The image above is my picture of Henry Louis.
Henry stepped into the batter's box and swallowed hard. Crude insults rained down from the stands, a vile assault on his patience. He wanted to turn around. Tell them to shut up and show a little dignity for those boys heading off to war.
It was supposed to be an exhibition game but it had turned into a farce. Henry heard the group directly behind home plate. He had seen them earlier. Five white fellows in white shirts and knickers, pushing out their lips, making grunting noises and scratching their sides like monkeys.
Henry took a deep breath. Filled his lungs all the way until his stomach swelled. Then he exhaled slow and steady. Legs bent, bat cocked, eyes fixed on the pitcher.
Jake Westin smiled from the mound. It was a mean little smile, the corners of his mouth twisting up. His eyes ablaze like twin suns.
Henry had seen that smug expression in the paper. He remembered the article and how it made his heart sink at the time. Westin was just a week away from signing a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates when he got into a fight at Kelley's Tavern on the South Side. Three men beat him up so bad, he couldn't see out of his left eye for a week. One of the men pulled out a dagger. Tried to stab him in the chest. Westin raised his arm in self-defense and the knife cut a gorge into his elbow. Blood rivered down his arm to the floor. The bartender grabbed his hunting rifle from behind the bar and fired off a couple shots before the attackers ran off. Westin's elbow was never right again, marred by a permanent crook at the joint. But that didn't stop him from playing ball again. Westin bounced around factory leagues before joining the Pioneers in the team's first year in '14. He quickly became the darling of Union Steel baseball fans, especially women, because he was a lady's man and because he rode a black stallion to the ballpark. The stallion's name was Murphy and Westin's nickname became "Cowboy."
Henry had studied the cowboy like a school kid wide awake in class. He knew just about every gesture and expression before every pitch. Henry readied himself for a bullet, swirling the bat, finally finding a solid grip.
Out of the windup, Westin fired the ball like a rock from a sling. Gotta bunt! Henry squared the bat, but the ball ricocheted off the top of the bat and fouled into the stands.
Boos and protests erupted throughout the white sections of the ballpark.
Westin inhaled loud, looked down at the mound, and shook his head. Then he cut his eyes into Henry. "Boy, that's not how we do things around here." There wasn't anger in his voice. There was calm.
Henry remained silent. He stepped out of the batter's box, and looked to the dugout. Coach Brown gave a nod. He still wants me to bunt.
"You black piece of garbage," said catcher Rusty Ryan. "Enough with the gimmicks. Just hit the damn ball."
Henry didn't look at the catcher as he stepped back into the batter's box. He could picture the Irishman. After innings, he would prop his catcher's mask atop sweat-soaked red curls, rip into the closest Negro player, and then dare a fight with his fiery hazel eyes. Between innings, Ryan was a crude chatter box with an endless stream of condescending insults, a hint of Irish in his words.
Henry clenched his fingers around the bat, his brown knuckles becoming a translucent white, the blood draining from his hands and flooding anger through his veins. Explosive anger.
"We have a right to win this game too," Henry said and it came out louder than he expected.
Westin laughed low and mean. "You got no rights here. I don't care if you act like a bunch of uncivilized idiots on your own field. But in our house, you play by our rules."
Henry clamped his teeth like a vise. The whites had all sorts of rules. Rules on when you can hit. When you can bunt. Never show up players. Don't play tricky baseball. Good God, it was just a game but it was a game Henry wanted to win, exhibition or not. We weren't breaking the rules, we were playing them like a deck of cards at a poker table.
"Hit the damn ball," Ryan said, "like a real ballplayer. Or is that too hard for a bunch of classless coloreds to understand?"
The umpire grumbled. "You and your lowly kind are an absolute disgrace to this game."
Henry huffed. He noticed Westin twisting the ball in his glove. A signal to Ryan? If it was, Henry didn't recognize this one.
Westin shouted, "Boy, I'm gonna give you my best shot. You better give me yours."
Henry swirled the bat, ready for the pitch. Gotta bunt.
"You must think I'm stupid," Westin said. "I can see you're going to bunt."
Henry pretended not to hear him, forcing down a fresh wave of anger.
"Hell, you probably got no choice but to bunt," Ryan said. "If you didn't, you'd miss it by a country mile. Only damn swing you banana eating sissies know."
Ryan began to laugh, a deep and maddening laugh, and it seared its mark inside Henry's head. Heart racing, hands trembling, Henry snapped. "Screw you!"
Silence from behind. Henry's body snapped rigid as a steel pillar. He half-expected a fight to break out. But nothing happened.
Henry watched as Westin's eyes locked onto something under Henry's shoulder. Concentration set into Westin's gaze as it switched to a space over Henry's shoulder. What was Westin and Ryan signaling to each other?
A slight grin curled Westin's lips. He nodded before firing the ball so hard it looked like it could sail all the way to Ohio.
Henry swung with all his strength and missed. Too early.
The ball slammed into the side of Henry's forehead. Explosions of white lights popped and fizzled in his vision. His legs started to buckle. And the world turned sideways.
Then with a hollow thud, everything went dark.
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.
For the chapter header images, I've tried to find pictures and materials from or based on the 1910s that best represent the spirit of each chapter. Sometimes it's hard. Portions of that time period were not well documented or recorded (on paper, that is). It's actually quite sad.
If you come across any images you think would be worth including in upcoming chapter headers, please PM me with the details. I'm always open to new ideas!
Take care! You guys are the best!!
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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...