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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Review: Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
By Larry Tye
© 2009 Larry Tye
Random House, New York

Long before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby crashed the major leagues' gates, there was an implicit assumption among many of the Negro Leagues' elite that they should be the ones to integrate baseball. It didn't happen that way, of course, and Satchel Paige was irretrievably bitter about the slight. Robinson was then a newcomer on the scene with almost no bona fides, as far as Paige was concerned. "I'd been the guy who'd started all that big talk about letting us in the big time," he wrote in his memoir. "I'd been the one everbody'd said should be in the majors," an insult that cut him as "when somebody you loves dies or something dies inside you."

A big part of that was because Paige instinctively grasped something few others did: "Americans have room for just one hero at a time", Larry Tye writes in his fine biography of the pitcher. Paige had to wait until he was 41 to pitch in the majors, then and now a record for a rookie. By that time, his best years were well behind him, but despite it, he became the first black pitcher to record a win in the majors, as well as the first to appear in a World Series game.

Tye chronicles Paige's rise from the black slums of Mobile, Alabama, through reform school, and ultimately, to a kind of twilight stardom in blackball. Though his audiences were necessarily smaller, the venues frequently second-rate, and the owners often thinly disguised gangsters, as the game's leading star he was able to cut himself deals unthinkable today, abandoning contracts as soon as someone else waved enough money under his nose. His skill made him a first-rate draw in the U.S. (one black paper wrote that he turned out "more Negroes ... than Lincoln freed") and overseas — he hired himself out to teams in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Along with Cleveland's Bob Feller, he played in integrated leagues like the old California League of the 1930's and 40's, dueling some of the majors' best white talent — and frequently winning.

Paige's talent came at a considerable price to his buyers, and he got accustomed to the high life quickly once he'd proved his mettle (and his drawing power). Yet, he also insisted on good treatment for his teammates, demanding hotels, restaurants, and taxis that would take black customers while still in the middle of the Jim Crow era. Presaging the Curt Flood era of free agency by a good forty years or so, he also spent his career fighting in his own way for desegregation and equality.

Paige was a master storyteller — the myth of his variable birthday was one such he embellished repeatedly to grow his legend — but it was his pitching that had the most art. So feared was he in his heyday that

... John "Mule" Miles did not wait for the strikeout call. Satchel threw his first pitch and the umpire bellowed, "Strike one." The Chicago American Giants outfielder dug in again but never got the bat off his shoulder as the umpire said, "Strike two." With the count 0-2, Miles walked slowly back to the dugout. "My manager asked, 'What the heck are you doing?'" Miles remembers. "I said, 'I didn't see the first two. What makes you think I'm going to hit a third one?'"
Tye's biography provides a window to the cruelties of Paige's segregated era, as well as the highlights of his career that exposed the fraud of separate-but-equal. It's a worthy, comprehensive treatment I recommend highly.

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Thanks for this review, Rob. I've long been fascinated by Paige's career, and you've made this book a must-read.

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