BLIND BILL YARK:
The True Story of the Only Blind Pitcher in Baseball History
Blind Bill Yark:
The Nearly True Story of the Only Blind Pitcher in Baseball History
by John Christgau
Young John Yark, nicknamed "Spit" because of his habit of spitting hayseeds, is raised in a strict religious community called the Brotherhood outside Tipton, North Dakota in the early 30s. Spit is irrepressibly cheerful, and in a unique voice that is both comic and engaging, he tells the story of his older brother Bill, the only blind pitcher ever to appear in the Major Leagues.
The story is simple. Bill Yark is shot and blinded by a Tipton reprobate named Dewey Coleman. As part of Spit's dream of one day appearing in the Major Leagues, he teaches Bill how to pitch a baseball, despite his blindness,. The two brothers, with Spit as Bill's catcher, join the Dakota City Pioneers. At a tournament in Wichita, "Blind Bill Yark's" incredible pitching brings him national fame. But a country dispirited by Hard Times refuses to believe in the miracle of a blind pitcher. The brothers are considered just an act, the new clown princes of baseball. The famous sportswriter Abe Pope writes, "All across the land, corn will not grow and no one believes in miracles. There is no better medicine for these Hard Times than baseball tricksters like the Yark Brothers. Mr. Roosevelt ought to put them on the federal payroll."
Scouts offer Bill a try-out with the New York Giants. It is the realization of Spit's dream. But the offer is the work of two con men, and Spit desperately sets up a pitching demonstration in a New York diner to prove that Bill is truly blind. The demonstration is bizarre but convincing, and the Giants agree to give Blind Bill a tryout. Spit tells the players, "We heard what everybody thinks, that me and Bill are just two palookas out of the funnies. Well, we're not a silly act. Bill's true blind but he can throw strawberries through a locomotive!"
Blind Bill Yark's only pitch in the Major Leagues results in a screaming line drive that catches him between the eyes. He is rushed to a hospital where he lies in a coma while doctors tell Spit, "We're sorry to have to inform you. Your brother is blind."
The nation considers it an appropriate irony that the rascal Blind Bill Yark is now truly blind. "The whole country had turned sour," Spit observes, "and decided that Blind Bill Yark was nothing but a circus clown. But Bill and me weren't an act, any more than the sunrise ."
Retreating from a world of con men and profane stars, Spit and Bill return to the Brotherhood, where they take over a farm and raise sunflowers. "It's the age-old story of broken hope, "Abe Pope observes about the Yark brothers. "It's the age-old tale of brotherhood and love.
"Let's see which one of you two sweet peas dares stick me.
Dewey Coleman pulled a jackknife from his pocket and swiveled the blade out with his thumbnail. It had a point as sharp as a needle, and when Dewey tried to give the knife to my brother, Bill stepped away.
"Go ahead," Dewey said. "Stick me."
Dewey had a big crooked nose and deep black eyes as milky as a lizard's, so it was hard to tell if he was looking at you or just wondering to himself. His dad owned Coleman's Store in Tipton. It was the biggest place in town, with dry goods and groceries laid out on oak tables and shelves everywhere. It had electric cords hanging from the ceiling with bare bulbs that threw a gloomy light that never reached the dark corners of the store.
Me and my brother Bill had walked down to Tipton to get groceries and were in one of those dark corners of Coleman's. Gus Coleman had gone off and left Dewey to run things. There was nobody else in the store, and that was when Dewey came up and wanted to know would we dare stick a knife in him.
"The thought of it," my brother said, "is loathsome."
"What's lonesome got to do with anything?"
"Loathsome," Bill said. "Odious."
"There you go again," Dewey said, "with your fancy words."
"Dewey, we aren't interested in sticking you with a pocket knife."
"Why not? It's no different from stickin' one of your pigs with a hayfork." He jabbed the knife at Bill.
"You never got caught stickin' one of your pigs just for fun?"
"No, you never did it? Or, no, you never got caught up there on your pig farm?"
Me and Bill had been raised in a farm colony started by folks that came down from Canada and settled north of Tipton right before the First War. They built a circle of farm houses and raised pigs and had a big white hog barn with the words NORTH DAKOTA BROTHERHOOD OF JESUS painted in red. Right in the middle of everything, they built a wood church with a tall steeple that held a service every night plus two on Sundays. Folks in Tipton and even farther away knew about us and said we were nothing but Jesus oddballs that raised pigs and prayed day and night and worried about going to Hell that was nothing but a campground for the dead, a place filled with ravens and owls and the smell of burnt souls.
"Well William," Dewey said, "if you're too skeery to handle a sharp knife, how about let's hear one of those poems with fancy words you got learned by heart."
Bill shook his head.
Dewey squinched his lizard eyes. "No?"
"No," Bill said.
"Well, how come why not?"
"This is not the time or the place."
"What could be a better place?"
Bill didn't give an answer.
"So go ahead. Let's hear you show off the way you do in school, actin' like the rest of us has only got shit for brains."
We didn't have a school of our own up in the Brotherhood, so they made us walk down to Tipton to go to a one room schoolhouse stuck on the flatland outside of town like a railroad depot that got built in the wrong place. Our teacher Miss Getch wore her hair pulled tight and bunched in back so that it was like a black cannon ball coming right at you. She was always trying to make us memorize our "Literature" that was nothing but gloomy stories about the crack of doom or lovesick people that wanted to kill theirselves.
Every time I tried to recite what we were supposed to learn, it all ran into knots and didn't make sense at all. I'd get my words switched around no matter how hard I tried. One time when I was just starting school Miss Getch tried to make me recite "hickory dickory dock," but I got it switched to "hockery dockery dick." Everybody had a good laugh at my blunder and Miss Getch ordered me, "John Yark, just stop and think!" That only made me jumble it up worse, and Miss Getch made me sit down while everybody had another good laugh at how I had got it all wrong.
After a while Miss Getch gave up and wouldn't even bother to set me straight. Meantime, Bill was six years older than me and just the opposite. He could memorize whole pages from books and was the best student Miss Getch ever had. He got so good at memorizing that Miss Getch would get him to come up in front of everybody and prove what he'd learned.
Then one day in school after Bill had recited something gloomful, in the hush afterwards of all of us trying to figure out his words, it was Dewey Coleman that let go a loud fart you had to pretend you never heard but smelled up everywhere. Some of the boys that never behaved had a good laugh over Dewey's fart, and me and Bill knew right away they were just making fun of him too and laughing at him.
So when Dewey asked Bill to recite some of his Literature in Coleman's Store, we knew he was teasing him along again because Bill was so smart and Dewey couldn't even figure out how to say loathsome or what to think next.
"What's wrong?" Dewey said. "The cat got your tongue?"
"I never heard you before without a bunch of fancy words."
Bill kept quiet.
"How come you're too shy all of a sudden to do it?"
That's where I busted in. "Bill's not one bit shy! He's just a little quiet, that's all."
Dewey's eyes got even more of that lizard look. That was what was so scary about him. For most folks, you could see where their ideas were headed. With Dewey you couldn't even guess what he would surprise you with next until afterwards.
"Was I talkin' to you?" he said.
A shiver went up my backbone. "No."
"Who was I talkin' to?"
"I guess my brother here."
He flicked the knife in the air. "You wanna get stuck yourself, sweet pea?"
He took a bit to figure out where he was going next. "So, if you brother won't say nothin', how about you give some of your jumbled talk, the way you do in school?"
"You just told me to keep quiet."
He flickered the knife point at me. "Well, I changed my mind." He flickered the point some more. "Lemme remember. How was it you learned it? Dickery, hockery, cock?"
Dewey tilted his head back and laughed good and hard. Then he turned back to Bill that he still wanted to have stick him. "How come you don't dare do it?"
"I don't need to prove my nerve."
"Well, I guess you and your little brother here both got a good dose of yellow in you."
My brother said, "That depends on how you define 'yellow'."
"I don't have to define nothin'. Yellow is yellow."
"Well, then, Dewey, I'll leave you to prove your nerve, however you want."
"How come you keep calling me Dewey?"
"I thought Dewey was your God-given name."
"God never give me nothin'. And don't be calling me by Dewey no more. I like Jack better."
Me and my brother weren't ever gonna stick Dewey "Jack" Coleman no matter what he called himself, so he held out his arm, set the knife point on his own skin, and slowly stuck himself. Starting off it made only a dimple on his skin, but then here came a squeeze of blood that slid around and dripped to the floor. The whole time he stuck himself his face never changed. Then, like all he'd done was scratch an itch, he closed up the blade against his pants leg and put the knife back in his pocket.
"That's how you do it," he said. "If you aren't too skeery."
It gave me the shivers to watch Dewey cut himself. Meantime, my brother only shook his head at the first sign of blood, like he'd never seen anything so sad as what Dewey had just done. That made Dewey even madder, and he got a key from somewhere and grabbed both of us and pushed us to another dark corner of the store where his dad kept two glass showcases locked for guns they sold.
One of those black light cords with a switch and a bare bulb hung over the showcases. Dewey switched on the light so we could see the guns all laid out and arranged.
"I wanna show you two sweet peas something," he said.
My brother said, "We still have more groceries to buy."
But Dewey went right on. "We got any gun you'd ever want."
My brother said, "We have no need for any kind of gun."
"Right there is where you're wrong," Dewey said. "Because you never know when you're gonna need a gun."
I couldn't figure out what stunt Dewey was up to now. "They won't let anybody have a gun up in the Brotherhood," I said.
But he was staring at the guns. "What do you wanna look at?" He used the key to open the cases. "We got buster guns and peaters. Right here's a scattergun."
He lifted out a stubby shotgun and showed it to my brother. Then he put it back in the case. "We got this over-under too that you might wanna have."
Was that what he was trying to do? Chisel us to buy a gun that we wouldn't even know how to shoot?
"You wanna hold one?" he said to Bill.
"No, thank you."
"No, Dewey, I'm not."
My brother wasn't trying to needle Dewey by calling him that when he'd been told not to. But I could see that Dewey took it as ribbing because his lips drew tight and you could tell he was hiding a snarl.
"O.K. I got just the right gun for you," he said to Bill. "A baby pistol." He reached and took it out of the glass case. "Here. You can hold it."
My brother said, "I'd rather not."
"It ain't gonna hurt you."
My brother said, "You better put it back down."
"You don't dare even aim it?"
"I've already explained to you. We have no need for guns up in the Brotherhood."
"You can aim it anywheres you want," Dewey said and lifted out his arm across the store. "But the barrel's too short, so you gotta gather up close to hit anything."
Dewey aimed the pistol at other targets around the store. That was when I said, "What if it's got bullets?"
He gave a queer laugh that scared me again. "Well, that's the point now, ain't it. But it just so happens this one here's empty."
It might have been Dewey's laugh that made my brother step back farther. He'd had about enough and was ready to finish our grocery shopping and leave when Dewey settled on the target he wanted.
"What if I was to aim at William Yark there," he said, using my brother's full name that showed how much Bill bothered him. "Like this," he said and he lifted the hand with the baby pistol. "What if I was to pull the trigger--"
I shouted, "Don't you ever do it!"
"--It would bust his head to flinders."
The pistol had a tiny steel nipple they called a hammer on top that rode back while he squeezed at the trigger. Meantime, Bill was standing there like a dumb cluck that could recite on-and-on from his Literature that Miss Getch had taught us but didn't know a pistol with bullets pointed straight at his own head.
Don't ask me how I knew the gun had bullets, I just knew it. "Bill," I shouted. "Duck!"
Bill turned and dipped his head down. Then there was a bang that left behind a high buzz in my ears and Bill fell to the floor with blood puddling out of the back of his hair.
I was sure he was stone cold dead.