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'Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend' by Larry Tye

BOOK REVIEW

Biography of Negro League great doesn't break much new ground.

August 01, 2009|David Davis | Davis is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine.

How fast could pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige hurl a baseball? According to catcher Biz Mackey, a Paige contemporary, Satchel's fastball "tends to disappear. Yes, disappear. I've heard about Satchel throwing pitches that wasn't hit but that never showed up in the catcher's mitt nevertheless. They say the catcher, the umpire and bat boys looked all over for that ball, but it was gone. Now how do you account for that?"

In "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend," journalist Larry Tye must account for disappearing baseballs as well as the many other larger-than-life tales that threaten to overshadow Paige's truly astonishing achievements. Debate still rages about his birth date: Tye goes with July 7, 1906, which means Paige was 42 (!) when he made his Major League debut in 1948.

For the most part, Tye is successful in deciphering one of sports' most enigmatic figures. He traces Paige's upbringing in the segregated South, including a five-year sentence (for stealing) at the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers. That turned out to be a fortunate interlude. Like Babe Ruth, another mythic man-child who spent his formative years in a juvenile institution, Paige used the time to hone his baseball skills.

In 1923, when he emerged from reform school, Satchel had grown into a lanky, 6-foot-3 phenom with a preternatural fastball. He mastered a deceptive delivery in which "he kick[ed] his foot so high before unleashing the baseball that it blacked out the sky and befuddled the batter," Tye writes. He was poised to play at the highest professional level, but African Americans were barred from the majors during the Jim Crow era. Instead, Paige took his "trouble ball" to the Negro Leagues.

Except for the talent on the field, everything about "blackball" was second-rate. Statistics were haphazardly kept, travel was in cramped autos, franchises folded overnight. Tye describes the segregated game as "tragic and epic, a gripping, grassroots version of the national pastime and an insult to the American ethos."

Paige became the Negro Leagues' top drawing card in no small part because of self-promotion. He jumped from team to team to make more money -- he even played for the Israelite House of David squad -- and marketed himself as "The Man Guaranteed to Strike Out the First Nine Men." Often, he backed up his words.

Occasionally, Paige faced white opponents: in barnstorming exhibitions, in Cuba and Mexico, and in California during the winter. Many Major League stars, including Joe DiMaggio and Dizzy Dean, publicly concluded that Paige (along with catcher Josh Gibson and others) had the talent to play alongside them.

According to Tye, Paige thought he deserved to be the first to break the color barrier. By the time Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey scouted potential black players, Tye writes, the "rough-hewn and ungovernable" Paige was "aging and old-school." Instead, Rickey signed 26-year-old Jackie Robinson, a star athlete at Pasadena's Muir High and UCLA but untested in the Negro Leagues. History shows Robinson was the right choice.

Paige eventually joined the Indians under maverick owner Bill Veeck (and helped Cleveland win the World Series in 1948). He pitched in the majors until the mid-1950s, but "the sense of having been wronged never left him," Tye writes. Indeed, it's Paige's wit, pitching prowess and inexhaustible endurance that are his Hall of Fame legacy, not his pioneering efforts to integrate baseball.

Tye previously wrote a history of the Pullman porters ("Rising From the Rails"), which serves him well here. "Satchel" is thoroughly researched, and the author managed to track down and interview surviving teammates, opponents and family members.

The result is a biography that is respectful and well-written, if not as original nor as colorful as its subject. Much of the historical material in the book has appeared previously, including Mackey's quote, which was included in Robert Peterson's groundbreaking 1970 book "Only the Ball Was White." In 1994, Mark Ribowsky's biography of Paige covered many of the same myths that Tye examines. (Both "Satchel" and Ribowsky's "Don't Look Back" feature the same photograph of Paige on their jacket covers.)

For all his research, Tye occasionally loses his way. He writes that Paige "attracted more fawning females, young and old, than Frank Sinatra," and that "no one -- not Harlem Renaissance bard Langston Hughes, big band maestro Count Basie, or the majestic jazzman Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington -- was quite the hero for blacks that Satchel was." Those are stretches. In describing his rookie year, Tye notes Paige was encouraged by boxer Joe Louis, who "two months earlier had knocked out German strongman Max Schmeling." Louis' epochal victory was a decade earlier.

Of course, Ol' Satch himself never sweated details. He preferred to move forward; as he put it, "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."

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