By Stefan Fatsis
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The Life and Times of an American Legend
By Larry Tye
Random House 392 pp. $26
In 1937, during a self-exile from organized baseball, Satchel Paige pitched in the Dominican Republic for a team backed by the megalomaniacal dictator Rafael Trujillo. The Dragones roster was stacked with Negro Leagues stars fleeing their financially strapped clubs for a Caribbean payday, including James "Cool Papa" Bell and Josh Gibson.
In Paige's telling, the season came down to a single game a day or two before a presidential election. Fans filled the rickety stadium. Soldiers brandishing knives and guns lined the field. Win and the Dragones would be heroes. Lose, Paige wrote years later, and they were as good as "passed over Jordan." Paige started, pitched the entire game and won, 6-5. The American ballplayers were whisked off the island the same night, and Trujillo was reelected.
It was a terrific story. The only hitch: Almost none of it was true. The game didn't determine a champion; had the Dragones lost, one more contest remained. Paige didn't pitch until there was one out in the ninth inning, and he allowed three runs. The Dragones won, but the final score was 8-6. Paige and his teammates stayed on the island at least a few more days. The presidential election wasn't for another year, and Trujillo didn't even run.
The gap between myth and reality is a central theme of Larry Tye's exhaustively researched biography of Paige, the long-limbed showman with a dazzling repertoire of pitches who rose from poverty in the Jim Crow South to become one of the most charismatic players in baseball history, as well as one of the best. Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter, examines everything from Paige's birth records to his FBI file (the government considered him a threat to baseball's institutional apartheid). Tye even discovers that Paige was married to two of his three wives at the same time. But while "Satchel" is definitive, it isn't a sweeping, dramatic narrative in the vein of Richard Ben Cramer's "Joe DiMaggio," which is too bad given its subject's complex and colorful life.
Paige was born Leroy Robert Page in 1906 in Mobile, Ala. His mother washed clothes for white families. His father was a layabout. Paige earned his nickname because he carried suitcases, because his feet were as big as suitcases or because he stole suitcases. At age 11, he was caught shoplifting and sent to reform school. He emerged, at 17, a product of Booker T. Washington's philosophy that social change would come through personal industry -- and as a first-rate pitcher. "Do you throw that fast consistently?" the manager of Mobile's all-black semipro team asked. "No, sir," Paige supposedly replied. "I do it all the time."
It is hard today to imagine the career Paige crafted. In his 20s and 30s, he never stayed with one team more than three or four seasons. He established his success with Negro Leagues teams in Birmingham and Pittsburgh but refused to lay down roots and bolted for weeks, months or years when a better offer came for his prodigious talent and box-office personality. He claimed to have pitched in at least 2,500 games for as many as 250 teams, figures Tye deems plausible.
Along the way, Paige squandered his money, alienated his bosses and embarrassed his opponents, sometimes having his fielders sit down while he struck out the opposing side. Few stayed offended for long, though, because wherever Paige went, fans and reporters, and a good story, always followed. As his Negro Leagues compatriot Buck O'Neil put it, "Satchel was a money tree for all of us."
Tye adores his subject. His Paige is "skyscraping" with a "blinding" fastball that defied gravity and rose on its way to the plate, a pitcher who "never walked a batter unless he meant to, or almost never." And while Tye debunks some tales from Paige's life, he accepts others as gospel. For instance, he explains that a sportswriter composed Paige's famous rules for living ("Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you") but doesn't question other Paige-isms ("Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching"). Tye also is enamored a bit much of statistics compiled against inferior competition, like Paige's 29-2 record during a summer in Bismarck, N.D. And when writing about baseball itself, the author often lapses into period cliche: A pitcher is a "moundsman," New Yorkers are "Gothamites" and Philadelphians "Quakerites," Paige is "the suitcase sensation" and the "minstrel of the mound."
The challenge in crafting a portrait of the "real" Paige is that Paige himself spent his life avoiding, and then subverting, reality. He was an egocentric loner, and his thoughts and motivations were as elastic as his pitching arm. Did Paige's shuffling gait, constant clowning, caricatured speech and itinerant selfishness make him a Stepin Fetchit or, worse, an Uncle Tom, someone who had the ability to directly confront a racist institution but refused? Or was he a subtle pioneer, a free agent decades before players would gain that right, a black star who played to the prevailing stereotype in order to soften a bigoted, white America by striking out its best hitters?
Tye acknowledges the former opinion but clearly, and convincingly, sides with the latter. Until his death in 1982, Paige resented that he wasn't selected to break baseball's color barrier -- he was signed by Cleveland in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson debuted in Brooklyn -- and that his role in tearing down that wall went unacknowledged. Paige refused to play in towns unless he and his black teammates were given food and lodging. He helped integrate semipro teams. He headlined tours against major-league all-stars. And he did speak out, not only with his arm but in the pages of newspapers, black and white alike.
After Paige returned from the Dominican Republic in 1937, his name bylined a column in the Baltimore Afro-American. "The opportunities of a colored baseball player on these islands are the same or almost the same as those enjoyed by the white major league players in the States," he wrote. "That's something to think about." The shame for Satchel Paige, and America, is that it took baseball so long to do so.
Fatsis is a sports commentator on National Public Radio and the author of "Word Freak" and "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL," which will be published in paperback in August.
Ron Charles is on vacation.