The Jewish Wonder of the Vineland Little League
By Bethanie Gorny
Nine-year-old Jack stood peering through the screen door of the stifling kitchen, redolent with the aroma of gefilte fish simmering on the stove — fish that had been swimming in the bathtub until that day. Sweat trickled down his chest and back as he waited in dread and resignation for his father to return from the chicken coops behind their five-room house. The breeze coming through the screen was cooling, but with it came the fetid smell of chicken feces. Jack wrinkled his freckled nose in disgust. His mother dried her hands on her apron and turned toward the back door. They both knew that at any moment, Moishe would appear to perform the same ritual he performed every Jewish New Year.
He had been gone only a few minutes when he returned, his flat feet thudding across the bare dirt yard, sending out little puffs of brown dust with every step. His body filled the doorway, blocking the bright September sun like a brief eclipse. Although he was only five foot eight, Moishe Kowenski was powerfully built with a broad chest and bulging bicep muscles that looked and felt like cannon balls. He explained to Jack that he had developed them as a result of chopping down trees in the forests of the tundra. During the war, he and Jack’s mother, Chava had fled Poland and gone to Russia, only to be packed into railway cars and sent to a Siberian slave labor camp. At least they didn’t end up in the ovens, Moishe would say. He never elaborated, and Jack learned about the Holocaust only later in life.
Moishe was wearing his summer work uniform: scuffed brown shoes, a sleeveless white undershirt, and baggy pants held up by his too-long brown leather belt. From his fist dangled a white-feathered chicken, upside down, feet tied together, squawking and madly flapping its wings.
“Chava, Yankel, come here before this chicken starts crapping,” he commanded.
They stood huddled together as Moishe put one arm around them both and began swinging the chicken with his free arm in a circle around their heads while chanting in Yiddish, “Death to you and life to me, death to you and life to me.” The purpose of this exercise was to protect his family for the coming New Year. Feathers flew about the room as though a pillow fight were underway. Jack cowered underneath his father’s rotating arm, praying that the snapping beak would not bite him. As soon as the crazy chicken circles stopped, Chava got out a big pot of water and set it on the stove to boil. Moishe and Jack got in the old DeSoto and drove to the kosher butcher’s slaughterhouse. Jack waited in the car while the chicken was killed in the kosher manner with more prayers. They returned home, and Chava immediately began cleaning and cooking the chicken.
Jack went out in the yard and began throwing his baseball repeatedly at the garage wall. Harder and harder he pounded the ball against the cement block. It was his way of practicing for Little League tryouts and venting his frustrations. Why was his family so weird? He couldn’t understand it. Why couldn’t they become Americanized? They had been living in the United States for six years and still they clung to these bizarre customs. All he wanted was to be like any other American kid.
All his friends, most of whom were children of Holocaust survivors like him, and lived on chicken farms, endured the same tradition, and none of them liked it, but they never argued with their parents about such things. That’s the way it was with all the refugee kids he knew. They didn’t want to give their parents any more grief than they had already suffered. He didn’t know it then, but he and his friends would never be like the other children, who were American-born. The legacy as children of Holocaust survivors had marked and molded them in ways they wouldn’t be able to comprehend until much later.
Jack was born in 1945 in Kazakhstan where Chava and Moishe had lived briefly on their way from Siberia to a German displaced persons camp. They’d wanted to go home to Poland, but they heard stories that changed their minds: stories of Jews who were murdered when they tried to return to their own homes, now the property of Poles. Chava and Moshe had managed to evade death up to that point and saw no sense in taking a risk now. They would never again see the marital home they had been so proud of, their families’ homes, or Moishe’s lumber yard. Chava would never see again her seven siblings or parents, all murdered in the camps. Moishe lost most of his family, too. They never wanted to talk about what happened, especially Chava who was subject to depressive episodes ever since she learned what had happened to her family.
Jack was only three years old when the family emigrated to America. They spent a year living with his uncle in a cramped apartment in Philadelphia. When their chance came to move out, they grabbed it. The Kowenskis knew nothing about being chicken farmers, but a Jewish philanthropic organization was giving low-cost loans to Jewish refugees who agreed to invest in poultry farms in southern New Jersey. Moishe and Chava thought it sounded like a good opportunity. They hadn’t learned English very well yet, and as Moishe said, “You don’t have to speak English to the chickens.” So they moved to Vineland to become entrepreneurs in the egg business.
That first year on the chicken farm, Jack thought they were becoming more like regular Americans. They became naturalized citizens. He walked to a public school, acquired a boxer dog (a popular dog in America at the time), and played with friends belonging to different religions despite his parents’ admonitions to “avoid Gentiles.” Life seemed full of promise, and even though it was a far cry from the middle class life his parents said they had led in Poland before the war, they were all grateful to be living in the safe land of America where anyone could become successful and respected.
Early on, Jack fell in love with baseball. He aspired to be on the Little League team just like the American-born kids. In the spring and summer months he spent all his free time playing baseball. The other Jewish boys he knew did not seem interested, but Jack had a great time learning the game and following the Phillies on radio and TV. His parents didn’t notice what he did in his spare time; all they cared about was how he did in school. Each marking period, Moishe would look over Jack’s report card, and if there was even one C on it, he went nuts. It did not matter what the C was in; it was a C, and therefore a shanda, a shame, an embarrassment. One time it was a C in handwriting, but this elicited the same reaction as any other subject would have.
“But Dad, it’s only handwriting,” Jack complained. “Who cares about that?”
“Yankel, it’s still a C. You need to get all A’s and B’s like all our friends’ children. What you want to be, a bum? A bum gets C’s, not my son!”
“Please, Moishe, calm down,” Chava interceded as always. “He’ll do better next time. He’s a good boy.” Chava didn’t like stress or dissension; yelling upset her.
“I didn’t survive the Holocaust and come to this country to have a son of mine become a bum!” Moishe pounded the table and swept the offending report card to the floor.
“Moishe, it’s just handwriting. So maybe he’ll be a doctor — they all have terrible handwriting.”
Moishe laughed, and once again Chava had smoothed over the ripples in their life with her sense of humor.
When he wasn’t in Hebrew school or helping out on the chicken farm, Jack was practicing his pitching. He had a crappy baseball glove that he’d bought in a five and dime store, but he knew his parents didn’t have the money to get him a good one, so he managed. One day his Uncle Ed from Philadelphia came to visit, and they went out in the yard for a catch. Uncle Ed took one look at the glove and immediately drove to a sporting goods store and bought his nephew a Johnny Logan glove. Jack oiled it and wrapped it with string to keep its shape. He even slept with it. Little League tryouts were coming up. He had to be the best he could be, and that glove was going to help.
A few months before the tryouts, Jack and Chava were in the cellar washing and sorting eggs. It was like a mini factory down there, with a tiny conveyer belt and washing machines for the eggs, which his parents sorted and packed in crates to be picked up by the egg middleman to sell. Jack thought he’d broach the subject of Little League tryouts while Chava was concentrating on the eggs, since he had to get her signature on the permission slip.
“No!” said his mother. “You don’t need to get hit by a baseball in the head. It’s too dangerous. Why you want to play baseball? Jewish boys don’t play baseball. They study and they become doctors and lawyers. They don’t hit balls with sticks and waste their time.”
She shook her head and scrutinized some more eggs. Usually Jack could get her to give in, but not where safety was concerned. All his parents’ survivor friends were similarly overprotective of the children. Predictably, his father went right along with his mother. Their love was smothering him. So he did the only thing he could: he forged their signatures.
Jack made the team and for a few weeks everything went okay. His parents thought he was playing baseball with his friends. Meanwhile he hid his uniform at his friend John’s house and changed into it there. Then one Saturday morning, his father was reading the Vineland Times sports page and came across some Little League game scores, which usually would not have interested him, but something caught his eye. Very calmly he looked at Jack over the newspaper and said, “Listen to this. Some kid named Jack Kowenski pitched in the Little League. Do you know him?”
Sweating and cringing, he knew he had to come clean about forging their names and lying to them. “Dad, it’s me. You know it’s me. Okay, I got on the team, but it’s not dangerous. Really.”
All of this would ordinarily have been a very serious offense, but Moishe smiled and said, “Okay, Yankel, so you pulled a fast one and got away with it this time. Don’t ever do it again.” Moishe couldn’t help but admire his son’s resourcefulness and determination. After all, it was by just such machinations that he himself had manipulated and connived his way to survival during the Holocaust. Chava, though, was upset. Not only was Yankel participating in a dangerous game that only Gentiles played, but now he was known as Jack. “‘Yankel’ wasn’t good enough for you?” she asked.
Shortly after that, Moishe started becoming interested in baseball. He listened to the Phillies on the radio, watched games on TV, and even took Jack to three games. It was the one truly American thing that he adopted, tentatively at first, and then wholeheartedly. He became a passionate fan of the Phillies and of Jack. While Chava cooked dinner, he sat in the bleachers and watched his son play baseball with “a bunch of Gentiles,” but that was becoming okay with him, too. Slowly, Moshe began to trust some people who were not Jewish. He talked with some of the other fathers at the games, and yelled and booed right along with them. Jack was happy to see him there, a father rooting for his son, just like all the other fathers.
Over the next couple of years, the chicken farm became somewhat successful and Moishe started being known in the community for his honesty and good business sense. People knew who he was and if they didn’t know him, they knew Chava. She had become active in the synagogue sisterhood and was renowned for her cooking and baking. Things had gotten better for the Kowenskis in their newly adopted country, and they began to feel more comfortable in America. Moishe mellowed to the point where he would now say, “There are all kinds of goyim; there are good ones and bad ones, just like there are good and bad Jews.”
After two seasons of Little League, Jack was ready to move up to Senior League, also known as the Babe Ruth League. He stepped up his practice sessions and his uncle even built him a pitcher’s mound in the yard. He spent every spare moment getting ready for those tryouts. No one doubted he would make the team. He was known as The Jewish Wonder, still being the only Jewish kid on the team, and a very good pitcher. He didn’t experience any problems being the only Jew because his Christian teammates were happy to have such a good player on their team. He easily made the Babe Ruth League and went home in triumph with his new uniform. Moishe took him aside after the tryouts and said, “Jack, I’m proud of you. The Kowenski name is respected in Vineland because the whole family is doing good things, you included. The most important thing you own is your name. Never forget who you are, and always be proud of it. Here in America, we got back our pride that Hitler tried to take from us.”
Jack had heard this speech many times, but never had it meant more to him than that evening. For the first time, he felt like, in his own unique way, he was helping his parents find their place in this golden land. He hung the uniform tenderly in his closet, thinking of the coming season when he would continue his illustrious career as a pitcher and third baseman. He might not be a straight A student, but he could play ball.
That night there was a knock on the door. Moishe opened it and there stood Bob McGinty, one of the fathers in charge of the town baseball leagues. He was tall and thin with mud-brown hair, bland facial features, and a perennially pleasant expression on his face. Moishe knew him from the bleachers at the games and also as the owner of a hardware store in town. He couldn’t imagine what would bring Bob McGinty to their house at this time of night or any other time.
“Come in, Bob. Is something wrong?” asked Moishe.
For once, Mr. McGinty’s face did not look serenely composed. It looked grim, as if someone had died. “I’m really sorry, Moishe, but there’s been a mix-up on the team. It seems that Jerry Watson’s son wasn’t going to play, but now he is. So that takes up one more spot on the team and that means Jack has to give up his. I’m really sorry about this.”
Jerry Watson was a prominent businessman and a member of the country club who was known as a snob and someone who always wanted to have things his way and, with all his money, usually did. He was pugnacious at the ball field, always yelling insults at the opposing team’s coaches and pacing up and down the fence line like a bull about to stampede into the ring. His son was a good ball player but a whiner and quitter who had left the team over some disagreement, and now evidently had had a change of heart.
Moishe looked at McGinty as if he were vermin. The disgust and hatred on Moishe’s face was frightening to see. “So Mr. Bigshot Watson’s kid is taking my son’s place on the team. That’s the story here? You’re telling me that my son is not as good as Watson’s kid? Jack is a better pitcher than anyone you drafted on that team, and you know it!”
“Moishe, I’m not here on my own. I can’t do anything about it. Maybe Jack can play next year.”
“Jack, go get the uniform,” Moishe commanded.
Tears stung Jack’s eyes, but he blinked them back. Quickly he retrieved the uniform from his closet and handed it to his father, who had not stopped glaring at McGinty. Moishe shoved the uniform into McGinty’s stomach, causing him to stumble backward a little. “Here! Now get the hell out of my house!”
McGinty said not another word and hurried out to his car. As he was closing his car door, Moishe yelled, “And don’t call me Moishe! I’m Mr. Kowenski. That’s my name. Don’t forget it.”
Moishe sat down at the kitchen table, his chin cupped in his hands, glowering. Jack joined him in position and demeanor. Chava began making tea, which was what she always did in difficult times to calm everyone down and soothe smoldering anger. There was nothing to say. They all knew that a Kowenski was not going to win in a fight with a Watson, not even in America. They were defeated.
Jack stayed in the league for the twelve year olds who had not made the Babe Ruth League, and he played his best. He still loved the game, and no one was going to take that away from him, but he was angry. At home everyone went on with their daily lives, but a pall hung over them. They had suffered other slights during their pursuit of the American dream — people had ridiculed their accents, their clothes, their lack of understanding of American customs — but this was more personal. It was a direct hit aimed at them all, and particularly wounding their youngest, most optimistic member — the one who’d believed in the American dream most fervently.
One day the gleam was back in Moishe’s eyes as he announced, “Jack, we’re going to a game in Philly to see the Dodgers play, and I want you to yell for the Dodgers.”
“The Dodgers? Why? We’re Phillies fans.”
“Because they got a guy playing that I want you to see. He’s a Colored man and his name is Jackie, too. Even though he’s probably one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived, fans spit at him and boo him. Other ball players call him “Nigger” and play dirty tricks on him. But he never gets mad. He just keeps playing great baseball. I want you should see him. And I want you to be a fan of the Dodgers because they let him play. You can still be a Phillies fan, but not when they’re playing the Dodgers.”
By that time, everyone had heard of Jackie Robinson, the man who’d broken the baseball color line. He was still the object of racial slurs, despite being at the top of the sports world. Yet he was stoic in the face of prejudice, and just kept playing, getting better and better. Jack read up on him and learned that he came from a poor farming family, just like his. Robinson was quoted as saying, “I’m not concerned with you liking me or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” As an outsider in America, that resonated with Jack.
At the game they gobbled popcorn, and hotdogs and yelled their lungs out. It was a thrill to see this legendary man out there on the field. Robinson’s face at bat was set in a a tough, resolute expression that seemed to say,” Go ahead, hit me with your best shot; I can take anything you’ve got.” At first Jack thought it was determination, but later he realized it was defiance. Jackie Robinson was a survivor, just like all the Holocaust survivors he knew.
It was many weeks into the season when Bob McGinty came to their house yet again. They were just about to sit down to dinner when he peered in and knocked timidly on the screen door. He seemed nervous underneath his smiling façade.
Moishe stood on the other side of the door and glared at him through the mesh. “What you want?” he asked gruffly.
“Well, you won’t believe this,” stammered Mr. McGinty, “but Ronnie Watson got injured, so we really could use Jack on the team. I know you were upset before, but this is a good chance for Jack to help the team and to play with the better kids.”
Moishe’s eyes bulged and Jack thought he might punch McGinty right through the screen. But his father’s mood changed abruptly, like a summer storm that passes through quickly and is gone. He resumed his normal expression and tone and said, “It’s for Jack to choose.” He turned to his son.
Jack wanted to stick it to McGinty and Watson, and tell them and all the other Gentiles who ran the show in town: “No, goddamit, no! I’ll never play for you. If I wasn’t good enough for you the first time, you can all go to hell!” His father and mother were observing him calmly. He looked at them and tried to figure out what would make them most proud. He thought of Jackie Robinson taking all that crap so that he could do what he loved and was meant to do. And then Jack knew with certainty the right answer. He knew he needed to survive, just as his parents had. He walked up to the door and said, “Mr. McGinty, even though I was treated unfairly, I will play because I deserve to play.”
He went back to the kitchen table and sat down. Moishe sat down, too, and nodded his head in approval. Chava brought over soup bowls filled with her delicious sweet and sour cabbage soup. She sat down with her back to the door, pointedly ignoring McGinty. They all began eating and did not even look at McGinty as he slunk away into the muggy, mosquito-filled Vineland night.