102. The Gamble

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Frank felt completely invigorated as he emerged from the tunnel, leaving behind the cloudy concourse of smokers. Stopping at the end of the veranda, he rested his hands on the white metal railing, warm to the touch from the afternoon sun, and watched Union Steel Ballpark coming to life.

The stadium was already three-quarters full. People continued to flow through the entry tunnels at ground level and climbed the rows to their seats.

Amid the steady chatter, people coughed and hacked and whooped... sounds that were becoming more common these days. In each section of the ballpark, a scattering of patrons wore white breathing masks.

The Spanish Flu had already spread waves of deaths across America. Doctors were calling it in an epidemic, and even a small town like Hester wasn't immune to the virus as new cases were popping up every day.

Frank exhaled a long breath. These fans had no idea what was about to happen. He'd already spoken to Coach Taylor and the players. The team knew exactly what they needed to do to get Henry and Willy back. Still, there was no guarantee that they would be allowed to return.

The thought of what might go wrong sent a nervous chill across Frank's shoulders, despite being warmly dressed in a dark chocolate sports coat and trousers, plus a fedora atop his head to shade his eyes from the sun.

Frank eased his way through the crowds of fans, winding his way towards the owner's box above the home dugout. He had intentionally taken a longer route. His stomach knotted, each step bringing him closer to the man that he hadn't talked to in the past several days.

In the mill, Frank would hurry right past his father without saying a word. It served him right. Frank was giving the old man the same treatment that he had given to colored people all his life.

Richard Bell sat in the owner's box, wearing a stylish three-piece navy suit with silver pinstripes. He took a puff of a thick Cuban cigar and the end glowed a bright orange.

An uncomfortable cloud hung between them, as Frank settled into the seat beside his father. He averted his eyes, trying to steady his nerves. He felt like the old man could see right through him and knew he was up to something.

No, there was no way.

Frank inhaled a calming breath and plastered a somber look over his face before meeting his father's eyes. He gave a curt nod.

Richard returned the gesture, revealing a watchful expression behind probing eyes. "Don't look so glum. You did the right thing, sending those Negroes on their way." Clasping a hand over his hill of a belly, he leaned back in his seat, watching the rapidly filling benches. "Trust me. None of those white fans filling our seats will miss either one of them."

Frank's brows knitted. "What makes you so sure of that?"

"Human nature," Richard said. "Like attracts like."

"Oh," Frank said with a coy smile. "And I thought opposites attract."

They were both silent for a moment, watching as both sides of the ballpark swelled with black and white faces.

Richard took another puff from his cigar.

Dozens of colored fans waved signs in support of Henry. And a few white fans did too.

The noise level in the ballpark climbed, as the remaining patrons found their seats and waited for the game to start.

The tuxedoed announcer waddled along the first base line. He tipped his derby hat at Frank and Richard before raising the black and gold megaphone to his lips. "Alright, Ladies and Gentleman! Welcome to the first game of the Steel Mill League Playoffs between the Oil City Hustlers and the Hester Pioneers!"

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