Windsor, Ontario – 1968
“Wow! She’s goin’ for it, Larry! She’s gonna steal third!”
On the grass behind home plate, fourteen-year-old Frank Phelan jumped to his feet and hauled Larry up beside him. Together they watched the drama unfold between second and third base through the wire mesh of the tall backstop. Frank was a ballplayer too. He knew it would be close.
The determined black girl, in pinstripes and Detroit Junior Tigers ball cap, did everything right: she watched the blonde third baseman’s eyes follow the throw from his catcher to his second baseman behind her; saw the final position of Blondie’s outstretched glove; used her body to block his view of the throw from second; extended both arms and dove flat out for the base.
The hard throw flew between Blondie’s hands like a cowhide cannonball and slammed into his chest. “Oomph!”
“Wow!” Frank punched Larry’s arm.
“Safe!” the umpire yelled from behind home plate.
Loud groans went up from the clutch of Canadian fans rooting for the Windsor Hellcats beside the third baseline of the Atkinson Park ball diamond. Along the first baseline on their right, the few dozen American fans from Detroit cheered for all they were worth. The girl’s teammates whistled and clapped from their bench. They were all guys, all black.
“You know, Frank, that steal was pretty good.” Larry allowed.
“…for a girl.” Frank heard his best friend’s unspoken words.
“No, Lar. That steal was perfect. We should do so good next season.” Attaway, babe! Frank silently cheered.
Then Blondie brought his steel-cleated baseball shoe around and spiked her in the face.“Ah-h-o-w-w-w!” she cried out in a clear voice that soared above the crowd, a mixture of pain and surprised disbelief. Blood jumped from the wound and ran down her cheek in a bright crimson curtain. The cheers from the American side turned to loud gasps and then heated shouts of “Foul! Foul!”
Frank saw a black couple stand up in the front row of the American crowd and grasp hands. The woman’s eyes widened and she called a name Frank couldn’t make out. Her solemn companion put a large hand on her arm to restrain her. He wore a round white collar and spotless black shirt, like a minister or something.
The girl’s parents?
“Whoa! Ok. A spike is never good,” Larry said. “Could be an accident, though?”
The wound on the teenaged girl’s cheek bled heavily. But she stood up, took a wad of Kleenex tissues from her pocket and held it against the side of her face. Blondie waited behind her, his hands on his hips and his face expressionless. The girl waved off her coach and the umpire, who was about to stop play. With one shake of her head, she persuaded her parents to sit down again.
Frank had watched it all. It was no accident. “Now that takes real guts, Lar.”
After the final out, when the girl was left stranded on third base, Blondie must have said something to her. Frank saw the girl turn to stare at Blondie, her shoulders stiff, and her eyes tracked him back to his teammates on the bench, a smirk on his face. The Windsor Hellcats sniggered behind their gloves.
The girl caught the eyes of her teammates taking to the field. The tension in their faces was a living wave that washed over the black crowd so they shifted in their seats. Her parents leaned forward with a question on their faces, but again, the girl shook her head.
The second inning was over, but Frank had the disquieting feeling this wasn’t the end of the incident, not by a long shot.
He pounded his fist into his Al Kaline glove and wished it were Blondie’s face.
The early fall afternoon was perfect for baseball. The weather cooled off and a slight breeze blew in moist and sharp from the Detroit River a block away through the autumn maples behind the neighbourhood playing field. The arching black shadow of the Ambassador Bridge framed the scene. Frank took a deliberate breath through his nose and smelled the heavy sweetness of cut grass, smelled the sizzling onions and patties of fried beef from families who had set up grills in the surrounding park.
It had taken a lot of persuasion to talk Larry into biking over here to Atkinson Park to see this near-end-of-season exhibition game between the Hellcats from Windsor and an unknown team from the Detroit Junior Baseball League. This Saturday was only two weeks before the Labour Day long weekend, the last weekend before school began again. Every day was a precious nugget of time not to be wasted. Playing Junior League baseball was Frank’s first love. Watching Junior League baseball was a close second. And he was curious about the American team.
“You still cool, dude?” Frank asked Larry after returning from the refreshment stand with two bottles of the Double Cola they both liked, his treat.
“Hell, man! I will be after you give me the pop and get off my friggin’ back about not wantin’ to come.”
Frank laughed at his friend’s discomfort. “Just checkin’.”
“So, who you rootin’ for, Frank?”
Larry’s question was a good one and his best buddy might not like the answer. Frank took a swallow of cola and shrugged a shoulder. He might have been neutral before, but after the girl’s spiking in the second inning, Frank wanted the Junior Tigers all the way. It might not matter. Now with only two innings left the Detroit Junior Tigers were down 7-3 against the Hellcats. New York Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra, liked to say, “It ain’t over, ’til it’s over.” Frank thought this game was pretty much over.
Larry pointed his chin at the American crowd. “And that—did you expect it?”
Larry was talking about the Detroit Junior Tigers and their fans all being black. Yet when Frank thought about it, why should it be surprising? He drove the Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit River a dozen times a year with his father and grandfather to see the games at Tiger Stadium. Thousands of black and white fans filled that ballpark to cheer on Al Kaline and the Detroit Tigers. “Expect it? Not really. But so what?”
“You tell me, dude.”
“Well, the guy at the refreshment stand thought it might be some kind of goodwill gesture, you know, after… after the damn race riot last year!”
“DETROIT BURNS!” Larry raised his voice to quote the oversized Detroit Free Press headline from the previous July. “So that’s what’s goin’ on out there.”
“Ell-ie! Ell-ie! Ell-ie!”
Sudden chanting and whistles from the American side broke out before Frank could say more.
“Geez, I don’t believe it, Frank! Are they bringin’ in that girl—to pitch? No way, José!” Larry collapsed on the grass for a few moments before hoisting himself up again to sit with his legs crossed.
The black girl took up her position on the pitcher’s mound. “Looks like it,” Frank said. It was unexpected. She had been playing at first base. And his best friend was skeptical of a girl pitcher.
“At least we know her name’s Ellie.”
Frank nodded and watched the girl named Ellie take the ball from her coach and begin her warm-up pitches. For just a moment there, when she trotted out to the mound, Frank thought she looked familiar. He flashed back on the Detroit riot. Nah. The coincidence would be too much.
“Play ball!” the umpire shouted.
“Crazy,” Larry said. “Down four runs with two innings left to play? Just crazy.”
“Yeah, I hear you, Lar. Now put a sock in it, will ya?” Larry flipped him the bird, took a pull on his cola and drew out a long burp like a drunken frog.
Frank ignored him. All his attention was on the pitcher’s mound.
Before her first pitch, Ellie fingered the ball a few seconds too long. Frank thought she looked nervous. Who could blame her? It wasn’t just the pressure of coming in to pitch relief with her team losing badly, or playing in a different park, in a different city, in a whole different country. No, it was the thing from the second inning. Which was really two things Frank decided: the spike to her face and whatever Blondie said after. Sure enough, the girl brought her hand up to her face, realized she held the ball in it, and dropped it down to her side once more. The nasty cut high on her right cheekbone was still ugly, the blood dried and crusted-over in a dark scarlet smear.
“That’s gotta be hurtin’,” Larry said.
“Yeah,” Frank agreed, “gotta be.”
Then, like she couldn’t resist, the girl shot a quick glance at third base. Third base, where the Hellcats base runner, that same Blondie, took a long lead from the bag, crouched low and worked in his spikes, ready to dig for home. The smirk was back on his face.
Frank’s fist pounded his glove like a piston, waiting for the thing he was sure would happen. The crowd on both sides was tense now, silent. When he looked over at the girl’s parents, he saw that her father was holding her mother’s hands in both of his, each of their faces stiff as an African mask.
Frank no longer cared about Canadians against Americans, blacks against whites, girls playing with guys.
Get ’em, babe. Get ’em good.
After Ellie struck out the first Hellcats batter on five pitches, Blondie increased his taunts from third base and shouted encouragement to his team’s next hitter at the plate. “Attaway, Buck! No pitcher out there! Yeah, nothin’ but a girl!”
Frank had watched those first five pitches and was impressed. The girl didn’t throw as hard as most guys, but Frank judged she threw smart and read hitters well. After that first strikeout, Ellie’s movements became fluid and precise on the mound.
Frank looked sideways at his best friend. “So what d’ya think, Lar? Mixes a wicked curve and slider with that floating change-up? Makes her fastball look even faster.”
“Ok, so she can pitch, already.” Larry was the talented catcher for the Windsor Werewolves, their team. He knew pitching and didn’t often give compliments.
“Yeah. She can pitch.” Frank watched the girl throw over to third base twice to keep Blondie close.
“Gotta be the sacrifice, man,” Larry said.
“Yeah,” Frank nodded and pounded his fist into his glove. Anyone who knew anything about baseball knew that the sacrifice bunt down the first baseline to score Blondie from third was coming. “Gotta be.”
“You got her, Buck!” Blondie shouted and lengthened his lead from the base. “Bring me home, now! Girl shoulda worn a dress!”
Ellie didn’t look rattled. Just intense. And maybe something else, Frank thought, every time she looked over at Blondie.
Ellie worked fast, not giving Buck time to think and little chance to check his manager for signals. She took him to one ball and one strike with a slow-breaking curve, and a fastball kept high and off the plate. The third pitch was a beautiful change-up that had him swinging way out in front and looking stupid.
“One ball, two strikes!” the ump confirmed, and the American fans cheered.
The Hellcats manager was slapping his cap against his thigh, muttering under his breath.
“Well?” Frank cocked an eyebrow at Larry.
“Yeah, so maybe not the sacrifice bunt.”
“Come on, Bucky,” Blondie yelled. “Good eye! Good eye! They’re all girls out there!”
Ellie waited until Buck set himself at the plate, rocking back and forth on his toes—then surprised everyone, Frank included.
“Time, ump?” She held up her glove and pointed to some problem with the rawhide ties in the webbing.
“Delay of game! That’s delay of game!” The Hellcats manager jumped to his feet, slapped his cap and gestured at the mound.
“Time out!” the ump said, and Frank thought the manager’s hairless head would explode like a fat red hand-grenade.
Ellie went to one knee on the mound to work on the glove. Her tall catcher and the other infielders surrounded her. After a few seconds, she stood up, held the glove in front of her mouth and said something to all of them. A moment later, her teammates turned as one and stared at Blondie on third base. He tried to ignore it. But when five black guys are looking at you like you’re ripe dog dirt, it was too hard to ignore. Blondie decided to bend down to tighten the laces on his spikes.
“Time’s up!” the ump said.
The Junior Tigers infielders threw more daggers Blondie’s way and went back to their positions. Ellie made a fist and held her arm straight up for her catcher. He made a fist back, nodded once and trotted to his place behind the plate.
Yeah, it’s comin’, Frank thought.
Larry looked at Frank. “Weird, man. What was all that about?”
“Not about her glove,” Frank said.
Frank didn’t tell Larry what he remembered. He’d seen that arm and raised-fist gesture on television once before—from a wild-eyed black guy standing in front of a burned-out cop car in the middle of the Detroit race riot. Maybe the girl’s father had seen it too. He was halfway to his feet, with a haunted look on his face.
Like he saw ghosts.
This time, his wife restrained him.
Ellie received the sign from her catcher, nodded her head, wound up and delivered a fastball, high and inside, right at Buck’s eyes. He flinched back and away. The catcher wheeled, threw a low bullet down to third and almost caught Blondie, his eye on the girl and his concentration on the orders of his third base coach.
“Boo! Boo!” The Hellcats fans were on Ellie for the too-close pitch. She ignored them and threw another fastball. Buck squared around to bunt. The infield shifted toward home, and Buck went for it. Almost. He pulled back in time and watched the ball miss the outside corner.
“That’s three balls, two strikes! Full count!” the umpire said. The crowd responded with groans or cheers.
“Attaway, Bucky! Good eye! Just a girl!” The rest of the Hellcats bench added their taunts to Blondie’s. Now the skin was electric along Frank’s arms and he flexed his fingers to stop the muscles jumping.
The umpire must have felt it too. There was more than just baseball going on here. He called time, to brush the plate and give the crowd a few seconds to calm. “Ok, let’s play ball!”
On the mound, Ellie made the quick fist again. Frank thought he saw the catcher dip his head in response.
Frank knew something was coming.
With the count full, Buck resumed his stance and pointed the bat at the girl as if it were a weapon. Frank left his glove and cola on the grass, and stood up to get a better look. He worked his fingers through the rusted wire of the backstop and brought his nose close, as though looking through a cage at exotic animals.
Ellie went into her wind-up. Paused. Checked Blondie on third. Delivered the pitch.
And then it got weird.
Frank watched the ball come off her fingers in an odd way, in a low arc toward the batter. The ball wobbled in the air and Frank could see every seam in its slow rotation. It wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t the change-up either. Frank had waited for a thousand pitches, in a hundred games, on a dozen fields. This throw wasn’t any of them.
Buck squared around again and the infielders leaned forward on their toes. Ellie sprinted in from the mound to follow her pitch, ducked low and spread her arms to field the sacrifice bunt. Larry jumped to his feet beside Frank.
At the last moment, Frank saw the ball twist crazy at the plate.
“Damn knuckleball!” Larry said in wonder.
Buck pushed out his bat and connected. He popped the ball up behind the catcher, dropped the bat and dug for first base, head down and arms pumping. The Junior Tigers catcher slipped off his mask, turned and looked up for the ball. Frank’s eyes followed his toward the backstop, along with every other eye in the crowd.
Four feet in front of Frank, the catcher grunted and lunged with his wide glove extended as far as his body and arm could push it, lips pulled back, teeth and eyes very white. The catcher watched the ball fall into the pocket and squeezed it hard for the second out. The American crowd clapped and whistled their admiration.
Behind her catcher, Ellie was going to her knees in the dirt, blocking the plate and yelling desperately for the ball. “Home! Home! H-O-O-O-M-M-E!”
Frank’s eyes were on Blondie.
The Hellcats third base coach judged the distance, saw the opposing catcher on his stomach in the dirt and faced away from the plate, scrabbling at the ball in his glove. The coach threw his right arm down like the starter at a hundred yard dash and sent Blondie off from a big lead, shouting at him to “Get home! Haul it!”
With a move Frank had never seen another player make, the Junior Tigers catcher twisted his long body around and used the cat-like motion to make a flat, sidearm throw back to Ellie at home.
Twelve feet from the plate, Blondie went down into a left hook slide. Aimed to slip in behind home plate and just brush the corner with that left foot or following hand. Blondie’s mouth was open, angry and wide. It shouted words Frank couldn’t make out against the freight train roar of the crowd.
“H-O-O-O-M-M-E!” In a roil of sweat and grey dust, Ellie caught the ball and covered the plate on her knees.
A second after Frank, Larry saw it too and grabbed Frank’s shoulder. They watched in slow-motion horror as Blondie raised his right foot and aimed the spikes at the black girl’s face once again. Frank could already picture the torn flesh, the rush of blood, hear the screams. He pressed his forehead against the rough wire of the backstop and tore at the mesh with both hands. “No-o-o-o!”
The spikes were two feet from her face when Ellie ducked her left shoulder under Blondie’s leg and lifted it high, spreading his legs like a wishbone. Now Ellie was swearing too. In a blur of dust and emotion Ellie jammed the ball right up between Blondie’s legs. It wasn’t his jaw she was aiming for. Combined with Blondie’s sliding momentum, the brutal jab was a short, savage punch to his privates.
“A-A-A-H-H-H-G-G-H-H!” Blondie’s swearing changed from threatening to intense, screaming agony two seconds later. The dust cleared to reveal Blondie writhing in the dirt like an animal in its death throes. Half the crowd, the white half, was on its feet in angry, vociferous protest.
Frank and Larry watched in silence, their mouths gaping open, as Ellie stood up, held her right hand high in the air and showed the umpire and the whole crowd she still had the ball.
“Yo-o-u-r-r-r out!” the ump declared.
Her face set, blood crusted on her cheek, Ellie tucked the ball into her glove, raised her right arm in a fist and turned to face her black teammates. The crowd went still, as one by one, they raised their fists in return.
The inning was over.
Frank stood in the still eye of a storm of sound. Wild cheers, whistles and foot stomping from the Americans. Rabid shouts of “Foul! Foul! Not fair!” from the Canadian fans. Both teams poured onto the field to argue their sides, followed by the whole crowd.
“Well if the dumb bastard’s gonna slide into home plate like that, he should wear a damn jock strap!” Frank could just make out Ellie defending herself to the ump and the growing mob. Half the mob, the white half, didn’t buy it.
Just when Frank thought undeclared war had broken out, the solemn black man in the white collar and black shirt fought through the close-packed bodies, stood between the two contentious sides, raised both arms in the air and turned slowly in a complete circle. The first fingers of both hands formed the symbol that was the sign of the sixties, the response to the war in Vietnam, to the shooting of Martin Luther King just four months before.
“Peace,” Frank mouthed the word.
That’s when the umpire raised his own arms and voice, and declared he was ending the game.
“He can’t do that!” Larry exclaimed.
“He just did, Lar.”
Frank saw Ellie shrug away her father’s arm and head off the field: past her teammates, past her mother and through the park toward the Detroit River, like she would swim home. The only things she carried were her glove and the fateful ball.
The deep horn of the Great Lakes freighter sliding under the Ambassador Bridge rolled over the park and almost swept Frank away with the sound. He stood rooted against the blast and watched Ellie disappear through the trees.
He had never felt so white.