The Life and Times of an American Legend
by Larry Tye
I want to be "the onliest man in the United States that nobody knows nothin' about," declared Satchel Paige; and to that end he dished out a variety of dates and places of birth, explanations of his nickname, and statements concerning his family, his marital status, and his wealth. Over time, reporters and historians have nailed down the facts in most of these matters; but it is in a larger respect that Satchel Paige remains an insoluble mystery. That is in the particulars that make up baseball's enduring reality: statistics. According to Paige, he played for 250 different teams -- a statement that, like most coming from this great fabulist, may or may not be true; but, in this case, it is certainly possible. In addition to having played under contract for countless teams -- semipro, major and minor Negro leagues, winter and Latin leagues, and eventually the integrated majors and Triple-A -- Paige freelanced, barnstormed, and was rented out throughout his entire career, a picaresque series of escapades and ordeals running from his debut as a semi-pro in 1924 to his three-inning swan song for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965.
Paige would have needed to employ his own personal statistician to keep track of his record. And he did have one, in a manner of speaking: himself. He claimed to have kept a notebook recording his every performance, racking up, he said, more than 2,500 appearances and around 2,000 wins. "The numbers were dizzying," Larry Tye notes in this new biography, "but each required an asterisk explaining that Satchel kept records the way he set them: with flair, grace, and hoopla." To complement the patchy and embellished statistical record, we have the reports of fellow players, coaches, managers, club owners, umpires, sports reporters, fans, and biographers, of which Tye is only the second to devote an entire book to the subject. Out of a welter of testimony, not all of it charitable to say the least, we get the feeling -- knowledge not being possible -- that Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher who ever lived.
He was born Leroy Robert Page on July 7, 1906, in Mobile, Alabama. The "i" materialized in his surname sometime around the time his father died, and the moniker Satchel was, variously, a tribute to his feet or to his prowess in handling suitcases or stealing them -- or something. He was sent to the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Lawbreakers at age 12; and it was there, under the tutelage of coach Edward Byrd, that he developed his legendary pitching form: Leg cocked to the heavens, right arm trailing miles behind before it looped forward, endlessly, shooting "fire and smoke over the pan to make even the heaviest of the invading clouters look like shuffleboard players." Released from reform school as a 6' 3", 140-pound 17-year-old, he signed on with the semi-pro Mobile Tigers, moving on to the professional Chattanooga White Sox and, later, the New Orleans Black Pelicans. In 1927 he finally made it to the Birmingham Black Barons, his first team in the black majors, whence he jumped on and off for the next four years. Blazing fast from the beginning, he was "wild as a march hen" until he came under the guidance of Mobile manager Alex Herman. After that, as he said, "It got so I could nip frosting off a cake with my fast ball." By 1933, with almost a dozen teams to his hydra-headed record, he had developed a curve ball and entered his heyday, playing for two of the Negro leagues' greatest teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and, eventually, the Kansas City Monarchs. Jumping contracts and playing all year round, often with white players, he pitched across the nation, from Bismarck, North Dakota to Florida, from California to New England, as well as stints in Venezuela and the Caribbean, including a win-or-be-shot season in the Dominican Republic for dictator Rafael Trujillo's pet team. Despite a frightening period during which he suffered from a desperately sore arm, he could have been the dominant pitcher in all baseball.
But, no. Instead he was attended by the constant refrain: "If only you were white." The trials of black baseball players make up a continuous and melancholy strand in this biography. Enduring routine racial insults in the North and outright segregation and even vigilantism in the South, the players also had to put up with the brutal travelling conditions, shabby uniforms, dilapidated equipment, and uncertain paychecks that were attendant upon working for cash-strapped club owners.
For all that, Satchel Paige, showman, master of the mound, and perhaps the most celebrated black ballplayer in America, made a great deal of money. He spent with abandon, living high and, as it happens, often letting his teammates down at will, showing up late, dogging it on the field. Nonetheless, he, and many others, believed he should be the man to break baseball's color bar; indeed, he had already played a good deal with major-league greats in winter ball. But as much as his age ("Methuselah was my batboy," he liked to say), it was his flashiness and insouciance, his wild life and plurality of wives, and his lack of team spirit that made him precisely the sort of player that tea-totaling, tight-fisted Branch Rickey did not want to put in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. Jackie Robinson was his man: buttoned-down, buttoned-up, college-educated, and a military veteran. Rickey plucked Robinson from the Monarchs without paying the team's owner a dime. When, in 1948, Paige finally got the nod, it was from Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck, a fellow showman and -- in contrast to Rickey -- a square-dealer who paid $15,000 to the Monarchs for their flamboyant, if aging, crowd magnet.
Tye lays out Paige's life and times and long career in workmanlike prose, bringing it down to his death in a heat wave in Kansas City in 1982. He sets the record straight on a number of particulars, not only with respect to Paige's many assertions of derring-do -- tales that grew in altitude over the years -- but also in what the great aphorist actually said and what was manufactured for him, the latter including his well-known rules for staying young. Most important, the book adds depth to an important chapter in baseball history. For decades, the story of black players was streamlined and simplified, defined against the white major leagues and located exclusively in this country's history of racial inequality. It was portrayed chiefly as a long, arduous trek to integrating the game, with Jackie Robinson's first season as a Dodger serving as the natural finale. Meanwhile, the black leagues tended to be characterized as expedient substitutes for the real deal, rather than institutions in their own right. In recent years, however, the story has considerably expanded and deepened with excellent books appearing on blackball, its players and owners and the milieu they fostered. Satchel is a fine contribution to this shelf, further developing what Tye calls the "tragic and epic" history of black baseball, as well as showing how central the integration of the game was to the struggle for black civil rights in the country as a whole. Above all it fleshes out the part played in both, blackball and integration, by the "Million-Dollar String Bean," Satchel Paige.