According to author Larry Tye, the great pitcher Satchel Paige
“was being Satchel fifty years before Manny Ramirez started
being Manny.” He was known for his entertaining, if sometimes
bizarre, behavior on the field, such as calling in his fielders and
proceeding to strike out the opposition or exhibiting (almost
literally) pinpoint control.
At the height of his career, Paige was the most recognizable
African-American athlete, more so than Joe Louis and Jesse Owens,
one of those icons whose fame extended beyond his occupation. His
maxim (if it actually was his), “Don’t look
back, something might be gaining on you,” is one of the most
famous quotes, applicable to just about any situation. Sure, Paige
was a colorful character, but he was much more, not just to the
national pastime, but to the African-American community at a time
when they were not allowed to participate in
Tye, a journalist for the Boston Globe, has put
together a riveting book, in which he attempts to separate fact
from myth. It’s a near-impossible task. Take Paige’s
age, for example. When he was a boy, growing up
in Mobile, Alabama, there were no “official”
birth records in the black community; several dates have been
listed before one was settled upon.
Tye presents the pitcher as a social and racial pioneer. If a
white team wished to schedule a game with Paige’s
barnstorming team, they had to assure that his crew would have an
acceptable place to eat and sleep. He had bittersweet experiences
playing against teams comprised of Major Leaguers such as Bob
Feller and Dizzy Dean. While he enjoyed the competition against the
game’s best, he had to deal with the disappointment of
exclusion from their ranks. “If only you were
white…” was a comment he heard many a time.
Paige and many of his contemporaries --- Josh Gibson, Cool Papa
Bell, Turkey Stearns, Double Duty Radcliffe --- were considered too
old or “the wrong kind of Negro” to open the door to
the Major Leagues. Tye recounts the animosity between them and
Jackie Robinson, the chosen one, whom they thought was simply not
that good of a player, hadn’t paid his dues, and was
therefore undeserving of the honor. Robinson, on the other hand,
disdained his elders’ acquiescent philosophy.
Paige finally got his chance, signing with the Cleveland Indians
in 1948. By then, however, he was well into his 40s, his speed
mostly gone; he was more of an attraction, brought on board to sell
tickets rather than to win games. He would later pitch for the St.
Louis Browns from 1951-53 and --- 12 years later at the age of 58
--- the Kansas City Athletics. So beloved was Paige that even after
he was in his 50s, he found a place on the Atlanta Braves
long enough to qualify for his Major League pension. In 1971, he
was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Tye writes with a combination of a fan’s adulation and a
scholar’s skepticism, accepting nothing at face value. His
notes and bibliography sections are impressive, and he offers the
accomplishments of Paige’s “official” Negro and
Major League statistics. But it was the barnstorming, the
exhibition games played in one-horse towns and hamlets across the
country that secured the legend, and for that we have only
Paige’s estimates on which to rely. The claims are
astounding: more than 2,000 victories, more than 100 no-hitters,
thousands of strikeouts. Whether that’s true or not is a
subject of debate; the mainstream media rarely covered Negro League
games, and certainly not the exhibition contest necessary. Much of
this information is anecdotal, legends, repeated over and over,
mostly by the black press of the day.
Even Tye concedes that, left to such devices, athletes often
tend to inflate their performance:
“He did it because reshaping history was intoxicating and
empowering. It was the same intelligence that saw him defy traffic
laws and the laws of nature, lie about his age and his wives, and
adopt his as his own a ghostwriter’s rules for clean living.
He did it because his memory faltered over the years, and he had
accomplished so much and told his story so often that he believed
many of his adornments.”
Sadly, Paige died as he feared he would: impoverished and mostly
forgotten. It makes Tye’s book all the more important.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonKaplanNJ@comcast.net) on January 23, 2011