Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley reviews Larry Tye's Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (New York: Random House, 2009).

Dec 7, 2009 1:18 am

Ron Briley reviews Larry Tye's Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (New York: Random House, 2009).

Baseball fans suffering through withdrawal during the long dark winter of the basketball, football, and even hockey seasons may find some relief and solace in Larry Tye’s biography of Negro League pitching legend, Leroy “Satchel” Paige. Tye, a writer and journalist who served as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, also provides a readable account for a general audience, avoiding the hieroglyphics of baseball statistics for the unanimated. While the biography draws upon an extensive secondary bibliography, the real strength of the volume is the interviews conducted by Tye with Paige’s former Negro League teammates, eliciting the fierce competition of life and play in segregated baseball.
Based upon the interviews as well as records of Paige’s performances in numerous barnstorming appearances against white all-star teams of Major League players such as Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams, Tye accepts the claim that Paige was, indeed, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. But racial discrimination prevented his entrance into Major League baseball until 1948 when the aging pitcher was in his early forties. In fact, many believe that Paige should have been the choice to integrate the sport, but Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers selected the younger and college-educated Jackie Robinson for the task. Paige harbored some resentment that Robinson failed to pay his dues in the Negro Leagues, and Tye seems to identify with this discontent in the author’s depiction of Robinson. Tye argues that Paige would have never agreed to serve an apprenticeship in the minor leagues as Robinson did with the Montreal Royals, asserting, “Satchel never could have abided the affront. Jackie had the table manners whites liked, Satchel was rough-hewn and ungovernable. Satchel realized he was a specter from the past rather than the harbinger the Dodgers wanted of a more racially tolerant future” (181).
Paige was perceived by his critics to embody too many negative racial stereotypes to assume the burden of integrating baseball. He was boastful, slack in his work ethic and punctuality, and known for his carousing and womanizing. His often clowning approach to the game seemed to reinforce white racist assumptions. Tye, however, challenges this perception of Paige, insisting that the ball player was a trickster who sought to subvert racial stereotypes. Asserting that Paige helped pave the way for Robinson, Paige writes, “He made his relationships with the press and the public into a game, using insubordination and indirection to challenge his segregated surroundings” (xi). Tye also argues that Paige was an introvert who sought to avoid intimacy by seeking the limelight and becoming the center of attention in large crowds. Thus, Tye concludes that contrary to the conventional wisdom, Paige was a shy man who confronted baseball segregation well before “baseball’s great experiment” engineered by Robinson and Rickey.
Paige was born into poverty in segregated Mobile, Alabama on 7 July 1906. One of twelve children, Paige had little time for school; earning his nickname for a sling he rigged to haul the bags of arrivals at the Mobile train station. Truancy and petty theft led to Paige being sentenced to the Industrial School for Negro Children at Mount Meigs, Alabama, where he was introduced to the educational philosophy of Booker T. Washington which Paige later credited as teaching him responsibility. During his tenure at the industrial school from ages twelve to eighteen, Paige also discovered a talent for throwing a baseball which would serve the young man well following his release from the reformatory.
In 1924, Paige joined the semi-pro Mobile Tigers, before moving on to the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League. He was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League in 1927. The young pitcher, who was developing a reputation for a blazing fastball and pinpoint control, joined the Nashville Elite Giants of the Negro Southern League in 1931. But the team disbanded the following year after relocating to Cleveland, and Paige was free to sign with Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords. In Pittsburgh, Paige joined such future Hall of Fame players as Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Oscar Charleston. Paige, however, often quarreled with Greenlee, who financed his club with funds from the numbers racket in Pittsburgh. Although Greenlee made Paige one of the wealthiest black players by renting the hurler’s services to other clubs and establishing Paige’s “gun-slinger” reputation, the pitcher left the Crawfords to play for a white semi-pro team in Bismarck, North Dakota for the 1935 season, supporting Tye’s argument that Paige challenged racial barriers throughout his career.
Although returning to the Crawfords for the 1936 season, the following spring Paige induced a number of his Pittsburgh teammates, including his battery mate Gibson, to follow him to Santa Domingo and play for the Ciudad Trujillo club, associated with dictator Rafael Trujillo. Although Paige embraced the lack of racial prejudice in the Dominican Republic, the politics of the nation drove the defectors back to the United States. Greenlee sold Paige’s contract to the Newark Eagles, but the pitcher refused to play for owners Abe and Effa Manley. He barnstormed in Mexico until a sore arm in 1938 appeared to have ended his career.
However, J. L. Wilkinson, the white owner of the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, signed the sore-armed pitcher for his second-team barnstorming club the Baby Monarchs. Paige pitched sparingly and served primarily as a gate attraction for the club, but midway through the 1939 season his arm miraculously recovered its former power. Tye suggests that Paige was recovering from a partially torn rotator cuff in his shoulder cased by the repetitive stress of throwing almost every day. The rejuvenated Paige was pitching in Puerto Rico where he became infatuated with the young Luz “Lucy” Maria Figueroa. Paige married Lucy and returned with her to Kansas City, despite the fact that he was already married to Janet Howard Paige. Janet filed divorce proceedings against the athlete, whose attorneys were able to avoid bigamist charges being filed against their client. Meanwhile, Lucy departed for Puerto Rico, and Paige became involved with Lahoma Brown, sixteen years his junior. Paige eventually married Brown, with whom he fathered six children and enjoyed some domestic stability. The pitcher, nevertheless, continued to earn a reputation for promiscuity, which Tye is reluctant to criticize.
On the ball field, Paige added a knuckleball and the hesitation pitch to his repertoire, enjoying a fruitful career in Kansas City during the 1940s. Despite happiness in Kansas City, Tye documents that Paige was disappointed when Robinson was tapped to integrate Major League Baseball. This initial discontent, however, did not prevent the forty-two year old pitcher from joining Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians in 1948, winning six games for the Indians during their pennant drive. He continued to pitch effectively for the Indians in 1949, but he was released after Veeck sold the club. Many Cleveland players, including Manager Lou Boudreau, believed that Veeck bestowed special treatment upon Paige who often ignored team rules. Paige returned to the Major Leagues in 1951 with the hapless St. Louis Browns, who were purchased by Veeck. But neither Veeck nor Paige were able to resurrect the Browns, and in 1953 Paige returned to his barnstorming days as a pitcher for hire. In 1965, he made one appearance with the Kansas City Athletics which allowed him to qualify for a Major League pension. Paige’s big league statistics of 28 wins, 31 losses, 476 innings pitched, and a 3.29 earned run average, attained while he was in his forties, suggest that if not for baseball’s color line, he would have enjoyed a spectacular Major League career.
Paige continued to pitch almost every day throughout the 1950s and 1960s, earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year to support his considerable consumption habits. He ended his pitching career in 1967 with the Indianapolis Clowns, whose antics mirrored the racial stereotypes promulgated by the Harlem Globetrotters. But the legendary Paige was more than a trickster or a clown. While Negro League and independent baseball records are often incomplete, Tye documents that Paige won over 250 games in his career, often pitching only a few innings each day so that he could serve as a gate attraction. In 1971, Paige was the first Negro League player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Although Paige suggested his longevity was due to such cardinal principles as “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you,” the legendary pitcher succumbed to emphysema and died on 8 June 1982, at age seventy-six. Tye concludes that Paige’s contributions to baseball may perhaps best be understood by placing the pitcher alongside another legendary figure from the sport, Babe Ruth. In comparing the iconic baseball legends of Paige and Ruth, Tye writes, “Both rose above reform school roots. Both were boyish men with oversize appetites in everything from food to women to sports. Both understood Satchel’s seventh rule for living: do things so big they invite exaggeration, ballyhoo what you have done, then let the press and the public weave it into lore” (266).

comments powered by Disqus