the razzle and the dazzle
I used to watch this man construct a handmade parasol in Myanmar. He was on a long drive from the airport in Heho to Inle Lake in the hill country of the Shan state. He would make the most intricate workings, all out of bamboo and a home smelted blade and lathe, he would perform the building of parasols for bus tours, the whole thing would take 5 minutes and was a miracle every time. His bare foot would turn the wheel and his hands (only slightly scarred) would delicately perform the transformation, he had timing and pause and presentation, it was wonderful. And when the busses would leave he would pull out his electric guitar and amplifier, plug in and play old Ramones riffs, it was electric, it was godlike. Vaudevillian, a true performer.
To hold the attention of a group of people takes a certain skill. It differs from holding the attention of one, a group moves like heavy fluid, is more fickle. I am just back from the Low Country, Savannah and Charleston and the salt marshes in between. There is theater in the business of travel; hotels as stages, walled off resorts creating fictional worlds you end up living in, presentations of histories and cultures written out like fiction and poetry. Some of the presentation is for the sake of communication, sometimes it ends up eating itself and turns into an alternate universe that doesn’t actually reflect reality; think Helen Georgia, or the beach resorts of Cancun and Cuba. Venice Beach in Los Angeles was built to be an amusement park based off Venice Italy, a failed attempt, but the canals are still there.
There is a theater in sports as well, and I found a particular theater that captured some deep American-ness down there in the tidal landscape, in the Spanish moss; Banana Ball.
Baseball pitchers in the early part of the 20th century were raconteurs. The pay for play wasn’t much so many moonlighted in vaudeville acts touring with the Baseball team and the night time antics of stage, song, and dance. It was a marriage that made sense, pitchers usually were witty fast talking showmen who would not only try and crush their opponents with the speed of a pitch, but also break down their ego with banter, made for the stage, and in a way, raised by the mound on the field already.
Christy Mathewson, in 1910, was the highest paid pitcher in the game, but would spend 17 weeks a year touring on the stage in the off season. Babe Ruth himself sang a few songs for the entertainment of others. I think some of us forget at times but it is a sport birthed from a certain America, a broadway America, and Baseball has in its DNA the theater, they call the Major leagues the big show.
Some of us have not forgotten though, and I felt the pulse of the big show in a small, old baseball diamond in Savannah Georgia.
The diamond is Grayson Stadium, a WPA rebuilt baseball field that has hosted a revolving door of minor league teams throughout the past 100 years. Since 2016, the Savannah Bananas have been the team, in part a member of the Coastal Plain League in the West division, and in part making their own league of sorts on the fly, a new sport, a new baseball called Bananaball.
In true American dream fashion, the theater and the razzle and dazzle of business are one in the same with the vaudeville baseball history. Stadium and team owners wanted to fill seats, to pay the bills, so an entrepreneurial spirit was baked into the Baseball history of the USA. You see this in stories of owners and gimmicks, like the franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck in the 1940’s and 50’s. Veeck jumped, jived, and wailed his way through the business of baseball, he was the one who planted ivy on the walls of Wrigley Field. Why? Because there was nothing in the rule books about not having plant growth on the walls to make it hard to catch the deep balls. He had outfield walls that were adjustable, so he could bring the wall in or out between innings. He thought and lived outside of the box and forced Baseball to shift, morph, and change.
Jesse Cole is dipped in the same matter, cut from the same cloth. Jesse is the owner of the Savannah Bananas and is redefining fun for the sport that has, if you ask some, become bloated like the rock ballads of the 1970’s. The pop culture train likes to swing drastically and if we look at the history of rock n roll for any analogies, what came as musical retribution for Iron Butterfly’s Ina Gadda Da Vida clocking in at 17:02; Punk Rock came, that’s what, the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, The Ramones, bands who’s songs had a collective average length of 2:32. Jesse decided to cut a baseball game down to 2 hours max, keep it fast, keep it fun. He didn’t stop there. No Bunting, No walks allowed, batters can steal 1st base, and my personal favourite, a simple and elegant way to engage a crowd, any foul ball caught by a fan is an out. 2 Hours of jam packed baseball/Bananaball fun for the family.
The dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist will say it is sensationalism, it is gimmick after gimmick, and I say to them, what was the 7th inning stretch other than a marketing ploy (in part created by Bill Veeck with the addition of singing “Take me out to the ballgame”).
I am no fan of baseball, don’t get me wrong, I don’t know all the stats, I don’t follow a team, I don’t fully understand the game, but I am a fan of fun and of sports for fun, and what I see here is a harken back to the days of baseball old, a flexible rule book that when you boil it down, originated from a game played in the streets with a stick and a ball. That is the beating heart of this sport to me, it is a kids game that should morph and change like all kids games do, to keep the fun levels high, and the lame levels low.
It was a wonderful slice of optimism and hope in a time of American history that is thick with loss and weight. Savannah is the perfect place to birth Bananaball as well, it is a strange odd-ball city in the bible belt, a mixture of quirk and classic, a flamboyant tradition.