October 1, 1938
By now you’ve probably heard or read all about it, but I thought I’d put down on paper the details of how crazy these last few days have been.
After I got Rolf Grund’s ransom letter on Tuesday, I met with Harry after the game to figure out how we’d save young Markie. Contacting the law was definitely out of the question for the time being, and I was sure capable of scraping up fifty thousand in cash. On the other hand, there was no way we wanted to give in to this monster.
So we went about our business in our last two home games with the Browns before leaving for Cleveland, and boy did I mean business. Even though they shellacked us 8-1 on Wednesday, I smashed homer no. 59 off Russ Van Atta.
The Babe himself was sitting behind our dugout on Thursday, looking great in a big overcoat and plaid cloth cap, and he shouted encouragement to me the entire game. We fell behind Lefty Mills 5-3 through six but scored one in the 7th and one in the 8th to tie. I was 3-for-3 with two doubles when I led off the last of the 10th with Mills still on the mound. “PICK YOURSELF A NICE PLUM, KID!” I could hear Babe yell through the wild crowd noise. Lefty wound and threw and I put a crack on it. The ball flew high and deep toward the stands in left. Mazzera gave it a good leap but it was well over his glove and I had TIED THE BAMBINO’S RECORD and won the game all at once and everyone was mobbing me and Harry who had taken over for Bridges in the 10th even got the win!
Reporters wouldn’t leave me alone on the train to Ohio later, which was tough because all I wanted to do was get with Harry to figure out our Markie rescue game plan. I still hadn’t heard from Grund with any instructions.
And I didn’t hear any the next morning. It wasn’t until Rudy York had clubbed his 50th homer at League Park on Friday and we’d beaten the Indians excitingly with two in the top of the 10th, I found a pack of German cigarettes inside my locker. Inside was a slip of paper:
6:00 SAT NIGHT AT BENCH BEFORE E. 9TH ST PIER OR DEAD SYNAGOGUE. BRING ALL MONEY AND NO POLICE. I HAVE WHITE HAT AGAIN.
I had no idea what “dead synagogue” meant but it sure sounded like another threat to Markie if I didn’t come through. Anyway, the new plan was to have Tony Piet and Don Ross, two of our benchwarmers who probably weren’t going to play, duck out of League Park around the 6th inning, stake out the pier for us and report back if they saw Grund there.
Our meaningless game with the Tribe was suddenly very tense, and not because I had a chance to break the Babe’s record. The Yanks had lost the pennant two days ago, so every New York writer was stuffed into the League Park press box, Ruth was posing for pictures with me almost up to the first pitch, and the grandstand and bleachers in left were packed with bodies and noise.
Anyway, we were down 1-0 and scored three times in the 3rd. Cleveland went ahead 4-3 but we leapfrogged them with a huge seven-run 5th. I had a double and a walk in three tries off Earl Whitehill and no homer, but the good news was that we had a 10-4 lead and the game would probably be over quick, giving me a chance to get down to the pier ahead of time.
So naturally George Gill fell apart in the 7th, and the Indians sent nine men to the plate in an endless inning that saw them score five times and cut it to a one-run game. Harry took a phone call from Tony and Don in the middle of the 8th and said they saw a “suspicious guy walking around in a white hat who looked a little German.” Great, and now our game wouldn’t end.
Harry actually took the mound for the bottom of the 9th and Keltner led off with a single. I stood out there at first totally helpless. The sun was already starting to go down. I walked over to Harry, gave him some spirited talk. Rollie Hemsley stepped in and lined out to Gehringer. Odell Hale was next, and he hit a screamer just to my right. I backhanded the ball on the fly, dove at Keltner and tagged him on the ankle before he could get back. Game over!
I still had a chance to hit no. 61 on Sunday, so naturally the Bambino wanted to go drinking with me afterwards, but I said I was meeting someone down by the water so maybe later. I loaded up a Tigers athletic bag until it looked stuffed, left Harry behind and jumped in a taxi.
* * *
During the Great Lakes Exposition the last two years, the East 9th Street Pier served as one of the centennial celebration’s entrances, but now it was nearly shut down, and a new road called the Lakefront Highway was about to take its place. A few citizens were still strolling around, but Tony and Don walked up with grim expressions when I arrived.
“We lost him, but I don’t think it was him anyway,” said Tony. “Don asked him for a match and he sounded more like an Okie than a kraut.” I wasn’t due to meet Grund for another half hour, but shooed my teammates away. As far as they knew I was just meeting a German sports bookie, but if Grund was watching and thought they were cops it could’ve been a disaster.
The minutes crawled by. A gloomy haze settled over Lake Erie. There were two kids nearby whipping rocks into the water. Each of them took turns looking over at me. I was getting nervous, and felt very out of my league. As six p.m. rolled around they suddenly walked over, with one of the kids quickly taking out a piece of paper.
“Not a great time for an autograph, boys—” I said, and then stopped when I saw the same scrawl I’d seen earlier on a similar scrap of paper.
“A man told us to give you this,” said one of the boys, and they ran off. I carefully opened the note:
EAGLE AVE DEAD SYNAGOGUE
I hurried up to a busier road and flagged down another cab. Showed him the note.
“Do you know what this means?”
He frowned for what seemed forever. “Maybe the freight yard. They’ve started tearing down buildings over on Eagle and one of them’s a Jew church.”
“Get me over there.”
* * *
It was a 19th century synagogue, in total pre-demolition disrepair. Several abandoned freights and a few passenger cars filled the adjoining alley. The area was being used as a city transportation graveyard.
And Rolf Grund stepped outside.
“Guten abend again, Hank. The cash money please.”
“First you hand over Markie.”
He sneered. “Nein. First I see the money.”
I zipped open the bag, gave him a flash of a view. It was getting dark, and there was no way he could make out the rosin bags, chewing tobacco and stirrups from where he was standing.
“Happy? Now give me Markie please.”
“Bring me the bag. I did not see it good enough.”
I hesitated. He took out a revolver and pointed it at me. “We will try this again, oaf-man. The bag.”
I tightened my grip on it. Took a big step toward him, swung the thing and knocked the gun out of his hand. It fell behind a crate. We struggled but he scrambled to his feet and put a shoe in my face. He grabbed the gun again, held it on me as he kneeled and zipped open the bag again. His face reddened.
“Ha ha yes. Nice big joke. You think I am a stupid one, Hank? Adolf Hitler and my people will soon be taking over weak countries that get in our way and then we will check on the laughing. That is smart, not stupid. You insult me with your—”
WHACK! The bat whipped out of the shadows behind him. Caught Grund just above the right ear and turned half of his head into hairy, bloody jelly. It was a 40-ouncer, but in the Babe’s hand looked like a big match stick.
“Helluva way to celebrate a win, kid” he said, as Harry appeared behind him with a big grin, half elated and half guilty for spilling the beans to Ruth. “Ready for those ice cold beers now?”
“Maybe. Stay right here.”
I darted inside the synagogue. Like most of the outside, it was in shambles, but a spot of rising moonlight was coming through the windows. I thought I could hear labored breathing.
Then the same muffled cough I thought was Grund’s. It was coming from behind the altar. I quickly made my way up the dusty steps. Saw a figure curled up there, gagged, hands and feet bound with twine and looped around a small rail.
“Markie? Is it you?”
The figure managed to roll over and face me. She had long, dirty brown hair, a thin pale face, and gorgeous green eyes that added to the moonlight. I ripped off the gag and saw she was in her early 20s and despite a hungry, desperate appearance, was astonishingly beautiful.
“Hello Hank,” she said weakly, “I am Lilah.”
The name rang an instant bell. “You’re Markie’s sister!” I started undoing her bound wrists. “Where is—”
“He isn’t. I am him now. Since he died a year ago I have been him…” She embraced me. “I am your writing friend, Hank.”