The Pianist and Satchel Paige

Satchel Paige was the source of inspiration for many baseball fans. (via Public Domain)

Aldemaro didn’t like any of his favorite stuff touched before rehearsal. Those objects had meaning for him at each stage of his preparation. On a table by the side of the black Steinway piano he had a broken guitar string, a book by José Rafael Pocaterra (Un Venezolano en la Decadencia), a bunch of marbles, some grains of sand he said were from an African desert, a white t-shirt with two holes in the chest, a dry leaf almost breaking into pieces, a very round stone that looked like a billiard ball, the stick of a popsicle, a little bottle with some liquid inside, and a paper that said “Cabriales-Manzanares.”

But what intrigued Carlos most was a wrinkled and yellowish score sheet that had been filled until the top of the ninth inning. He could understand the presence of the other objects, but a baseball scoring sheet on the table of a musician? What did that mean?

Carlos got a surprise that afternoon at the restaurant. Aldemaro was in the mood to talk. He had started by playing guitar like his father. But Aldemaro didn’t like the guitar, at least not as much as the piano. The first time he saw a piano was in Valencia’s public library. There was a concert, and it was love at first sight.

He knew he didn’t have the money to take a course on piano theory. He kept visiting the public library and watching different performances. He came to know by heart any movement, any harmony, any touch from the hand on the ebony and ivory keys. Since that moment, he began to hear a very intense melody and also to write the lyrics of a song about Panchito Mandefuá, a character in a short story by Pocaterra.

“My dad was a great baseball fan. Every day he uttered at least one sentence related to the game. That’s why some of the lyrics of that song have a touch of baseball, as in ‘Carrerita delata al chigüire a cosa tremenda catire…’ (‘Little stride denounces the chigüire what a menace that is this blond toddler…’). I got inspired by the movements of the runner at first base before he breaks to steal second base…”

Carlos began to play another song on his guitar, and Aldemaro said that despite the fact that he doesn’t make any mention of the marbles in the lyrics, he got the impulse to write it after seeing three kids playing marbles in a Caracas public garden. He had seen many episodes related to children since he had gone to live in Caracas. The music had a very dynamic rhythm, lots of energy. Carlos almost broke the guitar as he performed. “Trompo, patín y vuelta de perinola…cola de papagayo con su cabriola…”

Aldemaro told Carlos he really got his best inspiration for writing that song while watching a rubber ball game in the middle of a street in downtown. All those shouts of the kids when a car was getting closer, the discussions with the pedestrians, the running away when the ball broke a window. Aldemaro got so excited while watching that living photograph that he couldn’t wait to go back home and started to write just there, on the sidewalk or in the entrance of a grocery store. He wanted to report any detail from the most remote angle.

What most impressed him was how far those kids could send the rubber ball by hitting it with their fists and how fast they ran to catch the ball. Carlos kept playing the guitar more slowly, but with the same punching manner.

One afternoon, in the middle of an intense rehearsal session, Aldemaro got closer to his working table and touched the sand grains. “I took this sand one night I was writing the lyrics of this song but couldn’t get the right word — and besides that, the broadcaster on the radio said the team Vencedor had lost the game because the catcher had lost the ball in a crash with the runner…”

Carlos stopped his fingers on the guitar. He wanted to know where he had gone to take that fist of sand. As far as he knew, each time Aldemaro was rehearsing, or composing music or lyrics, nobody could move him out from his studio, not even the most powerful elephant from central Africa.

Well, that last Sunday, Aldemaro had gone to the beach with his family, and his daughter had brought home a bucket filled with sand because she wanted to make a sand castle. The only thing that calmed down Aldemaro from the pain of listening to how his team had lost the game was going to the laundry room and taking a fist of sand from the bucket. “You aren’t going to believe me, Carlitos, but that impulse made me complete the lyrics of this song I was working with: ‘Carretera…acortate carretera…que me ahoga la distancia…de que manera…de que manera.’ (‘Country road… get shorter country road…that I got drowned in the distance… in such a way.’)”

What most impressed Carlos of all the objects on the work table was the white t-shirt with the two holes. He didn’t know how to ask his mentor the story of that shirt. He was afraid that piece of cloth was related to a very sentimental episode of his life, and he didn’t want to upset Aldemaro. But the next song was so lively, so colorful that Carlos didn’t know how, but he asked about the t-shirt, and he wished to be a mute or blind man when he saw how Aldemaro looked at him.

“Well, Carlitos, this is the only story e I don’t like to tell to anybody, not even to my wife or my daughters. I had this girlfriend who was a great fan of the New York Giants, and since she knew how I suffered with each loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers, she assured me the Giants were going to beat the Dodgers in the decisive game of some year of the 1950s I prefer not to remember. So when I listened to the home run of Bobby Thomson, I pulled my t-shirt so hard that I ripped it and made those two holes. In the middle of that I wrote the lyrics of this song: ‘Tonta, gafa y boba…voy a conquistarte para que sepas como soy yo…’ (‘Dumb, silly jerk… I’m going to conquer you to make you know who I am…’)”

Carlos laughed intensely when he fixed his glance on the very round stone. Aldemaro kept looking at him as if asking, “What’s so funny?” That evening was the seventh time Aldemaro asked Carlos for the song he had promised to compose to enter a musical contest. As Carlos answered he hadn’t done anything, Aldemaro got mad and took a stone from the sidewalk.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

“Do you see how spherical this stone is? It’s almost an artistic object, isn’t it? This is the result of many years of natural processes, but there are very few stones like this one. The same happens with music. You have to write and compose every day. Sometimes you get great songs, sometimes not. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know what you can do.”

Then Aldemaro took the stone and made a wind-up he said was the same as his idol’s, Satchel Paige. (Carlos learned some years later that the windup was very different from Paige’s.) Aldemaro threw the stone against the zinc roof. The percussion the stone made on the roof inspired Aldemaro to compose another of his songs, “Toca que toca, toca el musiquito…una canción de moda en su porvenir.”

After the big fear of almost dropping the little bottle filled with a turbid liquid and labeled as Cabriales-Manzanares, Carlos asked Aldemaro the story of that bottle. Aldemaro first asked for the lyrics Carlos owed him. After some minutes in silence, Carlos took a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. Aldemaro looked at it and started to hit the piano keyboard with a very defined rhythm.

“This is really good, Carlitos. I wish I had written the lyrics. All right, the point is this. There is a Venezuelan song I’ve always loved, written by a composer I didn’t know, but as I listened to the music and lyrics it seemed to me that I had been a friend of his for a lifetime. I decided to make a version of that song for one of my first records, so I went to Cumaná to see the Manzanares River. While I was watching the brownish waters of that river, I heard this conversation between two men. ‘Come on, José Antonio, you’re a very good musician, you composed Rio Manzanares, but you don’t know anything about baseball.’ I got closer and told the man I would take him to the ballgame.”

“I asked him about how he had written such a beautiful song, and he told me it was the same as with baseball: by the river breeze, the streets smells, and the people’s voices, he could draw in his mind the picture of what he wrote, ‘When I go to a ballgame, I can tell you if the runner on second base is stealing the catcher’s signs by hearing the sound of the pitcher’s fastball.’ That same afternoon, I got back to Valencia and went to see the Cabriales River after mixing the water I brought from the Manzanares River with a little amount from Cabriales, I went home and made my version of Rio Manzanares.”

The moment was unique, special, wonderful; Aldemaro had completed the music and the lyrics of this song he had been working on for more than seven months. He had promised to write it for a girl who agreed meet him but never showed. “Que no y que si…te oigo decir… Doña Mentira ya me tienes hasta aquí…” Carlos told himself that was the chance to ask his master about that yellowish baseball scoring sheet.

At first, Aldemaro got a little serious. He said that sheet had very sentimental value for him. It dated from the late 1930s, when he was just a boy who worked in a clothing store at Valencia’s downtown. There, he knew the baseball team Vencedor had signed the famous pitcher Satchel Paige and that his debut in Venezuela would be at the San Agustin Stadium in Caracas. He tried to go with the team to Caracas, but the owner said he was too young to go there, that it would be too a great responsibility to assume.

So Aldemaro was very sad, and the only way he could recover a little was when his father gave him this sheet and explained all those strange characters he had to write on the sheet to score the game. This exchange caused him to become absorbed by the passion of scoring the game. Aldemaro was really happy, since he felt as if he was in the stadium looking at how Paige performed from the mound. By the ninth inning, Aldemaro was really sad about what had happened in the game.

He got a little depressed because it’s supposed that Paige was a great pitcher, the one who had impressive pitching duels against Martin Dihigo. That Sunday morning of May 15, 1938, Paige confronted the Cuban hurler Manuel Cocaina García and the Venezuelan team. In the first inning, Francisco Isturiz was retired with a grounder to second base. Cuco Correa batted a single to right field, but Belito Álvarez was dominated on a pop-up to the pitching mound. Then up to bat came García, and he hit a home run to the opposite field.

García also was the winning pitcher, as Venezuela defeated Vencedor 6-3. When Paige wasn’t the losing pitcher, all of the Vencedor’s fans were very upset about that. Aldemaro felt a little better when he read in El Universal a statement from Paige. “Dear friends and fans of the Vencedor B.B.C, I feel very ashamed because I haven’t performed the way I’m supposed to. Just a few fans can understand that I can feel some pain in my arm, but soon it’ll come the beginning of my recovery. I just want some time. All the ballplayers have pain in their arms at the beginning of the season. All I ask for is a little of time and soon I’ll be ready to show what I can do from the mound. Most of all I want you to excuse me. Leroy Satchel Paige.”

Carlos tried to know learn about the pitcher, but Aldemaro just took a seat and started to hit the ebony and ivory keyboard. He almost always took shelter in his piano when sadness came to him. As he performed Poco a Poco, he said Paige didn’t get revenge on Cocaina García, at least not in Venezuela. They faced each other again on June 26, 1938, and this time the Venezuela team won again, 2-1. García allowed four hits, Paige three hits. Then he lost again to García on July 24, 1938, Paige’s last game in Venezuela.

For a while, Aldemaro stopped his performance at the piano. After some minutes he came back. “I knew I had bought this memorabilia when I went to the United States in the 1950s. I just wanted to have some souvenirs from that ballplayer who gave me unforgettable moments. So I got this Cleveland Indians cap, his 1948 baseball card, and a ticket from his debut in the majors. Did you know Satchel is a nickname his childhood friends called him while he earned some money by carrying suitcases at the Mobile train depot? He rigged a pole and some rope to carry three or four bags at once.”

“Any time I take this baseball cap, I remember how I felt that Sunday morning when the owner of the Vencedor team told me I was too young to go with the team to Caracas, but most of all how sad and angered I got any time I knew by the radio or the newspapers that Cocaína García again had beaten Satchel Paige. All I can do now is imagine the Satchel Paige who defeated the Washington Senators once and the Chicago White Sox twice to help the Indians win the pennant in 1948. Then I try to bring this Satchel Paige to the Venezuelan tournament in 1938, just to take revenge on Cocaina García.”

References and Resources

  • Núñez, José A.; Mendez, Alfredo. Años Dorados del Baseball Venezolano. 1927-1945. JAN Editor. 1991. pp 261-266.
  • Shatzkin Mike; Charlton Jim. The Ballplayers. Volume Two. The Idea Logical Press. 1999. pp 839-840.
  • baseball-reference.com
  • Diario El Universal. 1938. Venezuela.
  • baseball-almanac.com


Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.
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Jetsy Extrano
Member
Jetsy Extrano

Your writing is always welcome, Alfonso.

olive dakota
Member

this was beautifully written and a delight to read. thank you.