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By Staff Writer
They told me this was the EFQ's twenty-fifth issue and all I could think of was Hans "The Ugly Duckling" Jorgensen perching his chin against the dugout roof, scanning the crowd and murmuring to me, "Somewhere up there sits the woman who will bear the twenty-fifth issue of my loins." Twenty-five progeny: That was his Grail, and like most men on a desperate quest, he was willing to risk everything for his cup.
Hans was never going to make The Baseball Encyclopedia unless the "O" column stood for "offspring." The man was fecund. Nowadays we picture Denmark filled with single-child families, or at best one-and-a-half children (depending on how the family views the cat). But back then, in the earlier part of the last century (how weird to hear that phrase!) the Danes were virile, ocean-traveling, empire building Norsemen.
That's how Hans got to America, on board a three-masted ocean schooner, the last of its line, sailing from Copenhagen in 1934 bound for the fishing waters off Newfoundland. He was in the crow's nest, keeping watch as the sun set one evening, when he fell asleep. He was awakened by cries of alarm and the horrible rasping sound of an iceberg cutting into the hull. The boat went down and it carried twenty-five men to a watery grave. Hans alone lived to tell the tale. A trawler found him in the morning, clinging to the crow's nest rigging. How he survived the night astonished the world. When he landed in New York the press dubbed him "The Norseman of the Apocalypse."
He was a tortured giurethe man who could have saved his ship brought it instead to disaster. And then rode out the storm alone. It was a romantic role and the press ate it up.
Hans loved the attention. He was the ugly duckling turned into a swan. The funny thing was, he remained an ugly duckling. He was a pudgy nineteen-year-old, a blond kid with a face that looked like a shovel. He eyes were too far apart, his jaw dropped into his neck; the only swan-like thing about him was his nose, which stuck straight out of his face as if nature intended him to dig grubs. But he could speak some English, and with his notoriety, he found himself introduced to Café Society by the Danish consulate. Women loved when he spoke Danish. It's a low, guttural language. To speak it properly, you have to be slightly nauseous. But those indistinct growlings were a potent aphrodisiac. Within a couple of months, he was fleeing New York, the object of multiple patrimony suits.
No one realized at the time that this was not fecklessness on Hans' part, but rather part of a sacred vow. The morning he was plucked from the sea, he swore to repopulate the earth, to plant twenty-five seeds to replace the twenty-five he had reaped. In order to do this, baseball proved a godsend.
On the ocean, Hans specialized in hauling sail, pulling the long rope up and down, up and down, thousands of times over a voyage. It wasn't until he made a fast escape to the hinterlands of the United States that he discovered the muscles he'd developed by doing this were ideally suited to throwing a baseball. He stumbled onto a pickup game one day, and being a social and amiable man, he tossed the ball around. He didn't have a clue about baseball, but when those fellows loosening up got a glimpse of his velocity, they found him a glove and put him on the mound. The catcher told him to just throw to his glove; picture tossing a seashell to the crow's nest. And that's all Hans ever did. He had the greatest arm in the world and absolutely no interest in even learning a curve, because all he really cared about were the curves in the stands and their ability to bear.
Hans hooked on with the Piscataway Cuspidors, known throughout the Garden State as the Team With Great Expectorations. There was a dark-haired beauty there, a sort of Greer Garson type, and then he moved downstate to the Atlantic City Monopoly. This was a short-lived franchise that tried to cash in on the Monopoly game craze sweeping America in the late thirties. Each player's uniform was emblazoned with a big Monopoly card on the back, so that a 6-4-3 double play could also be recorded as a St. James Place-to-Illinois Avenue-to-Marvin Gardens twin killing. Hans loved Atlantic City, home of bathing beauties and salt water taffy. He made his own double play there, traveling back and forth between a natural blonde on Baltic and a platinum blonde on Park Place. Both, needless to say, ended up in the family way, but Hans was traded up the ladder to the Hagerstown Slacks and he decamped for Maryland. So it went, on across the country, propelled upward through the minor leagues by a vibrant fastball and an unshackled quest for twenty-five children. Two here, three there, a solo in Little Rock, triplets in Des Moines, onward and upward he tallied.
Hans really hit his stride during World War II. As a Danish citizen, he was exempt from American service, but serve he did, criss-crossing America, firing his own sort of weapon at Rosie the Riveter. The irony is that he could have been a big league pitcher, a star, but he just didn't care that much about baseball. He'd rise up to the Triple A level, but there's a point at which a well-aimed fastball needs to be accompanied by something elsea curve, a change, somethingand Hans could never be troubled to master any pitch except the ones that got him into the hay.
I crossed paths with him late in his career. He was hanging on, looking, he told me, for just one more thing: a twenty-fifth issue. Like the veteran longing for 3,000 hits or 300 wins, Hans needed that twenty-fifth issue in a visceral way.
We were playing for the Athens, Georgia, Spartans. A bit of a merry mix-up there: Clyde Dormsley liked the Spartan tradition, the mental and physical toughness (he had us wear tunics that hung over little shorts and we played in sandals, even the catcher), but he was committed to Athens because of his wife, Athena Dormsley, who was named for the city and was the one who really wore the pants in the family (in part because Clyde was usually wearing a tunic). So we were the Athens Spartans and, frankly, most people in Georgia didn't see the contradiction.
I can still see Hans, leaning on that dugout roof, his tunic flapping in the breeze behind him, scouring the crowd, yearning for one last liaison before he hung up his sandals. Then a wizened little old woman stalked down the aisle toward us. She had a long, hooked nose and wore black, even in the Georgia heat. She carried a shiny red apple in one hand.
"Hans? Hans Jorgensen?"
"I've been watching you. Watching you these many years."
"How? I've never been in Georgia before."
"I have traveled, too, Hans. We are soul mates, you and I. I know where you've been. I know what you want. I know you, Hans. For instance, right now, you're hungry, aren't you? Hungry for what you can't have, shouldn't have . . ."
Hans started to back away, repelled and afraid. "I've got to warm up now."
"They're still taking BP, Hans. You have time. Time for just a bite?"
The hag held out the apple. Like a man possessed, Hans reached out, took it. The sun bounced off the fruit like it was a piece of Fiesta Ware. Hans slowly brought the apple to his mouth, drew it to his teeth, sunk them in . . .
Hans stayed in Athens, Georgia, and married the mysterious old woman who did indeed bear the twenty-fifth issue of his loins. She ran an orphanage there, housing over thirty children of all ages, and Hans lived in this immense home, children racing around his feet, for the rest of his life. It was if he were spell-bound: a sailor tied to the mastor else a sailor finally come home.
Offering insights into over forty years of baseball and fine re-upholstering, this is Staff Writer.
STAFF WRITER has issued columns in all twenty-five editions of EFQ as well as the forty offerings of The Minneapolis Review of Baseball, this publication's predecessor, which puts him well ahead of "The Ugly Duckling" in sheer productivity.© 2000 Elysian Fields Quarterly
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