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Possibly the definitive work on the greatest Negro League baseball player
on April 26, 2012
How can one pretend to know the history of baseball, or for that matter, United States history and race relations without knowing everything possible about Jackie Robinson? And the more I learned about the amazing story and details about Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson (who played barely a half-season with the great post-WWII Kansas City Monarchs), the more I wanted to know about the peculiar, separate/segregated world of Negro League baseball.
And while I was somewhat familiar with Josh Gibson (maybe the greatest ball player of all time!?), Bullet Joe Rogan, Rube & Willie Foster, Pop Lloyd, Willie Wells and others, NegroLeague baseball truly did revolve around one of the greatest pitchers and tied for (with Babe Ruth) the greatest baseball attraction of all time. It wasn't just because he was good (and he was!), he was a great showman, a charismatic personality, and he played professional baseball for a long, long time.
Tye's well-researched biography begins with plenty of details about Leroy Robert Page/Paige's early life in Mobile, including speculation about how he got his nickname, his formative years in a reform school because his parents couldn't watch over him effectively (sound familiar?) where he learned to become a talented pitcher. Paige's early maturity in the 1920's corresponded with Rube Foster's formation of the first organized league of African-American professional baseball teams.
The book provides a good background on the circumstances and history of both Negro League baseball, including the competitive ownerships of Pittsburgh's Crawford's (owned by Gus Greenlee) and the Homestead Gray's (owned by Cum Posey). Satchel Paige, Tye point out, was essentially the first baseball "free agent" rarely adhering to team or league contractual agreements and regularly working wherever and with whatever team was willing to pay him to promote their game or event.
Paige made a lot of money . . . more than almost any professional athlete of his era (except for Babe Ruth). His barn-storming stints with Dizzy Dean's all-stars and then with Bob Feller served as evidence to hundreds of thousands that the best black ballplayers could play just as well as the best white ballplayers. Despite this grudging acceptance on the ballfield, traveling from city-to-city meant dealing with Jim Crow laws and an exhausting barrage of racism and second-class treatment at hotels, transportation services, restaurants and gas stations. It was a tough life that the biography provides a good flavor of how Paige dealt with this life as best as anyone could.
Paige's set himself apart from other professional ballplayers because he was so good for so long, and brought so much exuberance to the game that his fan-base grew and appreciated over many decades. Tye treats the dialectic that the best Negro League players felt about Jackie Robinson's signing with a nice touch. It was the beginning of the long-awaited integration of Major League Baseball (and Tye notes correctly that African-American's played at the top levels of professional baseball before "the gentleman's/racist's agreement" of 1887) via an unlikely candidate who wasn't considered one of the best black ballplayers and who many others ("there were lots of Satchel Paige's") felt jealous of.
Paige did finally make it into the Major Leagues in 1948, thanks to the irrepressible Bill Veeck and star Shortstop/Manager Lou Boudreau of the Cleveland Indians, who won their pennant by one game thanks in part to Paige's 6-1 record, including 2 shutouts . . . at 42 years old!
It's a story of triumph by a great American with immense talent, who started life with many disadvantages but never gave up. After being inducted into the Hall-of-Fame in 1971 and learning that his plaque would be segregated in a separate Negro League section, Paige dropped his playfulness and expressed the justifiable anger that had built up over decades of second-class treatment. It is this congruency of Paige and other NLeague ballplayers' excellence, triumph and shameful treatment that makes this book worth reading. While Buck O'Neill expressed joy that he was, "right on time," Paige's memorial service reminded his mourners not to be sad for him, but for all their fathers and grandfathers who never got to see the best ballplayers play against one another.