Chapter 12

Way Back When

After Al and I left Budapest, we headed toward Vienna to meet up with an old friend of mine. Vienna was the next stop from the stories Papa told while we were children, and this one was perhaps one of the tallest tales to emerge from that little fireplug of a man.

The Kalish family left Budapest and headed through the woods toward Vienna, Phillip snoozing in the back of the cart most of the way and Mama entertaining me with songs up front with Papa. Ten miles outside the city, a cart carrying a load of hay sped past us. The driver waved merrily and Mama and Papa waved back. Papa continued along until, just past a sharp bend in the road, he found that same hay cart overturned. He pulled back on the reins and hopped down from his perch.

“Be careful,” whispered Mama. “Maybe this wasn’t an accident. We haven’t seen anyone for miles. There’s no one to help us.”

Papa armed himself with a fat fallen branch and began to walk slowly toward the wreck. He crept quietly to the driver’s side of the cart and poked his branch into the mess of hay and broken planks.

“I’m in here! I was robbed!” croaked a voice from inside the mess.

Papa put down his branch and dug the injured driver out from under the cart. As he was propping him up on the side of the road against a bale of hay, he saw the man’s eyes go wide with fear. Without hesitation, Papa grabbed his branch and spun around, swinging with all his might.

This was one of the few stories that Mama would join in on when Papa told it, and she always had a little smile on her face because of how truly proud of Papa it made her feel. Papa hardly remembered anything besides swinging and swinging and hearing Mama scream from the cart in fear. Mama, on the other hand, said three thugs sprung out of the woods and Papa managed to bean one right in the melon on his first shot and crack another in the kisser on his second. Terrified, the third took off running for the woods.

Papa ran after him. The thug grabbed a rock from the road and pitched it like a spitball right at Papa’s skull, but Papa shouldered his branch like Joe DiMaggio and managed to hit the rock right back toward the thug’s nose. His vicious line drive knocked the robber’s lights right out.

Sophie and Joe DiMaggio.

Once it was clear that all of the thieves were out cold, Mama ran toward the hay cart with me in one hand and her rifle in the other. She and my brother stood guard—Phil hiding behind her skirts—while Papa went through their pockets and brought his haul back over to the injured driver so he could reclaim his belongings and money.

“Who are you, Samson?” cried the hay cart driver. “I’ve never seen anything like that! This is all the money I had in the world. My name is Johannes Pikus. I owe you my life—and all of my family’s lives! What can I ever do to repay you?”

“As a matter of fact, we’re looking for a place to stay,” replied Papa, gleefully pocketing the rest of the robber’s cash. “If you could somehow find us a bed for the night, we’ll call it even.”

“I’ll tuck you in myself if you do me one more favor,” said the driver.

Papa may have been short and stocky, but he was pure power when a good deal presented itself. Mama tended to the injured driver while Papa managed to flip the cart back over and load up the scattered bales of hay. He hitched the carts together and our little wagon train headed into Vienna. (Once again, I supervised the whole operation from my bassinet.)

The next morning, my family woke up in a big bed on the second floor of a Viennese farmhouse. We heard a commotion that sounded like a small army in a mess hall and went downstairs to find a big family yakking a mile a minute and enjoying their breakfast.

“Good morning from the entire Pikus family!” shouted Johannes, his head now lovingly bandaged and his mouth full of sausage. “This is my father, my mother, my wife Mary, and my children Christine, little Mary, and Junior. Please, sit and eat as much as you like.”

Papa said the meal was one of the most delicious he’d ever had, but I suspect any breakfast seasoned with the hero treatment would be delectable.

“How did you get to be so handy with a tree branch?” questioned our host.

“I’ve had too much practice defending myself from the rotten Cossacks,” Papa chuckled. “We’re off to America to avoid them for good.”

Coincidentally, the Pikus family’s close friends and neighbors were entertaining some visitors from Ohio—a land so exotic, it sounded to us like Tahiti, or Shangri-La. Johannes offered to take us along with his family for a visit after breakfast so we could ask questions about the best way to get across to New York. Both families piled into our cart and rode through the countryside, me happily in the care of little Junior who, at three, already seemed to have a way with the ladies.

The visitors from America were part of the Mueller family, longtime neighbors of our host Johannes Pikus. He had grown up with Otto Mueller and his sister Nancy, who had moved to America and married a handsome American named McKinzie Young. When my family and the Pikuses arrived, McKinzie and Nancy and their four children were out in front of the Mueller’s house, tossing a ball back and forth with big leather gloves while their grandparents watched, delighted. Otto Mueller seemed confused.

Johannes introduced my family to the Youngs and the Muellers and asked Otto what the children were up to.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “McKinzie insists Americans are crazy for this game. They toss the ball around and hit it with a stick, and then sometimes they run in a big circle. It’s Greek to me.”

“It’s easy,” laughed McKinzie. “And men make big bucks playing this in the States!”

“It’s not so easy. My nephew Denton’s been throwing that ball at me all morning and I haven’t hit it with that stick even once,” laughed Otto.

“How about everything in my wallet against everything in yours that my friend Zachary Kalish here could hit that ball,” said Johannes. He’d been suckering Otto, who could never resist a bet, since they were both children.

“You’re on,” said Otto, shaking with Johannes.

I was up on the porch with Mama, Nancy, and Mrs. Mueller, the matriarch of the family, all of whom were munching on candy and watching the men make fools of themselves. Junior, ever the ladies’ man, popped a delicious Viennese sweet in my mouth and Mama said she watched me fall in love with my first taste of chocolate. It’s been my longest love affair— long after I gave all three husbands the boot, me and chocolate are still going strong!

Nancy told Mama that Denton was the star of his school’s baseball team and it would be a miracle if Papa managed to hit the ball, but Mama just smiled and took another sweet. Denton’s first pitch proved Nancy right. Papa swung and missed by a mile. As Otto giggled with glee, Mama got up, walked over to the back of our cart, grabbed the gnarled old tree branch she had saved from the last night’s ambush, and delivered it to Papa. He winked and put down the Youngs’ regulation baseball bat.

Denton fired another fastball to Papa and, to McKinzie and Otto’s amazement, Papa connected with his ridiculous bat and the ball soared toward the house. It landed square in the middle of the plate of Austrian chocolate. When Mama got back to the porch, she found me sitting in Junior’s lap with my mouth all over the chocolate-covered ball.

“If you can’t outpitch a man with a tree branch,” said McKinzie, smacking the back of his son’s head, “you’re never going to make it in the big leagues!”

Johannes took the ball from me and asked Denton to autograph it. He handed it to Otto as a memento of yet another lousy bet he’d lost to Johannes over the course of their friendship.

 

I didn’t run into my first boyfriend Junior Pikus again until 1919, when I was playing at Reisenweber’s nightclub in New York City. This was before Al and I were married and Al brought Junior, then a no-name young pitcher for the New York Yankees, along to my show that night. I joined Al after my set and when he introduced me to Junior, the name clicked with Papa’s old story.

“Junior, this might sound loony but—you wouldn’t happen to have family outside Vienna, would you?” I said, taking a stab.

“Al, you said your lady was a singer, not a mind-reader!” laughed Junior. “Yeah, I grew up there but I came over when I was ten and stayed with some cousins here.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” I gasped. “My father used to tell a story about staying with a Pikus family outside Vienna on our way to the States. This was maybe 1887.”

“I would’ve been three then. How old were you?”

“Two months,” I said. “Rumor has it we had quite a love affair.” I told Junior the whole tale and we made a pact, then and there, to someday head back to Vienna together. That’s the old friend Al and I were supposed to meet at the Vienna train station in 1931, on the second stop on our honeymoon tour of the Kalish family’s history.

Unfortunately, Junior was late and the railroad had lost our trunks somewhere in the station. Angrily, Lackey hailed a taxi cab to take us toward the center of town so we could kill some time while waiting for our luggage to turn up. There was nothing more I wanted than to take a hot bath and relax, but all of a sudden in the car, Al was feeling horny. He did his very bad Valentino impression and I did my very good impression of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic.

I hopped out of the car in a particularly quaint little corner of town and Al followed along. We had stumbled into the Jewish Quarter of Vienna. A little stroll seemed like a good way to bring Al from a boil down to a simmer.

Eventually we came upon a little music shop and, when Al pointed out the record in the window, we decided to have a little fun. We greeted the man behind the counter and weren’t surprised when he answered in Yiddish. My biggest hit at the time was still “My Yiddishe Momme,” which was the record he had stacked high in the window display.

“Tell me about that record you’ve got in the window there,” I asked.

“Oh, that one? Everyone’s got that record. I can hardly keep it in stock! The only things you can count on finding in every single house in this part of town are salt, pepper, and ‘My Yiddishe Momme,’” he said, handing me a copy.

"What if I told you I was Sophie Tucker?"

"Permit me to introduce myself. I'm Ludwig Van Beethoven."

“Why don’t you put the record on, Ludwig?” I asked.

Imagine the look on his face when I began to sing along with my own record. He stared at the cover and back at me, cursed a blue streak, and ran out the door wildly screaming that Sophie Tucker was in his store. Before long I was surrounded by a throng of Yiddishe mommes, papas, children, grandmothers, and even a few Yiddishe cats and dogs. So much for a calm stroll!

“My Yiddishe Momme” has sold over three million copies to date.

“Hey Al!” someone yelled from the back of the crowd. Junior had finally turned up.

Pikus grabbed my hand, I grabbed Al’s, and we made our escape through some of the finer back alleys of Vienna. Eventually we ended up at the Grand Hotel and collapsed on a couch in the lobby.

“You still move okay for a washed up old pitcher,” Al said, poking Junior in his gut. He went to go check us in. Even if our luggage was still lost, I could at least get my bath and catch a few winks before we went to see the Pikus family the next day. Junior popped a piece of Austrian chocolate in his mouth and offered me one. I’m sure my public would’ve thanked him for keeping me in classic Sophie Tucker shape.

Al came storming back through the lobby. “Well, the good news is that they found the trunks. They’re in Bratislava,” he said with a scowl.

“How’s that the good news?” I asked.

“Because the bad news is that our reservation was wrong. They don’t have us on the books until tomorrow and there isn’t even a spare broom closet in this dump tonight,” he said. I shoved another piece of chocolate in my mouth and sunk back on the couch, getting ready to settle in for the night, but Junior suggested we really reenact the Kalish journey and stay with his family. He’d bought the big Mueller spread a few years back to give his family some extra space, so there was plenty of room for all of us. Besides, imposing on the Pikuses was practically a family tradition.

Later on that afternoon, I was once again parked on the same porch in the Austrian countryside, happily munching on chocolate. Instead of Papa and McKinzie Young out on the lawn it was Junior and Al, who reluctantly volunteered to be a catcher for Junior’s mandatory daily workout. He was still an active Yankee and had to keep his arm limber.

Some things never change, though, and Johannes Pikus senior and Otto Mueller were seated near me on the porch. The two old friends had lived together since Junior bought the Mueller property. As usual, Otto had placed an extravagant and unwinnable bet on their chess game.

“You should take Al to the majors with you, Junior!” I heckled from the peanut gallery. My husband managed to communicate a rude hand gesture back to me, even while wearing his mitt.

“Why don’t you let me try to hit a few?” Al asked Junior. “That’ll put a cork in Sophie.”

Junior lobbed a few slow pitches toward Al and he whiffed on every one. Johannes and Otto, still somewhat mystified by the allure of baseball, looked on and chuckled.

“Hey lover boy, can you swing the other way? The wind is giving me a chill,” I yelled.

“You think you can do better, Babe Ruth?” Al hollered, tossing the bat in my direction.

I came down off the porch and picked up the bat. I’d played my fair share of baseball in Riverside Park when I was a young girl in Hartford, but that was more than thirty years earlier. I knew that baseball was something you didn’t forget, like riding a bike, but batting against a Yankee was like remembering how to ride a bike blindfolded and with no hands.

Junior’s first pitch was right down the middle and I took a swing and missed. Al cackled and tossed the ball back to Pikus triumphantly. I shot Lackey a glare and instructed the Yankee to throw a straight fastball. I purposely kept the bat on my shoulder and let the ball hit Al right in his crown jewels.

After that, he stopped laughing.

I don’t know whether Junior just wanted me to shut Al up or whether the patron saint of baseball was also on holiday in the Austrian countryside that day, but on my third pitch I managed to knock the ball right toward the house and through a window on the second floor.

 I looked up in horror.

“That’s okay, Soph, that’s my room. It gets a little stuffy in there sometimes. I could use a little bit of a breeze,” joked Junior.

 As we were standing on the lawn gawking at my home run, Otto ducked into the house and emerged with something in his hand.

“I think you earned this,” he said, handing me a dirty old baseball. I looked down and, in childish writing, I saw Denton Young’s name on the ball my Papa had knocked into the plate of chocolates all those years before. Otto had kept it as a reminder to be careful when he made bets with Johannes.

It’s a shame Otto and Johannes didn’t keep up with that odd American sport with the bat, since little Denton Young did in fact make it to the majors. When he did, he had an arm so fierce his pitches earned him the nickname “Cyclone,” which he shortened to Cy.

Cy Young's baseball card.

Extras

"It's a Pleasure," written by Jack Yellen and Milton Ager in 1931, is one of more than a dozen of Tucker’s specialty songs celebrating a new man in her life. Most of these songs involve her accompanist and straight man, Ted Shapiro, egging her on and feigning surprise that Sophie is in love yet again. The lyrics inevitably reveal that Tucker has known her latest conquest for one night (or less) and, of course, the Red Hot Mama never remembers his name.

Late one night in 1925, Sophie got a call in her room at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. Whenever her pal Jack Yellen finished writing a new song that he was excited about, he called Sophie to debut it. Jack’s mother had recently passed away and he had been working on a tribute to her for months, and that song became Sophie’s biggest hit, "My Yiddishe Momme."

This song became an anthem for Jews worldwide, particularly during and after World War II. With the exception of a three month lull in early 1926 while Sophie mourned the death of her own mother, she was requested to sing "My Yiddish Momme" at every performance for the next forty years.