The teams switched sides without incident, though Henry could feel the burning stares from the Pioneers players as he trotted off the field.
In the dugout, Coach Brown gave a short pep-talk about "team" and how much he appreciated coaching the Rooks for the past ten years. It felt more like Coach was giving a speech at a farewell party or maybe a funeral. Outside, the crowd was deafening. And a chant repeated over and over: Rooks are done, Pioneers have won.
In front of the dugout, a hunched backed announcer, wearing a black tuxedo and bow tie, shuffled around like a four-foot-two penguin. The fans quieted after he raised a huge silver megaphone to his lips and shouted, "Ladies and Gentleman! For the Rooks, Charles Parks up, Maurice Jones on deck, and Henry Louis in the hole."
Henry leaned against the dugout wall and studied the wooden scoreboard in the left field corner. He wanted to get the situation straight in his head: Top of the ninth, 1 - 2, Pioneers on top. This was the Rook's last shot to win the game.
Henry knew most of the Pioneers players' names, but three stood out: Jake Westin, the pitcher; Rusty Ryan, catcher; and first baseman Garrett Hayes. They were the ones who had dealt him and the Rooks the most vicious attacks.
The game had started with no sign of trouble. The announcer called each army cadet by name before the mayor gave a dull speech. The teams even traded some good-natured banter and a joke or two.
After the opening pitch, the Pioneers struck first with a solo homerun in the first inning. They added another run in the second. Finally, Henry answered with a monster homerun in the top of the fourth. With the momentum in their favor, the Rooks nearly tied the game, and that probably gave the Pioneers a scare.
In the bottom of the fourth, the game took a complete turn when the Pioneers started sliding into the bases feet first, aiming spikes like bayonets. Coach Brown argued it was an exhibition game and that made the head umpire laugh so hard his cheeks glowed a mocking red.
In the span of four innings, the colored players suffered three gashed shins, they were shoulder-checked into the ground trying to tag out runners, sucker-punched and shoved off the bases, and intentionally hit four times by fast balls. Not to mention the insults and slurs. Some of the parents even covered their kids' ears.
But Henry heard everything. Endured everything. He had collected every verbal and physical abuse in a mental piggy bank that was about to be smashed open with his next at bat.
And so the ninth inning started with Old Man Charles, knocking a looping fly ball that fell to its death in the glove of the second baseman. A new guy, Henry thought, with lanky arms and abundant facial hair.
Next up was Maurice "Flash" Jones, five foot four of rail-thin muscle and lightning-quick speed. He could run the bases in 14.7 seconds, no lie. And as fast as Henry was, he had only bested Maurice once in a 200-foot dash and only after the speedster tripped up near the end.
Henry stepped up from the visiting dugout and yelled, "Get on base and I'll bring us home!" Maurice gave a quick nod.
After the windup, Jake delivered a red-hot fastball and Maurice belted a beautiful shot to left-center field. The ball pinged off the wall, and by the time Hayes recovered it, Maurice was already on his way to third. Hayes relayed the ball to the third baseman, but Maurice won that race too. Didn't even have to slide.
Henry picked up his bat from the row of bats in front of the dugout. From the bleacher seats behind, voices rose in fevered spurts. A man with a sandpapery voice yelled, "I got five on a two bagger, Louis!" Then a girl shouted in sing-song fashion, "I'm a ready for my ring, handsome!" Henry's cheeks flushed with warmth and it took all his will to keep from turning around.
From the stands along first base way, heated cries rose above the chatter in sporadic bursts. Henry heard chimpanzee sounds. He heard "nigra" and "coon" and "blackie." He had heard worse ... much worse. But he'd never seen so many angry white faces in one place. Daggered noses, crossed brows, and faces red from liquor. He didn't like how they looked at you like they had some God-given right to tear you down. A knot settled in Henry's throat as he wondered if this gathering of people might turn into a mob.
"Go back to the plantation!" a man shouted.
Henry turned to the white kranks in the stands over first base way. He scanned a moving river of faces but before he could find that fool and give him a piece of his John Brown mind, Henry heard uneven footfalls coming his way.
"Time out!" shouted the home plate umpire, an old timer with a handlebar mustache.
Marching over with a hitch in his stride, wearing a Rooks uniform and a beat-up ball cap with a "C" in the front, Coach Brown had a freckled face that reminded Henry of a chocolate chip cookie. Despite the warm look on the outside, the creases in his face meant he was weighing something on the inside. Probably something Henry wasn't going to like.
Coach cupped his hand firmly on Henry's broad shoulder, drawing him close. His breath held a pungent stench as his jaw worked a golf ball-sized wad of chewing tobacco. Henry tried not to gag.
"Squeeze play," Coach Brown said almost in a whisper.
The knot in Henry's throat dislodged and dropped to his stomach.
"Coach, a squeeze play, if it even works, only ties the game. Why not go for the win?"
Coach Brown let out a sigh. "They'll be expecting a big hit," he said. "We got a chance to catch them with their pants around their ankles. We get the tie. Then we see our options."
"But Coach, I'm telling you, I can hit against Westin."
Irritation set into Coach Brown's face. "Who's the coach?" he said evenly.
Henry gritted his teeth.
"I'm not hearing an answer, kid."
"You the coach," Henry said in monotone.
"Squeeze play," Coach Brown repeated. "And do it right, if you want to keep playing for this team ... or any team for that matter."
"Yes, sir," Henry grumbled.
"Now get over there," Coach Brown said, pointing over to the batter's box. "Umpire's giving me the stink eye."
Coach Brown nodded at the umpire before flashing a wry smile.
"Play ball!" the umpire shouted, stink eye still in full force.
Henry couldn't help thinking this was their last chance to come out on top. And after all the disrespect he had endured, this was his last opportunity to stick it to the Pioneers – to show them he was better than any of them.
Henry trudged towards the batter's box.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this chapter of "Color", please consider leaving a vote or a comment. I add a new chapter, sometimes two, every Sunday. I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania so that's EST.
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Color (Completed)Historical Fiction
WATTYS SHORTLISTED! During World War I, a black baseball player gets a second chance to play ball on an all-white steel mill baseball team, an action that shocks and divides an entire town. Targeted by opponents, his own team, and mysterious vigilan...