Fiction Challenge: “Ebbets Field Blues”


Rules:

1. Select two historic figures at random. (I used the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll and Wikipedia‘s “Random” function.)

2. Join them in a story.

My selections:

Mance Lipscomb (1895-1976): Songster who recorded for the Arhoolie and Reprise labels from 1960-1974.

Frank Kirkleski (1904-1980): Early NFL player, 1927-1931.

EBBETS FIELD BLUES

New York was in mourning. Ebbets Field was gone. The Dodgers had deserted their people some two years earlier, though it felt like they’d left even earlier than that. It was a high act of betrayal, one from which the city would never recover. No matter what rose from the sad rubble at Bedford, Sullivan, McKeever, and Montgomery, the ground would be forever sour. There was no more joy in Flatbush.

Frank Kirkleski felt an acute twinge of sorrow himself. The 55-year-old had traveled from his home in New Jersey to behold the loss in person. The death of Ebbets neatly closed the door on his professional football career; it was the last tangible survivor. Everything else — the teams, the jerseys, the era — had been swept off by bulldozers and mergers and time. Only misty-eyed fogies like himself remembered. The Pottsville Maroons. The Newark Tornadoes. Even the Brooklyn Dodgers, when they were a fleeting gridiron franchise, playing within the very structure that lay now in jagged collapse.

He pulled a worn fragment from his wallet. It had weathered to a yellowed gold years before, and even the multiple surgeries performed with careful applications of Scotch tape and ink were barely holding it together. It felt like he was pulling sallow, leathered flesh from his coins and cash. He knew it was always there, but he enjoyed the relief of the reminder. It was like surprise confirmation of his past. “You’re the last I got,” he sighed at the document, a weary eye cast at the hills of dead concrete.

It was just four lines of prose most people would one dare consider more ethnically offensive than laudatory. It was written in 1924 by a Philadelphia (Philadelphia! A world and lifetime away!) sportswriter whose name was lost to both Frank and the ages. That was back when you could get away with such remarks in posterity. But Frank didn’t mind. It joined him forever with his fellow halfback on the Lafayette College Lions, old Frank Chicknoski, in celebration of their almost telepathic bond:

The longest forward pass e’er thrown
Toward any mortal goal
Kirkleski threw, Chicknoski caught:
It sailed from Pole to Pole.

People still asked Frank why he kept that tattered lint. After all, hadn’t he been written up a hundred times in the press, and for feats more impressive than connecting a pigskin with a fellow tribesman? What about that 9-0 championship run his senior year? Or that freshman varsity performance against LeHigh,when Frank scooted into the end zone with just a shaving of a second left for a 13-3 win? Or that career 29-4-3 record, with not a single loss at home?

His past always surprised strangers, especially easily awestruck kids. He regaled his history students and athletic teams at Woodbridge High with stories of his days as a college phenomenon and professional player. The NFL wasn’t quite as sexy as major league baseball, for obvious reasons, but it was impressive all the same.

Of course, the NFL was a different animal in his day, a fledgling still cutting its teeth. Eleven teams came together in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, then became the National Football League in 1922. So when Kirkleski suited up for his first post-collegiate skirmish, the organization was only about seven years old, “barely just getting its first taste of snuff,” he’d joke with a wink.

Frank’s first team was the notorious Pottsville Maroons, who by 1927 were nearly out of gas after beginning life as a primal scream at decade’s dawn as the Pottsville Eleven. Back then they were a malicious pocket of thugs and goons from the Yorkville Hose Company. In 1924 the Eleven were purchased and turned legit by Dr. John Striegel, who was just as interesting as his players. The team became the Maroons that year after Striegel ordered uniforms and made the mistake of telling the tailor the colors didn’t matter. The Pottsvillers found themselves attired in a brownish-red blend, perhaps matching their overall disposition.

It turned out that the hues indeed didn’t matter, as this Pennsylvania unit rolled to a championship season in the Anthracite League’s only year of existence. Meanwhile, Striegel had annoyed the NFL that year by raiding its rosters to populate his; he managed to steal three, exasperating the organization to no end. An invitation to join was extended and accepted. Pottsville responded by tearing through their new opponents in 1925, clobbering their first seven foes 162-6. They easily claimed the title after scattering the Chicago Cardinals 21-7.

Then they did something that simultaneously defined and marred the young league. At the time, professional football was considered a subpar sport, nowhere near the prestige of college-level play. So Maroons owner Striegel challenged the greatest of all the university teams to a showdown in Philadelphia. Notre Dame, then at its peak with the Four Horsemen sending chills from the backfield and Knute Rockne patrolling the perimeter, accepted.

Frank saw that game. Hell, everybody in town did. It was the hottest ticket around: the Maroons vs. the Rose Bowl champs of 1925. His Lafayette teammates babbled excitedly about glimpsing Harry Stuhldreher — or at least someone resembling the tiny Fighting Irish quarterback — in various spots around the city. “He didn’t look so tough,” sniffed a teammate, who’d be relieved that Frank eventually forgot his name. Everyone had a good laugh over that.

Frank was joined by some 10,000 fellow curiosity seekers that December afternoon at Shibe Park. Strangely, everyone seemed to be waiting for Notre Dame to show the local boys what it meant to play a man’s sport. They succeeded for a while, stymying every drive and confounding every retort with an unerring air attack. The Horsemen were their stunning selves. Stuhldreher threw with rocket precision. The Irish led 6-0 at the half.

Something transpired during the interim to change the entire tenor of the game. Frank didn’t read about it until the next day, where the Maroons’ vigorous second-half performance made sense. According to the Philadelphia Record, another local professional team, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, had also been scheduled to play in town that day, and they weren’t too thrilled about the competition. They were forced to postpone their contest with the Providence Steam Roller, unless both teams enjoyed playing to an audience of no one. The Maroons game encroached on Frankford territory — an illegal move, according to NFL bylaws. True to form, Striegel shrugged his shoulders in indifference. The NFL retaliated by dispatching a telegram to Shibe Park informing the wayward squad that they’d been stripped of their title and cast from the league.

Pottsville reemerged for the third quarter steamed and energized, matching the Irish blow for blow. At some junction in the flurry, a Maroon drive marched into the end zone for a first offensive retort. As fourth period stretched its last stretch, Pottsville pushed 60 yards and responded to a cement defense by booting the game-winner from the 30 for a 9-6 squeaker. The Maroons were victorious again when the NFL quietly reinstated them for the ’26 season to keep them from defecting to Red Grange’s AFL.

Those days were over by the time Kirkleski donned the hues. He gave the local fans a hopeful taste of past glories in his first appearance, completing three touchdown passes in a 22-0 alley-drub of the Buffalo Bisons. But victories were few that year; the team wrapped up with a 5-8 sigh. It would be even more dismal in ’28, but Kirkleski wasn’t around to share in the gloom. He had returned to his native New Jersey to take the field for the Orange Athletic Club. Pottsville registered a 2-8 record and was promptly dismantled, toothless and faded. Years later the crew would be eulogized by no less than Red Grange, who remembered the surly bruisers as “the most ferocious and most respected players I ever faced.” Frank was honored to have been even a shadow in that history.

The rest of his career was a run of choice moments on long-vanished teams. They sounded like cartoons to kids today. The Maroons. The Tornadoes. He used to play against a gang called the Providence Steamroller, of all names. Kids got a kick out of that, although Frank was sure they wouldn’t have enjoyed staring down those sourpusses on a torn-up lawn. By the time he got to Ebbets Field to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he knew it was almost over. He was in his late twenties and not seeing much play anymore. That was a godawful year: 2-12, a harrowing slide not even the most daredevil tyke would climb.

Frank had reminisced himself into a Flatbush bar. “For Ebbets,” he told the understanding keep as he raised his beer. “To Ebbets.”

Meanwhile, somewhere in Texas, a man sat awkwardly in his kitchen articulating what Frank felt at that very moment, even though he himself felt differently. Mance Lipscomb was playing a weathered guitar and singing into an electric contraption being pointed his way. At the end of the machine were two white boys hanging on his every word, occasionally sipping at the hot coffee he’d poured them minutes earlier.

Mance was tickled at their interest; they’d shown up one day at his work site in Houston looking for one of his oldest, dearest friends, Lightnin’ Hopkins. “We wanna make a record with him,” they explained. “Lightnin’s gone,” said the 65-year-old man as he massaged his knuckles through his gloves. “But I play a little guitar, if you’re interested.” He didn’t know what possessed him to say that, but the fates play a man’s tongue strange. Now he’d gone from a man of labor, a man whose future was dust and bone, to an object of interest for a couple white cats from California. Chris Strachwitz. Mack McCormick. And they addressed him with such kindness. “We’re thinkin’ of startin’ a label,” the one called Strachwitz said, “a blues label.” Kid stressed it so divine that Mance had to throw his head back and laugh.

“What’s your name?” McCormick asked.

“Mance Lipscomb,” said Mance Lipscomb.

“‘Mance’?” queried McCormick, confused. “That short for something?”

“Emancipation,” came the proud reply.

The white boys nodded.

Mance watched his calloused, parched fingers ride that tired old neck. All these years later she still pulled a sweet sound. Mama Jane bought it for him around 1906, when Mance was about 11. His daddy played the fiddle. Mance got his name from him, but not from his real name, which was Charles. Charles Lipscomb was an emancipated slave from Alabama. Mance’s own birth call was Beau de Glen, or Bowdie Glenn. That didn’t matter anymore, anyway. Nobody living called him anything but Mance.

He and his daddy made a little dime now and then, playing shows around Mance’s hometown of Navasota, Texas. Sometimes they stretched their horizons to nearby Bravos. Those were good times. Filling tiny joints with music, watching the faces explode at the sound. They did that till Mance was 21. But he never shook it loose. When he moved to Houston in 1956, he’d wet his whistle after work with the occasional showcase in whatever bar would let him play. When the workers gathered for picnics, sometimes they’d ask for a song, and Mance would always oblige. It didn’t take much to coax him behind that wood, cradle it in his arms, and harmonize over its stream. Here he was now, in the same place he slugged back a cup of warm comfort every morning, doing it for posterity. Something to show his wife and son. Something forever. A record. Could you beat that? If only they’d been around to put his father on tape. Man, he’d play those reels till they swallowed his dreams and brought back every detail of those long-gone nights.

He’d think about it again the following year, after those white boys with the tape machine made good on their promise, flattening that 1960 session into two sides of Texas Sharecropper & Songster, the first release on Arhoolie Records. They pressed 250 copies, each one with its cover hand-glued personally by the label’s staff. It sold enough to fly Mance to Northern California and drop him in front of 40,000 people at the 1961 Berkeley Folk Festival. Damn, Mance marveled, stunned by that crashing wave of humanity. I’m looking at the entire population of a city. Not bad for a Navasota boy. Charles would be proud. As Mance charmed one generation, another nestled further south, watching with anticipation as a new structure rose from the far-off ashes of Ebbets Field.

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