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An Incredible "Paige" in American History
on June 9, 2009
With impeccable scholarship and a meticulous understanding of American history, author Larry Tye delivers a definitive exploration of Satchel Paige in Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (June 2009, Random House).
Delving into the myths, legend and actual facts surrounding arguably the greatest professional pitcher ever, Tye paints an incredible portrait that began on July 7, 1906, when Leroy Robert Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama, and will forever be a part of pop/sports culture, though he passed away on June 8, 1982, after battling emphysema for a number of years.
"I ain't ever had a job. I just always played baseball," says Paige, which adeptly summarizes an amazing career on the diamond at a time when the only ball was white, through the re-integration of Major League Baseball to 1968, when the Atlanta Braves took a major step to right a wrong that would have left the superstar who gave so much without a pension.
But before Paige became the iconic ace on the mound, he had early brushes with truancy, which did not destroy the care and concern from his mother, Lula Paige. Mentors like Edward Byrd, Alex Herman, Big Bill Gatewood brought him an understanding in the art of pitching. Paige went from being released from reform school (1923), to playing semi-pro ball in Mobile (1924) to signing his first pro contract in 1926.
And it was then that Paige's cunning strategy on the field, quick wit and unique charm disarmed racists and made him one of the greats in the various manifestations of the Negro Leagues and barnstorming tours with MLB (white) players. The tours with Dizzy Dean became huge draws and fueled the growing fascination of the right-hander who was already larger-than-life.
"Satchel actually had been challenging Jim Crow ever since he took his pitching on the road," writes Tye, "and he did that from the beginning. They called freelance play like that barnstorming, to distinguish it from formal league games."
Paige was the ultimate free agent, with his services being "rented out" by his team to other clubs and playing winter ball in the Caribbean. He was also accused of skipping out on contracts when better offers came his way.
Before he was the "Yankee Clipper," Joe DiMaggio - the Pacific Coast League's Most Valuable Player - proved he belonged in MLB in February 1936 after facing Paige, who was asked to pitch in the exhibition game by the New York Yankees. "DIMAGGIO ALL WE HOPED HE'D BE. HIT SATCH ONE FOR FOUR," is the post-game report from a Yankee scout to management.
Tye places particular emphasis on the 1930s, which was a decade of great triumphs and a hideously hard fall from the summit of sports. Franchise owner Neil Churchill brought Paige to Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1933 and 1935 to play on his integrated club. In one of the greatest pro games ever, more than 27,000 fans in Yankee Stadium in 1934 watched a spectacular duel between Paige and Stuart "Slim" Jones. And owner J.L. Wilkinson of the Kansas City Monarchs removed Paige from the scrap heap in 1938 and 1939 when arm woes appeared to have destroyed his career.
The 1945 re-integration of MLB by Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Paige's July 7, 1948, signing with the Cleveland Indians and stints with the St. Louis Browns and - in 1965 - Kansas City A's are packaged well with the 1971 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. And upon reflection in the twilight years, Paige tackled numerous issues surrounding the hateful treatment of NLB players, racism and the slights he personally felt in any number of venues.
"It happens to lots of leading men as they fade into supporting roles. Loneliness sets in, along with sadness," Tye writes. "There is more time to remember all you have achieved and to wonder why others have forgotten. There are endless hours to tally who stood by you, and who failed to. Satchel had suffered enough real indignities to keep anyone thinking for a long time."
The victories and defeats on the field of play by Paige are chronicled in four pages of pitching statistics. But what Tye proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is the biggest win of them all came when Jim Crow couldn't get the bat off its shoulder when Paige fired three blazing fastballs for called strikes.