The Baseball Murders
Frank Thomas Smith
For Chapters one and two, click here.
For Chapter three, click here.
“So what do we do now?” Charlie asked me as we walked down the tree-lined street towards the bus stop. I’d been pondering that myself and hadn’t yet made a decision, but knew I had to soon. Gladys Rounder hadn’t given us any more information than we already had – which was close to nothing. I didn’t regret having spoken to her though because, despite being a weirdo, she exuded a sense of calm certainty about her hypothesis that Jackie Robinson was on a killer’s hit list, or would be if Branch Rickey decided to promote him to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“I’m trying to decide whether to go to Boston or Charlotte first,” I finally said as we reached the bus stop.
“Hey, babe,” a wise guy walking with two others in the opposite direction called out from across the street, “caint find no brother to hold yo hand?” Charlie ignored them and I fumbled nervously in my pocket for change. A taxi appeared at the corner coming our way and I hailed it. The white driver seemed uncertain, but stopped. “You goin’ outa here?” he asked before I could open the door.
“Borough Hall,” I answered.
“OK, get in, quick, before those guys get any ideas.” The three dudes were still walking though, laughing – at us, obviously. We rode back to the office in silence. About half-way there, though, Charlie took my hand and leaned her head on my shoulder. “Want me to go with you?” she purred.
“I’d love to have you with me,” I said. “Can you imagine us holding hands in Charlotte, South Carolina? But you’re going to look after the office.”
“You could probably use an O.B.," she wisecracked.
“Yeah, but not a beautiful female one.” I checked that the driver was paying more attention to the traffic than to us, and kissed Charlie.
“Who then?” she asked, recognizing the kiss for what it was – an apology.
“Jug-eared Jimmy. Who else have I got?”
Jim McCrae jumped in my face before I even got my jacket off, saying that Branch Rickey had called and that I should return his call urgently. “Do you know Branch Rickey?” he asked, duly impressed.
“Yes, Jim, I do, and you may know him too before this is over. Have a seat. Charlie," I yelled through the open door that served as our inter-office communication system, “get me Branch Rickey on the phone.”
Branch was excited. He told me that Jackie Robinson had received a letter almost identical to the one he received. Branch told him that he shouldn’t worry, that the two deaths were probably coincidences and someone was either trying to make him nervous or was paranoiac, but he had a private investigator working on it just in case and had I found out anything – all in one sentence. I swore under my breath at Gladys Rounder, then told Branch about her, without mentioning that she hadn’t told us that she had also sent a letter to Robinson. “Well tell her to stop sending those fucking letters!” Branch shouted.
When I calmed him down and hung up, I told Charlie – who had been listening on the other line – to call Gladys and ask her why she hadn’t told us that she also wrote to Jackie Robinson and that she shouldn’t send any more fucking letters. I listened in on the conversation. Gladys said she thought Jack Robinson (for some reason she always called him Jack) had a right to know what was going on so he could be careful. Charlie told her that I was upset not so much by that as by the fact that she hadn’t told us about the second letter. Gladys just laughed and said that we hadn’t asked, and volunteered the information that she hadn’t sent any more letters and wouldn’t, at least not without informing us first.
Jim McCrae had ears he could have used to fly with, and the other new guys in the office had started to call him Jimmy Jug-ears, until I told them, at Charlie’s suggestion, to knock it off. Jim hadn’t said anything, just smiled, but Charlie said he was sensitive and it was getting to him. I didn’t want friction, especially when it could degenerate into a racial thing and I’d have to fire someone. The two ex-cops I had working for me weren’t exactly brilliant, but they were good at the street stuff like following people, intimidating them when necessary, and they had good contacts with the cops and the underworld. Jim McCrae hadn’t proven himself yet, but he seemed to be a smart kid and willing to learn. I briefed him on the case and his eyes bugged out almost as wide as his ears when he heard that Jackie Robinson was the main character, the silent client, so to speak.
“And you must be silent about this, Jim,” I told him. “I don’t want anyone knowing about it, not even your two colleagues. Understand?”
“Sure, Mr. Stark, I wouldn’t tell them anyway. But why are you telling me?” He knew very well that it was because he was a Negro, but I played along. “Because you’re going up to Boston with me, and then maybe down to Charlotte. You’re in the investigation, Jim. And stop calling me Mr. Stark.”
“Gee, I really appreciate that … Darrell.”
Jim reminded me a lot of another black kid I’d known in the army, and maybe that’s why I hired him. I attended the Army Language School at the Presidium of Monterey in California – I think it still exists, but with a new name – and Jim McDermott was in my German class. There were over a hundred students, divided up into groups of twelve, and Jim was the only Negro. He wasn’t a brilliant student, but then neither was I. Jim and I used to go to the bar right at the foot of the hill near the school and drink beer and listen to Sarah Vaughan on the jukebox and talk. He was from Washington, DC. We talked about jazz, the German course, Washington and New York – not about the social situation or racial prejudice, which wasn’t a hot topic yet, or philosophy. The bar was a male place, which was good, because there was a wedge in our friendship: women.
I hardly ever saw Jim on weekends when I went to the other bars in town where there were girls to pick up, with a little bit of luck, or to San Francisco where the pickings were better. The wedge was that you couldn’t do that with a black guy, not then. In fact, it was dangerous in a place like Monterey to even hang out with a black guy, at least in the bars where the townies hated us soldiers anyway and a Negro in those places would be a red (sic) flag to them. I really don’t know what Jim did on weekends. Maybe he just stayed in the barracks or found some brothers in the camp who knew where they could go for fun. You could say that I abandoned him on weekends, but if my conscience bothered me I didn’t let it bother me too much.
When the course ended we all had thirty days leave coming before being shipped overseas. The Korean War was still raging, so we newly minted German linguists were more than happy to be going to the land of fraüleins hungry for American dollars and, we presumed, dicks, instead of Korea and foxholes with bullets whizzing overhead. Everyone was paid the price of the air fare to their home city, which in my case was New York. Jim lived in DC, so we both were paid the maximum. We were also Privates, however, and conscious of the fact that the one-way air fare was equivalent to a month’s pay. So, if you had a car and you could find a couple of passengers to share the cost of gas, you could keep most of that money. I had an old beat up Hudson which wouldn’t have made it out of California much less to the East Coast, so I sold it for fifty bucks before leaving. We knew a sergeant in the Russian course who had a pretty good Ford and was driving to New York, so we offered to pay our share of the gas for the trip and he jumped at it.
His name was Karl Lillienthal, a German Jew who spoke perfect but accented English. The other noncoms called him Lilly; the rest of us didn’t call him anything because he was a silent morose guy who didn’t have much to do with anyone. He was probably the oldest guy in the course, in his thirties I guessed. How he’d come to be in sergeant in the United States Army I never found out, because during the whole trip to the East he hardly spoke. He was obviously perfect for intelligence work ion Germany – a real German who spoke fluent English and now Russian as well.
My social education about America began with that trip. Where I grew up, in Brooklyn, the Negroes lived in their own neighborhoods and only showed up in white areas to work as janitors in apartment buildings or as delivery men. My public high school, Erasmus Hall, was close to the border of a black neighborhood so we had more than a few colored kids. There were no racial tensions because we were friendly during school hours and they went home to their own neighborhood afterwards, so there was no real social contact at all. You’ll think that was terrible, but those days nobody thought anything of it, it was just the way it was. We’d heard about the segregation, the Jim Crow laws and the brutality in the South, but that was a long way off. Now I was about to experience it – as was Jim.
The storm warnings came the day before we left. The whole north-west and north-central parts of the country were being swept by heavy snow storms with ninety mile an hour wind-gusts and most roads were impassable, or at least very dangerous. There were only two alternatives: wait for the storm to pass or go the southern route. None of us, least of all Jim, who was anxious to get home, wanted to delay our departure, so we decided to take the southern route with good weather and bad vibes for a trio consisting of a Yankee, a Jew and a Negro. If we kept our mouths shut the Yankee and the Jew wouldn’t be recognized as such, but there was no disguising Jim. We thought we could take turns driving and in that way go straight through and avoid all but the most necessary contact with the natives.
In Tucson, Arizona, which we considered to be the West not the South, we had a flat tire. While Sarge waited in the garage for it to be fixed, Jim and I went across the street to a bar for a beer. It was mid-afternoon and the place was dark and empty, except for the bartender, who looked up from his comic book and stared at us suspiciously when we walked in.
“Two beers, draft please,” I told him.
“We don’t serve no colored people here,” he answered, looking me in the eye and ignoring Jim, as though I should have changed my order to one beer and asked permission for the darkie to remain while I drank it. It was like a slap in the face and I didn’t know what to say. The slap must have hit Jim harder. After standing there with my mouth open for a few moments I shrugged, looked at Jim and we turned and left. We didn’t speak on the way back to the car, nor did we tell Sarge what happened. It was as though we were ashamed.
Despite our optimistic intention to drive through to the east coast without stopping, we couldn’t keep our eyes open beyond New Mexico. We alternated driving, but couldn’t sleep sitting up beyond dozing, and that wasn’t enough for safe driving, especially at night, and it got dark early in mid-winter. Close to midnight on the first day when I was driving, the headlights flashed on a sign that read: Negro Travelers’ Inn. Jim and Sarge, having been behind the wheel for hours, were dozing and didn’t see it. I pulled over, made a U-turn and went back.
“What’s going on?” Sarge asked.
“Let’s take a look at this place,” I said. “I can’t keep my eyes open much longer.” I drove into the parking space in front of the office and got out. It was the only lighted spot, so there wasn’t much to see. I rang the night bell and waited, while the other dragged themselves out of the car. Sarge, after checking out the sign, wondered if the inn – it was really a motel – was only for Negros. After about five minutes a woman peered out the window at us and opened the door.
“Yes, what can I do for you gentlemen?” she asked. She was an attractive middle-aged black woman with large eyes and a worried look.
“Do you have rooms available for the three of us?” I asked.
The worry changed into a smile. “Sure do. Come on in and register.”
The rooms were simple and very clean. I fell into bed and slept like a log.
The next morning Sarge knocked on my door at nine o’clock. “Let’s go,” he called through the door. I got up, showered and joined Sarge and Jim in the dining room, where they were eating breakfasts of bacon and eggs, toast, juice, coffee – the works. I ordered the same. The lady-in-charge who had checked us in the night before was doing the serving. She must have been curious about us. After all, how often would two white men and a black man stay together at the Negro Travelers’ Inn? She would surely have asked about us if Jim hadn’t broken the ice after his second cup of coffee.
“Ma’am, we’re driving all the way to the East Coast. Could you tell us if we’ll be able to find motels like this along the way? We intend to drive right through, but in case we don't, you know, in case we can’t...”
“You won’t find anything like this, son,” a man said who was seated at a table near us and had overheard the conversation. “You white boys can’t stay in the others either.” He was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie and had what looked like a sample case next to his leg. Probably a salesman. “This is the best hotel or motel for Negroes in the whole southern United States of America.”
“I got just what you need, though,” the lady said. “I’ll be right back.” She walked out of the dining-room and through a connecting door to the office. She was back almost immediately, obviously not wanting to miss anything. “Here you are,” she said as she handed Jim a printed brochure: Negro Travelers’ Guide Book. “Here’s all the places to stay right across the South. Some’s better than others, of course, but–“
“And most of them worse than the others,” our neighbor commented.
As Jim leafed through the brochure, the lady finally asked, “How come you boys traveling like this together through the South?”
Jim explained about us being in the army in Monterey, and that we were traveling home by car in order to save money. And about the storm along the northern route, of course.
“Well, I think we’ll just drive through from now on,” I said optimistically. When I think back on it, it seems to me that Sarge and I didn’t really want to drive through. It was, after all, much more comfortable to sleep between clean sheets in one of those sanitized motels that sprinkle America than being crammed in a speeding piece of metal for three days. We didn’t say or think this, though, not even to ourselves.
“I never really thought of New Mexico as being part of the South,” I commented to our neighbor.
“Sure, you’re thinking about cowboys and Indians, no black folks. New Mexico’s the South—West. There are probably more Indians around here than colored folks, but as far as we are concerned it’s almost as bad as the deep South where you boys are going.” He cleaned his mustache delicately with a napkin, stood up, grasped his sample case, which I now noticed had wheels on the bottom, and gave us a slight bow. “I wish you boys a good trip with plenty o’luck, which you might be needing. Bye, Miz Nelly,” he called into the kitchen. “See you next week.”
We left New Mexico behind, shook the dust of Texas off our tires, and were in the middle of Louisiana when the radio started to talk about the coming Mardi Gras in New Orleans. We were driving on the main road that connects west to east. I don’t know what it looks like today, but in those days it was just a two-lane road that meandered through the South. I was feeling lazy myself and thought how interesting it would be to make a detour to New Orleans, stay there a few days and take in the Mardi Gras. When I considered my companions, however, I knew it would be imprudent to even make the suggestion. Jim was intent on getting out of the South as soon as possible, and our stone-faced Jewish German crewcut Sarge didn’t seem to like it all that much either. I could have gotten out at any of the towns along the way and taken a bus or hitchhiked to New Orleans, but somehow that would have been like abandoning the ship.
So we kept going, alternating driving, but I couldn’t sleep a wink while I wasn’t at the wheel, and I doubt if the others could either. So we rolled on and on into the state of Mississippi, and at about midnight, when six eyelids were closing and Jim, at the wheel, admitted that he couldn’t go on driving any farther, we decided that there was no choice but to bed down in Jackson, the capital of southern racism.
Jim handed me the Negro Travelers’ Guide Book and I found two hotels listed in Jackson. Now all we had to do was find them. We drove through the outskirts of town past the genteel whites-only motels’ swimming pools and into the center of town, which was quite deserted.
“There’s a diner,” I said. “We can ask there.”
Jim pulled over in front of the diner, The Dixie Cup, and said, “Want me to go in there and ask Hey, boss, can y’all tell me where there’s a five-star nigger hotel in this beautiful town?”
Sarge and I laughed politely, then I said, “Just shut up and don’t stick your nose in white folks’ business.” I was sitting next to the driver and it suddenly occurred to me that through the whole trip Jim had been sitting either in the back or driving. He had never sat in the “death” seat. It was an unwritten agreement between us, perhaps even an unconscious one, for the colored boy could only be the chauffeur or, if a passenger, relegated to the back seat.
I went into the diner and approached the counterman. “Yes, Suh, what can we do for you?” he smiled warmly. There were about a dozen customers, all men, mostly drinking coffee or beer in the booths, two or three at the counter. And, you know, they really do have red necks, or did then anyway.
“Can you please tell me how to get to North Lester St.?” I asked the counterman.
His smile disappeared. “That’s over in nigger town, ain’t it?” He was looking at me, but when I didn’t answer his glance shifted to the customers at the counter. I realized that everybody in the place was looking at me.
“Thinking of fixing yourself up with a nigra, Yankee?” God, I had said a half a dozen words and they had spotted me.
“I’m looking for a hotel for somebody,” I said. It occurred to me to say ‘for my chauffeur’, but I’m really glad I didn’t. At least that answer brought the situation back to basics.
“Yeah, there’s a couple of coon hotels down on North Lester. Straight ahead to the first traffic light, which probably ain’t working this time of night, but you turn right there and after two or three blocks you’ll hit North Lester. I don’t know whether the hotels are up or down from there, you’ll just have to use your nose.” Guffaws.
“Thanks,” I said and turned heel. I got into the car and told Jim to go.
“I thought you might have brought back a few hamburgers for us,” Sarge, who always seemed to be hungry, said from the back seat.
We found the first hotel without any difficulty in a rundown Negro residential area. One look at the hotel, however, which was so rickety it looked as if the big bad wolf could have blown it over with one puff, and we decided to go to the other hotel on the list, which was on the same street a few blocks farther on.
From the outside it looked as bad as the first one, but the list ended there. Without a word, Jim got out of the car, crossed the street, climbed the steps to the porch of the hotel and rang the night-bell. After a few words with the man who opened the door, he came back to the car and handed me his wallet.
“Hang on to this for me, will you, Darrell? You have to pay in advance here, which I’ve already done, so I won’t need any more money. See you tomorrow morning. Pick me up early, please.” He turned, walked back and entered the hotel. Sarge got out of the back seat and sat behind the wheel. I looked at Jim’s wallet in my hand and felt a lump in my throat. I wondered if Sarge felt anything. We drove out of town to a spotless motel, which turned out to be cheaper than Jim’s fleabox.
We picked Jim up early the next morning and went on our way with Jim asleep in the back seat. We didn’t ask him how it was, we could imagine. Stopping only to eat together in the car because, of course, we couldn’t eat together in any restaurant, and buy gas, using “whites only” and “colored only” restrooms. We didn’t use the “whites only” and “colored only” drinking fountains. We got as far as Macon, Georgia, where we went through the same ritual, except that the black neighborhood cum hotel was somewhat better.
The next day we dropped Jim off in D.C. We said goodbye to him feeling embarrassed by the whole trip. A few hours later we were in New York, where Sarge was kind enough to drop me off at a subway station. I can’t blame him for not wanting to drive into Brooklyn.
Jim and I sailed on the same troop ship to Germany, but since everybody was seasick we didn’t have a chance to talk. In Germany I was assigned to Military Intelligence; Jim was too—as a truck driver ferrying “confidential supplies” between Frankfurt and Berlin. We had no contact and I never saw him again, although over the years I’ve thought of looking him up, which wouldn’t have been difficult for a private investigator, but I never did.
This digression was just to indicate why Jim McCrea, my new black detective, reminded me of Jim McDermott, my army buddy. Not physically but because of a certain inner determination I detected in both of them. Jim would definitely go to Boston with me to help interview the Boston players. I felt that having a black guy around would enhance confidence in us. Bearing in mind the experience in the South with the other Jim, I decided to let him decide whether he would go with me to Charlotte, South Carolina, or not.
Continued in the next issue of Southern Cross Review