This is a fiction short story based on my Grandmother, a 1920s street baseball player turned semi-pro bowler.
“Jennie? Jennie Feldman? Uh, I mean Jennie Goldstein. That’s you, right?” Selma’s deep sapphire eyes almost bugged out. “It has to be you.” The dark, curly haired woman turned away from Marshall Field’s spring fashion window toward the familiar voice. Her brown eyes lit up, and her freckled face blossomed when she saw her old friend Selma, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jewish girl from the Insole Welting Department at Thompkins Shoe Factory on Floyd Street in Williamsburg. “I knew it was you. No one else with those curls has that stance — our Jennie, the Babe Ruth of Brooklyn. You coulda…” Jennie joined her friend in the familiar refrain “pitched on the Brooklyn Robins had ya been a boy.” The women shared a laugh. Selma held out both her hands and Jennie took both into her own. Although her right hand was missing phalanges of her index, middle and ring fingers, Selma didn’t flinch. She was there when it happened. “Sammy told the whole neighborhood, over and over, that you were the best girl pitcher ever,” Selma reminisced.
“He did… And I liked it at first, but later, I didn’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed because I never made it to Minnesota to try out for their ladies’ barnstorming team like I always talked about.”
“I was always proud of you… But what happened to you and Pinkus? Dave and I moved out here in ’35. I’ve been looking for you in Chicago for over a year?”
“I’ve been here… in Roger’s Park… well first Evanston, but they kicked us out for being Jewish. My God! I can’t believe I never wrote to tell you. I was so worried Ma would find out we changed our names and I never thought you’d ever move here. You said wild horses couldn’t drag you to Chicago.”
“Wild horses couldn’t, but Dave’s new job did. Just like you and Pinkus, but what’s this about a name change?”
“Paul’s boss…Pinkus’ boss…. He made him change his name. He said Pinkus Goldstein was too Jewish for Chicago. I changed mine too… to match. He’s Paul Arthur. I’m Jean Arthur. Ma would die if she knew.”
“Jean Arthur? You’ve got to be pulling my leg. Gosh. It’s that actress in that movie… that movie you liked… the baseball movie… Jean Arthur… and… who was that with her?”
“Richard Dix. It was Warming Up with Jean Arthur and Richard Dix. He played a pitcher like me… like I was… before…. And that movie was our first date, Paul’s and mine. Uh, Pinkus… Oh, he hates that name now. It was October 25, 1928.”
“1928…. Your accident was in February, wasn’t it?” Selma asked but didn’t need to ask. She remembered every excruciating minute. Then, she sighed. “It seems so long ago… and like it happened yesterday.”
“I know what you mean, Sel. Do you have time to get a soda and catch up?”
Selma looked up at the clock. “I gotta league game at 2, and I was gonna surprise Dave for lunch, but he won’t mind what he doesn’t know… and when I tell him I found Jennie Feldman, even if she’s Jean Arthur now… he’ll plotz, a good plotz. He always admired your curve ball. I think he was a little jealous.”
“Follow me. I know a place we can get a quick soda. It’s my secret.” Selma followed Jean down State Street to the Palmer House. They took the escalator down to the employee cafeteria and sat at the counter. The counter woman was middle-aged, red lipped and seemed like she’d be brash and saucy, but her words were soft and courteous. “Can I get you a sandwich and something to drink?” “Just a chocolate phosphate for me.” Selma always had a sweet tooth, Jean recalled, impressed Selma knew to ask for the milkless Chicago version of the New York egg cream. “I’ll have a coke float if you don’t mind,” Jean added. “I don’t mind at all. Why would I mind? That’s what I’m here for. Is that all?” Both customers shook their heads. “Okay, one phosphate and one black cow comin’ up.”
Selma lean in to confide in her friend. “She started out Chicago and ended up Brooklyn.”
“No kidding. But I shouldn’t laugh. I’m teased all the time out here for sounding like a little lost Brooklyn girl. Paul gets along fine though. He’s the immigrant, but you’d never know talking to him.”
“True. Paul never had an accent. Was it the all the night classes or the time you clunked him in the head with a baseball trying to impress Lenny with your pitching?”
“Oh gosh, I remember that. Paul was always such a klutz.”
“And you the athlete. I remember the time he fell up the subway stairs.”
“Remember the time he decided it would be more efficient to make his deliveries by bike and ended up flat on his back on Flatbush Avenue… shoes and shoe boxes everywhere… the good ones too… leather t-straps and kitten heels everywhere.”
“And the time he tried to punch Lenny in the nose and broke his thumb hitting himself in the head?”
“Yup, that’s my husband.” The pair laughed like they did on the picnic table in Thompkins’ employee lounge, before Jennie’s accident.
“He’s lucky he has you to keep him alive.”
“I think I’m luckier.” Jean stopped laughing. “I don’t know what I would have done without him… and you. Lenny got fired for not training us on the heel seat fitter right and ran off to Detroit with Lois from boxing… and me… without half my hand… without baseball… without….”
“But with friends and your husband and your new life in Chicago as Jean Arthur of all people.”
“And I ended up getting five thousand dollars for my three fingers and my baseball career. That’s how we bought the co-op on Damen Avenue.”
“Look. I never told you something. Something about your fingers. I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it, but you should know.”
“Something about the accident?”
“No, I told the truth about that. I didn’t see what happened with you and the heel seat fitter. But after… I sorta took your fingers.”
“You took… my….”
“Yeah, I thought maybe they could welt them back on like shoe insoles, but I asked the doctor and they couldn’t keep them alive… even sewn on…. So, I sorta… I kept them…”
“What did you do with them?”
“I took ’em to the Ridgewood in Queens and had ’em buried. The rabbi said a few words. There’s no marker, but I got a lot number if you ever want to visit ‘em.”
Jennie teared up a little and took her friend’s hand in her whole left hand. “That is the nicest thing anyone ever did for me.”
After a long pause, Jean asked, “So what’s this league you’re going to at 2? I don’t remember you enjoying sports.”
“Oh, you’ll love this. I’m a bowler now. It’s all the rage in Chicago, but you probably know that. Hey, wanna join me Jean Arthur? We only play for fun.”
Jean held up her right hand. “I doubt I can bowl.”
“Ya never tried, have you?”
“Nope.” She thought about it for a minute. “Okay. Right after the accident Paul told me to get off my high horse, and he was right, and I married him for it. Okay. I’m game. Let’s go.”
Jean rented someone else’s shoes and picked up her first bowling ball ever to play with Selma’s team, the Feisty Ladies. She turned her back to Selma and her friends and worked out a grip. She stuck her 2/3 index finger in one hole, her 1/3 middle finger in the second hole, with her thumb in the usual place and let her pinky grip the outside. She lifted the ball supporting her grip by cupping the side of the ball in her left hand. She turned back to Selma.
“I just wanna keep the ball in my lane.”
“Don’t worry about it. Remember, we just play for fun.”
“I still feel so competitive… inside my head and all.”
“Remember, you’re off your high horse.”
“Off my high horse.” Jean took a deep breath as she centered herself at the end of the lane. She paused to get the feel of the ball. It was smooth under her left hand, but she wasn’t sure she could support its weight with her diminished right hand. She slowly let go with her left, and tightened up her squeeze on her index stump, pinky and thumb. She lightly bounced the ball in her hands as a test of her grip. Not bad, she thought. Then the ball slipped out of her grip and fell to the shiny waxed wooden floor with a loud “clump.” Everyone else turned to see spot the culprit. “Not good either.”
“Can ya bowl lefty?” Selma suggested. Jean’s lefty try ended in a gutter ball. She tried again on her next three turns, all gutter balls.
Selma wasn’t entirely correct about the Feisty Ladies. They cared about points. When they left the alley, several girls made it a point to suggest Jean was just visiting, it was nice to meet her, and they’d see her around somewhere… somewhere else. Jean figured her first bowling adventure would be her last. But she couldn’t help herself. It was 1920s Floyd Street all over again. The boys said she couldn’t play on their teams, so she played with her little brother Sammy, and pitched her heart out until the boys who had rejected her fought over her for their street teams. Jean couldn’t take no for an answer and went back to the bowling alley all by herself and went back again and again and again. She brought her young son, Jimmy, with her and sat him down in the scorekeeper’s chair with a set of colorforms to occupy him. She bowled lefty for weeks, but frustrated by gutterball after gutterball, she switched back to righty. Right-handed pitcher, right-handed bowler. Her wounded right hand grew stronger, but she still only hit a few pins here and there.
One morning, bowling by herself before the alley got crowded, a distinguished looking man walked up to her. “I noticed your grip. It’s almost a fingertip.” Jean cradled the ball in her left inside elbow and held up her right hand. “I don’t have fingertips.”
“That’s okay. You can use what you have to master a pretty mean hook. Here, I’ll show you.” The man took the ball and Jean’s hand. “Use your index and middle fingers instead of the middle and ring, but it can work once you build strength. I’ve seen you here so often, I trust you’ll build strength. Now, put your thumb into the hole as far as you can.” He took the heel of her hand and nuzzled her thumb deeper into the ball. “Then put your other… fingertips in…”
“You can call ’em stumps. It doesn’t bother me anymore,” Jean reassured the man.
“Put your… stumps in… maybe the index finger in a little deeper because you have more of that… then the middle finger and you can zip up your third stump and pinky to grip the outside.”
Jean gripped with her right and bounced the ball lightly into her left hand. “It feels good… more secure with the zip fingers.”
“Now try a shot.” Jean looked at him wide eyed. “No time like the present.” She took a breath and nodded.
“Here goes nothing.” Jean turned and centered herself in front of the lane. She adjusted her new fingertip, or finger stump grip and held as tight as she could. She dropped the ball and turned back to her new coach as it rolled into the gutter.
“Don’t worry about it. Try again.” He waved her to pick up the ball and turn back to the lane. After a few drops and several gutter balls, Jean found her grip, hooked the ball and hit her first near strike. A few days later, a little more coaching and she hit her first strike.
Selma waived to Jean from the spectator’s seats. “Jean! Jean! The Feisty Ladies are here to support you! First singles championship! We’re so proud of you! You’re doing it!” Jean waved back and turned toward the lanes to regain her concentration. Her biggest hurdle to winning the 1936 All-Midwest Ladies’ Singles Championship was in her head, that was according to pro-bowler Ron Webb, the mysterious distinguished man who first showed her a pro-grip that worked for her. She had to shake the I can’t do it voice that played over and over. That voice was part of her since the 1920s. I can’t play street ball because the boys don’t want to play with me. I can’t try out for a professional baseball team because no women can try out. I can’t try out for the Minnesota women’s barnstorming team because I sliced my fingers off in a shoe factory accident. I have half a hand, I can’t bowl. I can’t go pro because I’ll make a fool of myself. It all played over and over in her head every day, even this day of the championship, despite her older brothers who taught her to play, despite her youngest brother Sammy who bragged about her to all his little friends, despite her husband Paul compared to whom she was indestructible, despite that a man as successful as Ron Webb was interested enough to coach her for years, despite making it to the singles championships, despite winning over the Feisty Ladies with work, improvement and eventual success, and despite her best friend, Selma who nudged her into bowling and had the rabbi pray over her lost fingers.
Jean turned to the ball return and picked up her personalized 15-pound Brunswick Black Beauty with inscribed Jean A. She started her routine, inserting her fingers the same way Ron taught her in ’36 and bouncing the ball lightly against her left hand. She stepped up to the line and looked at the pins. The pins are cleaner than usual. Okay, stop it. Stumps in. Third finger and pinky zipped. Grip tight. Can I do this? Jean breathed in and out to push the Jennie out and the Jean in. Can I do this? What does it matter what I think? I played baseball. I had a mean curveball that the neighbor boys envied, and Sammy bragged about. I moved out of Brooklyn. I married a great guy. I bowled, badly. Then, I got better. I found a grip. I found a hook. I am bowling in a championship. I’ve already done everything I was afraid of. Selma’s right. I’m doing it. Jean took another breath and began her approach. She took the ball behind her, swung it forward and released.
Jean brought her entourage, Sammy and his two sons, her own son, Jim, his wife Karen and their two daughters, Rhonda and Debbie, Selma and her husband Dave, and Ma who flew in all the way from Williamsburg at 76-years old, still unhappy about her daughter’s name change to the Fatz-Niesen Lanes. Jean, now Grandma Jean to Rhonda and Debbie, would be on WMAQ to accept her award — a huge almost 6-foot-tall trophy for a lifetime of achievement in the Women’s All-Midwest Ladies’ Bowling League.
She spotted Ron in the audience and teared up a little when she acknowledged him in her acceptance speech. “Ron taught me to play to my strengths. He helped me develop my patented, okay not patented, but famous, a little famous, Stumptip Grip.” She held up her partial right hand, and the audience chucked along with her. “And along with Ron and my family, there was Selma.” She took a breath and choked back an imaginary piece of kugel stuck in her throat. “My best friend Selma’s nudged me into bowling, or dragged me, depending who you talk to, and even when I left Brooklyn and disappeared in Chicago… without giving her my new address or my new name… she found me and forgave me, and nudged me, and dragged me, and eventually learned to call me by my new name and I think she did that because she realized before I did… I’m a whole new person. In the 1920s, I dreamed of barnstorming the Midwest with my curveball, now I’ve achieved a dream, a little different dream, right here with all of you behind me and with only part of my hand right here.” She held up her right hand again. “… and the other part somewhere in Queens.”