Too Many Xs by Jesse Gloyd

Jesse Gloyd lives in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, California, my new favorite American neighborhood. Buckshot Boogaloo is his web site, where you’ll find thoughtful and valuable essays, and the Buckshot Boogaloo podcast.

I’m trying to catch the perfect mood, the perfect literary metaphor for Satchel Paige. I can’t. I can’t seem to put his life in the proper context. I can’t seem to figure out the perfect angle. It’s almost as if he purposefully made his life confusing a roadmap or a treasure map with X’s marking random spots. I can’t blame Satchel alone for my lack of context. My wife is eating cherries next to me. She’s eating cherries and flipping through a People Magazine. I can only turn up my music so loud. I can’t stand the sound of people chewing: the suck, the crunch, and the spit of the pit into the plastic drinking cup. The sounds are mixed up, faulty. They are metaphorically inaccurate.

It might also be metaphorically inaccurate to say Satchel Paige was Methuselah with a golden arm, but I’m not going for accuracy at this point. He threw three innings when he was fifty-nine. Charlie Finley put a rocking chair in the bullpen. Satchel needed his pension, so Charlie let him pitch. There’s a photo of him in the rocker with a nurse by his side. He is statuesque, a lizard basking in the sun. He looks ageless, metaphorically prehistoric. Metaphorically prehistoric sounds nice, it sounds correct, but it isn’t a thing. It’s confusing. It’s faulty.

Age rests at the heart of the confusing map that was Satchel’s existence. Age should be the perfect frame. It should be the mold that we use to cast the essence of Satchel. He was old. He was the archetype of old. He was Methuselah. He was bigger than Methuselah. He was a Patriarch, Biblical in stature. The problem is that age doesn’t tell the whole story. Age is the shadow. Age is the lamppost we use to lean. It helps us steady. It keeps us from falling.

I dedicated a great deal of thought to my grandmother when I was first putting this piece together. I wrote a detailed introduction (and then threw it out with a grandiose sweeping delete). The detailed introduction was introspective and sad. It was a window to a time when I mourned. The bridge was a bit shaky though. Satchel moved too fast to mourn. His type was rambling. He wasn’t easy to pin down. Age turned out to be the only common link between Satchel and my grandmother, age and the ravages of time.

She lived in Texas and moved around. I think her family might have been involved with the circus.

My grandmother was easy to pin down. Her life was rough, but she loved people and she made it through. The Great Depression bit her hard. She lived in Texas and moved around. I think her family might have been involved with the circus. She moved, Satchel moved. Satchel was always running away from situations; my grandmother confronted and dealt. The parallels between the two were forced, they were false. My perception was something of a lie.

Satchel Paige was a beautiful lie. Lying was his trademark, but his idea of the lie was masked. The lie became the story, the tallest of the tall tales. People paid to see him lie. They paid to watch him pitch, so they, too, could have a faulty leg to stand on when telling their own lies about Satchel. Bojangles taught him how to jangle. James P. Johnson taught him how to roll. He got the better of Dizzy Dean on more than one occasion. His lies have been documented. They were beautiful. They were integral. The best lies have a life. His could dance. His could sing. His could juke. His could jive. Understanding the lie, I thought, was the key to understanding Satchel Paige. The lies weren’t truly lies, though, because they weren’t malicious.

His lies were half-baked myths propped up with hyperbole and suspect detail. For example, his pitches, even though they were all of the same ilk, had different names: Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Bee Ball, Hesitation. The names made them strong, the names added to his legacy, they added to the hyperbolic metaphor that was his everyday existence. His pitches were his arsenal, his iconic weapons. But unlike Hobbs’ Wonderboy, Crockett’s Betsy, and Arthur’s Excalibur, Satchel’s pitches were disposable. They were more akin to symphonic movements. They were short, brilliantly violent bursts of poetry. They had voice. They sang. They were balladeers, their melodies existing as a means of bolstering the legend, and confusing the map.

his pitches, even though they were all of the same ilk, had different names: Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Bee Ball, Hesitation. The names made them strong.

He also had rules for living, rules for staying young.

1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.

These rules added to the myth. They became canonical. They helped create the perception. But perception is easily corrupted, especially self-perception. After all, Satchel was always running. He was always looking back. He was running away from women and professional obligations. He rambled. He lied. He sang. He danced.

In 1959 he rambled onto the set of Robert Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country. He played Tobe Sutton, the fictional representation of a Buffalo Soldier. In a sense, his rambling existence owed as much to the Buffalo Soldier as anything. He was a warrior, but he was taken for granted. He had to fight for respect, and the respect that he earned needed the lamppost of hyperbole and metaphor to help prop it up for the masses to accept. It was drunken respect, sloppy respect.

The social ramble ain’t restful.

His involvement with the film was chronicled in the December 1959 issue of Ebony. Director Robert Parrish stated that Satchel had “every possibility to become a definite screen personality.” Screen personality. His legend lived, and still lives, in the deep mine shaft of a nation’s collective subconscious as a personality. He was great, he was magnificent, but his magnificence was hidden by his personality.

Then there was the time that he led a band of Negro League legends to the Dominican Republic. A government official commissioned him to round up the best of the best. His team would represent Rafael Trujillo1. Trujillo was ruthless, but Trujillo loved baseball. While Satchel and his team (a team that featured Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, among others) were playing in the Dominican Republican and being praised for their skill, Trujillo was executing as many as 30,000 dark skinned Haitians. It was Trujillo’s intent to lighten the country. The paradox is chilling. There were rumors of midnight executions. Cool Papa Bell was convinced their time would come if they didn’t play well. Armed Dominican soldiers would line the field. They were veterans of the firing squad. They were veterans of destruction, agents of death.

In the end, everyone made it home fine. The trip lined their pockets and added to the fractured legend that was their existence. The legend and the lies that accompanied Satchel were a needed thing. They increased his status and made him a desirable figure in a rough world.

In 1971 Satchel Paige appeared on What’s My Line? The audience knew to be excited, even though Satchel looked old, weathered. His suit was brown. The atmosphere was camp.

Soupy Sales was curious, “… is that because, you are well known, because of your appearances on television?”

“Nope,” said Satchel.

“Are you known for your work in the theater?” asked Sandy Duncan.

“Nope,” he lied.

“Are you well known?” asked Henry Morgan.

“Yap,” said Satchel, grinning because he was. He was in on the joke. He was always in on the joke. There were times it seemed he was so deeply in on the joke that reality was blurred. Sometimes the line didn’t even exist. His cheek was Kaufman-esque. His cheek helped him make a living and travel the world long after the golden arm had lost its efficiency. When he was on What’s My Line? the arm was hidden beneath the brown sleeve of his brown suit. He seemed pained, distant, forlorn. The laughs may have been some sort of anesthetic to the pain of age, but he had to have had an understanding of his importance.

Maybe perception and understanding are the keys to grasping the metaphorical map. I have a hard time perceiving the existence of my grandmother now that she has been dead for a few years. I can grasp it sonically when I listen to Patsy Cline sing “Faded Love”, which is why I generally skip “Faded Love” when it comes up on random. Too many things seem to be coming up on random. My disdain for the sound of chewing is probably rooted in some self-preserving desire to disconnect. I don’t want to listen to people exist. I don’t want to think about people ceasing to exist. I want everything to float along. I want my life to fill with hyperbolic metaphors. I want these metaphors to take over and numb the pain and sadness that comes with time.

I want to personify hyperbole, because Satchel was the personification of hyperbole. I want to give a life performance drenched in melancholic melancholia, to be the embodiment of embodiment, the era of an era, the man with the golden arm, and the metaphorical metaphor. Satchel was those things.

But the reality is that my stable existence, my duties as a father and husband are far too important, far too meaningful. Satchel Paige wasn’t fond of the social ramble; he wasn’t fond of looking back. This is fine, except that life is too short. We need to enjoy the social ramble, and our very existence depends on us looking back. If we don’t enjoy every annoying sound, and if we don’t let ourselves embrace pain, we run the risk of losing connection with the outside world. We run the risk of fossilizing our essence, of creating a metaphorical hyperbolic legend that stifles reality. We run the risk of creating maps with no real direction and too many Xs marking too many spots.

  1. “Trujillo’s 30 years in power, to Dominicans known as the Trujillo Era (Spanish: La Era de Trujillo), is considered one of the bloodiest ever in the Americas, as well as a time of a classic personality cult, when monuments to Trujillo were in abundance.”, via wikipedia

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One Response to Too Many Xs by Jesse Gloyd

  1. Most of the pieces I read about Negro League players often reduce them odball tangents in baseball lore. This one portrays Satchel as almost Biz Markie-esque… San Diego Chicken-y, even. It’s great to get into the quirks and nuances of individual lives, lord knows Satchel had those in spades. But—and I say this having a soft spot for Negro Leaguers as my long deceased uncle played for the Birmingham Barons at one point—we do so at the detriment of their legacy and our own truth.

    Dizzy Dean, once played some unsanctioned barnstorming games with Negro League all-stars. When asked about the level of talent that most american baseball fans hadn’t seen Dean said, “If these guys were allowed to play, there’d be a lot of white players out of work.”

    Joe DiMaggio was once asked who the toughest pitcher was he faced. He named a couple guys then said “Satchel Paige was hard, too.”

    Satchel Paige, due to nothing but the prejudice and racism of Major League baseball didn’t make it to the majors till he was 42 years old. When one of the great hitters of all-time says that one of his toughest opponents was a guy who couldn’t get in the game till he hit an age that 99% of athletes are retiring at, you gotta wonder…

    Satchel was either that good or DiMaggio wasn’t.

    My uncle had great memories of those times—he tell me about ‘em when I was a kid… But there was always some anger in his voice. As I got older and learned why his memories of being a former athlete weren’t as peaches and cream as they shoulda been. I also learned whyt the Negro Leagues existed and why Jackie Robinson—who was never the best player on any of the negro league teams he played—got picked for Branch Rickey’s MLB integration crusade, my view of baseball changed.

    So much of our lore is what we chose to remember, chose to forget…

    Babe Ruth never faced a single black pitcher in his entire career. His reward: still revered as the greatest HR machine of all time. the MLB hitters didn’t get a crack at Satchel till he was 20 years past his prime.

    Satchel’s reward: An odd fellow whose pitch names were better than his actual pitches and somewhat of an attention whore.

    Guess it beats the alternative of not being remembered at all. Or intentionally forgotten.