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

Larry Tye. Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. New York: Random House, 2009. 392 pp. $26.00.

Mention the name Satchel Paige (1906-1982) and baseball aficionados call up associations of near-magical pitching performances. But along with these immediate delights are accompanying stories of racial humiliation and economic exploitation, especially during the late 1920s and Depression years. Of course, other African American athletes also emerged as America's greatest athletes during these times--one need only invoke the names of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, but inasmuch as baseball was generally regarded as the national pastime, Paige served chiefly as a transition figure who not only prepared the way for blacks to enter the major leagues, but by extension also prepared the way for African Americans to penetrate other levels of American society. As his newest biographer Larry Tye points out, it was not until late in life that Paige became aware of his iconic role. Yet in his heyday, Tye tells us, Paige was probably the most celebrated figure in the African American community.

The subtitle, The Life and Times of an American Legend, is better at uncovering the times than the life. How could it be otherwise? Mainstream historians and sportswriters had so long patronized, dismissed or neglected the beginning decades of twentieth-century black culture that dazzling figures like Paige were too often ignored. It would not be until the post-World War II years that Paige aroused renewed attention, and by then much of his career was shrouded in hyperbole. Paige had played for an endless number of teams in virtually every state in the union, not to mention Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, and perhaps Venezuela. He would perform his most miraculous feats in the 1930s, but newspaper reports of his activities were not always altogether accurate. Paige himself often gave contradictory accounts of his experiences. Indeed, at some point he even changed the spelling of his name (from Page to Paige), and was inconsistent in relating the year of his birth (1906, 1907, 1908?). Thus if Tye's biography appears murky around the edges, he can be forgiven. The research must have been formidable.

Leroy Robert Page was born the seventh child of a dysfunctional, impoverished Mobile, Alabama family--his mother would give birth to five more siblings. There are conflicting accounts of how he acquired the nickname Satchel, but there can be little doubt that he had from the start a phenomenal talent for throwing any missile--a stone, stick, or ball--at an immense speed. In his teens he had a history of truancy and petty theft, resulting ultimately in confinement for several years at a local reformatory. Fortunately for Leroy his school was relatively progressive, operating for the most part along the educational guidelines of Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. Here he honed his beginning pitching skills. (In this connection one thinks of Babe Ruth and Louis Armstrong, whose talents were also developed in reform schools.) Not long after being discharged, Paige was recruited by a successive number of Negro teams, each of which offered him more money than its predecessor. He himself was rather cavalier about the contracts he signed, arbitrarily breaking agreements when he believed it would benefit him. The mainly Negro club owners of some of these teams did not pursue him into court, perhaps because they may have been involved in dubious legal enterprises of their own.

Although Tye clearly likes Satchel, he has difficulty capturing his psychology. At one point he suggests Paige may have been an "introvert," but we also learn that he was something of a womanizer who liked to show off his cars, and when he had the money, an extravagant wardrobe. We learn very little about the three women Paige married or why they attracted him. The one woman who stands out in this book is his strong-willed, long-suffering mother to whom he seems to have remained devoted all his life. In his glory years Paige exhibited an exhibitionist confidence that rarely required the support of his teammates. He might, for example, deliberately walk opposing batters so that he could challenge and strike out their more threatening successors. As an "old man" long past his prime when he finally reached the majors, he appears to have struck up a warm relationship with the idiosyncratic white club owners of the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns. Perhaps Paige's most endearing traits were his aphoristic wit, the tail tales he told about himself, his generosity to other players, and his love for his third wife, Dahomey, and their children.

One of the things Tye does well is place Paige in the entire trajectory of blacks in baseball. He clarifies Paige's role in what were frequently called the Negro Leagues. They were not quite the equivalent of the white National and American Leagues, but rather loosely organized teams that went in and out of existence from the early years of the century. These teams were obviously born from the racist rejection of African Americans from professional baseball. Ironically, what destroyed them was the integration of baseball in the years after World War II. None of this was lost on Satchel, who had hoped he would be the first African American to play in the major leagues. It was instead his much younger teammate, Jackie Robinson, who signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Neither Paige nor Robinson really liked each other. The cultural differences between the college-educated Robinson and the raw, down-home Paige were too great.

Another myth Tye addresses is that it was only after World War II that blacks and whites played on the same teams. In point of fact blacks and whites had played on the same teams since the Civil War but it was not until the surging racism of the late nineteenth century that blacks were forced out of professional baseball. (Much the same thing happened at this time to Negro jockeys.) One black ballplayer, Fleetwood Walker, was so furious that he wrote a booklet advising Negroes to emigrate to Africa. Walker published his piece in 1908, two years after Satchel's birth, but some three decades later in the 1930s, Satchel would occasionally play alongside white athletes on Midwestern and Western teams. Perhaps more astonishingly, he barnstormed across the country with black athletes against white major league stars--earning among them the admiration of the great white pitchers Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller. In 1948 he would at last make his major-league debut as a relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians at age forty-two, and he would pitch in the majors well past his fiftieth year.

Given the maze of this material, one appreciates Tye's swift and easy prose. To be sure, the reader may at times wince at sportswriting platitudes. On the other hand, there are sad and wonderful anecdotes about Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and a host of other Negro Leaguers. In sum, Tye has written about a piece of Americana that is not always pretty, but nonetheless fascinating.

Reviewed by

Edward Margolies

City University of New York, Emeritus

A frican A merican R eview, Volume 43, Number 4 [c] 2009 Edward Margolies
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Author:Margolies, Edward
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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