by Herschel Cozine
The disappearance of Jeff Lisbon is still a topic of conversation wherever people gather. It seemed incredible at the time that someone as famous as he could simply vanish without a trace. Sure, it happens now and then–take Jimmy Hoffa, for example, but this case was different. There wasn’t any rational explanation for Lisbon to “take a ride.”He wasn’t in that line of work. Ask any baseball fan and he will tell you about Jeff Lisbon. He was one of the greats. He broke into the Major Leagues in 1954, when ballplayers were still playing for the love of the game and not because they could make millions just for hitting 200.
Jeff played first base for the old Philadelphia Jaguars. They weren’t much of a team, usually finishing in the lower division if not dead last. But people went to the park anyway, just to watch Jeff hit the ball and he seldom disappointed them. In his rookie year he led the league in home runs and batting average. He was a shoo-in for rookie of the year. His batting average and home run production improved over the next three years until, at the age of twenty-six he was already a legend. He was being compared to Ruth and Gehrig. The press carried stories about him almost every day during the season, predicting he would be baseball’s first “400” hitter since Ted Williams.
Defensively he was no slouch either. He won the gold glove in his second year and he fielded with a certain flair that delighted the fans. One of his fielding habits became legendary in the short time he was in the majors. Whenever the third out was made at first base, Jeff didn’t roll the ball to the pitcher’s mound or toss it to the umpire as most first basemen do. Instead he would take the ball out of his glove, carefully set it on the first base sack and then trot off the field. It was a little thing, but fans loved it.
Then, in the fourth year, something happened. It started out well enough. Jeff hit ten homers in April and was batting a heady 397. Fans were flocking to the park to watch him play. Remarkably, the team itself was doing well, holding on to first place through the first two months of the season.
Then Jeff disappeared. He failed to show up for a Sunday afternoon game against Detroit, and hadn’t told a soul. Joe Grimes, the manager, dodged the sportswriters’ questions after the game, saying he had had no communication with Jeff, but was certain there was a perfectly good explanation for his absence. After all, he had never done anything like this before. He could always be counted on to be at the park on time, but you could tell that Grimes was as puzzled as anyone and a little upset with his star player.
When Jeff didn’t show up for the Monday game either, rumors began to fly–he was in jail, he was ill; he was drying out in a “drunk” farm. None of these made sense to me. Jeff was not a drinker. His teammates used to razz him about his tee totaling ways and he was not one to get into trouble with the law. He was a mother’s dream, a role model for any youngster.
The truth is that Jeff was a loner. He seldom socialized with the other players off the field. Most of the time you could find him in his hotel room reading, watching TV or listening to his pocket transistor radio through his earphones. That left sickness, but surely he would let someone know if he was sick.
Another ominous rumor made the rounds. He had met with foul play. As much as I hated this theory, it was the only one with any credibility. Someone had kidnapped or worse yet, killed Jeff Lisbon. The team owners hired top investigators to look into Jeff’s disappearance. The local police were also involved, giving more than their share of attention to the case. They went over Jeff’s apartment with a fine tooth comb and interrogated friends and neighbors.
Jeff was an only child, whose parents were killed in an automobile accident a few years before. The neighbors in the town where he went to school knew very little about him. He was a hometown hero to them, but not one who they got to know. Nobody was sure where Jeff was from originally, as the town where he grew up was not the town where he was born. His bio in the Baseball Yearbook listed his place of birth as Indiana, but there was no record of it in the State office. This, of course, was given a lot of play in the papers. He was being likened to Joe Hardy of Damn Yankees, and more than a few people actually believed he had made a pact with the Devil. There were countless false leads, phony extortion demands and anonymous tips. Every lead was carefully followed.
Days ran into weeks, with no word from Jeff. The team fell apart, sinking into fifth place by the end of June. By the end of July the Jaguars slid into the cellar, eighteen games out of first place. During the off-season, the press started up again with speculations about the fate of Jeff Lisbon. The supermarket tabloids ran headlines that claimed all sorts of wild things about him.
LISBON CAPTURED BY SPACE ALIENS
JEFF LISBON FOUND IN MENTAL HOME IN MIAMI
And one of the most outrageous headlines:
JEFF LISBON HAS SEX CHANGE OPERATION IN BRAZIL
Headlines and rumors to the contrary, nobody knew what happened to Lisbon. It was a mystery that was grist for the mill and helped liven up the sports page on a slow news day. But it was a tragic loss to the world of baseball in general and to the Philadelphia Jaguars in particular.
I often wondered since then what happened to Lisbon. I was convinced in my own mind that he had been killed, perhaps by the criminal element, perhaps by accident, maybe by a jealous woman or demented fan. But he couldn’t be alive without somebody spotting him. I was sure of that.
It was early in the spring of 1995 that I changed my mind. It was a Saturday morning, unusually balmy in New England for that time of the year. I decided to take a drive up into Maine and cruise the magnificent coastline. There would be no crowd and the ocean was certain to have a calming effect on me. It always did. The furthest thing from my mind was Jeff Lisbon. I had been a senior in high school at the time of his disappearance. A few years later I hooked on with a newspaper in New Hampshire, eventually working my way up to my present position of editor.
I stopped about mid-morning in the small fishing village of Kennebunkport to stretch my legs and get a cup of coffee. As I climbed out of my car I noticed a group of young men playing a game of ball. Having nothing better to do with my time, I strolled over to the park and took a seat in the dilapidated bleachers on the first base line. No one paid much attention to me and there were no other spectators. The game was progressing in a casual, friendly way and it was obvious that the players were there for the fun of it.
My attention was drawn to the first baseman for one side. He looked vaguely familiar. His sandy hair, disheveled by the wind and the activity, hung around his eyes. He was tall, lanky, but well coordinated. He fielded the ball with a grace and confidence unusual for an amateur, but when he recorded the last out of the inning I sat up straight, mouth open, and stared. He took the ball, turned, and placed it in the middle of the first base sack!
Maybe it was my imagination, but I suddenly saw a distinct likeness between this young man and Jeff Lisbon. This man was about Jeff’s age when Jeff disappeared. It was entirely possible that he was Jeff’s son. Of course, Jeff wasn’t married at the time, but if he were still alive he would probably be married by now with children of his own. A son this age was entirely possible.
The game finally ended and the players broke up, some toward their cars, others to the coffee shop. The man I had my eye on was sitting on the player’s bench removing his cleats. I walked over to him.
“Nice playing,” I said.
He looked at me, smiled slightly and nodded. “Thanks.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
He tied a shoelace, sat back and studied me through deep blue eyes. “Who wants to know?”
I laughed. “George Ferris.” I held out my hand. He shook it tentatively, his eyes never leaving my face.
“Mitch,” he said simply.
I sat there trying to think of a tactful way to broach the subject. Finally, deciding the direct approach would be the most effective, I said, “I was a great admirer of your father. He was one of the best.”
Mitch looked up sharply, then picked up his glove and stuck it in his pocket. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Years of working as a reporter had trained me to listen for nuances and inflections in people’s voices when they talk. Often this will tell a reporter more than the words themselves. When that happens, the reporter must follow his instincts. In this case I sensed a reply that was a little too quick, too practiced. It wasn’t the first time, I knew, that this young man had been in this situation. I was certain that Mitch was who I thought he was.
“You’re Jeff Lisbon’s son. I can see him in every move you make.” I watched his face for a reaction, but there was none. He only squinted at me, gave me a bemused smile, then leaned down and tied the other shoe.
“Jeff Lisbon? You mean the ballplayer that disappeared?” He laughed softly. “That’s a good one.” He shook his head and laughed again.
“Come on, Mitch,” I said. “You walk like him. You move like him. You even have the habit of putting the ball on the first base sack like he used to do.”
“Hey,” he said, “I wasn’t even born when he was playing ball.”
“But you know who he is?”
“Sure. I’ve heard of him. Who hasn’t? But I don’t know anything about him. He’s just another name.” He started to walk away; I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Mitch, listen to me. It’s important that I know. If you’re Lisbon’s son, the whole world will want to hear your story.”
He turned and looked me straight in the eye. “Are you a reporter?”
“I’m a baseball fan,” I said. “Particularly, I was a great fan of your fa–Jeff Lisbon.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I guess he was quite a ballplayer.” He picked up his jacket and threw it over his shoulder. “But he’s not my father. Sorry.”
“But what about that gimmick with the ball on first base?” I asked.
“So what? Lisbon didn’t have a patent on it. It’s a habit I picked up in high school. A lot of kids did it.”
I had to agree that it was once in fashion, a tribute of sorts to Jeff, but it died out in the seventies, before Mitch was old enough to be playing baseball. I hadn’t seen it done in several years.
“Listen, Mitch, I’ve got to know. I won’t tell a soul. I promise. But…”
“I said I was sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re making it hard for me.” His eyes glinted like steel and his jaw set firmly. The defiant stare made me take a step back. He balled his hand into a fist, then relaxed it and turned away. He opened the car door and slid behind the wheel. I watched him drive away, cursing myself for not getting his last name.
From that day on, Jeff Lisbon became an obsession with me. I haunted the ballpark where I first saw Mitch, hoping to see him again, but he never returned. His teammates knew nothing about him. He was just a guy that showed up now and then and played ball with them. Yes, he was good, very good, but he was a loner. He had no friends on the team. They didn’t even know where he lived.
Back at the newspaper office, I visited the “morgue” and looked up editions of 1957, when the story first broke. I don’t know what I expected to find, but as it turned out, I learned little that I didn’t already know.
The first mention of Lisbon occurred in the Monday edition, June 10, 1957. At the time, there was no real story to report. He had simply failed to show for the Tiger game and the entire story rated was a one line blurb in the capsule box of Page 1, referring the reader to the sports page. The rest of the front page concerned itself with stories about an upcoming presidential trip, an earthquake in Greece and the killing of a bigwig crime boss in Detroit on Saturday night.
The next edition gave the story a front page spread; by midweek Lisbon dominated the front page, but none of the stories were of any help. The human interest background, quotes from teammates and coaches and the usual platitudes about his ability and his value to the game of baseball were there, but I knew no more about Jeff Lisbon’s mysterious disappearance than I did before I started reading.
Lisbon’s roommate on the road had been Spuds Denigan, a second string outfielder for the Jaguars. He became famous overnight because of Lisbon’s disappearance and had spent more time answering questions than playing baseball. I learned from Jake Fortner, our sportswriter at the paper, that Spuds was now a coach for the Fort Lauderdale Leopards, a minor league team in Florida. I decided to pay him a call.
I caught up with Spuds at the Leopard’s ballpark. He hadn’t changed much from his playing days. His blonde crew-cut had become a shaggy gray and he had a paunch, but he was in remarkably good shape for a man his age.
I introduced myself and extended my hand. He shook it absently, never taking his eyes off of the players that were shagging fly balls in the outfield, but when I told him why I was there, he turned and eyed me with amusement.
“You can’t be serious,” he said. “Lisbon disappeared almost forty years ago. Since then I’ve talked to every reporter in the country. I’ve said all there is to say on the subject.”
“I understand,” I replied. “But I would appreciate it if you would talk to me about it. I’ll pay you for your time.”
Spuds snorted and spat a wad of tobacco juice towards third base. “Hell,” he said. “There’s nothin’ I can tell you that hasn’t been in the papers, and that you can get for free. Why would you want to pay me?” He spat again and grunted.
I ignored his protests. “You were Lisbon’s roomie?” I asked.
“How well did you know him?”
Spuds shook his head sadly. “Not at all, my friend, Lisbon didn’t let anybody get too close to him.”
“He was unfriendly?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. He was just quiet. Kept to himself and never socialized or even talked much.” Spuds grinned. “He was a real loner. It’s hard to believe that he was the same guy who was such a sensation on the ballfield.” He smiled ruefully. “If I had his talent…”
“Did you see him on the night he disappeared?” I asked.
“Hell, I answered that one a million times,” Spuds said. “Yeah, I saw him. He was just leaving the hotel room when I got back from dinner. I told him that me and some of the boys were going out to raise a little hell and asked him to come along. He refused, of course. I knew he would, but I asked him anyway, out of courtesy, mostly.”
“Did he say where he was going?”
“No, but then I didn’t ask. He seldom went anywhere at night though, particularly before a game.”
“There was nothing he said or did that was unusual, then? He didn’t act nervous or strangely?”
“No, other than going out the night before a game, but I didn’t think much about it. It was none of my business.” He took off his cap and scratched his forehead. “It seems to me that he only went out at night when he was in Detroit.”
“What do you make of that?” I asked.
Spuds shook his head. “Nothin’. Maybe he had a girl stashed somewhere, I don’t know. He didn’t seem the type, but as I said, I didn’t know Lisbon. None of us did.”
“Did you ever meet his parents?”
“Never. In fact, I’m not sure the Lisbon’s were his real parents. He may have been adopted.”
“Oh?” I said, suddenly interested. “I don’t remember ever reading about that. Did you tell that to the police?”
“Probably not. They never asked and besides, I can’t be sure. It’s a hunch more than anything. They were already dead when Lisbon joined the team.”
“Did he ever talk about them?”
“Lisbon never talked about much of anything, but I remember one time when I asked about his father, he got red in the face and clammed up, even quieter than he usually was.”
“Why, do you suppose?”
Spuds shrugged. “Dunno. I figured maybe he didn’t get along with his old man when he was alive and he was feeling guilty about it. I never brought the subject up again.”
“Interesting,” I said.
Spuds nodded. “Mebbe,” he said, “but what good is it to you?”
“None, I guess, but it’s the only new thing I’ve heard in close to forty years.”
Spuds chuckled. “I guess you can hardly expect to get any startling new information after all this time.”
I nodded in agreement, thanked him and left.
A month went by. It was early May when I finally got a break that led me to the object of my search. I had spent the morning in Wells, a town about ten miles south of Kennebunkport. It is a seacoast town dedicated to fishing, but its charm and scenic beauty makes it a popular tourist attraction. It was too early in the season for the tourists, and many of the shops and restaurants were not yet open. On this spring day, however, several were being painted and patched in anticipation of the coming summer and the influx of tourists.
I strolled along the deserted streets that rambled through the complex of shops and restaurants that made up a seaside area known as Perkins Cove. I stopped to watch a young man on a ladder putting the finishing touches to a sign above the door of a gift shop; I recognized him as the baseball player from Kennebunkport.
Remembering our last encounter, I decided against approaching him directly. Instead, I waited until he had finished painting and drove away. As a precaution I jotted down the license plate number of his truck and then I climbed the steps of the store and went inside. An older man was standing toward the back of the room with a clipboard and pencil, taking inventory. He looked at me, then back to the shelves. “We’re closed,” he said.
“I’m not here to buy anything,” I answered, “but I would like to know if you could tell me who your sign painter is.”
The man lowered his clipboard and studied me. “Why do you want to know?”
“He does good work,” I said. “I may want to use him to do some painting for me.”
The man nodded. “He’s a freelancer,” he said. “Guy by the name of Mitch Jeffries.”
I suppressed a smile as I caught the last name. Jeffries. Jeff. Coincidence? I thought not.
“Where can I get in touch with him?”
“He lives in Ogunquit. Got his address here if you want.” He crossed over to the desk at the rear of the room, ruffled through a sheaf of papers, picked one up and handed it to me. I thanked him and left, feeling a sense of anticipation as I made the short drive to Ogunquit.
It took a little help from one of the residents to direct me to the street I was looking for, but I finally found it and turned down the treelined road on the edge of town in a middle class, quiet neighborhood. I found Mitch’s house easily enough, but my attention was drawn to the house next door to it. On the mailbox at the head of the driveway was the name, “Jeffries.”
I guessed that this house was the one I was looking for–the home of Jeff Lisbon. It was a simple white house, with shutters drawn and drapes pulled, but the smartly groomed lawn and bright array of flowers was evidence that whoever lived there enjoyed keeping a house and yard. My heart raced excitedly as I climbed the steps. I pressed the bell and heard the chimes sound from somewhere deep inside.
For several seconds there was no sound. I was about to press the bell again when the front door opened slowly and a woman’s face appeared in the doorway.
“Mrs. Jeffries?” I said.
“I would like to speak with your husband if I may. Is he home?”
“Who are you?” she said in a voice so soft I could hardly hear.
“I am a friend. A concerned friend.”
She brushed a stray hair from her eye, studying me all the while. Finally, she said, “I never saw you before. I know all of Peter’s friends.” She started to close the door; I pushed an arm against it.
“Of course,” I said. “I never met your husband personally, but I know him and so do a million other fans that used to watch him play ball.”
The spark of fear that flashed in her eyes was fleeting but she covered it quickly. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” she said. “My husband is a fisherman.”
I barely heard her answer, as my attention was drawn to the man in the hall behind her. He stepped forward and put his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Charlotte,” he said. “I’ll handle this.” He turned to me. “What is this all about?”
I studied his face. I could see no resemblance to the young Jeff Lisbon except around the eyes, but he was about the right age and height. He was in his mid sixties and stood an inch or two over six feet. Plastic surgery could account for the facial features.
“You’re Jeff Lisbon,” I said.
He frowned. “I don’t understand,” he said. “My name is Peter Jeffries.”
I shook my head. “I met your son, Mitch, a few months ago. Watching him play ball took me back almost forty years. I know who you are.”
“You’re mistaken,” he said.
I stepped back, never letting my eyes leave his face. “Mr. Jeffries,” I said, “I apologize for invading your privacy, but I can’t leave until I know why you did what you did.” I waited for him to answer, but he stood there silently, returning my stare.
“I am the editor of the Concord Journal,” I said. “I am sitting on the sports story of the century. You will be paid well for your story. I’d be willing to…”
He held up his hand. “There is no story,” he said. “I am not who you think I am. Now, would you please excuse us?” He reached for the door and started to pull it shut, but I stood firm.
“Look,” I said. “I could bring the entire world to your house by the end of the week if I chose. Neither of us wants that, but I’m a newsman and you are news.”
He started to protest, but I went on. “If you cooperate with me, I promise I won’t reveal your whereabouts. You have my word on that.”
Mrs. Jeffries started toward me. “Please leave us alone,” she said. “We’re just ordinary people who mind our own business. All we want is our privacy.” Her eyes were swimming with tears, and mirrored a desperation that frightened me.
A lot has been written about the lack of compassion that a reporter has when he is on the verge of a major news story. We are trained to go for the jugular and not worry about the toes we step on or the privacy we invade. Sadly, this may be true a lot of the time, but I was suddenly confronted with my conscience and my sense of fair play. Looking at Mrs. Jeffries, hearing the desperation in her voice, sensing the fear, I hesitated. In my profession, hesitation is fatal.
I stepped back. “Please forgive me,” I said. “Try to understand that Jeff Lisbon was a hero to millions. I was one of his fans–maybe his greatest fan. To this day the world wonders what happened. They deserve to know the answer.”
Mrs. Jeffries was crying softly. Her husband put his arm around her, looking at me all the while. “Please go,” he said.
I paused with my hand on the door. I pulled a business card from my pocket and handed it to Jeffries. “If you are who I think you are, and you want to square your account with your fans, please call me anytime, day or night.”
I turned and left. As I nosed the car away from the curb, Jeffries came out of the house and waved me over. I stopped and rolled the window down.
“Mister Ferris,” he said, “you seem like a decent sort. You won’t make up a lot of stories and cause my wife and me grief because you think I’m some famous star, will you?”
I watched his face as his expression went from worried to pleading. Then I shook my head. “As far as I’m concerned, there is no story.”
Jeffries let an audible sigh escape. He extended his hand and I shook it. “Thank you,” he said. “I certainly am grateful to you.”
He stepped back. I pulled away from the curb slowly, watching him in the rearview mirror as I drove away. He stood, tall and erect, his arm around his wife. Together they went into the house.
I never told anyone about my meeting with Peter Jeffries, or Jeff Lisbon, if indeed he was who I thought he was. I did, after all, make him a promise, but it wasn’t easy. I was sitting on the biggest story of my career; one that any reporter would give his soul to write. I knew I was right about Jeffries, but I had no hard proof, and furthermore I had made a rash promise in a moment of weakness. I wrestled with the problem, cursing myself for letting my heart rule my head, and I was more curious than ever. What had happened to cause Lisbon to do what he did? And why, to this day, is he so afraid?
A year went by. I had put the meeting with Jeff Lisbon out of my mind, as much as one can, considering its importance. I had been away from my office for two weeks, attending a news editors’ conference in New York. When the conference was over I took a brief vacation, telling myself that after a week in New York it was needed.
The letter was waiting for me when I returned. It was a small envelope, addressed in a feminine hand, with tiny loops and delicate lines. There was no return address, but the postmark was Portland, Maine. I opened it slowly.
A clipping fluttered out of the envelope and settled on the desk. I picked it up and read it. It was a brief accounting of a boating accident, which claimed the lives of Peter Jeffries and his son, Mitch. I sat back shocked at the news. Several minutes went by before I noticed that the envelope contained a note. It was from Mrs. Jeffries and said simply, “Peter told me to get in touch with you. Please come see me at your convenience.” It was signed, “Charlotte Jeffries.”
I wasted no time getting up to see Mrs. Jeffries. It was only a two-hour drive from the office to her house in Maine. I knocked gently on the door and she answered it immediately. With a soft smile, she invited me into the house.
“I was so sorry to hear about Mitch and your husband,” I said. “Please accept my condolences.” I held out a small bouquet of flowers. She thanked me, took them and put them in a vase, which she set on the table. I remembered her as a small woman, but in her grief she seemed smaller still and vulnerable. Her eyes were red but dry. Her tiny shoulders were held square and she faced me with a dignity that masked a world of hurt.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, studying my face, as if looking for strength or trust, or for some assurance that everything was going to be all right. Finally she sat down in the overstuffed chair. I took the chair across from her. A few awkward minutes went by while Mrs. Jeffries composed herself and then, with a sudden resolve, she spoke. “You were right about Peter,” she said simply.
Although her words didn’t surprise me, I felt a surge of excitement. She looked at the floor, her hands clasped together in her lap. “He gave up so much, you know,” she went on. “He had everything going for him.” She shook her head. “It’s all so sad, so very sad.”
“Why did he run away?” I asked. “What terrible thing happened to make him do what he did? After all these years, the world still wants to know.”
Charlotte Jeffries leaned forward. For several minutes the room was quiet except for the muffled whir of the air conditioner. When she looked up from the table her eyes were swimming with tears. “You’re a newspaperman,” she said. “I’m sure you know all the stories surrounding my husband’s disappearance. Do you remember the day he disappeared?”
“As if it were yesterday,” I replied.
“Then you must know about Johnny Geller.”
The name rang a bell. “Geller,” I said out loud. “Johnny Geller. Why is that name familiar to me?”
“Johnny Geller,” she said, “was a mobster. He was a gang boss who worked out of Detroit.”
Suddenly I remembered. On the front page of the paper I studied when looking up Lisbon’s disappearance was a story about the killing of a mob leader. His name was Geller.
“Yes,” I told Mrs. Jeffries. “I know who Geller is–or was. But what does he have to do with all this?”
“My husband,” she said in a voice so low that I had to strain to hear, “was with Geller when he was killed.”
I sat up straight. Jeff Lisbon was the last person anyone would suspect of fraternizing with the likes of Johnny Geller. “Why? What business would Jeff have with Geller?”
“Peter,” she said, then caught herself. “Jeff saw the whole thing. The men who killed Geller tried to kill Jeff as well. He had no choice but to do what he did. His life was in danger and he certainly had no chance to survive if he were to continue to play ball. He would be an easy target every time he walked out onto the field.”
“Why didn’t he go to the police?”
Charlotte shook her head. “What could they do? They couldn’t protect him twenty-four hours a day, and Jeff Lisbon was a household name. He was always in the public eye. There was no way the police or anyone could protect him if someone wanted to kill him.” A note of urgency crept into her voice. “And these thugs wanted Jeff dead. They would stop at nothing to kill him.”
“How did he get away from these people?” I asked.
“Jeff was very athletic, of course. He escaped down an alley and vaulted over the wall. The men who were after him were not very good at that sort of thing. He was lucky.”
I nodded agreement. Not many people live to tell about getting away from the mob. “Where did he go?”
“He went into Canada. He took on a new identity and he had plastic surgery so no one would recognize him. After a few years he met me and we were married. It was only after we had been married awhile that he told me who he was. I knew little about baseball, but I had heard of him.”
“Was he in danger after you met him?”
“All of the time,” Mrs. Jeffries said. “The mob has everything it takes to find someone if they want him badly enough. They have better resources than any law enforcement agency. We lived in constant fear of being discovered. We moved often, always a step ahead of them. We finally settled here in Maine where people tend to their own business. No one here recognized him; people left us alone.” She pulled at her sleeve. “Then you found us. I was so afraid that you would write about him and give us away.”
“It’s quite incredible that I should find him when the mob couldn’t. Mitch used the ball on first base gimmick which Jeff was so famous for.”
“Yes,” she said. “He told us. He hadn’t done that for years, but he got careless.” She smiled wanly. “Such a simple thing, but so important. Mitch was devastated.”
I shifted in my chair. “I am sorry if I caused you any grief,” I said.
She reached her hand out and placed it on mine. “Mister Ferris, you were so kind and understanding. We both knew that you knew who he really was. It was truly generous of you to do what you did. That’s why Jeff wanted me to talk to you, to tell you the truth after all these years. We were both very grateful and he felt he owed you.”
“Mrs. Jeffries,” I said. “I don’t understand why Jeff Lisbon would be consorting with the likes of Johnny Geller. Jeff was above reproach in his personal life. Dealing with the underworld is not something anyone would expect of him.”
Charlotte Jeffries lowered her eyes and sighed. “It was also against the rules. Jeff knew that, and he knew he could be barred from baseball for life if he was caught.” She looked up. “But he wasn’t doing anything wrong.” Her voice quavered and tears filled her eyes again. I waited for her to regain her composure. She folded and unfolded her hands and dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her handkerchief. “Forgive me,” she said at last, “but I find this very difficult to talk about.”
“I understand,” I replied. “I hate to put you through this, but it is important that I know why Jeff was seeing Johnny Geller. It simply makes no sense. If, as you say, he was doing nothing wrong, then what possible reason could he have for jeopardizing his career as he did?”
Mrs. Jeffries took a deep breath and stood up. She turned and looked out of the window, her back to me as she spoke. “Mister Ferris,” she said, “Johnny Geller was Jeff’s father.”
I had prepared myself to hear almost any wild story about Jeff Lisbon, but Mrs. Jeffries’ statement, delivered softly and simply, hit me with the force of a locomotive.
“I…I don’t believe it,” I stammered.
“I know how ridiculous it sounds,” she said. “I didn’t believe it either. I didn’t want to. I still have difficulty accepting it, but it’s true.”
I started to say something, then sat back and waited for Mrs. Jeffries to go on.
“Jeff’s real mother was one of Geller’s girlfriends. She put him up for adoption shortly after he was born. With Geller’s money and influence, it was done without records or paperwork. There is no way anyone can trace Jeff’s birth to Geller.”
“When did Jeff find out who his real father was?”
“He learned it as a child. His real mother wrote and told him. It was a spiteful thing to do, but she had a falling out with Geller and this was her way of getting even with him.” She brushed her hand over her face. “It hurt Jeff far more than it hurt Geller.”
“Did Jeff see his father often?”
“Whenever he was in Detroit,” she said. “In spite of Johnny Geller’s occupation, Jeff developed a respect for him and a reserved kind of love that a son has for his father. And Johnny respected Jeff as a son and as a ballplayer.”
“So his meeting with Geller that night was simply that of a son visiting his father. Nothing illegal?”
Mrs. Jeffries nodded.
“And because of it he sacrificed a career and a life that he obviously loved.” I was talking more to myself than to her. “What a waste.”
“Jeff never stopped loving the Jaguars and baseball. There were so many times when he wanted to go back and take his chances. He would be doing what he loved to do most, even if it cost him his life, but by then we were married and had Mitch. So he no longer had just himself to think about.”
“But after so many years…surely the mob…?”
Charlotte Jeffries smiled ruefully. “They never give up, Mister Ferris,” she said. “Jeff knew that. As long as he was alive they would want to kill him. He knew too much, or so they thought. After all, his father was a big man in the mob.”
I nodded, all the while cursing Johnny Geller, the mob and Jeff Lisbon himself for robbing the baseball world of one of its greatest stars. We talked well into the night, my tape recorder capturing her every word. Finally she rose from the couch, smiled wistfully and cradled her arms across her chest. “So, you have your story, Mister Ferris. Peter won’t rest in his grave until the world knows the truth. I know you’ll be fair and tell the story the way it should be told.”
“Will you be all right?” I asked.
“I have money saved and I have friends.”
“If I can ever do anything for you, please ask.”
She took my hand in hers. “Thank you.”
I watched her with a growing admiration of her inner strength and determination; Jeff Lisbon had chosen well. Reluctantly I stepped outside and into the soft summer night. I left her standing in the doorway, her small figure silhouetted against the light.
The drive back to Concord was a lonely one, filled with poignant thoughts about a young athlete who set the world on fire, only to have it taken from him in a tragic fleeting moment. If only the Jaguars were playing somewhere else that day. If only the assassins had waited one more day. If only…
“Oh, hell,” I said out loud. Startled by my own voice, I shifted in my seat and sped through the night. Life is full of “if onlys,” and no one, not even the Jeff Lisbons of the world can escape them. I wrote the story without revealing Mrs. Jeffries’ whereabouts. I owed her that. She would be hounded for the rest of her life if anyone knew where she was. She had given me enough records and journals that I didn’t need her to vouch for the story.
Naturally, I received many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, but none of them seemed important to me. It isn’t the kind of story one enjoys writing. Strangely enough, I gained a great deal of satisfaction out of a relatively mundane event that occurred this fall. The Philadelphia Jaguars, the doormat of the American League for all these years, won the pennant. They went on to take the World Series in five games.
I know Jeff would have liked that.
Check out more short stories, including another Father’s Day mystery short story and more stories by Herschel, in KRL’s Terrific Tales section.