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CHAPTER XXVII NOT IN FORM.
The next stopping place of the Merries on their eastern journey was Elkton, Ohio, a red-hot baseball town, its team being one of the four-cornered Central League.

Elkton’s misfortune was its lack of first-class amateur baseball players. Although there were many players in town, it happened that the place had not produced a single star in many seasons.

For this reason, according to the agreement entered into by the managers of the different teams in the Central League, Elkton was greatly handicapped.

By this agreement, no team was to have on its list more than three salaried players, or professionals. In order to make the games fast and attract spectators who would not be satisfied with ordinary amateur baseball, the by-laws of the league permitted each manager to engage three professionals. For the most part the teams had secured expert pitchers and catchers.

The early part of the season had proved discouraging for Elkton, as her weak local men were unable to bat effectively against the fine pitching of the clever “slab artists” of the other clubs. As a result, Elkton had fallen to the foot of the list and seemed destined to remain there.

The pride of the Elkton followers of the game was aroused. The association held a meeting, at which it was made plain that one of two courses must be pursued. Either the local team must be disbanded and Elkton must retire from the league in disgrace, or, at any cost, something must be done to make the Elks as strong as the strongest of their rivals.

Elkton could not bear the thought of confessing itself too weak to cope with the other towns on the diamond. After a deal of heated argument and discussion a proposition was made to secure a new team throughout—a team that could “wallop” anything in the State, barring only the big league teams of Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo. It was even proposed to have an aggregation that could “trim” Toledo.

It would take money to do this, and, at the height of the patriotic fever developed in the meeting, one of the directors announced that he would start a subscription paper with one hundred dollars. He backed up his talk by hastily drawing up the paper and attaching his name thereto, pledging himself to pay one hundred dollars for the support of such a team, providing one thousand dollars was raised.

Within ten minutes seven hundred and fifty dollars had been subscribed.

Then, somewhat cooled, the enthusiasts paused and began to consider another difficulty.

It was plain the required amount would be pledged; but money could not overcome the clause in the by-laws of the league whereby each team was restricted to not more than three salaried players.

There was further discussion and argument, which was settled at length by the suggestion that the players required be engaged by different men of business in Elkton, not to play baseball, but to act as grocery clerks and in other capacities. Of course, these men would not be required to work like other clerks; but they could appear at the business houses of their employers and seem to busy themselves for an hour or so each day, and these so-called employers should pay them their salaries. Their real business would be to play baseball and defeat the now crowing rivals of the spirited little town.

This was the plan Elkton attempted to carry out. The manager of the team scarcely hesitated at any expense in securing players, and in a wonderfully brief space of time he brought together a team that was really formidable and one that far outclassed any other organization in the league.

Then arose further trouble.

The league association held a meeting, at which the managers of the various teams were commanded to appear. At this meeting it was asserted that Elkton had transgressed the by-laws, and it was voted to suspend the Elks until the team should be placed in organized form to comply with the requirement concerning salaried players.

Elkton stood her ground, contending that if her business men were patriotic enough to employ baseball players as clerks and let them off from their labors to play baseball the by-laws of the league were not transgressed.

The matter was hanging fire. The Central League was puttering along with three teams. Elkton believed the other places would succumb in time. And so, in order to keep things moving and get her team into the best form possible, Elkton arranged games with independent teams.

And it happened that this was the situation just when the Merries struck the town. Frank and his team had not been an hour in the town when their presence became known to the manager of the Elks, and a representative at once called on Frank and challenged him to a game. The challenge was promptly accepted, and the citizens of Elkton and the surrounding country turned out in large numbers to witness the work of the reorganized Elks against what was known to be the strongest independent team in the country.

At first the spectators had been disappointed as the visitors seemed to have everything their own way, but at the end of seven hard-hitting innings the Elks tied the score at nine to nine.

Dade Morgan was pale and dejected as he took a seat beside Frank on the bench.

“You must go in and pitch the game out, Merry,” he said. “My arm is gone. I’ve pitched it clean off trying to hold them down. They’ll bat me all over the lot if I stay in. It will be a shame to lose this game after holding them down to one run for five innings. If they take the lead we’re ruined. That man Wolfers, who replaced Cutts in the fifth, is a wonder. We haven’t been able to get a hit off him.”

“He’s a good pitcher,” agreed Frank. “I’ve been watching him. He has all kinds of kinks and speed, and his head is full of brains. But you know why I don’t want to pitch to-day, Dade. My ankle is almost well. If I pitch, I’m sure to hurt it. Next week, according to promise, I’m due back at Ashport to take part in the all-round championship contest. I can’t compete in that with a lame ankle.”

“You’re right,” admitted Morgan. “I’ll finish the game if you say so; but I’m confident I’ll never pitch again if I do. It will ruin my arm. You know I’m not a quitter, and I——”

“No one knows you’re not a quitter better than I do,” said Frank promptly. “If you feel that way about your arm, I wouldn’t have you stay in the box for anything in the world.”

“Besides,” said Dade, “the game is tied, and you can hold those sluggers down. They are the fiercest batters we’ve encountered this season.”

“Sluggers is the correct name for them,” nodded Merriwell. “No wonder the Central League of Ohio is fighting against taking in the reconstructed Elkton aggregation. Every man on this team is a professional with a reputation.”

Frank pulled off his sweater.

“What are you going to do?” eagerly asked the other players. “Are you going in?”

“Sure,” he nodded. “You bat this inning, Dade, if your turn comes.”

Instantly the whole team seemed to brighten up. They had been dejected by the manner in which the Elks of Elkton had climbed up on them and tied the score; but with Merry in the box it seemed that they would have little trouble in stopping the tally-getting career of their opponents.

Dick Starbright, who had taken his place at bat, smiled joyously on observing that Merry was preparing to warm up.

Hodge being the batter who followed Starbright, Frank asked Badger to do the catching.

“One to the stable!” bellowed a delighted Elktonite, as Frank started to warm up.

“We’ll send this one after him!” shouted another.

“He’ll be fruit for our boys!” whooped a third.

“You’ll find it some different, gents,” muttered Buck Badger, as he tossed the big catcher’s mitt at his feet for a base in order to let Merry find control by throwing over it. “This game is ours now. That’s whatever!”

Wolfers grinned viciously. There was something about his appearance, as well as his name, that suggested a wolf. He was pleased to see Merriwell preparing to enter the box, for he had absolute confidence in himself. But he discovered a sudden and surprising change in the manner of the batters. Starbright went after the ball with resolution, making foul after foul.

“Oh, you would, would ye!” muttered the Elkton pitcher. “Well, why don’t ye!”

“Tut-tut-taking a bub-bub-bite out of it every time, Dick!” cried Joe Gamp. “You’ll land on the trade-mark in a minute.”

“Yah!” nodded Dunnerwurst; “der trade-mark vill land on you in a minute, py Shimminy! Id vill knock you a mile.”

“Strike him out, Wolfers!” implored the spectators. “He’s easy. Strike the big fellow out!”

Wolfers was working hard, and he finally succeeded in fooling the yellow-haired chap to his satisfaction, for Dick missed the third strike and was declared out.

“How easy!” laughed a man on the bleachers. “That’s the kind of a pitcher to have!”

“That’s the kind they raise up in Wisconsin,” said another man.

It was Bart’s turn to strike.

“Got to get a hit,” thought Hodge, as he chose a bat of medium weight.

“He’s using the spit ball, Bart,” said Starbright. “The things are slippery, and you have to hit them square on the nose.”

Bart nodded. It was the first time for the season that the Merries had encountered a pitcher who was master of the new “spit ball.” Wolfers seemed to have it down fine, his control being something beautiful to witness.

As Merry had observed, the Elkton twirler had a head full of brains. Although master of the spit ball, he did not use it constantly. He worked different batters in a variety of ways. His curves were fine, but he had something better than curves, which was control. He seemed able to put the ball exactly where he desired. He studied the batters. While sitting on the bench, he had watched closely to discover the weak spots of every man. If he found a player inclined to strike over a low ball, he kept the ball low on him all the time. If he found a man who was inclined to step toward the plate when striking, he kept the ball close to that man, thus making it almost certain that he would hit it close to his fingers if he hit it at all. On the other hand, if a hitter pulled away from the plate, he used an outcurve, keeping the ball over the outside corner or beyond it. If such a batter hit it, the end of the bat was almost certain to be the point of contact, and there is seldom much force in a hit made in such a manner.

In Wolfers, Merriwell fancied he discerned “big league material.” He believed the man would be “discovered” by some manager and “reserved” before the season closed.

Hodge was grimly determined, but determination did not count for much in the face of Wolfers’ pitching. Bart did his best to “work” the man from Wisconsin, but was finally “worked” himself, being led into putting up a weak pop fly to Rush, the Elkton shortstop.

“Oh, we’ve got ye!” howled one of the local rooters. “You may as well give up.”

“We’re not the kuk-kuk-kind that gives up,” growled Gamp, as he strode out with his bat on his shoulder.

In the meantime, Merry was working his arm out slowly, taking care not to twist his weak left ankle.

It was no easy matter to pitch without putting a big strain on that ankle. He could not throw himself back and balance on one foot, for when he came down it jarred his ankle, and, therefore, he was unable to put the force of his body into his delivery.

Merry had long ago learned to make his body and back muscles do much of the work in throwing a swift ball. This was done with the body swing, as it is called. He actually made his body do at least two-thirds of the work, thus sparing his arm.

Young and inexperienced pitchers seldom use this body swing properly, and, therefore, they strain their arms unnecessarily. Sometimes they stand on both feet and throw with all the force of their biceps in order to get speed. In this manner they bring a fearful strain on their arms, and many a promising chap has ruined his wing just as he was beginning to develop into a real pitcher.

Merry had discovered the secret of the body swing in his college days, and for this reason he had withstood the strain of much pitching and steadily grown better from year to year.

When ready to deliver the ball, he swung his body backward as his arm was drawn up. On securing the proper poise, he came forward with the full weight and force of his body, at the same time making the delivery. Often his arm did little except to guide the ball, speed being secured by the great force of the back and shoulder muscles.

Frank was not a “wind-up” pitcher. He resorted to no windmill movements, yet he used the force of his back and shoulder muscles in almost every delivery. In doing so, he threw himself forward with force onto his left foot, and he now discovered that this would be impossible without great risk in regard to his ankle. He was compelled to stand up straight and pitch without the swing. As this was not his usual custom, he quickly discovered it interfered with his control. He could not, as he usually did, put a ball where he desired.

This surprised and annoyed Merry, for it was his custom when runners were on bases to cut out much of the body swing. Often he would snap the ball to the plate before the runner was aware that he meant to deliver it, thus preventing the man from getting a start to steal.

In a very short time he realized that he was in poor condition to do effective work against good hitters; but Morgan had said that it would ruin his arm to pitch any more, and so Frank was determined to go in and do his best.

Wolfers worked Gamp as he had worked Starbright and Hodge, finally striking the lanky chap out.

“Now,” cried a spectator, “we’ll see them hammer the head off the great and only Merriwell.”


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