"He said that?" Luther asked Lila in the bathtub of the Dixon Hotel, Coloreds Only. He got some froth going in the water, swept the suds up over Lila's small hard breasts, loving the look of them bubbles on her flesh, flesh the color of unpolished gold.
"Said a lot worse," Lila told him. "Don't you go 'fronting that man now, though, baby. He a cruel one."
When Luther confronted him anyway in the dugout at Inkwell Field, Reese stopped smiling right quick and got this look in his eyes--a hard, ancient look that spoke of not being far enough removed from sun-torture in the fields--that made Luther think, Uh-oh, but by then, Reese was on him, his fists like the butt end of a bat on Luther's face. Luther tried to give as good as he got, but Jefferson Reese, more than twice his age and ten years a house nigger, had some fury in him gone so deep that when it finally let go it came out all the hotter and harder for having been kept down in the darkness for so long. He beat Luther into the ground, beat him fast and mean, beat him till the blood, mixed with the dirt and chalk and dust of the field, came off him in strings.
His friend Aeneus James said to Luther while he was in the charity ward of St. John's, "Shit, boy, fast as you are, whyn't you just run when you see that crazy old man get that look in his eye?"
Luther'd had a long summer to consider that question, and he still didn't have an answer. Fast as he was, and he'd never met a man faster, he wondered if he was just heartsick of running.
But now, watching the fat man who reminded him of Babe Ruth watching him from the trees, Luther found himself thinking, You think you seen some running, white man? You ain't. 'Bout to see some now, though. Tell your grandkids.
And he took off from second just as Sticky Joe Beam came out of that octopus throwing motion of his, had a hair of a moment to see the white man's eyes bulge out big as his belly, and Luther's feet moved so fast the ground ran under him more than he ran over it. He could actually feel it moving like a river in early spring, and he pictured Tyrell Hawke standing at third, twitching because he'd laid out all night drinking, and Luther was counting on that because he wasn't just settling for third today, no sir, thinking that's right, you best believe baseball is a game of speed and I'm the speediest son of a bitch any ya'll ever see, and when he raised his head, the first thing he saw was Tyrell's glove right beside his ear. The next thing he saw, just to his left, was the ball, a shooting star gone sideways and pouring smoke. Luther shouted "Boo!" and it came out sharp and high and, yep, Tyrell's glove jerked up three inches. Luther ducked, and that ball sizzled under Tyrell's glove and kissed the hairs on the back of Luther's neck, hot as the razor in Moby's Barbershop on Meridian Avenue, and he hit the third base bag with the tiptoes of his right foot and came barreling up the line, the ground shooting so fast under his feet he felt like he might just run out of it, go off the edge of a cliff, right off the edge of the world maybe. He could hear the catcher, Ransom Boynton, shouting for the ball, shouting, "Hea' now! Hea' now!" He looked up, saw Ransom a few yards ahead, saw that ball coming in his eyes, in the tightening of his kneecaps, and Luther took a gulp of air the size of an ice block and turned his calves into springs and his feet into pistol hammers. He hit Ransom so hard he barely felt him, just went right over him and saw the ball slap into the wooden fence behind home at the exact moment his foot hit the plate, the two sounds--one hard and clean, the other scuffed and dusty--wrapping around each other. And he thought: Faster than any of y'all even dream of being.
He came to a stop against the chests of his teammates. In their pawing and hooting, he turned around to see the look on the fat white man's face, but he wasn't at the tree line anymore. No, he was almost at second base, running across the field toward Luther, little baby's face all jiggly and smiling and his eyes spinning in their sockets like he'd just turned five and someone had told him he was getting a pony and he couldn't do nothing to control his body, had to just shake and jump and run for the happiness of it.
And Luther got a real look at that face and thought: No.
But then Ransom Boynton stepped up beside him and said it out loud:
"Ya'll ain't gonna believe this, but that there is Babe Ruth running toward us like a fat fucking freight train."
Can I play?" No one could believe he'd said it. This was after he'd run up to Luther and lifted him off the ground, held him over his face, and said, "Boy, I seen some running in my day, but I ain't never--and I mean ever--seen anyone run like you." And then he was hugging Luther and clapping him on the back and saying, "Me oh my, what a sight!"
And it was after they'd confirmed that he was, really, Babe Ruth. He was surprised so many of them had even heard of him. But Sticky Joe had seen him once in Chicago, and Ransom had caught him in Cleveland twice, seen him pitch and play left. The rest of them had read about him in the sports pages and Baseball Magazine, and Ruth's eyebrows went up at that, like he couldn't quite believe there were darkies on the planet who knew how to read.
Ruth said, "So you'll be wanting some autographs?"
No one appeared too interested in that, and Ruth grew long in the mouth as everyone found reasons to look at their shoes, study the sky.
Luther thought about telling Ruth that standing here before him were some pretty great players themselves. Some bona fi de legends.
That man with the octopus arm? He went 32-2 last year for the Millersport King Horns of the Ohio Mill Workers League--32-2 with a 1.78 ERA. Touch that. And Andy Hughes, playing shortstop for the opposing team of the hour, this being a scratch game, man was hitting .390 for the Downtown Sugar Shacks of Grandview Heights. And, besides, only white folks liked autographs. What the hell was an autograph anyway, but some man's chicken scrawl on a scrap of paper?
Luther opened his mouth to explain this, but got one good look at Ruth's face and saw it wouldn't make no difference: man was a child. A hippo- size, jiggling child with thighs so big you'd expect them to sprout branches, but a child all the same. He had the widest eyes Luther'd ever seen. Luther would remember that for years after, as he saw them change over time in the papers, saw those eyes grow smaller and darker every time he saw a new picture. But then, in the fi elds of Ohio, Ruth had the eyes of a little fat boy in the school yard, full of hope and fear and desperation.
"Can I play?" He held out his St. Bernard paws. "With you-all?"
That just about busted everyone up, men bending over from the snickering, but Luther kept his face still. "Well . . ." He looked around at the rest of the men, then back at Ruth, taking his time. "Depends," he said. "You know much about the game, suh?"