Authors: John Bellairs
"Go foul, you dirty dog! Go foul!"
Professor Childermass was on his feet, yelling and waving his arm toward the right field foul line. In his left hand he held a hot dog, and it was dripping mustard on his shoe. As the professor watched, the long fly ball twisted foul into the stands. With a relieved sigh, he sat down and took a bite of his hot dog.
"That's two strikes, and you know what comes next, you big stupid clodhopper!"
It was a summer day in the early nineteen-fifties, and Professor Roderick Childermass was at Boston's Fenway Park with his young friend Johnny Dixon. They were watching a baseball game between the Red Sox and the Yankees, and they were having a great timeâexcept that Johnny got embarrassed sometimes, when the professor started screeching and yelling. They were an odd pair: the professor was short and elderly and crabby-looking, with wildly sprouting muttonchop whiskers, gold-rimmed glasses, and a nose that looked like an overripe strawberry. Johnny also wore glasses, but he was pale and blond-haired, and about thirteen years old. Strange as it may seem, these two were good friends: Johnny lived with his grandfather and grandmother in the town of Duston Heights, Massachusetts, and the professor lived across the street. Although he had a rotten temper, the professor was a very kind and thoughtful person, and he had become sort of a foster father to Johnny. He took him places and baked cakes for him and listened to the things that he had to say. Johnny was shy and brainy and he did not make friends easily: except for the professor, he had only one other good friend in the world, a smart-alecky kid named Fergie Ferguson. A lot of people wondered why Johnny hung around with a cranky old man who was in his mid-seventies, but Johnny never wonderedâhe knew that his life would be a lot poorer and a lot emptier without the old man.
However, there were times when Johnny wished that he was far, far away from the professor. He was a quiet kid, so he always got upset when his elderly friend ranted and raved loudly at baseball games. Right now the professor was razzing one of the Yankee heavy hitters, the big left fielder, Cliff Bullard. He was up with two men on and two out in the eighth inning, and his team was behind. Billiard was not a nice guy: he was tough and egotistical and swaggering and mean. Also he was in a batting slump, and that did not help his mood any. As Bullard stood watching, the Red Sox manager went out to talk to his pitcher, and the professor went on yelling. The seats that he and Johnny were sitting in were close to the first-base line, so Bullard could hear every word. His face was getting red, and now and then he would glance angrily at the little old man who was giving him such a hard time.
"Please, professor!" said Johnny timidly. "I don't think you ought to yell so loud! That guy might get mad and come over here!"
The professor chuckled nastily. "Don't worry!" he said. "The big ape wouldn't dare show that he's upsetâ these Boston fans would climb all over him if he popped off at me. Relax! Razzing and bench-jockeying are part of the Great American Pastime.
Hey, Bullard! Is it true you have sawdust where your brain is supposed to be?"
The Boston manager walked back to the dugout, and the pitcher went into the stretch. He reared back and let fly with a blazing fastball, and Bullard swung so hard that he almost fell down. The umpire yelled
and jerked his thumb in the air. After throwing another hateful look at the professor, Bullard turned and stalked back to the dugout with his bat in his hand. The Boston players trotted off the field, the crowd roared, and the professor started to laugh.
to see that sort of thing happen!" he chortled. "Did you see the look he gave me? Oooh, was he mad!"
Johnny said nothing, but he winced slightly. He did not like the look that Bullard had given the professor, he did not like it at all. But then he told himself not to be such a nervous nit, and he went back to enjoying the game. The bottom of the eighth inning and the top of the ninth passed, and the Red Sox won. The professor and Johnny joined the crowd that was streaming out of the exits and into the street. As they walked, the professor began telling stories about old-time baseball players, like Van Lingle Mungo and Nap Lajoie. Suddenly he stopped. A large poster on a wall outside the ball park caught his eye. It was very colorful, with red and blue lettering and little hands pointing to important parts. The sign said:
BIG STRIKEOUT CONTEST!
During the week of October 12th to the 18th, Yankee slugger CLIFF BULLARD will be visiting stadiums and ball parks all over the state of Massachusetts. He challenges all local pitchers to try to strike him out! Believing that it will be impossible for anyone to do this, Mr. Bullard offers TEN THOUSAND SILVER DOLLARS as a prize. Strike him out, and the dollars are YOURS! CAN IT BE DONE? Come and find out, baseball fans!
With folded arms, the professor glared at the poster. "Humph!" he snorted. "If that isn't just like him! Cliff Bullard, world's greatest baseball player! Boy, wouldn't I love to see somebody throw three quick strikes past the big plug-ugly. Would
ever be surprised!" The professor sighed, and with a shrug of his shoulders, he turned away. "However," he added, "it isn't very likely that a local kid from Lynn or Marblehead would be able to do the trick. I mean, Cliff Bullard is a dangerous hitterâhe's a creep, but he's murder with a bat in his hands. Big league pitchers can handle himâsometimesâbut your average high school or college hurler couldn't. No, the money he's offering is pretty safe. He'll never have to ..."
The professor's voice trailed away, and a strange look came into his eyes. He rubbed his chin and grinned and made odd murmuring noises.
Johnny stared at the old man. "Professor, what's wrong? What're you thinking about?"
"Hm?" said the professor. He smiled vaguely and then shook his head, as if he were trying to wake himself up. "Ohâoh, yes. Well, if you must know, I was just remembering something that happened a long time ago. It was an odd incident, and your grampa was involved. But instead of telling you about it now, why don't we drive to the place where it all happened, and then I'll tell you. It's not very far from home. Come on."
The drive back to Duston Heights took about two hours, and the sun was low in the sky when they got there. But instead of driving into town, the professor swerved onto a side road. They drove past country stores and fire stations until they came to a weedy overgrown field with an old sagging green grandstand in the middle of it. The car rolled to a halt on the sandy shoulder next to the road, and the professor turned the motor off. Johnny got out and followed the professor over a rusty wire fence. As they got closer to the grandstand, Johnny could see that this was an abandoned baseball diamond. There was the pitcher's mound, and the lines of the basepaths could still be seen. Over all this the gaunt, wrecked grandstand loomed: its roof was full of holes, and the seats were warped and split and rotten.
Johnny looked around in awe. It was like visiting some ancient Roman ruin. "Who used to play here, professor?" he asked. "Was it a team from Duston Heights?"
The professor nodded. "Yes, it was. It was a semiprofessional team called the Spiders, and they were pretty darned good. Your grampa played for them back around 1900. Did you know that?"
Johnny's jaw dropped. "Really? He never told me that!"
The professor smiled sadly. "No, he wouldn't haveâHenry's not the sort who would brag about his past accomplishments. But in his day your grampa was known as Cyclone Dixon. He had a blazing fastball, and his curveball wasn't so bad either. He won lots of games, but his career ended when a batter hit a line drive that smashed his big toe. He tried to come back and play before the toe was completely healed, and he changed his pitching style. After that he was never any good. But that's not what I brought you out here to talk about. I wanted to tell you about something very strange that happened in this ball park in the summer of 1901."
"What was it?" asked Johnny, who was really beginning to get interested.
The professor smiled mysteriously. "Come over here and sit down, and I'll tell you."
Johnny followed the professor over to the grandstands, and they sat down on one of the lower seats. The professor fumbled in his jacket pocket for cigarettes, lit one, and began to talk about a crazy inventor named Evaristus Sloane. Sloane had lived in a little town up in New Hampshire, but he came down to Duston Heights now and then to sellâor try to sellâhis inventions. Actually, Sloane made his living as a blacksmith, but in his spare time he invented thingsâodd contraptions that nobody needed, like an eight-man tandem bicycle, and coffins equipped with whistles and bells that you could use if you got buried alive. All of Sloane's inventions flopped, and he got kind of bitter about it, but one bright summer day he came out to the ball park with a brand-new gadget: a pitching machine.
"You mean one of those catapult things that serve balls up to the plate so batters can practice their hitting?" asked Johnny.
The professor nodded. "Sort of. The odd thing about this machine was, it was shaped like a man. A big metal man with a metal baseball cap, a metal uniform, and a cast-iron arm that could heave a baseball at speeds up to one hundred and ten miles an hour." The professor sighed and puffed at his cigarette. "Now, you would think," he went on, "that this would be just the kind of machine that baseball players would want. They could use it for batting practice, and there would be no danger that one of their good pitchers might get hurt. At first, a lot of the players on the Spiders' team thought that Sloane's robot would be a great thing for them to have, but in the end they decided not to buy it."
Johnny blinked. "Why not?"
The professor smiled oddly. "Why not? Because your grandfather didn't like the blamed thing. He said there was something uncanny about it, something evil. For one thing, he didn't like the way the robot stared at him. He didn't like its eyes."
The professor nodded. "Mm-hmm. That's what I said: its eyes. The robot had big staring glass eyes, and your grampa said that they really gave him the willies. Weird, eh? Well, your grampa talked to the other players, and he argued a bit. Finally he threatened to leave the team if they bought Sloane's robot." The professor rolled his eyes upward and grimaced. "As you might imagine," he went on, "that really did it! The Spiders did not want to lose a star player like Cyclone Dixon, and so they told Evaristus Sloane to get lost."
"What did Sloane do?" asked Johnny. "Did he get mad?"
The professor laughed. "Mad? He was
He told everybody off, and he said some very unpleasant things to your grandfather. Then he got some of the players to help him put the robot back into his wagon, and he drove off, still cursing and swearing. But that's not the end of the story."
Johnny looked puzzled. "It isn't?"
"Nope," said the professor. "It definitely is not. You see, a few weeks later, the great hitter 'Clutch' Klemm showed up in townâhe was playing for another semipro team, the Pittsfield Turtles. Well, in his day, Klemm was as famous as our boy Bullard, and he arranged a contest just like the one we saw advertised on that poster at Fenway Park. Klemm offered one hundred dollars to anyone who could strike him out. Well, in those days, a hundred bucks was a lot of money, so all the Spiders' pitchers tried their best, but it was no use: Klemm lambasted the ball everywhere, and he even hit one shot that was longer than any that had ever been hit out of this ball park. Your grampa tried like everyone else, but he failed too. Well, at this point the sky started to get dark, as if there was a storm coming on, and out from behind the grandstand walked a man no one had ever seen before. He was tall and big-boned and he walked rather stiffly, and he had big, staring blue eyes. He walked right up to the managers of the two teams and asked if he could have a crack at winning the hundred dollars. Everybody was kind of startled, but they figured, heck, let the guy try, and Klemm picked up a bat. The strange guy trotted out to the mound then, and he went into his windup and threw."