SABR

A Saint and a Miller

By Doug Ernst

This article was published in the 2012 The National Pastime.

Rutherford “Herman” Hanforth had always loved the taste of raw, sweet onions. It was better than eating a fresh apple, the crunch was the same, but as his teeth sliced through the layers of an onion there was a feeling in his mouth of rings coming away. It reminded him of running the bases after hitting a long ball to the deepest part of the field. Circles of sweet, pungent firmness falling away from his teeth. The grass and loam of the base ball diamond felt the same way under his spiked shoes. He made the comparison at every match he played in over twenty years as a St. Paul Saint.

Over the past month or so, though, every time he smelled the onions carried by the poorest cranks, fans who were usually immigrants by their accents, sitting on the sides of the field, a sour taste would rise in his mouth.  These fans would make a day’s entertainment of the batting practice, ball match, and mingling after, he always liked to hang close to them. They added a rich dimension to the game he loved all his life. They reminded him of his own family and their struggles. “Herman” identified with their movements, first from Norway, Sweden and Germany; then across their adopted country of 45 states. He had loved everything about their clothing, their accents, their foods. Now he would have to drink down a warm beer to get the acid, metallic taste out of his mouth that gagged him.

Last week, he went behind the bleachers, and threw up half way through the match. He knew there was something seriously wrong. He didn’t know what it might be though. He hoped it would go away, and by evening it usually did. It went away to a degree, but not entirely.

Hanforth began to dread the time at the ball field. It was something he had never experienced before, and it dismayed him. The dread made the time surrounded by the rancid onions worse.

The trip to the ball field had started to remind him of the one time, out west, he had seen a hanging, when he was a wild veteran fleeing echoes of the Rebel Yell. He had heard the condemned man had been a hardened criminal. The man had taken horses from a wagon train. He had robbed a small bank, hardly getting enough cash to make the effort worth while. He had killed a cavalry soldier who had been part of a pursuit party. It was for this last offense that he had been condemned to hang. Hanforth thought that such a desperado would continue to thumb his nose at social rules and Christian conviction. But, as the three armed guards pushed him through the crowd of curious onlookers and unchristian thrill seekers, the man kept pushing back against his sentries, forming a human wall between the death walker and the watchers. He cried. He cringed. He pled desperately for clemency. He fell. When he reached the first steps, he went limp and they had to carry him trembling to the platform. As they placed the noose around his neck, the man became hysterical, and could only mouth words. His desperado eyes darted from side to side, looking to be extricated, his soul salvaged. Then in tears, he simply gave up the present and focused on a distant mountain top, he had already died. 

His body simply did not know what his brain had done. That was Kansas, 1871.

Over the years, Hanforth’s mental toughness had become his guards. But now, what had protected him previously ushered him back and forth from the field for each match. They had become his death sentinel.  He could feel himself wrestling emotionally. The ballist felt he knew the battle that the death walker must have struggled with a score and eight years earlier.  

He had gotten through this match, so far, by putting bear grease under his nose so that he wouldn’t be touched by the smell of fertile onions in the heat and humidity. He spent the whole match in pain. Pain had now become a way of life to him. There was a visible loneliness about him, and he wrapped the pain about him like a blanket. Lately, the blanket had begun to grow tight and cruel.

There were a couple times, once in the fourth frame, after legging out a double; then again in the eighth, after running back, and catching a foul for the third out; Hanforth had been unable to stand the pain, couldn’t get his breath, and stood wavering like an oak about to be cut down by the final blow of an ax. He was drunk dizzy.

Outside of the warm beer before the match, he had nothing to drink but tepid water. Even that had the faint taste of onion. He found he could not imagine what he had ever enjoyed about the noxious plant.

Now, in the bottom of the ninth, his last appearance at the bat, Hanforth focused on a spot on the plate just in front of his feet. Catcher Robert Morressey was in his peripheral vision. Hanforth had long ago learned to hate this man. It was far more than hating a Minneapolis Miller player. He had blotted out the fact that they had actually grown up seeing each other across Lexington Avenue in St. Paul and had played together. Outside of Hanforth’s view Morressey flashed his signal to the hurler. The catcher used a variation of line commands he had been taught in the Confederate army. They were simple directional cues.

Instantly, Hanforth looked out to second where the runner, Andre LeJure was peering in. The giant runner blinked twice and then licked the left side of his mouth. Years of playing together had brought a sense of unspoken communication. The striker and the runner were not what you would call friends, but they had spent enough time together to know the mind of the other. They had discovered and exploited their own language in signals. 

The pitch would be inside and chest high. It would be a brush back pitch. If Hanforth swung, he would be jammed and pop up. If he wasted it, the pitch might brush the inside corner and be a called strike. He could try to let the pitch hit him, but not in the chest or shoulder, those two body parts hurt too much already. 

Hanforth’s chest had been tight and sore for almost two days, he had played with pain before. It was a near constant companion after twenty-six years of ball. He even had a name for it, Camille. He held conversations with it, and referenced it when talking to other players. While they thought it was odd, they understood. Each of the veterans had referred to their hurt in some manner. 

To some the pain was simply “It.” Others referenced “The Companion.” One even claimed it as “My Lover.” There was almost a sense of dignity to the discussion, it was a badge of honor. It never really left them, and while the pain may have been dull at times, almost unnoticeable for moments at a time, it would wake them in the night and sit at their side in the day. 

This was different. Camille was warm and familiar. Camille was almost a friend. 

This pain was new, cold, indifferent, and clung onto him like a wet shirt. There was almost a “need” about it, but not an emotional need. That’s why it was cold and indifferent.

 Hanforth was scared of it. He did not wish to talk to it, or about it. There was a sense of cheating on Camille. There was betrayal this pain. This pain grew with every passing hour. It was tight, controlling. His night thoughts focused on it. His daily actions were centered on it, keeping his left side and chest away from anything that could bump against him. 

Hanforth’s team mates had already made a few cracks about “the old man being tenderized,” and “Hanforth’s last season.”

Morressey had chided him his previous at bat. “Ya looked like a plowhorse out there, tryin’ ta dig a furrow to second. I coulda cut ya down by ten feet, ’cept I almost felt a pity for ya.” This insult from the adversary Hanforth swore at regularly. The two had gone from competitors, to adversaries, to enemies, to opposite sides of a stereoview photo card. Two halves molded to the point where each had minute differences, but viewed side by side, they would appear as one fully developed, complex and whole. 

Hanforth, without taking his gaze off the pitcher, nor moving a muscle, replied; “If you’d a tried, I woulda kept plowin’ round the bags and sheered ya’ plum in half as a two share blade would weedy soil. You’d a been turned upside down, an’ inside out.”

Another in a long series of fights was being instigated. Both men knew it. There was at least one fight with Morressey every match. There had been no brush ups yet in this match.

Hanforth didn’t want Morressey’s pity. He didn’t want the fight to stop. The two men hated one another with childish dedication. It wasn’t just that they played for rival teams, there was personal history. Hanforth lost his wife to be to the better looking, wealthier catcher. 

In turn, Morressey had lost money when Hanforth had bought out the catcher’s share of the Millers team. It didn’t matter that he had bought into a rival team. He did it through a front man, and he had been able to watch Morressey’s agony without the catcher ever knowing who had bested him, financially. In Morressey’s eyes, on a balance scale, money outweighed love. In Hanforth’s eyes, love trumped everything else.

Hanforth played for the love of it. Morressey played for the cheers, because it meant a large gate. Hanforth lived to find love. Morressey lived to find a mark he could take advantage of. Hanforth used money to counter anything that would obstruct him from finding love. Morressey spent his whole life creating what he loved—wealth. 

“Strike one!”

Hanforth hadn’t even seen the ball leave the pitcher’s hand because of the pain. But he heard the deep rumbling laugh that came from behind him. The cranks watching the match had started to make light of him. His own personal demon was calling his name.

“Ya like lookin’ at first pitches, but ya never seem ta’ see ‘em delivered, just like the one I gave your wife. Ya’ see ‘em only as they go past.” Morressey tensed for a blow deflected off his hat. None came. Morressey looked up at the batter for the first time. He got great pleasure from the fact that this man seemed old. It bothered him for a second, too. For the first time, he heard the labored breathing. He took satisfaction from the fact, but it also made him reflect back to his childhood for an instant. That labored breathing used to be his, and Hanforth was his protector from bullies trying to take…what, something, anything they wanted from “Baby Bobbie Morressey.” The catcher suddenly realized that for all the insults, dust-ups, down and dirty sucker punch fights they had over the years, Hanforth had never stooped to calling him that, out loud, or under his breath. Why had he never thought of that before? Morressey snuck a look at the batter’s face in front of him and saw him, for an instant, in a way he hadn’t seen him for decades.

The blow never came. In that split second glance Morressey was also shaken—just a bit—because he also only seemed to catch a glance of a shadow. Hanforth seemed hollow for an instant. Morressey focused anew, and the shadow appeared solid again.

 Hanforth seemed to wobble momentarily. Then he steadied himself and looked out to the pitcher, then his runner. Morressey called for low and outside, a slow pitch that Hanforth would find irresistible. 

Hanforth looked out to second. Right thumb jammed into the pants pocket of the uniform. 

Hanforth felt momentarily helpless. The pain he would feel if he turned on it, but it would be a beautiful pitch, in his wheelhouse. A pitch he could drive a mile. Or he could take it and hope that the pitcher’s precision would be just off the mark. A precious ball, just outside. Hanforth had never tended to be a gambler. Everything he did was by design, to attain an objective. He knew there was no such thing as a sure bet. Trusting a pitcher, either way was never a sure bet, so he focused on Lucus Grider’s face. 

The pitcher’s nickname was “The Grinder” because he was so good at grinding off the edges of the strike zone. Umpires talked about how every call was an emotional decision. No matter how consistently an umpire might try to call a game, there would be a debate within the crew later about the issue that what looked like “painting the edges of the zone” behind the plate, looked foul from first or third base. 

Hanforth had heard of these debates all too often. He decided that he would swing, at whatever cost.

“Strike two!”

“Your swing. Looks like ya got lessons from a newborn, there, loverman.” Morressey stopped short because he could hear the rattled breathing and when he looked up, the batsman’s face was white, there was sweat coming off him. His hands trembled. Morressey caught himself thinking his enemy looked like a drunk, trying to hold onto a bar rail for support. In this case, the rail was a bat unattached from any support, and suddenly without the power to slice the air sword-like or protect the holder from a final fate.

“You ok, there, Herman,” barked the umpire.

No answer.

“Boy’o! You need a replacement?” The umpire barked again, but this time there was some real concern in his voice.

Still no answer, but Hanforth managed to wag his head with some vigor. 

Morressey growled out, “Hold yer mouth, ump, this’un’s held his own with the best, an’ thas’ me. I ’spect he’s just settin’ us all up for his big attempt to be the winnin’ hero, an I don’t plan to have anyone spoil that joy, ’ceptin’ me!” He pounded his fist into his glove so that it sounded like a base drum. Somewhere, deep inside, Morressey wished that he had never split from his childhood friend over “Mr. Lincoln’s War.”

It was stupid. Somehow, two competitive spirits turned ugly and defined the rest of their two lives. It bound them together by forcing them onto opposite sides of every event. Fate chose an event at Fort Snelling six years before Herman was born that, in a myriad of ways defined life for both Hanforth and Morressey. Hanforth’s father was an abolitionist preacher. Morressey’s father, Winston, was an army surgeon who knew slave holder Doctor John Emerson. Winston Morressey believed Emerson to be a good, fair and just man. He was a man simply seeking to maintain control of his property. 

Even in a free Minnesota, there was a legal question about what Dred Scott was: Property, or a Free Man with a soul.

Each boy was a benefactor of his father’s philosophy. Emerson was often asked to see veterans living away from Fort Snelling, Morressey and his father would accompany the surgeon to the clinic/home of a doctor who lived across the street from the Hanforth home. Young Morressey spent afternoons there, playing with neighborhood boys, Hanforth among them. Herman sometimes went to the fort and played base ball with Morressey and the men. As time passed, the street became a barrier, then a wall between the two boys. In early 1864 each stole away and rode the same train, unknown to one another, to opposing camps. Morressey fought for the rebel cause in Missouri. Hanforth took up arms in Kentucky for “Father Abraham”. Both left as boys with adventure-lust in their eyes, both returned as angry men, much older than their 16 years would allow the world to see.

After Lincoln’s death, Morressey returned to St. Paul, wore bitterness like a shield and played Base Ball at every chance, charging every base with a Rebel yell that either got him booted, fined, or both. He was so antagonistic about it, that long after fining players went by the way, Morressey still generated fines every match. He would show his disdain by throwing coins at either the umpire or manager. Occasionally, other players would imitate Morressey’s coin tossing to irritate him, but this only served to fuel his passion.

Hanforth simply came home after following the length of Lincoln’s funeral train from Washington to New York, and then west to Illinois. It was as if he were searching for the sign that everything was as it had been. To this day in 1899, Hanforth sought signs. Off the field, he saw signs where none existed. But on the field, he was uncanny about catching movements, repetitive looks, anything that might be a tip-off to a pitcher’s next pitch or a runner’s intention to go. Some catchers said Hanforth had eyes in the back of his head because he always seemed to know what would be thrown next. But not Morressey.

This time Hanforth didn’t make the effort to see the sign off the catcher, he just stared out to second. There LeJure, with a mix of concern and anger in his eyes threw out the same sign as for the second pitch. Hanforth, gazed at his baseman for a very long second and then stood very tall and straight in the box. He smiled at the runner. LeJure found himself thinking, “he looks so small in there,” and then shook it off. 

He had seen that smile, mixed with that tall comportment from this batter before. It was a totally unconscious signal between the two that LeJure had best be ready to run. Run like shot from a high powered weapon. Run like there was no tomorrow. Run for the cheers of the fans, his mates, for the tie score. Run to get out of the way, because a lightning bolt was going to be trying to charge up his leg.

Run as if unchained by gravity.

The pitcher went into his wind-up. Hanforth was tracking the movement of every muscle of the pitch, by the time “The Grinder” had reached his release point, fifteen years had slid off, Camille, and the new pain, were lost for the instant. Hanforth knew where the pitch would cross the plate, and he could tear the cow hide off of it. 

Ball met sword. The missile launched without devastating speed, but with an arc that would carry. The pain came back, stronger. Hanforth could only stand and watch as the ball became light itself, traveling far enough to drive in the tying run, before landing just inches foul.

Panting now, and bent over in pain, Hanforth understood that Morressey would call the same pitch again. The pitcher wouldn’t want to put it over in the same place. He wouldn’t want do the same thing. Hanforth knew what was Morressey had in mind. Seeing the intensity in Morressey’s deep set eyes, the Grinder was hypnotized. He was all but compelled to do Morressey’s bidding. 

All of a sudden there was a hand on his shoulder, the field captain was standing over Hanforth’s bent frame. “Boy, you need to leave now. Go sit it out.”

Almost crying, Hanforth struggled and whispered, “This is mine. It’s what I have, I’m gonna’ give it.”

Morressey stood and defiantly stuck a finger in the Saint’s field captain’s chest, “He’s a big boy, it’s his decision. I want him to do this. Him and me got history. This ain’t between you and him, this is between him and me, you can’t fine me, I ain’t on your roster, but I’ll beat ya’ ta’ death if ya’ take ’im out.”

Hanforth, without waiting for the signal, stood so straight and tall that he once again looked like the oak tree people had compared him to when he first came up. He smiled a triumphant smile at LeJure.

LeJure took four steps of the bag. He took another two steps and roared out so that the pitcher and the crowd had to hear, “My man! I’m comin’ home, an’ there ain’t one damn thing you’ll do about it, ’cept wish ta hell you never delivered that pitch.” With that, he pulled a dollar, a gold eagle, out of his pocket and threw it in the direction of the umpire and proclaimed, “here’s you bleedin’ fine! Buy four beer on me tonight! But mark my words well, sir—I am coming home on this pitch!” This time, it had Morressey’s attention. 

Sudden silence. The sun bore down on the scene creating waves of wet heat that radiated off the ground, bounced off the stationery men and created motion where there was none, yet.

LeJure dug in with his left foot, muscle sinew coiling to thrust away on contact.

Morressey cooled into a slab of oven-forged iron, ready for all blows.

Hanforth, for a second time, was lost in the moment. Everything became clear, calm, and very large. Camille was next to him, the new invader was nowhere to be felt.

The broken lace on the ball had created a whistle that the base tenders, and runner, could hear.

History repeated itself. “The Grinder” moved with the same motions. The release point was exactly the same. The path of the ball split the air in the same way. To Hanforth’s eye the ball was bigger than big, slower than slow. He could track the broken lace as the ball spun toward him. Half a generation spent swinging at pitches was stored memory in the muscles of his legs, torso, shoulders and arms. Anyone under twenty years of age had not yet been conceived when Hanforth first drove a base ball far over the fielder’s heads and he had tallied his first ace.

Then there was this. No ball had seemed larger. No ball had seemed slower. The ball was under a wizard’s spell of time, talent, practice and destiny. Even the ball knew what was about to happen, for as the hand polished ash bat cut time and space, that broken lace seemed to give an eagle’s screech as it began a head first dive toward a far distant prey. 

The shudder went up Hanforth’s arms. Ran across his shoulders, down his spine where it finally met the cold, indifferent intruder between his shoulder blades. By then it was far too late. The ball flashed up, out and away. The bat dropped from Hanforth’s hands, suddenly cold and cramped. 

LeJure let forth an exhortation as he was half way past third, “Move, move, for God’s sake move!”

Morressey never moved, just mouthed an expletive. 

Hanforth, already almost drained of energy, began plodding, pleading his legs to move faster. His heart felt like there was a hot lead rod pushing in on it.

LeJure completed his run, touching the plate with his hand and he intentionally speared the catcher. He yelled above the roar of the crowd, “Safe! Tie score! Safe! Come home!” At that, his tone changed as he watched the runner flailing toward second base. The look on Hanforth’s face was beyond agony, it was moving in the direction of rigor-mortis. Still his arms kept pumping, as if by their own volition. His fingers seemed to stretch out claw like. Still his legs thrashed, one in front of the other, as if by habit. His head was down, staring straight into the ground. 

It was as if the ball knew it had an extra mission to accomplish at the end of this war of wills. The ball seemed to hang, going deeper, just out of reach of the fielders converging on it. 

One sports writer later fell away from the straightforward prose of the day and wrote, “This ball, this damaged, beleaguered spherical orb that had no reason to do any man a favor, seemed to take pity on old Hanforth. For the pure joy of exacting revenge on those who had used it so badly over the course of nine frames, and for the complete sympathy upon he who would end the game; seemed to play a boy’s game of tag with the fielders. That spirit infused cowhide was staying up, and away, and just beyond the grasping, wishing hands of those who would put an end to old Hanforth before he would achieve his final salvation.”

Whatever the truth was, the ball seemed to hang as it went deeper and deeper, finally dropping as Hanforth was half way to third. The runner had found some inner strength, and picked up speed. Maybe that is what really occurred, maybe not.

The fielder hurled the ball with a devil’s fury that the ball had to give in to. It found the hands of the relay man as Hanforth came off third. Turning, giving a mighty yell, “Coming Home!” the relay man launched the ball. 

Morressey covered the plate, still looking dazed, one hand covering his left eye, there wasn’t a visible speck to be seen. He was almost actually sitting on the round dish. He spit out two teeth that had broken as LeJure speared him, There was blood coming out his mouth. 

And still Hanforth came.

The ball was on target.

Hanforth stumbled about eight feet away from where the plate should have been. His face transformed into a cruel puzzle, and Morressey took a moment to savor the chilling truth. Hanforth could not find the plate. Morressey cleared his head sufficiently enough to form the words silently “I’m sitting on it, it’s mine!”

Hanforth seemed to dive. Some would later claim he had merely bobbled on weak legs as he continued the stumble toward the invisible plate. Morressey continued to sit semi-dazed on the plate, the ball bounced once in front of him and to the runner’s side. With a crazed flailing Hanforth managed to get two fingers on the ball and brush it off course. 

Morressey was forced to react, leaving a piece of the plate exposed. Hanforth fell, and inertia alone carried him forward toward the final stopping point. 

Morressey screamed “No, no you don’t! Damn it, I won’t allow it!”

LeJure pounced and blocked the vision of the umpire for the briefest of moments, but long enough for him to get one hand on Morressey and tip him just away. “He’s safe, ump, he touched!” 

But, there, laying face down with one arm and hand extended in a disjointed way, as if they had left Hanforth’s body despite the best efforts of the ball, LeJure, and the runner—a two-inch gap spanned like an ocean between the plate and extended fingers.

By then, Morressey had recovered the ball. The umpire had regained perfect vision of the scene. LeJure stood between the catcher and the umpire, suddenly thrust in the role of Protestant preacher arguing for a final salvation. He implored to God and invoked country. He looked deep into Morressey’s eyes and told him he owed Hanforth this one, it would make up for the wrongs of the past. He pled, and a tear even began to form. He did something he had never done to another ballist before, he apologized for his actions.

Morressey looked at the ball he now held in his hand. He looked at the prone, motionless form covered in sweat and dirt, little cuts oozing from where he had fallen. He looked at the crowd that had gone from frenzied to funeral quiet. Morressey looked at LeJure.

“Not doin’ this for you, nor anything you said. Doin’ it for the glory o’ the game!”

He dropped the ball about six inches away from the plate, grabbed hold of Hanforth’s wet hand and pulled, just a bit. He dropped the hand on the edge of the perfectly round, mostly white iron dish, stood, turned, faced the crowd. “Damned if I didn’t try! My enemy is safe at home.” 

He walked back to the rest of his team, stopping to raise his head in one last, long “Rebel Yell” and never looked back.

A Dakota Indian watching the match turned to his companion, “It is the death chant.”

A visiting Chicagoan told his traveling companion, “There’s a crazy rumor that ‘Old Roman’ Comiskey wants the Saints in Chicago. Think it’ll happen?”

DOUG ERNST grew up in West Central Minnesota on a farm where he and his grandfather listened to Halsey Hall call Twins games on the radio evenings and weekends. As a history teacher, Doug often used baseball as a timeline to discuss the social history of the United States. Now, as a historic fiction writer and historic interpreter, Doug uses his experiences playing Vintage Base Ball as a way of helping him better understand the times he writes about, and interprets.

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