Two fifteen-year-old boys, growing up within five blocks of each other in the early 1940’s, meet during a baseball game one Sunday in June. The game is an athletic competition between yeshivas, or Jewish parochial schools. The ensuing game takes on warlike proportions. One team is led by Danny Saunders, the eldest son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, Reb Isaac Saunders, who had led his people out of Russia to the United States. This team, and all of Reb Saunders’s followers, wear the traditional clothing, corresponding with Hasidism’s founding in the eighteenth century: black hats or skullcaps, long black coats, and fringed prayer garments called tzitzits. Their long earlocks also set them apart.
The other team is led by Reuven Malter, son of widowed teacher and scholar David Malter. The marked difference between the two teams is exemplified by their respective coaches. Mr. Galanter, a gym teacher from the public school system, moonlights by teaching in Reuven’s school. He wears modern clothing and is described as “fanatically addicted to professional baseball.” Danny’s team is escorted to the ball field by a coach who is a rabbi. Dressed in traditional black garb, he reads a book while the teams play ball. His sole advice to his team is “Remember why and for whom we play.”
One of Reuven’s teammates warns him “They’re murderers.” The truth of this observation becomes evident early in the game. Although the majority of Danny’s teammates are unremarkable ballplayers, they play with a fierce intensity. During the game, one of Danny’s hits strikes pitcher Reuven, shattering his glasses and injuring his left eye. Reuven is taken to the hospital and undergoes surgery to remove glass splinters. Reuven learns that, in addition to having a concussion, he faces the possibility of scar tissue causing blindness in that eye.
While in the hospital Reuven makes several friends. Two are fellow patients in the eye ward. Tony Savo, a professional boxer, had lost an eye because of a boxing injury. Billy Merrit, a young boy, had been blinded in a car accident. The most surprising new friend, however, is Danny. When Danny first visits Reuven in the hospital, Reuven notes that “he looked a little like the pictures I had seen of Abraham Lincoln before he grew the beard.” Danny tries to apologize to Reuven, but Reuven orders him to leave.
Mr. Malter visits his son and, after learning how he treated Danny, reprimands Reuven, telling him that the Talmud commands listening and forgiveness when an apology is offered. During this visit, Reuven and his father also discuss the war in Europe, including the D day invasion by the Allied Powers. “It is the beginning of the end for Hitler and his madmen,” Mr. Malter tells his son. The next day, Danny again visits. Reuven apologizes for his behavior, and the two talk civilly. Danny admits that he did not understand his feelings during the ball game. “I wanted to walk over to you and open your head with my bat,” he says. Reuven observes that Danny “dressed like a Hasid, but he didn’t sound like one.”
During their first sustained conversation, Reuven learns of Danny’s photographic mind and phenomenal intelligence. Danny can recite from memory virtually anything he has ever read. Reuven is both awed and disturbed by Danny’s amazing ability, noting that “He did it coldly, mechanically . . . I had the feeling I was watching some sort of human machine at work.”
The boys discuss their professional aspirations. Reuven plans to become a rabbi, although his father hopes he will become a mathematician. Danny is expected to become a rabbi because the position is an inherited one. He admits, however, that if he could choose otherwise, he would become a psychologist.
The hospital visits continue. Reuven’s eye heals, and full vision returns. Sadly, his hospital mates do not fare as well. Nothing could be done to help the boxer, Tony Savo, and the surgery to restore Billy’s sight...
(The entire section is 1,639 words.)