"Yes, Carroll, I got my notice. Maybe it's no surprise to you. And there's one more thing I want to say. You're `it' on this team. You're the topnotch catcher in the Western League and one of the best ball players in the game -- but you're a knocker!"
Madge Ellston heard young Sheldon speak. She saw the flash in his gray eyes and the heat of his bronzed face as he looked intently at the big catcher.
"Fade away, sonny. Back to the bush-league for yours!" replied Carroll, derisively. "You're not fast enough for Kansas City. You look pretty good in a uniform and you're swift on your feet, but you can't hit. You've got a glass arm and you run bases like an ostrich trying to side. That notice was coming to you. Go learn the game!"
Then a crowd of players trooped noisily out of the hotel lobby and swept Sheldon and Carroll down the porch steps toward the waiting omnibus.
Madge's uncle owned the Kansas City club. She had lived most of her nineteen years in a baseball atmosphere, but accustomed as she was to baseball talk and the peculiar banterings and bickerings of the players, there were times when it seemed all Greek. If a player got his "notice" it meant he would be released in ten days. A "knocker" was a ball player who spoke ill of his fellow players. This scrap of conversation, however, had an unusual interest because Carroll had paid court to her for a year, and Sheldon, coming to the team that spring, had fallen desperately in love with her. She liked Sheldon pretty well, but Carroll fascinated her. She began to wonder if there were bad feelings between the rivals -- to compare them -- to get away from herself and judge them impersonally.
When Pat Donahue, the veteran manager of the team came out, Madge greeted him with a smile. She had always gotten on famously with Pat, notwithstanding her imperious desire to handle the managerial reins herself upon occasions. Pat beamed all over his round ruddy face.
"Miss Madge, you weren't to the park yesterday an' we lost without our pretty mascot. We shure needed you. Denver's playin' at a fast clip."
"I'm coming out today," replied Miss Ellston, thoughtfully. "Pat, what's a knocker?"
"Now, Miss Madge, are you askin' me that after I've been coachin' you in baseball for years?" questioned Pat, in distress.
"I know what a knocker is, as everybody else does. But I want to know the real meaning, the inside-ball of it, to use your favorite saying."
Studying her grave face with shrewd eyes Donahue slowly lost his smile.
"The inside-ball of it, eh? Come, let's sit over here a bit -- the sun's shure warm today. . . . Miss Madge, a knocker is the strangest man known in the game, the hardest to deal with an' what every baseball manager hates most."
Donahue told her that he believed the term "knocker" came originally from baseball; that in general it typified the player who strengthened his own standing by belittling the ability of his team-mates, and by enlarging upon his own superior qualities. But there were many phases of this peculiar type. Some players were natural born knockers; others acquired the name in their later years in the game when younger men threatened to win their places. Some of the best players ever produced by baseball had the habit in its most violent form. There were players of ridiculously poor ability who held their jobs on the strength of this one trait. It was a mystery how they misled magnates and managers alike; how for months they held their places, weakening a team, often keeping a good team down in the race; all from sheer bold suggestion of their own worth and other players' worthlessness. Strangest of all was the knockers' power to disorganize; to engender a bad spirit between management and team and among the players. The team which was without one of the parasites of the game generally stood well up in the race for the pennant, though there had been championship teams noted for great knockers as well as great players.
"It's shure strange, Miss Madge," said Pat in conclusion, shaking his gray head. "I've played hundreds of knockers, an' released them, too. Knockers always get it in the end, but they go on foolin' me and workin' me just the same as if I was a youngster with my first team. They're part an' parcel of the game."
"Do you like these men off the field -- outside of baseball, I mean?"
"No, I shure don't, an' I never seen one yet that wasn't the same off the field as he was on."
"Thank you, Pat. I think I understand now. And -- oh, yes, there's another thing I want to ask you. What's the matter with Billie Sheldon? Uncle George said he was falling off in his game. Then I've read the papers. Billie started out well in the spring."
"Didn't he? I was sure thinkin' I had a find in Billie. Well, he's lost his nerve. He's in a bad slump. It's worried me for days. I'm goin' to release Billie. The team needs a shake-up. That's where Billie gets the worst of it, for he's really the makin' of a star; but he's slumped, an' now knockin' has made him let down. There, Miss Madge, that's an example of what I've just been tellin' you. An' you can see that a manager has his troubles. These hulkin' athletes are a lot of spoiled babies an' I often get sick of my job."
That afternoon Miss Ellston was in a brown study all the way out to the baseball park. She arrived rather earlier than usual to find the grand-stand empty. The Denver team had just come upon the field, and the Kansas City players were practising batting at the left of the diamond. Madge walked down the aisle of the grand stand and out along the reporters' boxes. She asked one of the youngsters on the field to tell Mr. Sheldon that she would like to speak with him a moment.
Billie eagerly hurried from the players' bench with a look of surprise and expectancy on his sun-tanned face. Madge experienced for the first time a sudden sense of shyness at his coming. His lithe form and his nimble step somehow gave her a pleasure that seemed old yet was new. When he neared her, and, lifting his cap, spoke her name, the shade of gloom in his eyes and lines of trouble on his face dispelled her confusion.
"Billie, Pat tells me he's given you ten days' notice," she said.
"What's wrong with you, Billie?"
"Oh, I've struck a bad streak -- can't hit or throw."
"Are you a quitter?"
"No, I'm not," he answered quickly, flushing a dark red.
"You started off this spring with a rush. You played brilliantly and for a while led the team in batting. Uncle George thought so well of you. Then came this spell of bad form. But, Billie, it's only a slump; you can brace."
"I don't know," he replied, despondently. "Awhile back I got my mind off the game. Then -- people who don't like me have taken advantage of my slump to -- -- "
"To knock," interrupted Miss Ellston.
"I'm not saying that," he said, looking away from her.
"But I'm saying it. See here, Billie Sheldon, my uncle owns this team and Pat Donahue is manager. I think they both like me a little. Now I don't want to see you lose your place. Perhaps -- -- "
"Madge, that's fine of you -- but I think -- I guess it'd be best for me to leave Kansas City."
"You know," he said huskily. "I've lost my head -- I'm in love -- I can't think of baseball -- I'm crazy about you."
Miss Ellston's sweet face grew rosy, clear to the tips of her ears.
"Billie Sheldon," she replied, spiritedly. "You're talking nonsense. Even if you were were that way, it'd be no reason to play poor ball. Don't throw the game, as Pat would say. Make a brace! Get up on your toes! Tear things! Rip the boards off the fence! Don't quit!"
She exhausted her vocabulary of baseball language if not her enthusiasm, and paused in blushing confusion.
"Will you brace up?"
"Will I -- will I!" he exclaimed, breathlessly.
Madge murmured a hurried good-bye and, turning away, went up the stairs. Her uncle's private box was upon the top of the grand stand and she reached it in a somewhat bewildered state of mind. She had a confused sense of having appeared to encourage Billie, and did not know whether she felt happy or guilty. The flame in his eyes had warmed all her blood. Then, as she glanced over the railing to see the powerful Burns Carroll, there rose in her breast a panic at strange variance with her other feelings.
Many times had Madge Ellston viewed the field and stands and the outlying country from this high vantage point; but never with the same mingling emotions, nor had the sunshine ever been so golden, the woods and meadows so green, the diamond so smooth and velvety, the whole scene so gaily bright.
Denver had always been a good drawing card, and having won the first game of the present series, bade fair to draw a record attendance. The long lines of bleachers, already packed with the familiar mottled crowd, sent forth a merry, rattling hum. Soon a steady stream of well-dressed men and women poured in the gates and up the grand-stand stairs. The soft murmur of many voices in light conversation and laughter filled the air. The peanut venders and score-card sellers kept up their insistent shrill cries. The baseball park was alive now and restless; the atmosphere seemed charged with freedom and pleasure. The players romped like skittish colts, the fans shrieked their witticisms -- all sound and movements suggested play.
Madge Ellston was somehow relieved to see her uncle sitting in one of the lower boxes. During this game she wanted to be alone, and she believed she would be, for the President of the League and directors of the Kansas City team were with her uncle. When the bell rang to call the Denver team in from practice the stands could hold no more, and the roped-off side lines were filling up with noisy men and boys. From her seat Madge could see right down upon the players' bench, and when she caught both Sheldon and Carroll gazing upward she drew back with sharply contrasted thrills.
Then the bell rang again, the bleachers rolled out their welcoming acclaim, and play was called with Kansas City at the bat.
Right off the reel Hunt hit a short fly safely over second. The ten thousand spectators burst into a roar. A good start liberated applause and marked the feeling for the day.
Madge was surprised and glad to see Billie Sheldon start next for the plate. All season, until lately, he had been the second batter. During his slump he had been relegated to the last place on the batting list. Perhaps he had asked Pat to try him once more at the top. The bleachers voiced their unstinted appreciation of this return, showing that Billie still had a strong hold on their hearts.
As for Madge, her breast heaved and she had difficulty in breathing. This was going to be a hard game for her. The intensity of her desire to see Billie brace up to his old form amazed her. And Carroll's rude words beat thick in her ears. Never before had Billie appeared so instinct with life, so intent and strung as when he faced Keene, the Denver pitcher. That worthy tied himself up in a knot, and then, unlimbering a long arm, delivered the brand new ball.
Billie seemed to leap forward and throw his bat at it. There was a sharp ringing crack -- and the ball was like a white string marvelously stretching out over the players, over the green field beyond, and then, sailing, soaring, over the right-field fence. For a moment the stands, even the bleachers, were stone quiet. No player had ever hit a ball over that fence. It had been deemed impossible, as was attested to by the many painted "ads" offering prizes for such a feat. Suddenly the far end of the bleachers exploded and the swelling roar rolled up to engulf the grand stand in thunder. Billie ran round the bases to applause never before vented on that field. But he gave no sign that it affected him; he did not even doff his cap. White-faced and stern, he hurried to the bench, where Pat fell all over him and many of the players grasped his hands.
Up in her box Madge was crushing her score-card and whispering: "Oh! Billie, I could hug you for that!"
Two runs on two pitched balls! That was an opening to stir an exacting audience to the highest pitch of enthusiasm. The Denver manager peremptorily called Keene off the diamond and sent in Steele, a south-paw, who had always bothered Pat's left-handed hitters. That move showed his astute judgment, for Steele struck out McReady and retired Curtis and Mahew on easy chances.
It was Dalgren's turn to pitch and though he had shown promise in several games he had not yet been tried out on a team of Denver's strength. The bleachers gave him a good cheering as he walked into the box, but for all that they whistled their wonder at Pat's assurance in putting him against the Cowboys in an important game.
The lad was visibly nervous and the hard-hitting and loud-coaching Denver players went after him as if they meant to drive him out of the game. Crane stung one to left center for a base, Moody was out on a liner to short, almost doubling up Crane; the fleet-footed Bluett bunted and beat the throw to first; Langly drove to left for what seemed a three-bagger, but Curtis, after a hard run, caught the ball almost off the left-field bleachers. Crane and Bluett advanced a base on the throw-in. Then Kane batted up a high foul-fly. Burns Carroll, the Kansas City catcher, had the reputation of being a fiend for chasing foul flies, and he dashed at this one with a speed that threatened a hard fall over the players' bench or a collision with the fence. Carroll caught the ball and crashed against the grand stand, but leaped back with an agility that showed that if there was any harm done it had not been to him.
Thus the sharp inning ended with a magnificent play. It electrified the spectators into a fierce energy of applause. With one accord, by baseball instinct, the stands and bleachers and roped-in-sidelines realized it was to be a game of games and they answered to the stimulus with a savage enthusiasm that inspired ballplayers to great plays.
In the first half of the second inning, Steele's will to do and his arm to execute were very like his name. Kansas City could not score. In their half the Denver team made one run by clean hitting.
Then the closely fought advantage see-sawed from one team to the other. It was not a pitchers' battle, though both men worked to the limit of skill and endurance. They were hit hard. Dazzling plays kept the score down and the innings short. Over the fields hung the portent of something to come, every player, every spectator felt the subtle baseball chance; each inning seemed to lead closer and more thrillingly up to the climax. But at the end of the seventh, with the score tied six and six, with daring steals, hard hits and splendid plays, enough to have made memorable several games, it seemed that the great portentous moment was still in abeyance.
The head of the batting list for Kansas City was up. Hunt caught the first pitched ball squarely on the end of his bat. It was a mighty drive and as the ball soared and soared over the center-field Hunt raced down the base line, and the winged-footed Crane sped outward, the bleachers split their throats. The hit looked good for a home run, but Crane leaped up and caught the ball in his gloved hand. The sudden silence and then the long groan which racked the bleachers was greater tribute to Crane's play than any applause.
Billie Sheldon then faced Steele. The fans roared hoarsely, for Billie had hit safely three times out of four. Steele used his curve ball, but he could not get the batter to go after it. When he had wasted three balls, the never-despairing bleachers howled: "Now, Billie, in your groove! Sting the next one!" But Billie waited. One strike! Two strikes! Steele cut the plate. That was a test which proved Sheldon's caliber.
With seven innings of exciting play passed, with both teams on edge, with the bleachers wild and the grand stands keyed up to the breaking point, with everything making deliberation almost impossible, Billie Sheldon had remorselessly waited for three balls and two strikes.
"Now! . . . Now! . . . Now!" shrieked the bleachers.
Steele had not tired nor lost his cunning. With hands before him he grimly studied Billie, then whirling hard to get more weight into his motion, he threw the ball.
Billie swung perfectly and cut a curving liner between the first baseman and the base. Like a shot it skipped over the grass out along the foul-line into right field. Amid tremendous uproar Billie stretched the hit into a triple, and when he got up out of the dust after his slide into third the noise seemed to be the crashing down of the bleachers. It died out with the choking gurgling yell of the most leather-lunged fan.
McReady marched up and promptly hit a long fly to the redoubtable Crane. Billie crouched in a sprinter's position with his eye on the graceful fielder, waiting confidently for the ball to drop. As if there had not already been sufficient heart-rending moments, the chance that governed baseball meted out this play; one of the keenest, most trying known to the game. Players waited, spectators waited, and the instant of that dropping ball was interminably long. Everybody knew Crane would catch it; everybody thought of the wonderful throwing arm that had made him famous. Was it possible for Billie Sheldon to beat the throw to the plate.
Crane made the catch and got the ball away at the same instant Sheldon leaped from the base and dashed for home. Then all eyes were on the ball. It seemed incredible that a ball thrown by human strength could speed plateward so low, so straight, so swift. But it lost its force and slanted down to bound into the catcher's hands just as Billie slid over the plate.
By the time the bleachers had stopped stamping and bawling, Curtis ended the inning with a difficult grounder to the infield.
Once more the Kansas City players took the field and Burns Carroll sang out in his lusty voice: "Keep lively, boys! Play hard! Dig 'em up an' get 'em!" Indeed the big catcher was the main-stay of the home team. The bulk of the work fell upon his shoulders. Dalgren was wild and kept his catcher continually blocking low pitches and wide curves and poorly controlled high fast balls. But they were all alike to Carroll. Despite his weight, he was as nimble on his feet as a goat, and if he once got his hands on the ball he never missed it. It was his encouragement that steadied Dalgren; his judgment of hitters that carried the young pitcher through dangerous places; his lightning swift grasp of points that directed the machine-like work of his team.
In this inning Carroll exhibited another of his demon chases after a foul fly; he threw the base-stealing Crane out at second, and by a remarkable leap and stop of McReady's throw, he blocked a runner who would have tied the score.
The Cowboys blanked their opponents in the first half of the ninth, and trotted in for their turn needing one run to tie, two runs to win.
There had scarcely been a breathing spell for the onlookers in this rapid-fire game. Every inning had held them, one moment breathless, the next wildly clamorous, and another waiting in numb fear. What did these last few moments hold in store? The only answer to that was the dogged plugging optimism of the Denver players.
To listen to them, to watch them, was to gather the impression that baseball fortune always favored them in the end.
"Only three more, Dal. Steady boys, it's our game," rolled out Carroll's deep bass. How virile he was! What a tower of strength to the weakening pitcher!
But valiantly as Dalgren tried to respond, he failed. The grind -- the strain had been too severe. When he finally did locate the plate Bluett hit safely. Langley bunted along the base line and beat the ball.
A blank, dead quiet settled down over the bleachers and stands. Something fearful threatened. What might not come to pass, even at the last moment of this nerve-racking game? There was a runner on first and a runner on second. That was bad. Exceedingly bad was it that these runners were on base with nobody out. Worst of all was the fact that Kane was up. Kane, the best bunter, the fastest man to first, the hardest hitter in the league! That he would fail to advance those two runners was scarcely worth consideration. Once advanced, a fly to the outfield, a scratch, anything almost, would tie the score. So this was the climax presaged so many times earlier in the game. Dalgren seemed to wilt under it.
Kane swung his ash viciously and called on Dalgren to put one over. Dalgren looked in toward the bench as if he wanted and expected to be taken out. But Pat Donahue made no sign. Pat had trained many a pitcher by forcing him to take his medicine. Then Carroll, mask under his arm, rolling his big hand in his mitt, sauntered down to the pitcher's box. The sharp order of the umpire in no wise disconcerted him. He said something to Dalgren, vehemently nodding his head the while. Players and audience alike supposed he was trying to put a little heart into Dalgren, and liked him the better, notwithstanding the opposition to the umpire.
Carroll sauntered back to his position. He adjusted his breast protector, and put on his mask, deliberately taking his time. Then he stepped behind the plate, and after signing for the pitch, he slowly moved his right hand up to his mask.
Dalgren wound up, took his swing, and let drive. Even as he delivered the ball Carroll bounded away from his position, flinging off the mask as he jumped. For a single fleeting instant, the catcher's position was vacated. But that instant was long enough to make the audience gasp. Kane bunted beautifully down the third base line, and there Carroll stood, fifteen feet from the plate, agile as a huge monkey. He whipped the ball to Mahew at third. Mahew wheeled quick as thought and lined the ball to second. Sheldon came tearing for the bag, caught the ball on the run, and with a violent stop and wrench threw it like a bullet to first base. Fast as Kane was, the ball beat him ten feet. A triple play!
The players of both teams cheered, but the audience, slower to grasp the complex and intricate points, needed a long moment to realize what had happened. They needed another to divine that Carroll had anticipated Kane's intention to bunt, had left his position as the ball was pitched, had planned all, risked all, played all on Kane's sure eye; and so he had retired the side and won the game by creating and executing the rarest play in baseball.
Then the audience rose in a body to greet the great catcher. What a hoarse thundering roar shook the stands and waved in a blast over the field! Carroll stood bowing his acknowledgment, and then swaggered a little with the sun shining on his handsome heated face. Like a conqueror conscious of full blown power he stalked away to the clubhouse.
Madge Ellston came out of her trance and viewed the ragged score-card, her torn parasol, her battered gloves and flying hair, her generally disheveled state with a little start of dismay, but when she got into the thick and press of the moving crowd she found all the women more or less disheveled. And they seemed all the prettier and friendlier for that. It was a happy crowd and voices were conspicuously hoarse.
When Madge entered the hotel parlor that evening she found her uncle with guests and among them was Burns Carroll. The presence of the handsome giant affected Madge more impellingly than ever before, yet in some inexplicably different way. She found herself trembling; she sensed a crisis in her feelings for this man and it frightened her. She became conscious suddenly that she had always been afraid of him. Watching Carroll receive the congratulations of many of those present, she saw that he dominated them as he had her. His magnetism was over-powering; his great stature seemed to fill the room; his easy careless assurance emanated from superior strength. When he spoke lightly of the game, of Crane's marvelous catch, of Dalgren's pitching and of his own triple play, it seemed these looming features retreated in perspective -- somehow lost their vital significance because he slighted them.
In the light of Carroll's illuminating talk, in the remembrance of Sheldon's bitter denunciation, in the knowledge of Pat Donahue's estimate of a peculiar type of ball-player, Madge Ellston found herself judging the man-bravely trying to resist his charm, to be fair to him and to herself.
Carroll soon made his way to her side and greeted her with his old familiar manner of possession. However irritating it might be to Madge when alone, now it held her bound.
Carroll possessed the elemental attributes of a conqueror. When with him Madge whimsically feared that he would snatch her up in his arms and carry her bodily off, as the warriors of old did with the women they wanted. But she began to believe that the fascination he exercised upon her was merely physical. That gave her pause. Not only was Burns Carroll on trial, but also a very foolish fluttering little moth-herself. It was time enough, however, to be stern with herself after she had tried him.
"Wasn't that a splendid catch of Crane's today?" she asked.
"A lucky stab! Crane has a habit of running round like an ostrich and sticking out a hand to catch a ball. It's a grand-stand play. Why, a good outfielder would have been waiting under that fly."
"Dalgren did fine work in the box, don't you think?"
"Oh, the kid's all right with an old head back of the plate. He's wild, though, and will never make good in fast company. I won his game today. He wouldn't have lasted an inning without me. It was dead wrong for Pat to pitch him. Dalgren simply can't pitch and he hasn't sand enough to learn."
A hot retort trembled upon Madge Ellston's lips, but she withheld it and quietly watched Carroll. How complacent he was, how utterly self-contained!
"And Billie Sheldon -- wasn't it good to see him brace? What hitting! . . . That home run!"
"Sheldon flashed up today. That's the worst of such players. This talk of his slump is all rot. When he joined the team he made some lucky hits and the papers lauded him as a comer, but he soon got down to his real form. Why, to break into a game now and then, to shut his eyes and hit a couple on the nose -- that's not baseball. Pat's given him ten days' notice, and his release will be a good move for the team. Sheldon's not fast enough for this league."
"I'm sorry. He seemed so promising," replied Madge. "I liked Billy -- pretty well."
"Yes, that was evident," said Carroll, firing up. "I never could understand what you saw in him. Why, Sheldon's no good. He -- -- "
Madge turned a white face that silenced Carroll. She excused herself and returned to the parlor, where she had last seen her uncle. Not finding him there, she went into the long corridor and met Sheldon, Dalgren and two more of the players. Madge congratulated the young pitcher and the other players on their brilliant work; and they, not to be outdone, gallantly attributed the day's victory to her presence at the game. Then, without knowing in the least how it came about, she presently found herself alone with Billy, and they were strolling into the music-room.
"Madge, did I brace up?"
The girl risked one quick look at him. How boyish he seemed, how eager! What an altogether different Billie! But was the difference all in him! Somehow, despite a conscious shyness in the moment she felt natural and free, without the uncertainty and restraint that had always troubled her while with him.
"Oh, Billie, that glorious home run!"
"Madge, wasn't that hit a dandy? How I made it is a mystery, but the bat felt like a feather. I thought of you. Tell me what did you think when I hit that ball over the fence?"
"Billie, I'll never, never tell you."
"Yes -- please I want to know. Didn't you think something -- nice of me?"
The pink spots in Madge's cheeks widened to crimson flames.
"Billie, are you still -- crazy about me? Now, don't come so close. Can't you behave yourself? And don 't break my fingers with you terrible baseball hands. . . . Well, when you made that hit I just collapsed and I said -- -- "
"Say it! Say it!" implored Billie.
She lowered her face and then bravely raised it.
"I said, `Billie, I could hug you for that!' . . . Billie, let me go! Oh, you mustn't! -- please!"
Quite a little while afterward Madge remembered to tell Billie that she had been seeking her uncle. They met him and Pat Donahue, coming out of the parlor.
"Where have you been all evening?" demanded Mr. Ellston.
"Shure it looks as if she's signed a new manager," said Pat, his shrewd eyes twinkling.
The soft glow in Madge's cheeks deepened into tell-tale scarlet; Billie resembled a schoolboy stricken in guilt.
"Aha! so that's it?" queried her uncle.
"Ellston," said Pat. "Billie's home-run drive today recalled his notice an' if I don't miss guess it won him another game -- the best game in life."
"By George!" exclaimed Mr. Ellston. "I was afraid it was Carroll!"
He led Madge away and Pat followed with Billie.
"Shure, it was good to see you brace, Billie," said the manager, with a kindly hand on the young man's arm. "I'm tickled to death. That ten days' notice doesn't go. See? I've had to shake up the team but your job is good. I released McReady outright an' traded Carroll to Denver for a catcher and a fielder. Some of the directors hollered murder, an' I expect the fans will roar, but I'm running this team, I'll have harmony among my players. Carroll is a great catcher, but he's a knocker."