A Romp Through Time, Space, and Ancient Rome
Two award-winning writers take us on an alternate-history adventure—a 1940s barnstorming baseball team, led by retired baseball player and spy Moe Berg, is transported from rural Illinois to Ancient Rome, just after the death of Emperor Septimius Severus.
The Romans—who actually played a game called "small ball"—put the captured team to work teaching baseball to the gladiators for a major Colosseum event…that turns into an over-the-top, life or death finale.
Baseball hijinks, a wild ride through Rome in a careening team bus, a hint of romance, and some viciously good hitting and fielding.
Will the Wandering Warriors make it home? Will the widowed empress escape the fate her evil son has in mind for her? Will the rattletrap team bus make it way through time and space (and Roman roads) back to Illinois?
Will Chicago White Sox owner Grace Comiskey show up to make an unlikely offer to the team's best player?
"The tales are united in their whimsy and grit, making this a rousing series of adventures."– Publishers Weekly
"Gladiator Games meet the World Series. If you're a fan of Roman history, or a fan of the history of baseball, you're in for a treat. Well written and very funny!"– Sheila Finch, author of A Villa Far From Rome
It was a steamy July night. We were filling up the tank of our old Ford Transit bus at Ambler's Texaco in Dwight, Illinois, when Quentin Williams, one of our two "Cubans" on the Warriors, had the great idea of getting off the dependable concrete of Route 66 and taking the back roads down to Decatur.
We were all standing around, some of the players smoking and a few spitting out tobacco juice from their chaw while a few of us—me, included—drank cold pop from the station's icebox. Sure, we were tired. The doubleheader on Sunday had gone extra innings both games, and we'd finally had to call the second game a draw when it got too dark to play—ten hours of baseball on a hot Illinois summer day that had started at noon and ended with us driving off into the darkness. And all for a total of maybe two hundred bucks, split eleven ways. But that's how it was for the Wandering Warriors.
I was stiff and my knees were sore after a full day catching, so I was a little disagreeable. As I opened up the side hood to tinker with the distributor cap, I said I wasn't sure it was a great idea to get off the main road and drive through the night on narrow two-lane blacktop. I mentioned that a wrong turn or two and we might wind up in Indiana or Missouri or anywhere else and then we'd have to spend all morning driving back to where we were supposed to be in time for the noon game in Decatur. And the Decatur Dukes were supposed to be pretty good this year, and so were we, so there'd be a nice crowd. We'd make three or four times as much money as we had in Kankakee. Let's play it safe, I said, and stick to the main highway.
Then I slammed the hood down, climbed into the driver's seat, and turned the key to start up the old Transit. It backfired once—the distributor cap still wasn't quite right—and then settled into a nice rumble.
"Professor," Quentin said from the front row behind me, laughing, "you got no sense of adventure. Plus," he said, "this will get us to that hotel in Decatur an hour faster, so we can get some sleep before we do this all over again tomorrow."
Quentin liked the Prairie Hotel in Decatur because our two "Cubans" and our two Jews—me being one of them—got rooms with no trouble there. It wasn't like that in some of the towns we played in farther south. Sure, the Major Leagues broke the color line during the war when the Negro vets started coming home. But at the level we played and the towns we played in, it wasn't so simple as that.
There were little mumblings of agreement in the back of the bus. Quentin loved maps and thought of himself as our navigator, and the guys trusted him. He was smart as a whip. Hell, like me, he even read the newspaper every day, which really impressed the guys. Plus, a shorter drive and more sleep sounded good to the Wandering Warriors.
I sighed and rolled my eyes and said, "Quentin, I'll talk to the driver, but that map of yours better get us there in the dark." He laughed. I was the driver. And the owner. And the catcher. Quentin was our ace and he'd won sixteen on the season. We had a good understanding. I laughed with him, and about five miles down Route 66, I took a left when Quentin said to, and that's how it all began.
At first the road was fine, two-lane and not wide; but it was paved and there was no traffic, so we moved along at a pretty decent clip, fields of knee-high corn on both sides of this good farmland. Every now and then, the road curved and the headlights would pick out a farmhouse or a barn in the distance, but mostly we saw telephone poles and corn. Lots of corn. And the land was flat as a pancake, the way Illinois can be.
The road wound its way south, and us with it, for nearly an hour before Quentin said to me, "Take a right up there, Professor," and next road I saw, I did just that. It was narrower, but still paved. The old Ford occupied most of that concrete. We'd have had to pull over and squeeze by if there'd been anybody coming the other way; but there wasn't, just fields of wheat now in the headlights, and some soybeans here and there, a mist rising from the fields as it started to sneak up on midnight.
I liked driving the bus, even at night on back roads in Illinois. Being on the road was necessary to the game I spent all summer playing, like a child; and driving the bus was part and parcel with catching and hitting and running the bases: a comfort, a happiness. I'd played the game for money when I was younger, and I'd done all right, though in my naïveté I hadn't realized what it all meant. Then the war had come, and I'd done what they asked of me—odd and mysterious though it often was—and when it was over, so was my career as a spy and as a ballplayer. So now I played for the joy of it. I didn't dare tell my players any of this. They'd have ribbed me unmercifully.
I'd always been a good backstop as a kid in St. Louis; soft hands, strong arm, good hitting. I played for University City High School, where I was head of the class in school as well as sports, and did well enough to be the starting catcher for the college nine at Washington U. there in St. Louis, where I took my degree in Literature and then sailed through the doctorate in Classical Languages. Then, at twenty-five, I showed up at a tryout in Springfield, Illinois, and they gave me a contract, catchers being hard to find. In three years, I climbed through the minors and on to the big club, the competition tougher at every level, so I went from star to starter to journeyman; but I made the team, a backup catcher for the White Sox. That's where I stayed for six good years, playing in fifty or sixty games a season, hitting a respectable mid two-hundreds, handling a favorite pitcher or two. Good glove, not much of an arm, decent bat but not enough power. Solid. That was me, and I was happy to be there. The Professor, the guys called me when a local reporter caught on to my education, and the nickname stuck.
And then came the war, and I wound up working in Intelligence on one little island after another as we fought our way to Japan. I spoke Japanese, and that made me useful as an interrogator when we had prisoners. But we didn't have many, the Japanese preferring death to surrender, and so even though I was right behind the front lines I had time to play some catch with the Marines and even work up an exhibition game every now and then. That kept me busy and pleased the Marines. It was good to think about balls and strikes instead of the carnage that surrounded us.
After the armistice with Germany and the victory over the Japanese, I came home and took a job teaching Latin and Greek at Northwestern, and that teaching job left my summers free. I liked teaching, and I liked being a scholar; but I missed playing ball, and I come from a family that made its money in real estate, so I could spend money when I wanted. So I put together the Wandering Warriors, a name that I never explained to the others. We played in the Midwest Semipro League, from Davenport to Kankakee to Decatur to Carbondale to Paducah and then back up north to Crystal City and Hannibal and then Cedar Rapids and then over to Rockford. Round and round we traveled, staying on the circuit, playing one or two or three games in each town, and winding up having played sixty games before the summer came to an end.
There were just eleven of us and we knew we needed one more pitcher and a good utility infielder, but we hadn't found the right people for that yet. But we got by with eleven. I did the catching, and Quentin did the bulk of the pitching. He had a rubber arm, it seemed. Not much of a fastball, but a nice sinker and a good curveball and generally more junk than most hitters at this level could even imagine. Plus, he was a great guy and the closest thing I had to a best friend.
"How far, Quentin?" I asked him after some time.
"Another left," he said, "in about a mile. Ten miles on that, and we'll be there."
"Sure enough," I said, and slowed down some so we could see the road when we got to it. Which we did, but it wasn't much, just a dirt road with ruts. "You sure?"
"That's what the map shows," he said. He was using his Zippo to light up the map every now and again. That Zippo got him through some dark nights in Guadalcanal during the war, so I took that left.
It was slow going, maybe ten miles an hour, maybe less. I could have pointed out to Quentin that the more roundabout way on better roads would've gotten us there sooner; but he's our ace and he wins about all the time. His ball moves all over the place and he needs me back there behind the plate to catch that thing. And his curveball sometimes falls off the table and gets into the dirt, and he needs me for that too.
I was thinking about that, thinking about what a good battery we made, me and Quentin, positive and negative and all that, when the road went up a little rise, and when we crested that it dropped down steeply and there was a river, pretty good sized so maybe the Sangamon or the Mackinaw. And that was where the road stopped.
"Quentin?" I asked him.
"Oh, hell, Professor," he said, "this don't show on the map. I thought there'd be a bridge. Can we back our ass out of here?"
The mist was thicker near this water and getting thicker still. "We're here for the night, I think, Quentin," I said.
The guys were grumbling, wondering what the hell we'd gotten into. There were some pointed remarks as I opened the door and me and Quentin dug the flashlight out of the glove box and walked on down to the river. No bridge and never had been one, it looked like to me. But when Quentin shined his light across the river, we could see a good-sized ferry.
"You see that?" Quentin asked me.
"I do," I said, "but not for long in this damn river fog." And as I said that it disappeared into the darkness and the mist.
"Someone'll be there in the morning, I suspect," said Quentin.
I reached over to slap him on the back and say, "Heck, yes, Quentin, someone'll be there at first light, for sure, and we'll be at that old bandbox of a ballpark in Decatur not long after that. It'll all work out fine."
"I'm damn sorry, Professor," he said, but I told him not to worry, we'd get our sleep on the bus. Wouldn't be the first time or the last time we'd done that.
"Sure enough," he said, and we walked back with the bad news, told the guys how it was, and that we might as well get as comfortable as we could and try to get some sleep.
We were lucky the night was pretty cool. I took my duffel outside and sat on it, leaning back against a front tire. Quentin joined me and handed me his newspaper and his Zippo. I took a look at the headlines. Hitler's invasion of Spain and Portugal was going to end sometime soon with the fall of Lisbon. Part of the Armistice was that the exhausted Brits got to keep Gibraltar, so Hitler was about done for now, I figured. Maybe, in a year or two, he'd turn his attention again to England, but for now the Royal Navy and the overworked RAF would ensure the peace. And then there was Russia, still in turmoil after Stalin's assassination, but soon enough there'd be trouble there. Sure, we were at peace, but it wasn't going to last. At least we'd beaten the Japanese with that superbomb, and as long as we had that and the Germans and Russians didn't, we'd be okay. Fingers crossed. I wished freedom well, but I wasn't all that optimistic.
But here, now, in Illinois, we were a long way from being at war. Our only worry was getting some shut-eye in a bus by a sleepy summer river as the fog thickened. Tomorrow the Wandering Warriors came to town in Decatur, Illinois, for a three-game stint. We'd put on a show and maybe get ourselves back into first place if we won two out of the three. I figured we'd make about thirty dollars a man by way of pay. It wasn't much, but it kept us going.
I folded up the paper and set it on the ground. "We'll get 'em tomorrow," I said to Quentin.
"Sure we will," he said back. And then we both did our best to get comfortable. Quentin can sleep anywhere, but it took me a while and then, eventually, I drifted off.
I was the last to wake, as always, but even before I woke up proper, I knew everything was wrong. I'd got chilled in the middle of the night and climbed up into the bus to stay warm. That seemed like a good idea at the time, but now the old Transit was swaying under me like I was all at sea, and I hadn't felt that way since those troop ships on the Pacific. I didn't like it then, and didn't now.
It was daylight and bright outside, but the wrong sort of bright, and I was all hot and sweaty, but it was somehow a different hot, with dusty smells in the air I couldn't place. I heard the Professor shouting, and he doesn't do that. He's a man who gets all quiet when he's angry and glares into your face instead of giving you what-for straight out.
Worst of all, I couldn't make out what he was shouting.
So I'm calling out, "All right!" and "What the heck now?" and getting to my feet and stumbling down the bus, which I'm alone on, bumping back and forth off the seat backs. The windows are damp with all our night sweat, and I'm peering and squinting and trying to make out who's who out there.
Then a blade flashed in the sunlight, and suddenly I was wideawake. I lunged for the nearest bag—Jimmy's, I think—and grabbed up a bat and jumped down the steps and out the front door of that bus real fast.
I expected good ol' boys, small-town know-nothings who don't take kindly to strangers camping by their land and even less kindly to folks of a darker hue such as myself and Walter. I had no doubts I'd be jumping into a fracas.
Was I expecting Romans, like from that Ben-Hur movie I snuck into as a little bitty kid? No. I was not.
I stopped dead in my tracks and said a very bad word that I generally only whisper when I'm alone, in case the Lord gets angry.
Last night's fog had cleared. The river was still there, and the ferry, only now it was on this side of the river. But around us was no farmland, no corn, nothing but grass and olive trees, a whole orchard of them surrounding us. The dirt road under the bus led right to the water where that ferryboat had pulled up. It was short and wooden with low sides and places to tie off horses and a big oar at each end where the ferryman would stand and propel that thing. There'd been no Illinois ferry like that in a long time.
As for the sixteen Roman soldiers squaring off against the Professor and the others, they had helmets with plumes, and metal armor that covered their chests and arms in segments, and those odd kilty-skirty Roman things with the metal chains hanging down like an apron. Bare legs and leather sandals, and they all had short swords. Behind them stood a dozen folks egging on the soldiers, dressed in rough linen tunics, three of them carrying—I swear to God—pitchforks. Simple farm folk if I ever saw any, but not in shirts or denims or boots.
Six of those Roman soldiers had been pushing the bus around, trying to get it to move, I guess, and when they saw me come out the door of it they drew their swords and came at me.
I wondered for a second if we'd stumbled into some movie being made in the middle of Nowhere, Illinois, but then I heard the Professor standing up to them all with his head high and his chin thrust out, shouting in Latin, which I knew was Latin because he used it all the time to cuss at us when we needed it, and he liked to read to us sometimes from some book written by Julius Caesar himself way back a couple of thousand years ago, about battles with Vercingetorix and those wild Gauls and all.
The Roman with the sideways helmet plume who was shouting back in the same language looked strong and muscular, as if he could take any three of us down single-handed and then pitch a no-hitter right after with his other arm. And to be honest, our guys, standing behind the Professor, looked nine different kinds of terrified. The Wandering Warriors had wandered mighty far, and that was the truth.
That Roman who seemed in charge of things shouted at the six who were coming at me, and they stopped dead in their tracks. He barked another command, and in two seconds they were over with the others, so that the two sides, us and them, were now facing off twenty feet from the bus and nobody was even looking at me anymore. So when the Professor stepped forward, hands spread wide for calm and still spouting Latin, and the Roman leader upped and raised his sword high, there was no way my bat and me could get there in time to help. I'd been in hand-to-hand combat on Ie Shima so I mighta been useful too.
Instead, I jumped back up into the bus, put my hand on the ignition key, and turned it, and that engine started up with a loud backfire. The Professor had been working on the timing of that engine for a week now, and I was glad he hadn't been able to fix it.
That backfire cut through the babble of voices like all get-out. The Warriors all flinched like startled coneys, but they'd been hearing that backfire for days and weren't shook up by it. But the Romans, dear Lord, the Romans threw themselves back away from me and that old Ford Transit. The soldiers leaped, and the farm folk who had brought them ran, hands high and eyes rolling.
Well, I turned the engine off and stepped back outside the bus and said out loud, "Yes sirree, that is more like it. A little respect for the Professor. That is all we ask."
The Professor didn't even glance at me. He was still steel-eyeing that Roman in charge, trying to stare him down, intimidate him like he was the pitcher for a team we hated.
The Roman looked at me again, all uncertain, and at the bus, and lowered his sword. Then the two of them jabber-jawed away for what seemed like ten minutes, the Professor in his Julius Caesar Latin and the Roman in his rough, gritty version of the same. But they understood each other good enough, I could see that.
Then the Romans put their swords away and the Professor turned to the guys. "Get your stuff from the bus," he said. "Get your gloves and bats, bring the ball bag, all of that. And lock up behind you. We'll be taking a little walk with these boys to see what's what."
Jimmy shook his head, not understanding, on the verge of crying. "What about the game? The Dukes are expecting us. The game. This can't be happening!"
The Professor took a good look around, and down at the ground and up at the sky, and then he pinched his own arm so hard I could see the white mark.
Then he shook his head. "Jimmy," he said, "and you others, you all just keep it together and don't fret. I think we have a really, really long time ahead of us before that Decatur game begins."
"We're leaving the bus here?" asked young Davey.
The Professor wiped sweat from his forehead. "Best save the gas," is all he said.
We gathered up our things and started walking down to the river to the ferry. As we walked I looked at the guys, and it was sure that they didn't have a clue. They were all rattled and confused and scared, and probably not one in three with any idea how far we'd come, where we'd been brought to and why, and just how impossible this all was. Me, I believed the Professor had things in hand. Or I hoped so.
Romans beside and behind us, we went across on that ferry and then started walking, following a rough track between fields. I saw scrawny cows and a few pigs, real small. The Professor looked lost in thought, as if he was doing math. I didn't want to disturb those thoughts, but I just had to step up beside him.
"I'm sorry, Professor," I said.
"For what?" he said, irritated. "For firing up the bus and likely saving our lives?"
"Nope, for me gettin' us stranded here in God-knows-where-and-when."
He shook his head, and his voice softened. "You'll have to explain that to me, Quentin, because you have lost me and that's the truth."
"Because I was the one insisted we leave Route 66 behind and take them back roads," I said.
The Professor upped and laughed. It was the one moment in the whole adventure that I thought maybe he'd lost his marbles. It was a high, wild laugh and the Roman soldiers marching by our side and behind us clutched their sword hilts like they meant business.
"Hey, don't do that, Professor, you're making these guys nervous."
He said, "And to think that all morning I've been sure this all was my fault."
"And you figure that how?" I asked.
The Professor shrugged. "Maybe because we're in Ancient Rome and I speak Latin? That feels like we must be here because of me. But for my life I can't fathom why."
I nearly said to him, "You'll work it out, Professor." But I didn't, because that would've put all this on him and made him frown even harder.
So instead, I asked him, "Where are these Roman bruisers takin' us? What's next?"
About then we climbed to the top of that low ridge and there it was, a Roman road, right in front us, heading off both right and left. It was raised about a foot, had rocks along the sides and then smoothed out rocks on the top. It was about perfect to walk on.
We got up on there, and then the Professor looked over at me and said, "See that post over there, Quentin?"
I looked and I did see a post, a stone post maybe three feet tall, with some marks scratched into it.
"I do," I said. "What's it say?"
"That's called a millarium, Quentin, and the Romans used them to tell people how far it was to the next important place. A milestone."
"How far to what?" I asked.
"Unless I'm mistaken, Quentin, that sign means we're on the Appian Way, the most famous Roman road of them all. I'd say we're headed to Rome."
"Well, hell," I said, "I ain't never been to Rome, Professor." And he laughed. I added, "What are they going to do with us, do you think, when we get there?"
"Well, Quentin," he said, tugging up a bit on the duffel bag he was carrying that had all his catching gear, "I hope maybe we're going to play some ball."
I grinned at him. "Damnation, Professor, why didn't you tell us that a little sooner?"