Play Ball

By Dana Wagner

“Kid, how long’s it been since we played any base ball?”

 “Base ball? Why?”

“Fellow who wants to hire us manages a professional base ball team,” Heyes responded.

“Professional? You mean grown men making a living playing a ball game? Damn, Heyes, at least when we stole, we were honest about it.”

 “Our client tells me there are three…what did he call them? Leagues, three leagues of teams. Very organized – we should have thought of it, Kid, sounds like easy money.”

 “You’re still avoiding telling me about the job. Now, why is that?”

 “Our client’s the manager of the Wyoming Wildcats, a new team in a brand-new league, the Union Association Something-Or-Other. Their cash box has been coming up light and recently disappeared completely, so he’s wanting some extra security.”

“Heyes, I still don’t hear a name.”

“That’s a surprise for you, Kid. Fellow named Carlson.”

“WHEAT Carlson?” Kid had to laugh. “The whole gang didn’t become ball players, did they? And ain’t Wheat still got a price on him?”

Heyes shook his head. “Seems he and Kyle have been so subdued lately, the banking association pulled their reward offer. He and Kyle are both on the team payroll.”

Curry asked about the rest of them. Lobo and Hank had been working on a ranch outside of Cheyenne, the last Wheat knew. Preacher was – of all things – on a lecture circuit, preaching on the power of redemption and becoming quite the darling of the ladies’ church circles. The others had drifted away into unknown pursuits.

Reflecting briefly on the changes, Curry was back to business quickly. “So Wheat just needs us to guard his cash box?”

Heyes passed on Wheat’s story. By luck, Wheat and Kyle had watched the Wildcats’ team tryouts for a while. Kyle, watching the fielder, said he’d ought to run up on the ball so as to get it faster. The owner found it remarkable to find someone who knew something so useful. (“Well, we always found it remarkable when Kyle knew anything useful,” was Kid’s comment.)

In the end, Woodson hired them both on as coaching managers. Wheat was surprised to find honest work almost as enjoyable as stealing. Or it had been, until recently. One day one of the kegs of beer disappeared. At first, Wheat had put that down to some blue-nose who wanted the Union Association to follow the National League’s tee-totaller practices.

Then it seemed like there were more people at the games than the cash box totaled up. The Wildcats’ opponents were starting to mutter, Wheat admitted. And then, two days before, the cash box was plumb stole. The Wildcats had to pay the visiting opponent’s share of the proceeds from the concession profits. So Wheat sought out his detective friends.

Curry asked again, “So Wheat just needs us to guard his cash box?”

“And maybe the beer,” Heyes grinned. “Although, I guess if they’re the guest team, it’s the other fellows’ beer.”

At the Denver ball park, they found Wheat, ranting and cussing, and Kyle, patiently waiting for him to wind down. The Wildcats had been forced to forfeit their game that afternoon because they had an illegal bat.

“How is a bat illegal in a base ball game?”

“You can’t use just any kind of bat, Heyes. We got rules in professional base ball. Look, this one’s a little bit longer.” Wheat looked from Heyes to Curry. “We didn’t do this, fellows. The umpire said someone tipped him off to look at the bats. But he won’t say who, just that it wasn’t anyone on either team. Don’t that seem odd?”

When pressed, Wheat and Kyle tried to recall anyone they’d crossed since hiring on with the team, but they came up blank, except for turning down a few would-be players. “Didn’t even try them out. We’ve got as many second-stringers as we can pay now, which is me and Kyle.  Sure hope you boys can figure this out.”

“Sure they will, Wheat,” declared Kyle. “Ain’t Heyes the best figure-outter and Kid the best do-er you ever knew?” The other three hoped he was right.

Back at the hotel, Curry found Heyes chatting up two women, which looked like a hopeful thing until Curry realized they must be a mother and daughter. Heyes made the introductions smoothly. Mrs. Blakeley was a widow and also had a son, Cedric, slightly younger than Miss Celine, who wanted nothing in life so much as to play professional base ball.

“But it seems our Mr. Carlson was not very encouraging,” explained Heyes.

With a slightly resentful air, Mrs. Blakeley elaborated, “He wouldn’t even watch Cedric play.”

Miss Celine reminded her mother they really should be going. After they left, Kid looked questioningly at his partner.

 “Just making conversation, Kid, that’s all.” Curry waited. “Of course, the Blakeley boy was the only stranger Wheat could recall being around yesterday or today.”  Next day, Wheat watched both the players and his old friends, noticing Kid’s avid attention. “You want to hit a few, Kid?” he offered. “Hanson’s just practicing – he’ll take it easy on you.” Startled, Curry hesitated only briefly. Heyes urged him on – partly for his own amusement, of course, but this could be a means to … something, information maybe, that would help their case.

Kid took a few practice swings, tentative at first but then more confident. He stepped behind the striker’s line and called “Ready” to Hanson, the bowler.

Hanson wound up and bowled. Kid caught a corner of it, bouncing the ball into fair ground. Hanson caught it easily and sneered, “You’d be out.”

“Out? That ball bounced before you caught it.”

De Havilland, the catcher, explained. “That’s the rules in our league, Mr. Curry. A ball caught on the first bounce is an out, just as if it were caught on the fly.”

Hanson decided to show his contempt for the amateur striker. He tossed up a perfectly placed pitch, as if he were throwing to a child. Kid turned wrathful shoulders onto it. The crack of the impact was startling, and the ball fired past Hanson, over the heads of the second baseman and fielders. Curry looked around to see Heyes’ reaction. Heyes, however was nowhere around. Later at the ball park, Heyes was once more talking with Mrs. Blakeley. Cedric was at first base, fielding balls thrown from different players on the opposing team. As Curry reached them, the Gold Stockings manager obviously directed the lad to the striker’s line to see his skills there, for he took off at a run toward the stock of bats.

Mrs. Blakely said fiercely, “He wants this so terribly – no one should be denied what they want so dreadfully much.” Cedric hit a ball and took off for first base like he’d been shot out of a cannon, sliding in noticeably ahead of the throw to the base man. The manager shook his hand and led the young hopeful away, talking animatedly.

Mrs. Blakely seemed stricken. “Oh,” she breathed, “perhaps he will get his chance with the Gold Stockings. After all this wanting, and all we’ve been through, maybe it will finally happen.”

The Gold Stockings took an early lead in the second over, and then the game became a pitching duel. By the beginning of the final over, the score was still 2-0. Wheat was railing and cussing in all directions while Kyle quietly spoke to individual players. The rest of the Wildcats came to life then, and before three outs had occurred, the score was 3-2 in the Wildcats’ favor.

And so it remained. Sitting in the Gold Stockings manager’s office with their team guard, Kid Curry heard the crowd’s disappointed groan and deduced the outcome. “Sounds like my team won this time,” he commented. The local man shrugged and smiled. “One thing about base ball – there’s always another game.”

“And,” Kid added agreeably, “tomorrow’s my partner’s turn to sit here, so I’ll get to watch.”

He would, indeed.

As Curry and Heyes were leaving the hotel after breakfast, a breathless boy stopped them with a gasping message. Neither one of the Turner boys was at practice, and Mr. Carlson was snappin’ mad, and could Mr. Curry and Mr. Heyes look for them?  If they didn’t show up, the Wildcats would have to forfeit again and Mr. Carlson would prob’ly get an apoplexy or something.

The desk clerk, scenting excitement, led the way to the Turners’ room. Apparently they didn’t return to the hotel the previous night. When Heyes and Curry caught up with Wheat and Kyle, there was more to the story.  “Gene Atwell, the other manager, was just here,” Wheat informed them. “They’re short one player on that team, too, and he’s gonna put in that raw kid, Blakeley.”

“Did their player disappear, too, like ours?”

“Yes, Kid! Whoever’s behind this has got something against all of base ball, looks like.”

With more confidence than he felt, Heyes reassured him, “We’ll get him, Wheat, that’s a promise. Do you have players enough?”

Stalling, Wheat hitched up his uniform trousers and spat. “Kyle can play center field for Ty, well enough. But I need a first baseman…” He looked meaningfully at Curry.

“I won’t do it. You’re loco – I’m no ball player!” He looked to Heyes for support but didn’t see it forthcoming.

Wheat insisted, “You’re good, Kid! And even if you weren’t, we’d still need you. It’s as much as my job is worth, and Kyle’s too, if we forfeit again.”

“Yeah, Kid, you don’t want Wheat to lose his job,” remonstrated Heyes, who was enjoying his partner’s discomfort.

Curry eyed him coldly. “Don’t we both have a job to do – finding the real ball players and catching who’s behind all this? How’s that supposed to happen if I’m on the ball field?”

Heyes, of course, had thought this through. “With people getting kidnapped, it’s time to get the real law working on this. I’ll alert the sheriff and come back to guard the cash box with the other team’s guard. We’ll take up again together after the game is over.”

Coming back, Heyes scanned the field to find his cousin. There was an incongruity in seeing Kid Curry in knee pants and a billed cap.

Curry patiently waited, turning his bat in his hands. “Before you say a word, Heyes, just remember what I have in my hands.”

Heyes opened his mouth, shut it, and with a touch of his hat brim to his partner, he left to open the ticket counter, good-naturedly waving away the guffaws erupting behind him.

Wheat pounded Kid’s back in delight and, when he could speak again, had a rare compliment. “You did it, Kid! You left Heyes speechless.”

Heyes found ticket selling boring, but there was no better way to get a gander at folks arriving for the game. He recognized a few faces and noticed Mrs. Blakeley coming in. He remarked it was surprising that Miss Blakeley was not there to cheer on her brother.

“Oh, she’ll be along, Mr. Heyes, just some girlish things to take care of. She wouldn’t miss the game,” the widow replied. Had there been a little hesitation there, though?

As the game progressed, Heyes changed his seat several times. He spotted Mrs. Blakeley, still sitting alone. On his way to ask her again about Miss Celine, he was interrupted by his young messenger friend, arriving with an urgent summons to the sheriff. Heyes flatly refused. There was no way he would leave now to go the sheriff’s office, not with his cousin’s chance at bat beginning.  

“Not to the office, Mr. Heyes. He’s just over yonder at the entrance. Your two fellers showed up and they have quite a story!”

Heyes listened to the sheriff with divided attention. The boys had been out celebrating their victory and had been approached by an “easy-type woman,” as Ty recounted it. She had said she had a friend they could all spend time with, and the farm boys agreed. [Damn – Snyder struck out again.] When they got ‘round the back of the saloon, though, and went in the door, somebody struck Ty over the head and the girl shoved a pistol in Amos’ ribs. [Better! the fourth ball to Kyle, happily trotting out to first base.]

The missing Gold Stockings player was there already, tied to a wooden column, and too woozy or drunk or something to warn them. After tying them into chairs, the floozy girl said in parting that they’d be set free the next day. [Careful, Jackson!]

 Ty was able to back his chair up to Amos’ and work his brother’s bonds loose. [Jackson! now that’s the second out!] After they were all free, they sought out the sheriff.

[One strike left…Yes!] Makepeace slid into his base barely ahead of the throw to Cedric Blakeley. That young man fired the ball back to the bowler and swiped at his own face. Heyes might not have thought much of the gesture, had he not been close enough to see Cedric flush pink when he caught Heyes’ gaze.

“Sheriff?” Heyes interrupted, “see the woman in the hat with the all the gee-gaws on it, a little left of first base? You want her. And you want this kid at first base, too. I can watch him from here. But go be ready to grab Mrs. Blakeley. I don’t think she’ll go anywhere before the game’s over, but it might be over soon.” The Wildcats had the bases loaded, and Kid Curry was coming up to bat.

Ball one.

Ball two.

“Strike!” called the umpire, and Kid calmly nodded at him.

The next pitch was very fast but not faster than Kid Curry’s swing. He connected with an audible smack, and the ball was still rising when it crossed the divider into the stands. A grand slam! They were practically unheard of. The first one known was achieved in 1881, by a player on the Troy, New York, team.

The game was soon over. Heyes and a deputy collared Cedric before the Wildcats got in from the field. They could see Mrs. Blakeley in the grip of the sheriff and another deputy, and Heyes exulted in his job well done.

Given his prisoners’ determined silence, the lawman was not too sure what he was supposed to do with them. “…so I can’t charge ’em with the kidnapping and assault if these fellows can’t identify them, Heyes. Have you got any proof about all that baseball stuff?”

“Not direct proof,” Heyes had to admit. “But I need to send some telegrams, and those replies will give you at least circumstantial evidence. That can be enough, Mrs. Blakeley. Especially when the fraud about your daughter becomes known.”

“Where is that daughter, anyway?” the sheriff demanded.  

 “Really, you don’t see it yet?” Heyes asked. “You’ve got the daughter in the other cell, sheriff, Cedric’s really Celine.”

“Stop it!” Mrs. Blakeley ordered. “Cedric’s done nothing wrong.” She looked to Heyes in appeal but didn’t see the response she wanted.

“Easy enough to be sure, Sheriff,” he said coldly. “Strip him.”

“NO!” The Gold Stockings player surely sounded feminine at that moment.

Heyes addressed the older woman. “Mrs. Blakeley. It’s done. The last over is finished. You must have known you couldn’t keep up that deception for long.”

Mrs. Blakeley raised an eyebrow, thinking, and decided to speak. “I kept it up for two and a half years in the late war, Mr. Heyes. It can be done.”

 “You mean, you fought, as a man?”

“Exactly. My husband and I had only been married a few months when he was called up, and I couldn’t bear to send him away. Maybe sometimes the men thought there was something odd about us, but we were never found out. I had to go home, though, when …when I knew Celine was on the way.

“So I know it can be done. And Celine deserved her chance to play base ball. But even the women’s colleges back East have stopped playing. Everybody’s so worried about keeping women ‘ladylike’…and caged up.” She glanced up at the sheriff. “Sheriff, I’m not talking any more. So figure out what, if anything, you can charge me with and get me a lawyer to talk to.”

Later, pouring champagne, Curry asked, “So, Wheat, is there actually a rule against women playing in your base ball league?”

Wheat shook his head. “No one ever thought about it, I guess. Think we should hire her on when she’s free again, Kyle? You want to manage a woman? or a bunch of women?”

Kyle sipped at his champagne. “Might have its good points, at that, Wheat.”


Author's note: Between 1860 and the early 1900s, professional base ball (two words at the time) was evolving quickly. Our story concerns the Union Association of Professional Base-Ball Clubs, which only existed for the 1884 season, but I really don’t think that was Wheat and Kyle’s fault. The Wyoming Wildcats and the Denver Gold Stockings are fictional, but information about the league, and professional base ball generally, is true.