The hot, dry desert air blew through the open windows of the car that was taking Solomon Pliskin and his son Jacob to the Gila River internment camp during the spring of 1944. The 80-ish but still spry Pliskin had taken the trip from Chicago to Arizona to visit his son, who still ran the family business in Tucson. Their old home of Panacea was long a ghost town, and Jacob had taken the secondhand goods store to the city, where he had met his future wife, Leah. They built it into a pawnshop, and from there the second generation of merchants had grown it into a thriving jewelry store with another branch in Tombstone. The third generation of Pliskins found their careers in law and in medicine.
The Pliskins’ time in the car was quiet, although the silence between them was full of unspoken thoughts. Mostly they remembered Jacob’s youngest son, Aaron, who had enlisted in the Navy right after high school and been stationed in Honolulu. He was proud to have been part of the crew of the Arizona, the pride of the Navy.
And on December 7, 1941, he had been aboard the ship when Japan declared war upon America by launching a devastating sneak attack against Pearl Harbor. Aaron, along with hundreds of his crew mates, lay entombed in the sunken wreck on the once-proud battleship. A battle so far away from the mainland had scored a direct hit upon the Pliskin family, tearing a hole that memories could scarcely fill.
And that in part explained the reason why they were traveling to the internment camp in Butte. Aaron’s grandfather, for reasons he could not fully put into words, felt he needed to go there and see the people who were being made to share the blame for the attack. Jacob, who seethed with hatred for all Japanese for the loss of his son, felt duty-bound to take his father, although he did not share any curiosity, just contempt.
“Look at that, they’re playing baseball!” said Jacob, breaking the silence, as they neared the camp.
The elder Pliskin was amazed at the size of the ballpark where the game was taking place. He had heard it was big, but what he saw was a stadium that could hold up to 6,000 fans. It was built just outside of the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the internment compound that housed over 13,000 people. Zenimura Field, it was called, named after the man who designed it and helped build it from scrap lumber and concrete slabs. His sons, Harvey and Howard, had been part of the crew that constructed the ball field, a project that took two years.
Kenichi Zenimura, the father of Japanese baseball, had played alongside such giants as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He had organized games between his Japanese-American league players and the White major leaguers, traveling the country playing off-season exhibition games before the war. Now he and 120,000 residents throughout the country found themselves locked up because of their ancestry in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor and because of the war that still raged in the Pacific Theater, which was killing thousands more American servicemen. Baseball was to many a refuge from their current plight.
After parking their car, the Pliskins found seats in the bleachers. The two men, joined by blood, were a study in contrasts. Solomon, never a tall man, was shortened by age, stooped just a bit by the burdens he had carried in life. His son had taken root in the desert and bloomed. He was a head taller and broader through the shoulders and chest. Years of prosperous life had thickened his mid-section as he approached middle age.
Father and son differed in other ways. The ambition that fueled the elder Pliskin’s success was channeled into his religious life. Jacob’s ambition cropped up as impatience in other parts of his life. Today, he reduced his pace out of courtesy for his father’s shorter, slower steps, but the lack of speed chafed him.
They saw that the Japanese children were playing against a team of youngsters from the Gila River Indian Community, on whose land the camp had been built. The irony of building an internment camp for a new minority on a reservation designed for an older minority was not lost upon the elder
Jacob adjusted the broad brim of his straw hat to provide more shade as he looked over to the rows of tarpaper shacks that housed the internee families. “Serves them right,” he sneered.
“Because they’re Japs. Because of the Day of Infamy. Because of Aaron.”
Solomon recoiled at the word. Any racial epithet made him wince at its raw ugliness, having heard so many of them hurled at him during his life.
He wiped the thick lenses of his spectacles with a bandana and turned to view the game. The sight of the young players, many in uniforms sewn by their mothers out of material scrounged from mattresses, reminded him of his own experience with the Great American Pastime and that turned back the clock in his mind and memory.
It was official – in the fall of 1902, the epidemic of baseball fever had raised the temperature of every able-bodied man in Panacea, even Solomon “Secondhand Sol” Pliskin. Towns everywhere formed teams that traveled the territory looking for games and glory. Pliskin had even set about recruiting a team for which he had suggested the name, the Mighty Maccabees. There had been those who held out for the more macho title of the Panacea Pistoleros, but soon gave up because of the religious significance of the other team name. They even solved the mystery of having a minyan when only nine players were needed for the game – they designated their manager a player. Of course, they could not take to the field on Saturdays.
And they lost every game they played because their enthusiasm far outstripped their talent.
Pliskin had tried out for the team and despite his lack of athletic prowess – he couldn’t throw, catch, bat, or even run unless he was timed with a sundial – he did manage to secure a position due to sheer moxie. “You’re in left field,” he was told.
“What do you have to do in left field?” asked a puzzled
“That I can do,” knowing that if they had had any more players, he would have been riding the pine on the bench.
Their fiercest opponents were copper miners called the Bisbee Batters, who traveled the southern part of the territory. With muscles hardened by many shifts of swinging sledge hammers, they smacked balls with such authority that they threatened to break the bones of any gloved hand that dared to impede their winged progress.
Desperate for a win, any win, a few members of the Mighty Maccabees went behind Pliskin’s back and recruited a secret weapon – Seamus Ewing. He was not a ringer. His one talent in life had nothing to do with baseball – he had a thirst for alcohol big enough to throw a shadow, and could drink prodigious amounts and still remain upright and mobile. The night before their last match with the Bisbee team, they bribed Seamus to challenge their best batters to a drinking contest, trading shots of liquor fast and furious. And while the team may have won that contest, they were in no great shape the next day to put up much of a match for the Jewish team.
But given the overall lack of talent of the Maccabees, the miners were still on the verge of victory in the bottom of the ninth inning with the score at 2-1. The Maccabees were up by one measly run, but the Batters had the bases loaded, with two outs. One more hit and they would win yet again, seeing victory through bleary and bloodshot eyes.
Pitcher Schlomo Horowitz was pretty much spent as the last ball left his hand, fluttering toward catcher Hyman Shapiro’s glove. The hung-over miner lunged and his bat intercepted it, sending it winging toward left field.
The ball blurred in flight as it sped toward the timid Pliskin. He winced as he thrust his glove outward, his face averted in a grimace, eyes firmly shut.
“Catch the ball,” he thought.
“Catch the ball!” yelled his wife Hannah from the bleachers.
“Catch the ball!” screamed his children, Jacob and Rachel.
He sneaked a quick look upward as it hurtled toward him and THWOK! the ball smacked him flush in the forehead, collapsing him like a felled tree.
The ball bounced upward and then dropped straight down, landing into his open glove. As he toppled backward, the ball lay trapped between his chest and the glove that had just caught it.
And so the Mighty Maccabees won their first and only victory.
“The one truly athletic moment of my life,” Solomon always said at the conclusion of his tale, “and I was unconscious during it.”
Little Aaron never tired of listening to the story, especially after playing catch with his grandfather, the Jewish baseball legend of Panacea.
Pliskin was jerked back into the present by crack of a bat, and he caught sight of a ball spinning back toward the stands. The white sphere landed a few feet shy of where they sat, a foul ball.
Jacob had only to bend down to reach it, but he made no move to do so.
Unbidden, Solomon got up, leaned over and picked up the ball. One of the players jogged over. Nisei, he thought, that is what they call the second generation who were born here.
“Hey, Pops. Can we have the ball back?” said the boy, without a trace of foreign accent.
He smiled and hefted the ball. The youngster smiled back and raised his glove. So much like Aaron, he thought. A little boy who loves the game, even if he has to play it within sight of gun towers.
Pliskin heard a gruff voice reprimand the youngster in Japanese. Behind him stood the coach, Kenichi Zenimura himself. “The younger generation,” he said to Pliskin, shaking his head in apology. “They have no manners.”
“Then we must teach them by example,” answered Pliskin. “Here you go, young man,” said Pliskin, flipping the ball underhand.
“Thanks, uh, sir,” said the boy, fielding it as he glanced at his coach, who nodded his approval. He then ran back to the field.
Probably thinks I throw like a girl, thought Pliskin, recalling the description from his days with the Mighty
“Thank you. Domo arigato,” added the coach, sketching a short bow.
Not knowing any Japanese, Pliskin answered, “Shalom. Peace.” And then he reached forward and extended his open hand. Zenimura took it and they shook. Pliskin bowed a bit, too.
Taking his seat in the stands, he saw that Jacob was furious. “Playing ball, just like you did with Aaron, playing ball with bunch of lousy
“Enough!” Pliskin snapped his right hand up, palm forward as he shouted. Even though many years had passed since living under the same roof with his father, Jacob knew its meaning and went silent.
“You know that I hate those men, those enemy soldiers who robbed us of Aaron and stole his life. I hate them with every breath I take and God knows if I was younger I would enlist and get a gun and I would shoot them all. I only wish that I had died in the place of my grandson who was killed by their bombs and bullets, the same grandson who grins whenever his zeyde throws him a baseball, and who smiles whenever he hears the same story over and over again about how I won a baseball game so many years before he was born.” Pliskin spat the words out between sobs, his sides heaving with rage.
“But I will not hate that little boy or his teammates and their families. Were they behind that sneak attack? No. Were their hands on the guns that sprayed death and destruction? No. Were they even aware of the terrible cataclysm whose aftermath would uproot them from their comfortable lives and communities and put them in the middle of the desert in shacks and surrounded by barbed wire and gun towers? No!
“I may wear glasses, but it is you who cannot see. Look at them Jacob, I mean really look at them. They’re us, 50 years ago. They came as strangers from another land lured by opportunity, yearning to embrace the dreams of a better life. Just like we did. Maybe they don’t speak the language so good at first, but they know the definition of ambition and hard work and education. Just like we did. They bore the brunt of prejudice and they thrived. Just like we did.
“And now for the crime of being different, we cage them. Like Jews are being kept in camps in Europe. Yes, I know it is not the same because here we do not gas them, and harvest their teeth for gold fillings, or herd them into slaughterhouses and make soap from their bodies. But still, here in the land of the free, they have lost their freedom, penned up like cattle.
“I will not have you hate them either. Don’t let hate be your monument to the life and the love of Aaron. This I ask of you. This I beg of you. No, this I demand of you.”
Jacob said nothing, hands clenched, face downward and red with emotion.
“You know, when I toss back the ball, it describes an arc, just like a bridge. Let that little gesture on my part be the start of something positive. Maybe years from now that little boy remembers the little old Jewish grandfather who throws back the ball just like he did to his own grandson and it helps breaks down the wall between us.
“You know, the war won’t last forever. How we will get along afterward if all we do is hate? Maybe I can’t do anything in this war but buy Peace Bonds, but I can be a builder of peace afterward. Shalom I tell him and shalom I mean. Peace, between him and me, between his people and mine.”
He turned to Jacob. “And between us, my son?”
“Peace,” said Jacob after a long pause, and gave his father a hug.
The father’s eyes misted and he knuckled aside a tear. “And now, we have a
game to watch. Maybe, for just a little while, you can try not to hate them. And if you set aside that emotion for this long, maybe you can go even longer tomorrow or the next day. Try, please. If not for me, for the memory of Aaron and his love of this all-American game.”
Jacob fumed a bit, looking off in to the distance, and then shrugged. “OK,” he sighed, reluctance in each syllable dragging out the word. He looked back at the players. After a while, he said, “At least they play better than your team.”
“How can you say such a thing?” asked his father in mock anguish. “Don’t you remember the time I caught that ball? It was against the Bisbee Batters …” began Solomon Pliskin, the Jewish baseball legend of Panacea, taking his son back to a happier time and place that was enshrined in memory and in love.