General Douglas D.Oakhart became President of the Patriot League in 1933, though as early as the winter of 1919-1920 he was being plugged for the commissionership of baseball, along with his friend and colleague General John "Black Jack" Pershing and the former President of the United States, William Howard Taft. At that time it had seemed to him an excellent stepping-stone to high political office, and he had been surprised and saddened when the owners had selected a popinjay like Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis over a man of principle like himself. In his estimation Landis was nothing more than a showboat judge—as could be proved by the fact that every time he made one of his "historic decisions," it was subsequently reversed by a higher court. In 1907 as a federal judge he fined the Standard Oil Company $29 million in a rebate case—headlines all over the place—and then was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the war, the same hollow theatrics: seven socialists up before him for impeding the war effort; scathing denunciations from Judge Landis, hefty jail sentences all around, including one to a "Red" congressman from Milwaukee, big headlines—and then the verdict thrown out the window by a higher court. That was the man they had chosen over him.
In the summer of 1920, having already lost out to Landis for the commissioner's job, General Oakhart suffered a second stunning setback when the movement to make him Harding's running-mate died in the smoke-filled rooms. No one (went the argument against him) wanted to be reminded of all the boys buried under crosses in France to whom General Oakhart had been "Father, Brother and Buddy, too." Nor—he thought bitterly, when the Teapot Dome scandal broke in '23 and one after another of Harding's cronies was indicted, convicted and jailed for the most vile sort of political corruption—nor did they want a man of integrity around, either. When Harding died (of shame and humiliation, one would hope) and Coolidge took the oath of office—Coolidge, that hack they had chosen instead of him—the General came near to weeping for the nation's loss of himself. But, alas, the American people didn't seem to care any more than the politicians did for a man who lived by and for the Rules and Regulations.
Sure enough, when the call went out for General Oakhart in the winter of 1932, the country was suffering just such panic and despair as he had predicted years ago if the ship of state were to be steered for long by unprincipled leaders. It was not, however, to the White House or even the State House that the General was summoned, but to Tri-City, Mass., to be president of a baseball league in trouble. With five of its eight teams in hock to the bank, and fear growing among the owners that the Depression had made their players unduly susceptible to the gambling mob, the P. League proprietors had paid a visit to General Oakhart in his quarters at the War College, where he was director of Military Studies, and pleaded with him not to sit sulking in an ivory tower. It was Spenser Trust, the billionaire Tycoon owner, and nobody's fool, who spoke the words that appeared to win the General's heart: he reminded him that it was not just their floundering league that was casting about for a strong man to lead it back to greatness, but the nation as well. An outstanding Republican who rose to national prominence in '33 might well find himself elected the 33rd President of the United States in '36.
Now as luck would have it—or so it seemed to the General at the outset—the very year he agreed to retire from the military to become President of the P. League, 19-year-old Gil Gamesh came up to pitch for the Tycoons' crosstown rival, the Tri-City Greenbacks. Gamesh, throwing six consecutive shutouts in his first six starts, was an immediate sensation, and with his "I can beat anybody" motto, captured the country's heart as no player had since the Babe began swatting them out of the park for the Yankees in 1920. Only the previous year, in the middle of the most dismal summer of his life, the great Luke Gofannon had called it quits and retired to his farm in the Jersey flats, so that it had looked at the opening of the '33 season as though the Patriot League would be without an Olympian of the Ruth-Cobb variety. Then, from nowhere—or, to be exact, from Babylonia, by way of his mother and father—came the youngster the General aptly labeled, "the Talk of the World," and nothing Hubbell did over in the National League or Lefty Grove in the American was remotely comparable. The tall, slim, dark-haired lefthander was just what the doctor had ordered for a nation bewildered and frightened by a ruinous Depression—here was a kid who just would not lose, and he made no bones about it either. Nothing shy, nothing sweet, nothing humble about this young fellow. He could be 10 runs on top in the bottom of the ninth, two men out, the bases empty, a count of 0 and 2 on the opposing team's weakest hitter, and if the umpire gave him a bad call he would be down off that mound breathing fire. "You blind robber—it's a strike!" However, if and when the batter should dare to put up a beef on a call, Gamesh would laugh like mad and call out to the ump, "Come on now, you can't tell anything by him—he never even seen it. He'd be the last guy in the world to know."
And the fans just ate it up: 19 years old and he had the courage and confidence of a Walter Johnson, and the competitive spirit of the Georgia Peach himself. The stronger the batter the better Gil liked it. Rubbing the ball around in those enormous paws that hung down practically to his knees, he would glare defiantly at the man striding up to the plate (some of them stars when he was still in the cradle) and announce out loud his own personal opinion of the fellow's abilities. "You couldn't lick a stamp. You couldn't beat a drum. Get your belly button in there, bud, you're what I call duck soup." Then, sneering away, he would lean way back, kick that right leg up sky-high like a chorus girl, and that long left arm would start coming around by way of Biloxi—and next thing you knew it was strike one. He would burn them in just as beautiful and nonchalant as that, three in a row, and then exactly like a barber, call out, "Next!" He did not waste a pitch, unless it was to throw a ball at a batter's head, and he did not consider that a waste. He knew a hundred ways to humiliate the opposition, such as late in the game deliberately walking the other pitcher, then setting the ball down on the ground to wave him from first on to second. "Go on, go on, you ain't gonna get there no other way, that's for sure." With the surprised base runner safely ensconced at second, Gil would kick the ball up into his glove with the instep of his shoe—"Okay, you just stand there on the bag, bud," he would tell the opposing pitcher, "and you watch these fellas try and hit me. You might learn somethin', though I doubt it."
Gamesh was seen to shed a tear only once in his career: when his seventh major league start was rained out. Some reports had it that he even took the Lord's name in vain, blaming Him of all people for the washout. Gil announced afterward that had he been able to work in his regular rotation that afternoon, he would have extended his shutout streak through those nine innings and on to the very end of the season. An outrageous claim, on the face of it, and yet there were those in the newsrooms, living rooms and barrooms around this nation who believed him. As it was, even lacking his "fine edge," as he called it, he gave up only one run the next day, and never more than two in any game that year.
Around the league, in the season's early weeks, they would invariably boo the headstrong 19-year-old when he stepped out of the Greenback dugout, but it did not appear to affect him any. "I never expect they are going to be very happy to see me heading out to the mound," he told reporters—"I wouldn't be, if I was them." Yet once the game was over, it invariably required a police escort to get Gamesh back to the hotel, for the crowd that had hated him nine innings earlier for being so cocksure of himself was now in the streets calling his name—adults screaming right along with kids—as though he was the Saviour about to emerge from the visiting team clubhouse in a spiffy yellow linen suit and two-toned perforated shoes.
By early May it seemed to the General that he could not have turned up in the league president's box back of first at Greenback Stadium at a more felicitous moment. Just about everybody appeared to have become a Greenback fan, and the developing Patriot League pennant battle between the two Tri-City teams, the impeccably professional Tycoons, and the rough-and-tumble Greenbacks, made headlines East and West, and constituted just about the only news that didn't want to make you slit your throat over the barren dinner table. Men out of work—and there were 15 million of them across the land—men sick and tired of defeat and dying for a taste of victory, rich men who had become paupers overnight, would somehow scrape two bits together to come out and watch from the bleachers as a big unbeatable boy named Gil Gamesh did his stuff on the mound. And to the little kids of America, whose dads were on the dole, whose uncles were on the booze, and whose older brothers were on the bum, he was a living, breathing example of that hero of American heroes, the he-man, a combination of Lindbergh, Tarzan and (with his long, girlish lashes and brilliantined black hair) Rudolph Valentino: brave, brutish, and a lady-killer, and in possession of a sidearm fastball that according to Ripley's "Believe It or Not" could pass clear through a batter's chest, come out his back, and still be traveling at "major league speed."
But the General's enthusiasm cooled when midway in the third month of the season a feud erupted between young Gil and Mike Masterson. The grand old man of umpiring had been assigned by General Oakhart to follow the Greenbacks around the country, after it became evident that Gamesh was just too much for the other officials in the circuit to handle. The boy could be rough when the call didn't go his way, and games had been held up for five and 10 minutes at a time while Gamesh told the ump in question just what he thought of his probity, eyesight, physiognomy, parentage and place of national origin. Because of the rookie's enormous popularity, because of the records he was breaking in game after game, because many in the crowd had laid out their last quarter to see Gamesh pitch (and because they were just plain intimidated), the umps tended to tolerate from Gamesh what would have been inexcusable in a more mature, or less spectacular, player. This of course was creating a most dangerous precedent vis-à-vis the Rules and Regulations, concerning which there was no greater believer than General Oakhart.
Every Massachusetts schoolchild who had ever gone off with his class to visit the General's office at P. League headquarters in Tri-City knew about General Oakhart and his Rules and Regulations. During the school year, busloads of little children were regularly ushered through the hallways painted with murals of the great Patriot League heroes of the past—Base Baal, Luke Gofannon, Mike Mazda, Smoky Woden, 12 and 15 feet high and in color—and into General Oakhart's paneled office to hear him deliver his lecture on the national pastime. In order to bring home to the youngsters the central importance of the Rules and Regulations, he would draw their attention to the model of a baseball diamond on his desk, explaining to them that if the distance between the bases were to be shortened by as little as one inch, you might just as well change the name of the game, for by so doing you would have altered fundamentally the existing relationship between the diamond "as we have always known it" and the physical effort and skill required to play the game upon a field of those dimensions. Into their solemn and awed little faces he would thrust his heavily decorated chest (for he dressed in a soldier's uniform till the day he died) and he would say: "Now I am not telling you that somebody won't come along tomorrow and try to change that distance on us. The streets are full of people with harebrained schemes, out to make a dollar, out to make confusion, out to make the world over because it doesn't happen to suit their taste. I am only telling you that 90 feet is how far from one another the bases have been for a hundred years now, and as far as I am concerned, how far from one another they shall remain until the end of time. I happen to think that the great man whose picture you see hanging above my desk knew what he was doing when he invented the game of baseball. I happen to think that when it came to the geometry of the diamond, he was a genius on a par with Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton, whom I am sure you have read about in your school books. I happen to think that 90 feet was precisely the length necessary to make this game the hard, exciting, and suspenseful struggle that it is. And that is why I would impress upon your young minds a belief in following to the letter, the Rules and Regulations, as they have been laid down by thoughtful and serious men before you or I were ever born, and as they have survived in baseball for a hundred years now, and in human life since the dawn of civilization. Boys and girls, take away the Rules and Regulations, and you don't have any civilized life as we know and revere it. If I have any advice for you today, it's this: Don't try to shorten the base paths in order to reach home plate faster and score. All you will have accomplished by that technique is to cheapen the value of a run. I hope you will ponder that on the bus ride back to school. Now, go on out and stroll around the corridors all you want. Those great paintings are there for your enjoyment. Good day, and good luck to you."