Sereana D. Bird
No Girls Allowed
Maggie scuffed the rust-colored dirt in front of the pitcher’s plate with the toe of her shoe, deepening the small depression she had started at the beginning of the game. The midday summer sun had reddened the skin on the back of her neck. Sweat ran down the sides of her face, cutting clean trails through the dust that caked her cheeks. Only three more pitches, three more strikes, and her team would win the Rural New York Farm and Merchants League Baseball Championship of 1921. It was the first season she had pitched for the Woolies, since she had only started her job at the Lanchesterville Wool and Textile mill less than a year ago, and it was the only time in the history of the Rural league that the workers in the mill had a chance to win.
She took off her ball cap and swiped at the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand and then settled the cap back firmly, pulling the brim low over her eyes. The batter from the Poughkeepsie Cowpies, the opposing farmers' team, sauntered to the plate. He was short, but had a powerfully built upper body. He settled into his batting stance, slowly moving the bat in high small circles over his left shoulder. Strike zone low, be controlled, nothing fancy, no balls, she thought as she took a deep breath, shifting her weight to her right foot and holding her glove just below her eyes. Maggie’s fingers found the seams she wanted as she turned the ball in her right hand, concealed by the glove on her left. Without moving her head, she shifted her eyes briefly over her left shoulder. The runner on first was off the plate by a good 6 or 7 feet, ready to steal second as soon as the ball left her hand. A pick-off would be easy, and it would win the game. Not as dramatic as a strikeout, but effective. Moving as quickly as the flicker of a picture show, she pivoted and fired the ball at Russell Greer, the lanky first baseman. Russell’s mind must have been somewhere else, probably thinking about ending this game and getting some of his wife’s fried chicken, because Maggie heard him utter a surprised squawk as he flailed his arms to shield his face from the ball. Her throw had happened so quickly that the runner hadn’t even tried to dive back to the base. The ball bounced off the fingertips of Russell’s glove into shallow right field, and the runner started pumping his legs for second base, sliding in safely and holding up there.
The crowd, seated in the small bleachers and on picnic blankets around the dusty field, began to boo Russell and throw portions of their lunch at him. Maggie saw with some amusement that her own mother, forgetting her decorum in the sudden turn of events, had sailed a hard boiled egg into the infield. Russell shrugged and gave the crowd a sheepish smile.
Now there was a runner in scoring position. If this batter got a double off Maggie, the game would be tied. If she couldn’t hold off the next batter (or if Russell had gone back to daydreaming on first), they could lose the game. The catcher signaled for an off-speed pitch low and outside. Maggie shook him off. She didn’t want to start with a ball. She wanted to strike out the short little dairy farmer. Again the catcher signaled for a ball, and again Maggie shook her head. She could see the catcher, a bolt operator at the textile factory, roll his eyes behind his mask. He finally signaled for a curve. She set her stance again, and behind her glove she pinched her thumb and forefinger together, settling the ball in the hollow of her palm and gently curling her other three fingers over the top of the ball. Deep breath, weight on her right foot, hands high over her head, big step out with her left shifting her weight, winding up now, then her arm, elbow leading, whip-snapped from her body, streaking the ball towards the batter. About 8 feet before home plate, the ball arced to the left dramatically and the squatty cow farmer’s bat swung right underneath it. There was a satisfying smack of the ball meeting the oiled leather of catcher’s mitt.
“Strike one!” the umpire yelled. The crowd cheered and some chanted her name: “Ma-ggie! Ma-ggie!”
The catcher tossed the ball back to her and she climbed the mound, planting her foot back in the little hole she had toed out. Maggie and the batter readied themselves. She was looking for her signal when the batter pursed his thick lips and blew her a derisive kiss, followed by a wink. She was the only girl ever to play in the Rural league, and no matter how well she pitched, the men on the other teams still thought she was some sort of joke, something to mock. Without waiting for her signal, she fired a split-fingered fastball down the alley and slightly inside so hard that the farmer crumpled to the ground, thinking he was going to be hit. The ball whizzed over the plate, painting the inside black, and smacked into the catcher’s mitt.
“Strike two!” the umpire yelled.
The batter hopped back to his feet and squared off with the umpire. “That’s a load, ump! It was inside! Way inside! The little slag was trying to brush me back!”
The umpire shook his head. “Call stands! Strike two!” The batter glared at the umpire then hit his bat on the ground, raising a little puff of dust. He beat the ground three more times, grunting each time the barrel of his bat struck the dirt, then stood for a moment breathing heavy. When it seemed the cow farmer had composed himself, he headed back for the batter’s box. This time, however, when he stepped to the plate, there was no winking and no kissing. Instead, Maggie noticed that he had turned an alarming shade of purple. She wondered for a moment if there might be something wrong with his heart, maybe too much milk and cheese in his diet, until she looked closer at his face. He was in a rage. The muscles around his jaw line bulged and twitched as he ground his slightly yellowed teeth together. His eyes were squinted in loathing and disgust as he glared at her.
“This one’s for you, she-boy!” he called out to her through clenched teeth. Maggie never knew just how to take things like that. Rude comments, snide remarks, and giggles behind hands. She was always so surprised when men and women would instantly dislike her, find her odd and abnormal, be disgusted by her just because she was up on the mound, wearing pants and pitching better than any man. And when she got a hothead like the one in front of her, being humiliated by a woman in front of all the fellas, the name-calling could get ugly.
She started to feel angry at this bulldog of a dairy farmer, sitting beneath cows all day spraying warm milk into a pail, groveling under them, if you will, and then having the nerve to glare at her like that. She set herself for the pitch, Maggie winked and blew him a kiss. The purple of his face deepened to a bruise. Maggie dug her fingernails into the soft leather shell of the ball, stepped into her pitch, and lobbed him a lazy knuckle ball that traveled like cold molasses. The batter’s knuckles turned white around the handle. and he dug in to send the ball over the outfield fence, and swung so powerfully that when the bottom of the ball dropped out underneath him, landing in the catcher’s mitt, the momentum of the bat spun his body an entire turn before his feet tangled and he fell on his rear.
“Strike Three! That’s the game!” the umpire yelled over the frenzied cheering of the crowd.
Maggie had turned around to her team, arms raised and grinning, so she didn’t see the batter get to his feet and charge her, his head down like a bull.
“Maggie! Duck!” someone yelled. Without thinking, she dropped to her hands and knees. The dairy farmer’s shins collided with her hip and his speed launched him, ass over elbow, into the air. He landed, hard, several feet away. Someone seized her arm roughly, and she was pulled into a staggering run across the field. She looked behind her and could see her mother, hopping up and down in her brown heels (the nice ones she usually saved for church) waving her hands in a shooing motion and yelling at Maggie to “Run, honey! Run! See you at home!” Beside the pitcher’s mound, Russell had the struggling dairy farmer in a chokehold.
The person still gripping her arm and dragging her away from the baseball field was Leo Jorgenson, a boy she had known since grade school, who was now a young man of 21. He used to yank her hair in class and flip ink from his pen onto her papers, but now he helped his father run the family’s dry goods store.
They had been running for a bit and were nearing the Lanchesterville town square, with its neat little white bandstand in the middle where guitar pickers would play on the 4th of July, when Maggie, badly winded, pulled to a stop.
“I think we’re okay now. They ain’t gonna follow us all the way out here, ‘specially if Russell has anything to do with it,” Leo said. Maggie, bent over with her hands on her knees and her chest heaving, could only nod. There was a sharp stitch in her side. She had that thick, after-running-hard saliva in her mouth. She leaned over and spat. A long string of it caught and dangled from her lower lip, glinting in the sun.
“Since you can pitch like a major leaguer, you need to learn to spit like one, too,” Leo said. “And maybe chew tobacco. You know, a little pinch between the cheek and gum...” He pushed his tongue against his cheek, looking like he had a wad of chewing tobacco in there, making an exaggerated spitting sound.
Maggie swiped her lip with the back of her sleeve. She was catching her breath now, and could stand up straight without her side spasming too badly.
“I don’t pitch like a major leaguer. The way these boys on the Rural league hit, it makes me look better than I am.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, kiddo. I’ve been to the games in the city, seen them work. Your fastball is easily as fast as Slim Sallee’s, and your curveball is almost untouchable. I know. I’ve batted against you.” He smiled to himself. “And you don’t have a half-bad knuckleball or spitball, either.”
“Spitballs are not allowed,” she said.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t keep you from hiding a blob of hair grease under the brim of your hat, does it?” Leo playfully pulled Maggie’s cap off and ran his finger through a clear smear of grease on the brim that she used to slick the ball up for her spitball.
“Gimme that,” she said, reaching for her hat. Leo held it out of her reach. He wasn’t much taller than her, only about 6 foot, but his arms were long enough that she couldn’t reach it. Maggie gave up. She didn’t feel like playing this game, and she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. Leo, seeing she wasn’t in the mood, plopped the hat on backwards over her sweaty blonde hair. They started down the street away from the square and out of the small town towards Maggie’s home.
“Um...want to come over to my folk’s place for dinner tonight to celebrate the championship?” Leo asked. He had been trying to court Maggie for some time now, ever since he was a senior and she was a sophomore in high school. Maggie was fond of him, but she wasn’t interested in any beaus right now. Besides baseball, she wasn’t exactly sure what she was interested in.
“Sorry, Leo, not tonight. Mother and I have some plans.” She didn’t tell him that those plans probably involved listening to the phonograph and working on some crocheting. He dropped his eyes and looked dejected. She felt bad for that.
“Oh. Well, okay. Maybe next weekend, then.” Maggie nodded, and some of the smile came back to his eyes.
“Anyway, great game today, and congratulations on the championship. I’ve been watching for years, but every time I see you pitch, I’m still flabbergasted. I mean, if only you were a fella, you could probably be pitching for the Yankees. You’re that good. But...” he trailed off with a shrug, leaving the rest unspoken. “So. Maybe dinner or a picnic next weekend?” he asked.
“Maybe, Leo. Let me make sure Mother doesn’t need me for anything.” They said goodbye and each headed towards home.
Pitching for the Yankees. You’re that good. If only a fella...she thought. On her way home she passed a ramshackle clubhouse built by farm boys in the area. The wood was old and rotted, with rusty nails bristling from the planks. Hammered over the door was a hand-painted sign that read, “No Girls Allowed.”
©2004 by Sereana D. Bird