The House That George Built
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Puffing slightly, Henry Louis Mencken paused outside of George’s Restaurant. He’d walked a little more than a mile from the red-brick house on Hollins Street to the corner of Eutaw and Lombard. Along with masonry, walking was the only kind of exercise he cared for. Tennis and golf and other so-called diversions were to him nothing but a waste of time. He wished his wind were better, but he’d turned sixty the summer before. He carried more weight than he had as a younger man. Most of the parts still worked most of the time. At his age, who could hope for better than that?
He chuckled as his gloved hand fell toward the latch. Every tavern in Baltimore seemed to style itself a restaurant. Maybe that was the Germanic influence. A proud German himself, Mencken wouldn’t have been surprised.
His breath smoked. It was cold out here this February afternoon. The chuckle cut off abruptly. Because he was a proud German, he’d severed his ties with the Sunpapers a couple of weeks before, just as he had back in 1915. Like Wilson a generation before him, Roosevelt II was bound and determined to bring the United States into a stupid war on England’s side. Mencken had spent his working life taking swipes at idiots in America. Somehow, they always ended up running the country just when you most wished they wouldn’t.
The odors of beer and hot meat and tobacco smoke greeted him when he stepped inside. Mencken nodded happily as he pulled a cigar from an inside pocket of his overcoat and got it going. You could walk into a tavern in Berlin or Hong Kong or Rio de Janeiro or San Francisco and it would smell the same way. Some things didn’t, and shouldn’t, change.
“Hey, buddy! How ya doin’?” called the big man behind the bar. He had to go six-two, maybe six-three, and at least two hundred fifty pounds. He had a moon face, a wide mouth, a broad, flat nose, and a thick shock of dark brown hair just starting to go gray: he was about fifteen years younger than the journalist. He never remembered Mencken’s name, though Mencken was a regular. But, as far as Mencken could see, the big man never remembered anybody’s name.
“I’m fine, George. How are you?” Mencken answered, settling himself on a stool. He took off the gloves, stuck them in his pocket, and then shed the overcoat.
“Who, me? I’m okay. What’ll it be today?” George said.
“Let me have a glass of Blatz, why don’t you?”
“Comin’ up.” George worked the tap left-handed. He was a southpaw in most things, though Mencken had noticed that he wrote with his right hand. He slid the glass across the bar. “Here y’go.”
Mencken gave him a quarter. “Much obliged, publican.”
“Publican?” George shook his head. “You got me wrong, pal. I voted for FDR all three times.”
Mencken had voted for Roosevelt II once, and regretted it ever after. But if arguing politics with a bartender wasn’t a waste of time, he didn’t know what would be. He sipped the beer, sucking foam from his upper lip as he set the glass down.
Halfway along the bar, two cops were working on beers of their own and demolishing big plates of braised short ribs. One of them was saying, “So the dumb S.O.B tried to run away from me, y’know? I got him in the back of the head with my espantoon”—he patted the billy club on his belt—“and after that he didn’t feel like runnin’ no more.”
“That’s how you do it,” the other policeman agreed. “You gotta fill out all kindsa papers if you shoot somebody, but not if you give him the old espantoon. It’s just part of a day’s work, like.”
Hearing the familiar Baltimore word made Mencken smile. He took a longer pull from his glass, then raised his eyes to the big plaque on the wall behind the bar. Mounted on it were a baseball, a bat, and a small, old-fashioned glove. He caught the bartender’s eye and pointed to the bat. “There’s your espantoon, eh, George?”
“Damn straight,” George said proudly. Then he raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Never heard before you was a baseball fan.”
He might not remember Mencken’s name, but he knew who he was. “I used to be, back in the Nineties,” Mencken answered. “I could give you chapter and verse—hell’s bells, I could give you word and syllable—about the old Orioles. Do you know, the very first thing I ever had in print was a poem about how ratty and faded the 1894 pennant looked by 1896. The very first thing, in the Baltimore American.”
“Them was the National League Orioles,” George said. “Not the International League Orioles, like I played for.”
“Yes, I know.” Mencken didn’t tell the bartender that for the past thirty years and more he’d found baseball a dismal game. He did add, “Everybody in Baltimore knows for whom George Ruth played.” As any native would have, he pronounced the city’s name Baltm’r.
And he told the truth. People in Baltimore did recall their hometown hero. No doubt baseball aficionados in places like Syracuse and Jersey City and even Kansas City remembered his name, too. He’d played in the high minors for many years, mostly for the Orioles, and done splendidly both as a pitcher and as a part-time outfielder and first baseman.
Did they remember him in Philadelphia? In Boston? In New York, where you needed to go if you wanted to get remembered in a big way? No and no and no, and he’d played, briefly and not too well, in both Philly and Boston. Did they remember him in Mobile and in Madison, in Colorado Springs and in Wichita, in Yakima and in Fresno, in all the two-bit towns where being remembered constituted fame? They did not. And it wasn’t as if they’d forgotten him, either. They’d simply never heard of him. That was what stopping one rung shy of the top of the ladder did for you—and to you.
But this was Baltimore. Here, George Ruth was a hometown hero in his hometown. A superannuated hometown hero, but nevertheless . . . Mencken pointed to the bat on the plaque again. “Is that the one you used to hit the I Told You So Homer?” he asked.
He hadn’t been a baseball fan these past two-thirds of his life. But he was a Baltimorean. He knew the story, or enough of it. In the 1922 Little World Series—or was it 1921? or 1923?—the Kansas City pitcher facing Ruth knocked him down with a fastball. Ruth got up, dusted himself off, and announced to all and sundry that he’d hit the next one out of the park. He didn’t. The Blues’ hurler knocked him down again, almost performing a craniotomy on him in the process.
He got to his feet once more . . . and blasted the next pitch not only out of Oriole Park but through a plate glass window in a building across the street on the fly. As he toured the bases, he loudly and profanely embellished on the theme of I told you so.
A famous home run—in Baltimore. One the older fans in Kansas City shuddered to remember. A homer nobody anywhere else cared about.
Ruth turned to eye the shillelagh. He was an ugly bruiser, though you’d have to own a death wish to tell him so. Now he morosely shook his head. “Nah. That winter, some guy said he’d give me forty bucks for it, so I sold the son of a gun. You’d best believe I did. I needed the jack.”
“I know the feeling,” Mencken said. “Most of us do at one time or another—at one time and another, more likely.”
“Boy, you got that right.” George Ruth assumed the expression of an overweight Mask of Tragedy. Then he said, “How’s about you buy me a drink?”
“How’s about I do?” Mencken said agreeably. He fished another quarter from his trouser pocket and set it in on the bar. Ruth dropped it into the cash box. The silver clinked sweetly.
Ruth gave himself his—or rather, Mencken’s—money’s worth, and then some. In a mixing glass, he built a Tom Collins the size of a young lake. Lemon juice, sugar syrup, ice cubes (which clinked on a note different from the coins’), and enough gin to put every pukka sahib in India under the table. So much gin, Mencken laughed out loud. Ruth decorated the drink with not only the usual cherry but a couple of orange slices as well.
And then, as Mencken’s eyes widened behind his round-lensed spectacles, Ruth proceeded to pour it down his throat. All of it—the fruit salad, the ice cubes, the works. His Adam’s apple bobbed a couple of times, but that was as much hesitation as he gave. A pipe big enough to manage that . . . Mencken would have thought the Public Works Department needed to lay it down the middle of the street. But no.
“Not too bad. No, sirree,” Ruth said. And damned if he didn’t fix himself another Collins just as preposterous as the first one. He drank it the same way, too. Everything went down the hatch. He put the empty mixing glass down on the bar. “Boy, that hits the spot.”
Both cops were staring at him. So was Mencken. He’d done some serious boozing in his day, and seen more than he’d done. But he’d never witnessed anything to match this. He waited for Ruth to fall over, but the man behind the bar might have been drinking Coca-Cola. He’d been a minor-league ballplayer, but he was a major-league toper.
“My hat’s off to you, George,” one of the policemen said, and doffed his high-crowned, shiny-brimmed cap.
“Mine, too, by God!” Mencken lifted his own lid in salute. “You just put a big dent in this week’s profits.”
“Nahh.” Ruth shook his head. “I was thirsty, that’s all—thirsty and pissed off, know what I mean?” How he could have absorbed that much gin without showing it Mencken couldn’t imagine, but he had.
“Pissed off about what?” the journalist asked, as he was surely meant to do.
“That cocksucker Rasin. Carroll Wilson Chickenshit Rasin.” Here was a name Ruth remembered, all right: remembered and despised. “You know who that rotten prick was?”
Nobody who hadn’t lived in Baltimore for a long time would have, but Mencken nodded. “Politico—Democrat—back around the time of the last war. Had a pretty fair pile of cash, too, if I remember straight.”
“Yeah, that’s him, all right,” Ruth agreed. “Lousy four-flushing cocksucker.”
“What did he ever do to you?” Mencken had trouble envisioning circles in which both Rasin and Ruth would have traveled a generation earlier.
“Back in 1914, Jack Dunn of the Orioles, he signed me to a contract. Signed me out of St. Mary’s Industrial School, way the hell over at the west end of town.”
“All right.” If Mencken had ever heard of George Ruth’s baseball beginnings, they’d slipped his mind. “But what’s that got to do with Carroll Rasin?” He wondered if the gin was scrambling Ruth’s brains. That the big palooka could still stand up and talk straight struck him as the closest thing to a miracle God had doled out lately. Wherever the ex-ballplayer had bought his liver, Mencken wanted to shop there, too.
“Rasin talked about putting a Federal League team in town. The Baltimore Terrapins, he was gonna call ’em. And when Dunn heard about that, he damn near shit. The Federal League, it was a major league, like.” Ruth paused to light a cigar: a cheroot that, with Mencken's, thickened the fug in the air. After a couple of irate puffs, Ruth went on, “The International League, that was minor-league ball. With the Terrapins in town, the Orioles wouldn’t’ve drawn flies.”
Mencken remembered the Federal League only vaguely. Had Ruth not reminded him of it, he probably wouldn’t have remembered it at all. He’d long since outgrown his fandom by 1914. “So what’s that got to do with you?” he asked. “And while you’re at it, how about another beer?”
“Sure thing.” Ruth took back the glass, but waited to see money before working the tap again. As he gave Mencken the refill, he growled, “What’s it got to do with me? I’ll tell you what. If the Oriole’s ain’t drawin’ flies, Dunn ain’t makin’ any dough. How’s he supposed to keep the Orioles goin’? Hell, how’s he supposed to eat?”
“How?” Mencken lobbed another question down the middle.
“You sell your players, that’s how. Weren’t no farm teams in those days.” Ruth’s lip curled so scornfully, the cigar threatened to fall out. “Nah, none o’ that crap. The minor-league owners was out for themselves, same as the guys in the bigs. An’ they got cash by sellin’ contracts. I had people innarested in me, too, let me tell you I did. Connie Mack of the Athaletics, he was innarested, only he didn’t have no money himself then, neither. The Red Sox, they was innarested. And Cincinnati, they was makin’ noises like they wanted me.”
He reminded Mencken of an aging chorus girl, all crow’s-feet and extra chins, going on about the hot sports who’d drunk champagne from her slipper back in the day. The bloom went off a baseball player just about as fast. It was a cruel way to try to make a living. “So why didn’t you sign with one of them, then?” he asked.
Ruth snorted angrily—he’d missed something. “I couldn’t. Fuckin’ Dunn held my contract. Unless he turned me loose, I had to play for him or nobody. And that no good piece of shit of a Rasin crapped out on me. Turned out he didn’t have the moolah, or maybe didn’t wanna spend the moolah, to get into the Federal League after all. The Milwaukee Creams was the last franchise instead. The Creams! Ain’t that a crappy name for a team? And Dunn made a go of it here after all. I was stuck, is what I was. Fuckin’ stuck.”
Now that Mencken thought about it, fragments of the war between the upstart league and its established rivals came back to him. “Why didn’t you join the Federal League yourself? Plenty of players did.”
The man behind the bar threw his hands in the air, a gesture of extravagant disgust. “I couldn’t even do that, Goddamn it to fucking hell. When Dunn got me out of St. Mary’s, I was a whole hot week past my nineteenth birthday. Deal he made with the holy fathers said he was my legal guardian till I turned twenty-one. I couldn’t sign nothin’ without him givin’ the okay. An’ by my twenty-first birthday, goddamn Federal League was dead as shoe leather. I got screwed, an’ I didn’t even get kissed.”
“You did all right for yourself,” Mencken said, reasonable—perhaps obnoxiously reasonable—as usual. “You played your game at the highest level. You played for years and years at the next highest level. When you couldn’t play any more, you had enough under the mattress to let you get this place, and it’s not half bad, either.”
“It’s all in the breaks, all dumb fuckin’ luck,” Ruth said. “If Dunn had to sell me to the bigs when I was a kid, who knows what I coulda done? I was thirty years old by the time they changed the rules so he couldn’t keep me forever no more. I already had the start of my bay window, and my elbow was shot to shit. I didn’t say nothin’ about that—otherwise, nobody woulda bought me. But Jesus Christ, if I’d made the majors when I was nineteen, twenty years old, I coulda been Buzz Arlett.”
Every Broadway chorine thought she could start in a show. Every pug thought he could have been a champ. And every halfway decent ballplayer thought he could have been Buzz Arlett. Even a nonfan like Mencken knew his name. Back in the Twenties, people said they were two of the handful of Americans who needed no press agent. He came to Brooklyn from the Pacific Coast League in 1922. He belted home runs from both sides of the plate. He pitched every once in a while, too. And he turned the Dodgers into the powerhouse they’d been ever since. He made people forget about the Black Sox scandal that had hovered over the game since it broke at the end of the 1920 season. They called him the man who saved baseball. They called Ebbets Field the House That Buzz Built. And the owners smiled all the way to the bank.
Trying to be gentle with a man he rather liked, Mencken said, “Do you really think so? Guys like that come along once in a blue moon.”
Ruth thrust out his jaw. “I coulda, if I’d had the chance. Even when I got up to Philly, that dumbshit Fletcher who was runnin’ the team, he kept me pitchin’ an’ wouldn’t let me play the field. There I was, tryin’ to get by with junk from my bad flipper in the Baker Bowl, for Chrissakes. It ain’t even a long piss down the right-field line there. Fuck, I hit six homers there myself. For a while, that was a record for a pitcher. But they said anybody could do it there. An’ I got hit pretty hard myself, so after a season and a half they sold me to the Red Sox.”
“That was one of the teams that wanted you way back when, you said,” Mencken remarked.
“You was listenin’! Son of a bitch!” Ruth beamed at him. “Here, have one on me.” He drew another Blatz and set it in front of Mencken. The journalist finished his second one and got to work on the bonus. Ruth went on, “But when the Sox wanted me, they was good. Time I got to ’em, they stunk worse’n the Phils. They pitched me a little, played me in the outfield and at first a little, an’ sat me on the bench a lot. I didn’t light the world on fire, so after the season they sold me down to Syracuse. ’Cept for a month at the end of ’32 with the Browns”—he shuddered at some dark memory—“I never made it back to the bigs again. But I coulda been hot stuff if fuckin’ Rasin came through with the cash.”
A line from Gray’s “Elegy” went through Mencken’s mind: Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest. A mute (or even a loudmouthed) inglorious Arlett tending bar in Baltimore? Mencken snorted. Not likely! He knew why that line occurred to him now. He’d mocked it years before: There are no mute, inglorious Miltons, save in the imaginations of poets. The one sound test of a Milton is that he functions as a Milton.
Mencken poured down the rest of the beer and got up from his stool. “Thank you kindly, George. I expect I’ll be back again before long.”
“Any time, buddy. Thanks for lettin’ me bend your ear.” George Ruth chuckled. “This line o’ work, usually it goes the other way around.”
“I believe that.” Mencken put on his overcoat and gloves, then walked out into the night. Half an hour—not even—and he’d be back at the house that faced on Union Square.