Lou Gehrig walked with his stout, stern mother through the cavernous Waiting Room of Pennsylvania Station. He was carrying an enormous, leather, time-scratched portmanteau. It swung easily at his side like a night watchman’s lantern. Many other passengers were also heading for their trains, the blink-quick click of heels on the gleaming marble floor, most everybody wearing their traveling best; here and there a creamy color relieved the muted shades. Gehrig’s mother, Christina, wore a hideous green and red plaid wool coat. A faded gray wool scarf was tied securely at her throat.
The morning sun shone through the station’s grand glass ceiling. The light was soft and beseeching at this hour and Gehrig complied, looking up into it. A grid of steel, inlaid in the glass, ran overhead for acres and appeared from far below to have the delicacy of a cathedral’s filigree. But what Gehrig always saw when he raised his eyes to trace it was a network of great girders and their strict geometry. The sight reassured him. The world was orderly and its ceilings wouldn’t fall. He was a young man who needed reassurance wherever he could get it and he needed it even more than usual this morning. He was glad he was able to hide his anxiousness from his ailing mother.
She’d not felt well for weeks and he’d worried increasingly about her through the last month of the season, distracted during games and hurrying home afterward. She’d been often short of breath and had difficulty swallowing. It felt to her as if food were stuck in her throat. When she finally saw a doctor, she learned she had a goiter that would need to be removed. Gehrig’s first thought had been to cancel his trip, but her doctor said the surgery was common and could wait for his return.
They passed beneath the gigantic Benrus clock hanging from the ceiling on its thick linked chain like God’s own pocket watch dangling down from Heaven. Christina looked up at her son as they continued along. The wire rims of her glasses were perfect silver O’s. “Louie,” she said, “you will write to me tonight.” This was not quite a question and not quite a command. Her tone was as if she were reminding her son how disappointed in himself he would be if he forgot.
Gehrig nodded. “I write to you every night when I’m away.” They were, as always, speaking German to each other. Gehrig’s voice was high-pitched and rapid whatever the language. When he was agitated, it might rise, as it just had, almost an octave. Hearing this confirmed for Christina her son’s anxiety, which he hadn’t been able to hide from her at all. But she understood his concern. He’d be traveling with Babe Ruth, virtually alone, for three weeks, on a train across the country, and she believed the regard her son felt for Ruth was complicated. Indeed, Gehrig’s feelings were a contesting mix of envy, bemusement and awe; primarily awe.
For her part, Christina was very fond of Ruth.
They reached a set of stairs that led to the trains and started down.
On the crowded platform, they moved along at a stately pace. People hurried past them left and right. The air was thick with morning purpose and engine fumes. Steam hissed and made clouds that rose and furled and boarding bells tolled and there was chatter all around them. No one recognized Gehrig. People didn’t picture baseball stars dressed in suits and ties and walking with stout mothers who wore hideous plaid coats.
They continued, silent with their thoughts, toward a Pullman car at the end of the train. In her own way, Christina was worrying about her son’s trip as much as he was; the idea that there would be no manager or coaches along to supervise. There would instead be this man named Christy Walsh, who’d organized it all, but she’d only met him briefly and he didn’t seem to her much older than her lieben. There would be Walsh, and of course there would be Ruth, the merry barbarian, which, fondness aside, alone gave a mother much to worry about.
As they got closer, Gehrig saw three men waiting at the far end of the Pullman, some twenty yards down the track. He knew the one standing on the top step was Walsh. He could see, even from this distance, his habitual bright green tie. He assumed the other two were reporters Walsh had summoned.
Gehrig and Christina came to a stop. They weren’t yet ready for their privacy to end. He drew her close and hugged her. Gehrig’s teammates had seen these intimate train-station farewells so often they no longer bothered teasing him about them.
From the Pullman’s top step, Christy Walsh had spotted them. He looked down at Wilbur Winters, a reporter for theTelegram, and Arnold Mercer, one of the paper’s photographers. He told them Gehrig was here. They gave back meager nods. They were waiting for the Babe to arrive and claim the very air in some grand, profane, barrel-bellied, burlesque way.
“He’s still got half an hour,” Walsh said, smiling. He was tall and slender, looking suave as a dance hall crooner in his double-breasted suit and the signature green tie. He held his hat in his hands. His thick black hair was brilliantined.
Both Winters and Mercer, in unfortunate contrast, were short and plump and balding young men. Winters’ mustache ran above his lip without commitment.
Mercer, the photographer, looked up the platform in Gehrig’s direction. “You want to interview him while we wait? I’ll take some shots of him and Mama?”
“You ever talk to Gehrig?” Winters asked.
“A few times,” Mercer said.
“Maybe you can help me then. In your experience, what’s the difference talking to him compared to, say, a tree?”
Mercer thought for a long moment. “Some trees bear fruit?”
Winters smirked. “That’s pretty good.”
“Boys, be kind,” Walsh said.
Up the tracks, Christina asked her son, “You have the sandwiches?”
Gehrig nodded, pointing to the portmanteau.
She patted the wide lapels of his blue worsted suit. The suit was inexpensive—it pained Gehrig to spend money—but even so it flattered him. The full, pleated trousers hid his enormous thighs, the drape of the suit coat his uncommonly big ass. No one benefited more than he from baseball’s loose-fitting wool uniforms and the Yankees’ slimming pinstripes. In them, as now, he was cinematically handsome. He was twenty-four years old. His brown hair was thick and wavy. When he smiled his deeply scored dimples gave him a look of impish mirth, though his usual fretfulness was as far from an imp’s as a personality could be. His days were driven by an enormous wish to please, his mother most of all, and after her, his teammates, and after them the world in general, which, because he was a respectful son, included his feckless father, Heinrich.
“The slaw,” Christina said. “You got the coleslaw?”
Gehrig pointed again to the portmanteau.
From the Pullman’s steps, Walsh shouted, “Ah-hah! This qualifies as early.”
Gehrig caught the sound of Walsh’s cry and looked to see him pointing toward a distant cluster starting down the platform. He and Christina turned to watch. They saw people stepping aside to let the group pass. Gehrig spotted Ruth at its head, dressed for winter in October in a camel’s hair top coat and matching driving cap and a flowing paisley scarf. There was no mistaking his dainty, pigeon-toed steps. He was a massive mincing monarch. Two redcaps flanked the group, bearing Ruth’s luggage. Men about to board their trains stopped and smiled as they saw who was passing. Everybody knew who he was. And they knew that the Yankees had just won the World Series, and that during the season Ruth had hit sixty home runs. Sixty! Yes, there’d been a year when he’d hit fifty-nine, but there was something about the round number that made it feel ordained and ultimate.
Many of the boarding passengers called to him. Many turned around and fell in with the growing entourage, thinking, What the hell, I can catch a later train. Here was their chance to join a band of acolytes walking with Babe Ruth through Pennsylvania Station on an early sunny morning on the eleventh of October.
With Walsh, Wilbur Winters and Arnold Mercer were watching all this, too.
“Three?” Winters said. “Tell me I don’t see three.”
Two of the women with Ruth wore their hair in stylish bobs. One, on his right arm, was a platinum blonde. One, on his left, was raven-haired. The third, also on Ruth’s left—he was a southpaw, after all – her fingers wrapped loosely around his huge upper arm, was a cinnamon red head. Her hair was an arrangement of coherent curls. All three were dressed in bright harvest colors, yellow and orange and ochre shades.
Mercer said, “I remember once before, him showing up with two.”
Christy Walsh said, “Sixty home runs. Three whores for breakfast. Records thought unbreakable continue to fall.”
Winters said, “They look mighty homely, at least from here.”
“As long as they’re affectionate,” Walsh said. “Affection. That’s his credo.”
“I had a dog once, a pug,” Winters said. “Real affectionate. But it still looked like a pug.”
The party marched right past Gehrig and Christina and moments later reached the Pullman’s steps. Ruth greeted the reporters as Walsh hopped down to shake his hand. They gave each other big smiles. Ruth’s was innocent and larcenous in equal measure. Walsh offered formal greetings to the prostitutes, and Ruth, pointing at their heads, introduced them as Red, Whitey and Blackie. If he’d known their names he’d forgotten them. Ruth, famously, could not remember names. The women rolled their eyes. They were paragons of tolerance. Their cheap perfumes were overwhelming; combined they made a scent you could peel off the air.
Ruth grinned at Walsh again. “I got no brunette.”
Walsh smiled. “Some would call that restraint.”
Ruth’s laugh, like his voice, was a hoarseness at high volume.
He turned now to the two red caps and withdrew a thick, money-clipped stack of bills from his topcoat pocket. As if dealing from a deck of cards, he tipped them lavishly.
Standing behind Ruth and the prostitutes, the men who’d come along, thirty, forty finally, began to drift away, tipping their hats or offering crisp salutes, their eyes searching the platform for a final thing in Babe Ruth’s universe that might detain them. Leaving, they once again walked unaware past Gehrig as he and Christina approached.
But Ruth had spotted them and now he said, “There’s my girl!” He hurried over and bent down and kissed Christina’s offered cheek. “How’s the mutt?”
“He’s fine, Jidge,” Christina said. She adored the dog, a yappy Chihuahua, that Ruth had given her last year as thanks for the supper her son had invited him to. She’d prepared several dishes of her leaden German food. Schnitzel and sauerkraut and pickled eel. Four kinds of sausages, gelbwurst, weisswurst, leberwurst and blutwurst, and loaves of fresh rye bread. A hill of strudel for dessert. Ruth ate helping after helping, shoveling it in at his desperate urchin’s pace. Christina watched astonished and delighted as she repeatedly filled his plate. Heinrich smoked his pipe and watched amazed as well. Gehrig smiled, unsurprised. He was glancing back and forth from his mother to the Babe, unable to decide which of them appeared more pleased. At last Ruth finished. His sigh was post-coital.
Once he’d gotten the idea to invite Ruth to supper, it had taken Gehrig weeks to find the courage to do so. At the start of the season he’d pledged to himself to be more outgoing with his teammates, and Ruth, most of all, was the one he wanted to feel comfortable around. He couldn’t imagine they would ever be close friends. He couldn’t imagine ever wanting them to be. But he hoped that with Ruth, and with people in general, he might come to find something of the ease Ruth clearly felt around every living, breathing, moving thing on God’s green earth, an instinctive generosity with his money and his body and his temper and his heart that Gehrig saw as reckless, but finally enviable. He wished for a more modest version of it, and he only needed to look to his mother this morning for proof that he was right to want it. She’d come to see him off, feeling far from her best, bearing her iron love and a dozen bratwurst sandwiches, when Ruth appeared with three hookers on his arm. Their rouge and their lipstick could have lit the dark, but, standing next to her, Gehrig was certain he’d heard his mother chuckling. She forgave Ruth everything and offered him her cheek, because of the night he’d sat at her table and eaten her food with a ravenous glee.
Ruth turned to Gehrig, smiled and shook his hand. “’Morning, kid. You ready to go on this Wild West tour old Walsh has cooked up for us?”
Gehrig smiled and said he was.
Among his money-making ventures, Christy Walsh had been Ruth’s business manager for the past few years and he’d recently become Gehrig’s too. He’d put together smaller, regional barnstorming tours for Ruth in the past, but this time they’d be ambitiously tracing the country’s glorious latitudes, making twenty-one stops to play exhibition games, Ruth captaining one team, Gehrig the other. There would be some cities. Trenton was the first stop and the largest until Kansas City, then Omaha, Des Moines, Denver, all the way to the west coast. San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles. But most of the towns were fairly small – Lima, Ohio, Sioux City, Iowa, Marysville, California—and a few were smaller than that.
When Walsh had proposed the tour, Ruth’s first thought was, Fuck, why couldn’t Meusel or Bengough or Dugan come along, one of his teammates who didn’t think that thing between your legs was just for watering the shrubs? He liked Gehrig, liked him a lot, how could you not, the kid so shy and wanting to be liked. And he admired the hell out of him as a hitter. He could hurt the goddamn ball. He could shell the fucking pea. But three weeks on a train with him was going to be about as much fun as being stranded in a dinghy in the ocean with the Pope.
Christina said, “Jidge. You brought some friends along to say good-bye?”
“Oh, yeah, my cousins,” Ruth said, smiling. “They’re all three sisters. Came up from Baltimore just to see me off. Ain’t that sweet of them?”
“Cousins,” Christina said. “And yet no family resemblance.” Gehrig gave his mother a quick glance. He’d never heard this perfectly dead-pan tone from her.
Ruth didn’t try to suppress his happy rasp. “I know. It ain’t fair, is it, how I got all the looks in the family.”
The pleasure his mother was taking in her teasing made Gehrig feel required, however awkwardly, to join it. “And it’s funny, Jidge, their being sisters, they don’t resemble each other either.”
Ruth laughed again, a softer wheeze this time. “Thing is, they all got different mothers. It’s a real sad story, kid. I’ll tell it to you later if you want, but like I say it’s real sad.”
Smiling, Gehrig picked up his portmanteau and walked with his mother and Ruth the short distance to the steps of the train.
Wilbur Winters, waiting impatiently, said, “Babe, Lou, could we get you two shaking hands?”
Ruth gave Christina another peck on her cheek before she moved away and Gehrig stepped in and gripped his hand. Arnold Mercer raised his camera. The disc that held its bulb was as big as a hubcap. He told Ruth and Gehrig to smile. Ruth’s grin was faintly simian. Gehrig’s dimples framed his mouth. The flash went off. Gehrig’s smile was the winner. No one could beat Gehrig smiling. The dimples. Then Mercer took another. Then again, with Walsh between them in a three-way arms-crossed handshake. Winters held his pen and notebook and asked Ruth what Podunk town he was most looking forward to seeing. Ruth smiled and said, hell, all of them, but not as much as they were looking forward to seeing him. Winters asked Gehrig the same question. He nodded towards Ruth. “Like Jidge said, all of them.”
Ruth ended the questions by turning to the prostitutes to say good-bye. Gehrig stepped back to Christina and hugged her again and reminded her to take her medicine. “Yes,” she said, “and Louie, you be careful now and don’t catch a cold.” She spoke this loudly in English, her voice now publicly maternal. “You know how you always catch a cold this time of year.”
Gehrig thought, I do?
The red-headed prostitute whispered in Ruth’s ear. “Babe, you be careful now and don’t catch the clap. You know how you always catch the clap this time of year.”
Ruth nodded solemnly. “Thanks, kid. I’ll be careful.”
Looking down on this assemblage, what Christy Walsh saw was sublime absurdity. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Gehrig’s dour Kraut mama, two cynical reporters, and three handsomely paid if not particularly handsome whores. What a shame they weren’t all coming. He was Noah on the deck, his gaze a benediction. He was taken with a kind of brainy buoyancy. When this feeling came to him he believed his mind was working faster than that of anyone around him, and there were times when it was. He opened his arms and called, “Aboard!”
Ruth and Gehrig and Walsh boarded and the Pullman steward, whose name was Horace Meadows, stepped forward to welcome them. He was a short, handsome man; bald, broad-chested, mahogany-dark; looking fit and finished in his tailored blue uniform. He said they’d find their luggage in their state rooms and he pointed the way down a narrow corridor to the observation lounge at the rear of the car.
They’d settled into comfortable, jade-green plush chairs when the train began to move away from the platform. Ruth looked out the window. Gehrig’s mother, the reporter, the photographer, they’d gone, but the three prostitutes were waving farcically. Their arms made sweeping, ocean-voyage arcs that lifted them to their tiptoes, and what better evidence, Ruth thought as he watched, of all there was to be grateful for in life than three frisky trollops with a sense of humor.
He sat back again, a man emphatically at ease, relieved to be escaping his life for a while, filled as it was with a wife and a mistress and two young girls, one his natural daughter and one he’d soon be adopting, and two expensive New York apartments and a small farm in Massachusetts where the hired man, a humorless Swede, kept telegramming with the news that the chickens were dying like they could hardly wait their turn, and the pit bulls had attacked and killed Ruth’s favorite cow, a real sweetie that cow, with her big, sad, trusting eyes, who’d never done a thing to those fucking dogs and Jesus H Christ being a farmer was hard.
They were moving smoothly below ground, a stealthy luxury about it all in the walnut-paneled Pullman with its Oriental carpets and its wall-mounted lights with Tiffany shades.
Gehrig, in his chair across from Ruth and Walsh, began to think of what lay ahead. Besides being nervous about this time with Ruth, he was concerned that the games themselves would quickly begin to feel dull and dutiful – playing teams of amateurs, and with nothing at stake, less than a week after the high tension of the World Series.
On the other hand, he was being paid five hundred dollars a game, three weeks of work and close to half his salary for the full Yankees’ season, and for that, he told himself, he could certainly accept whatever dullness and duty he might feel.
Deep in his thoughts, Gehrig hadn’t heard Christy Walsh begin to speak of the western landscape they’d eventually be passing through. He listened now as Walsh, his voice building, was describing the majestic peaks, the dramatic mountain gorges, the glistening rivers, the astoundingly blue skies. He sounded to Gehrig as if he were rehearsing a presentation of some kind.
“Actually,” Gehrig said. “I’ve never been west of St. Louis.”
“Lou!” Walsh said. “No kidding?” He paused to gather his words. “You won’t believe the landscape. I mean, the bands of color in the canyon walls, they’re like . . . they’re like rainbows of stone, brought to life by the sun.” It was true, Gehrig’s sense of Walsh was right, he was rehearsing in a fashion, assessing his words as he spoke them. He often did. He felt it gave him great advantage in his work to speak impressively and he thought “rainbows of stone brought to life by the sun” wasn’t half bad. Late at night he wrote plays, period melodramas about his favorite subject, the French Revolution. They detailed the gory excesses. Guillotine blades fell. Blood fountained. Robespierre was his man. The plays were dreadful.
“Yeah,” Ruth said. “We get to the Rockies, it’s another fucking planet.”
“You say it perfectly, Jidge!” Walsh said. “It is extraterrestrial.”
Ruth shrugged. “Yeah, I guess you could say that about it too.”
They were all briefly quiet with their thoughts. The train gently swayed, the wheels made their rhythmic clacking.
“Christy? Who are they?” Gehrig asked. He was thinking again of the games they’d be playing.
“How good will they be?” Gehrig asked.
“The teams? The players?” Walsh said. “Oh, you know.”
“I don’t. Not really.”
“Local teams, some semi-pro. They’re pretty good. A few played in the low minors probably.”
“They’re shit kickers,” Ruth said. “The small-towns, anyway. Shit kickers, clodhoppers. They think they’re a whole lot better than they are. I remember this kid last year, he told me when we was warming up he hit just like Ty Cobb. Then I watched him play. I told him after, he’d hit just like Ty Cobb when Ty Cobb was dead, then maybe.”
Gehrig said he’d decided to imagine the exhibitions as pick-up street games in the neighborhood. Games you played for the pure pleasure of it.
“That’s it, kid,” Ruth said. “That’s how I think, too. Just have some fun like you did then. Stick ball in the street with your little heinie pals.”
Gehrig nodded and didn’t say he’d meant the ones he still played when he got home from Yankees games, rounding up some neighborhood boys until it got too dark.
Now the train was gradually climbing, leaving the tunnel and emerging into the sooty morning light. Soon, New Jersey would be sliding past their windows, its flat, weedy wastes and the backs of sagging tenements running grayly unimpeded right up to the tracks. They were heading out into the grand American day.