was tall, thick in the middle. He had shockingly small hands for a man who used to pluck footballs out of midair.
“A ga-dam publicity stunt.”
“So they say.”
“This isn’t a carnival,” Peter Ford said. We’re talking baseball, here.” He cupped his groin. “Say, why we wasting our time on some broad who should be making the next Babe Ruth, not pitching to him! Hell, leave her alone with Babe for about ten minutes and that’d be a score worth writing about.” He guffawed over the rest of the men, who snorted and hooted. Except for Freak. That’s the nickname they gave Nadine though she had told them her name was Nate. They called her Freak because they thought that Nate, being so girlish and all, must be one of those mistakes of nature. Sam had hired her anyway, and, in fact, had a curious smile on his face as if he could see past her masquerade.
She grew up playing ball in the empty fields behind her neighborhood on the edge of Chicago. All the kids played, though the girls pretty much stopped once the boys started asking them out. But not Nadine. She was good at it, so good, she got a reputation for being better than any boy. She wanted to pitch for the White Sox and talked about it all the time. Her father taught Nadine how to throw a slider before she could braid hair. But her mother put a stop to it.
“Don’t be crazy,” she had said, sweeping the kitchen floor for the third time that day. “You go to college, find a nice boy, get married and—”
“You’re killing her, Martha,” her father had said. He had played first base in high school. Had the best glove in the state. But he could never hit over .260, so the scouts passed him up. He sold milk and ice cream out of a truck instead.
“And you’re ruining her,” she shot back.
As if, Nadine remembered thinking, she were getting knocked up. It was all the same to her mother, who was relieved when the boys in the neighborhood banned Nadine from the games about the time she turned sixteen. She would have run off to join one of the Bloomer Girls teams, but didn’t have the courage. Not after her mother finally laid it on the line. “If you play with those girls,” she had said, “people are going to wonder about you.”
Nadine wasn’t sure she understood.
“Oh, for heaven sakes, sweetie. They’re, you know, queer.”
Nadine couldn’t stand up to that. It was worse than being called a whore. The complete outer edge of the universe. Instead, she went to a woman’s college. After two years of home economics, French, and English literature, she quit, having learned, if little else, that she had a talent for writing. She got a job at the Tribune gathering recipes for the Wednesday Women’s Page. But she hated to cook as much as she loved baseball.
Six months later, a position opened up at the paper to cover high school sports. It was the bottom of the barrel in the sports department, but she wanted it. When she asked about the job, the sports editor, surrounded by three leering cronies, laughed her out of the room. “How you gonna cover sports, girlie?” he had asked, scratching his bulbous nose with his middle finger. “In the locker room, you’re going to be looking Tom, Dick, and Harry in the face. Especially dick.” They laughed so hard, she felt their hot breath on her face. She backed out of the room, her head down.
Then, she heard that a New York daily needed someone to compile numbers for the stats pages. She grew excited, then soured. They would not hire her, especially in the middle of a depression. There’d be dozens of men vying for that job. She stayed awake all night, open-eyed at the ceiling, hoping it might hold the answer to her dilemma. It finally came to her the way ideas tend to, in the seam of night and day, from pure ether. Her thoughts, of all things, had shifted to Shakespeare. She tried to chase him and his great plays away, but they would not go. Especially the comedies. Especially, she sat straight up in bed and crowed, her favorite heroine. Rosalind.
The next day, she quit the Tribune and headed to the city dressed as Nate. Sam hired her on the spot when she dazzled him with her ability to recall ERA’s, batting averages, won-loss records, and on-base percentages. In July, after two months grinding out numbers, she got her first assignment when Sam asked her to fill in for Jack, the minor league reporter, sick with the flu. Before she knew it, she was getting steady assignments, earning a reputation as an accurate reporter with a hard-hitting, fast-paced, at times even lyrical, style. She could capture the suspense and tension of a squeeze play: “The batter, in a lone face-off against a creeping horde of infielders….” Or the sheer audacity of a grand slam: “The single sweep of the arms that granted everyone’s wish.” Ballplayers were human beings first. One first basemen, she’d reported, whistled while waiting to catch pop-ups. When the Toledo Mud Hen’s clean-up hitter fell into an 0 for 17 slump, she dug up the cause: his fiancé had dumped him for a pastry chef.
At first the men didn’t pay much attention to her. They weren’t even fazed when she wouldn’t give their big-busted secretary Ginger the time of day, a sure sign there was something funny about the new guy. And, what was that to them? It was one less man salivating over the only woman in the office. But then, Nadine committed the cardinal sin. Her work stood out. That’s when the faggot jokes started, the rude bumps in the hall, the nasty notes on her desk with the crude drawings. And the nickname. So when the assignment to cover the girl ballplayer came up, she kept her mouth shut.
“OK, I’m tired of fooling around. Which one of you boneheads is going to do this, or do I have to break some balls?” Sam let out a breath the length of his body. Nadine wondered why men relied so much on private parts for metaphor.
“What about Freak?” Jack said. After Nadine subbed for him, Jack got switched over to pro tennis. “Send a man to do a man’s job. Send a pussy to cover a girl.” She wanted to ask him if that meant he was volunteering, but she kept quiet. Sam didn’t bother defending her, never did. But his face flushed red.
“How about it, Nate? Could be big. She might be facing Ruth and Gehrig. The wires are going to be there. Your story could get picked up.” Sam eyed her as if he had wanted it to work out like this all along.
“Of course he will,” Peter said. “He and the skirt can have a tea party.”
She took the job. As she hurried to the ballpark, she felt a surge of adrenaline. She felt it again, more intensely, the nearer she got to the stadium. She had already heard about Jackie Mitchell from the press releases out of Chattanooga where the Lookouts, a men’s minor league team, didn’t care that the rifle of an arm they had scouted belonged to a seventeen-year-old girl. They claimed she was the first woman to sign a contract with a men’s team but Nadine knew that wasn’t true.
Her father told her once about a woman named Lizzie who’d pitched for a men’s team in Reading at the turn of the century. But she couldn’t find anyone in the business who knew a thing about her, as if she never existed and this Jackie was making history all over again. She wondered how many times that had happened to women.
“Not this time. Not if I can help it,” she said, so loudly a man on the crowded street stopped in his tracks to look at her. But her protest felt hollow, though she wasn’t sure why. Nadine had done her homework on Mitchell, gathering the news reports off the wires and calling the team manager, her parents, local reporters, the Chamber of Commerce, anybody who had seen this phenom play. And who could explain where she (a woman!) had the balls—make it bosoms—to think she could pitch to the greatest hitters in baseball history.
Three blocks from the ballpark she passed a Dodge sedan, a flashy red convertible and a Ford pickup stuffed with three generations of family, all lined-up to cram into the few remaining parking spots. Dozens of fans jostled for position on the sidewalks to get to the ticket window first. Mothers and fathers held their young children tight in one hand and a picnic basket or blanket in the other. Boys and girls swung stubby mitts and walked double-time to keep up with their parents.
Smoke from cigars, cigarettes, and pipes laced the air like an acrid perfume. It was a male scent, as strong as any animal’s. Her father had smoked nothing but Prince Albert cherry tobacco in his pipe. It smelled the best outside, strong and sweet at the same time, like her father who every year took her to at least three White Sox games, always in the upper deck on the first base line. She closed her eyes and breathed in the thick aroma.
She passed the vendors, grizzled and bleary-eyed, hawking felt pennants, low slung caps, miniature baseball bats, and autographed baseballs. Then she entered the small stadium, dim against the bright sunlight outside, but filled with a confounding bouquet of cotton candy, warm flesh, buttered popcorn, spilled beer, franks and sauerkraut, roasted peanuts. A rush of emotion closed up her throat and stung her eyes.
She hustled down the concourse with the motley crowd, electrified by the ancient spectacle of the game. Only after she passed through the tunnel, dark and narrow, and out again into the magnificent emerald expanse of the ball field, did she let out a soft cry, as if she had been slapped by the sublime. Even at this place, a shed compared to The House That Ruth Built, she was moved.
The dark green stadium formed a horseshoe around the infield. An overhang protected the fans behind home plate from rain. Beyond the infield, down the first and third base lines, people stood, as there was no seating. A wooden fence, cluttered with signs advertising Winston cigarettes, BC powder, Country Biscuits, and Stroh’s beer curved around the perimeter of the outfield. Usually, only a few souls, the ones who preferred a more potent liquid refreshment during the game, moseyed out behind the outfielders. But today, a half hour before the game, an overflow crowd streamed into the grassy area behind centerfield, craning their necks backward, over their shoulders as they shuffled ahead, hoping to get a glimpse of Ruth, Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and, of course, the girl.
Nadine looked at the ballplayers on the field too, straining to pick out Jackie. It didn’t take her long. She was warming up with a Chattanooga catcher down the first base line, wearing the get-up that someone at Spaulding had made special just for her. It didn’t look too different from the men’s—a white cotton V-neck top with a large “C” embroidered over her heart, and white baggy knickers designed to disguise her ample bottom (childbearing hips, Nadine’s mother would have said). She did not seem too inconvenienced by either hips or bosoms, though she had to adjust her windup and delivery to accommodate both, pitching the ball side-armed instead of overhand.
Except for that, and her short, wavy hair, Nadine would not have been able to tell her apart from a man, especially when she pitched. She could throw a fastball, all right, hard and straight, but it was her curveball that was show stopping. That ball was programmed to cut toward the heart of the plate, but then, right at the last second, plunge as if it had rolled off a table. The catcher had so much trouble with it, he resorted to resting on his knees, so he could block the ball, just in case he couldn’t field it cleanly on the one-hop.
Nadine heard someone shout, “There she is!” and saw three boys dart from where she was behind home plate over to the first base side. She watched the boys zigzag between rows of seats, then fold themselves in half over the fence in front of Jackie. They were stretching out their arms like elephant trunks, begging her to autograph their balls. She stopped her windup, tucked her mitt under her arm and signed two balls before an usher shooed the boys away. Others came after them in small waves and the usher stayed put to fend them off.
Nadine wanted to go over to her as well, to see up close what she still could not believe. But she stood, frozen in her spot. Her exhilaration had evaporated as quickly as the ubiquitous cotton candy into something akin to a stomachache. She wanted to be happy for her, to revel in this groundbreaking moment. But she had not prepared herself to see this person do what she would not. Nadine had compromised herself twice—first by choosing journalism over baseball, then disguising herself into oblivion just to write about it. She gave herself credit for the risk she was taking, the shame and humiliation she might suffer if found out. But she was in hiding, all the same. This Jackie woman lived her dream out in the open, perched in the bull’s eye of the national pastime. What must that courage feel like, she wondered as she tugged at the tie that choked her. The sour feeling that was gripping her belly, she realized, was envy. It made her feel small.
When the organist pounded out the first chords of “Me and My Gal,” Nadine jumped, startled out of her thoughts by the deep vibrations of the small pipe organ. She glanced behind her at the press box, which was already filled with smoke and cross men. She jogged up the steps and pulled out her press badge before the usher could ask for it.
“Sorry, no room in here,” the old man said. He eyed her like he wasn’t sure what to think, then rubbed his dry, scaly hand across his cheek. “We didn’t expect all this press to show up just for a broad. You from that big shot New York paper?” He was disbelieving, as if only brawny men with an abundance of body hair would cover sports. “We got seats for the rest of you’se down by the Yankee dugout.”
“Hells bells,” she said, trying to sound deep and gruff. But her voice cracked. She should have spit out something stronger, but it was still hard for her, to swear. Ladies, her mother had drummed into her, just didn’t do that.
Nadine scampered back down the steps, making it to her seat in time for the national anthem. She put her hand over her heart, forgetting about her hat until a big, bald-headed man in the next seat nudged her and pointed to it. She whipped it off, scared that she had given herself away. When the music finished, the Lookouts took the field and the crowd roared. But, when Clyde Barfoot sauntered out to the mound he was met with a smattering of boos. They came to see the girl, not that rag of an arm Barfoot, who’d been sent back down to the minors from the Bigs more often than a repeat offender goes to jail.
She looked for Jackie in the darkened interior of the dugout across the field, but couldn’t make her face out. She wondered if her heart was racing, or if her hands were cold and sweaty at the same time. Maybe she was starting her period. Nadine winced. Her own cramps were so intense it made her sick. Aspirin didn’t do anything. She just had to wait for the pain to go away, which could take hours. She wondered what she, herself, would do if she felt those tell-tale spasms in her abdomen, knowing the blood was soon to follow, leak on her white uniform, in the dugout lined with men, just as she was about to make history in front of an overflow crowd. She imagined it so vividly her legs were quaking. Jackie probably never worried about those things, which is why, she thought, she’s over there, and I’m here.
The leadoff batter slammed a single up the middle. When the second batter careened a double off the shorter, left-field fence, the manager, Bert Niehoff trudged out to the pitcher’s mound, head down, as if weighted with much graver concerns than the outcome of a ball game. He appeared to listen more than talk to Barfoot, then patted him sadly on the shoulder and took the ball out of his hands. Barfoot, used to being fired in the middle of his job, bounded off the field, happy-go-lucky, as if he were going fishing. The little sprinkle of applause he got from the more courteous fans turned into a torrent of cheers when Niehoff signaled for his replacement, Jackie Mitchell.
Nadine felt her heart go into her throat. That should be me, she thought. Jackie walked fast, in short choppy strides, swinging her arms hard, as if she couldn’t get there quickly enough.
“I knew it,” declared the bald-headed man next to Nadine. His mouth was full of half chewed popcorn. “A bull dyke.” He spewed wet popcorn bits on her.
“How would you know?” Once again, her voice spiked out of the gruff, hoarse range she struggled to keep it in.
“Awh, c’mon. Look at her,” he said, his black eyes wide with conviction, his bald head gleaming.
“I’m looking.” She cleared her throat and ratcheted her voice back down. “And all I see is a gal playing ball.” She wanted to say more, revile him for his utter stupidity, but she held back. Maybe she wanted to hear what he had to say, needed to know that in giving up ball she had protected herself from this persecution.
“That’s my point. It ain’t natural. You know it, I know it, every man in this joint knows it.” He coughed up phlegm, as if the point were settled. Nadine laughed at the irony. The man misunderstood and smiled, satisfied with himself.
Jackie took to the mound like a gopher in a hole, kicking up dirt, tossing the chalky rosin bag into a cloud of dust, then settling in on the rubber. With each warm-up pitch, the crowd went wild at the novelty of a woman throwing a ball. Nadine felt the intoxicating effects of sweeping change. She swallowed air to keep her head clear. For a sweet few moments, she forgot herself as Nate and was buoyed by the swell of their approval.
Then, the Babe strolled to the plate. Nadine’s spirits fell like a velvet curtain. He would demolish her before she even got started. The papers had said Jackie had pinpoint control and an “uncanny knack” of knowing batters’ weaknesses. How puny those weapons seemed now compared to the Babe, who needed a stadium the size of a Roman coliseum to accommodate his great talent and overbearing personality. He was a big man, for sure, but pudgy, with wide eyes, a fleshy nose and mouth. He looked to Nadine like a cartoonish hippo. He wagged his bat a few times to get the crowd going and purposely avoided stepping into the batter’s box until he was good and ready. Jackie didn’t seem to mind, even waved at the jovial legend.
The crowd enjoyed the display. One woman shouted, “Hey, Miss Jackie, time to send Babe to bed without his supper.” The Babe sauntered up to a small, bony man a few seats over who had been hollering for him. Ruth cupped his hand to his ear as the man whispered something. He let out a coarse laugh and nodded. The bald-headed man next to Nadine let out a howl, as if he, too, had heard the joke.
Finally, Babe stepped into the batter’s box. For just an instant, the crowd got quiet. Nadine focused on Jackie, who zeroed in on the catcher’s fast-moving fingers. She nodded in understanding, then went into motion, rocking forward, glove meeting ball, then pausing, eyeing the men on second and third. She cocked her throwing arm back, swung one leg up over the other and let the ball loose.
It should not have been this momentous, Nadine thought, this business of a woman pitching to a man. But it was. Because it had happened only twice in over thirty years, might not happen again in her lifetime.
The pitch broke a good foot before the plate and hit the dirt. The catcher used his body to blanket it. The crowd laughed. The men on second and third grinned. Babe shrugged his shoulders at them in a way that said “Well, whatd’ya expect?”
Nadine felt the blood rush to her face, as if she had thrown the errant pitch. She was certain now that the girl pitcher was going to fail. She would disappear, become a joke. But Nadine would still have her job, undercover, safe. She felt sorry for Jackie, but she should not have overreached.
Then came the next pitch, this time breaking just as Ruth took a big swing. He missed by a good half foot. On the next pitch, he missed again, just as badly. Nadine cried out with the crowd. Her arms instinctively shot skyward. She jerked her rebellious arms down, then wrapped them tight around her waist. Jackie, she had already decided, was going to fall on her face.
“Stop foolin’, Ruth,” the bald-headed man yelled above the crowd, which was at fever pitch. “Hit the dad-gum ball. She ain’t got but one pitch!” He slid to the edge of his chair as Ruth dug in the batter’s box, all business now. Jackie, who looked almost serene, knowing, delivered another curve that bobbed and weaved before kissing the comer of the plate. Babe watched it all the way, then cut his eyes to the umpire like a naughty boy.
The crowd went to its feet. Ruth threw a tantrum, kicking one foot at air and slinging his bat. He baptized the ump in spittle with every unholy word he could think of.
“Awwh! It’s a fake,” the bald-headed man shouted. “Wha’d they pay ya to take a dive, Babe?”
When the Babe got close to the dugout, Nadine could see that his face was deep red. Nothing phony there. She didn’t know if she wanted to laugh at him or shake him for not putting to rest the nagging possibility that stood poised out there on the mound.
“Dang,” she said aloud, shocked and frustrated at the same time. “That was a fluke. She won’t get Gehrig, too.”
“Not on a bet,” the bald-headed man said and nudged her in the ribs. “Ruth got caught being a jackass. That won’t happen to Lou. “
Nadine nodded and looked at the man, grinding the popcorn in his large jaw, leering at the woman pitcher. She looked at Jackie, too. She was almost humble as she waited for Gehrig, her hands behind her back, her full hips pushed forward, cocked at an angle. A shy girl posing for a picture she didn’t think she was worthy of.
Gehrig crossed the plate and stood ready. There were no theatrics about him, just a quiet intensity. He was Nadine’s favorite, a man who was comfortable in his own skin, whose work ethic matched that of the thousands of blue collar New Yorkers who paid his salary. She might get Ruth, but she wouldn’t get Gehrig. Too much was riding on it for her. The Iron Horse would deliver.
He swung at the first sinker and missed. The roar of the crowd quieted to a hum on the next pitch. Another tight swing and another miss. Gehrig stepped out of the box. Children, eyeing their rapt parents, spoke in hushed, excited tones, aware that something big was in the making. Nadine wasn’t ready for it, not yet. She closed her eyes and prayed that Gehrig would drive this impending moment high, long, beyond the short fence into the Chattanooga River. Any less and she might never find peace again.
“Knock her flat on her ass, Lou,” the bald-headed man whispered only loud enough so she could hear. Then he growled, “Drive it up the freak’s cunt.”
Nadine’s eyes flew open. Hatred set up in the man’s face, like cement. It made her sick. She wondered how she had come to this. Dressing like a man had put her in league with one. Worse, it made her think like one. No, that wasn’t fair. They didn’t all think alike, certainly not the squalls of men in the stands cheering wildly, or her father, who had wanted this glory for her. She was thinking more like, well, like the worst kind of woman, one she had turned into. The bald-headed man’s rage paled in comparison to her own passion to see this woman denied, just as she had been.
Gehrig dug in. The crowd stretched to its feet. Jackie dished up her trademark pitch. It dipped and swerved, like a mosquito, then dropped dead just as Gehrig took a swat at it. He hit nothing but air.
The standing ovation went on for five minutes. Jackie beamed, waved demurely. The Yankees sulked in the shadows of the dugout, squirting tobacco, spit and, most likely, curse words between clenched teeth. Reporters dashed to the nearest phone like ravenous children at the lunch bell. A newsreel, perched on the roof, had caught it all on camera, for the ages, so that there would be no mistake.
After a joyous tumult, the game resumed. Jackie walked the next hitter, Lazzeri,then got pulled fast, as if Niehoff were waiting for any excuse to get her out of there.
“Wassa matter, Bert?” one man shouted from the angry crowd. “Your little sideshow gettin’ out of hand?”
But Nadine didn’t stay long enough to see Jackie dismissed. Just as the stupefied Gehrig went down swinging, just as the crowd exploded, the women in the stands throwing out their chests and stiffening their necks, and the men howling at the sky, Nadine headed for the exits. On her way out, she flung her hat into the crowd, then slipped off her necktie, balled it up, and tossed it too. She left the way she had come, back through the darkened tunnel to the deserted concourse, out into the now overcast day and past the napping vendors. She handed her cigar to a toothless beggar, and her notepad and pencil to a tough looking kid who had been peering though a crack in the stadium wall.
“Hey Mister,” the kid hollered as Nadine hurried away, “What am I supposed to do with this? Confess?” The beggar cackled.
In her haste to escape, little did Nadine suspect that Jackie’s career would begin and end on that day, voided by Judge Landis, who deemed the game “too strenuous” for women. But it wouldn’t have mattered to Nadine. The damage had been done. She would never again go back to the place of her better self, her greatest aspirations. Or write even a single word about the woman who had dared to fulfill hers.
Denise Heinze is a Teaching Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina State University. She has written and published scholarly articles, fiction, memoirs, and book reviews. Her work has appeared in, among other publications, the Raleigh News and Observer, Reflections Literary Journal, Thought and Action, and Reunions Magazine. Her memoir “The Transplanting” was one of the cover stories for the 2007 issue of Now and Again: The Appalachian Magazine. Currently in her creative writing, she is focusing on a novel.
This story was inspired by the real-life Jackie Mitchell who did indeed pitch against the Yankees in an exhibition game.