Satchel: the Life and Times of an American Legend by Larry Tye
This recommendation comes a little late for Black History Month, but it’s just in time for baseball season. If either subject is up your alley, this book is worth reading; if you happen to be interested in both, it’s a gold mine. Author Larry Tye spent years unraveling the mystery behind the life of one of his boyhood baseball icons with great success, getting the meat of his research from
interviews with Satchel’s friends and family, fellow players and managers, and descendants thereof. Still, Satchel Paige is a man to whom mystery clings like a sweaty baseball jersey on a hot Mobile afternoon, mostly because of the lack of solid statistics and press coverage for thousands of Negro League games in the 1920’s-40’s. Thankfully, plenty of testimony survives about this truly American character.
Born the seventh of twelve children in a Mobile ghetto, Leroy Robert Page quickly rose from his obscure beginnings to become by his mid-twenties the most popular pitcher in then-segregated black professional baseball. Those who saw him perform in his heyday say he had an unparalleled fastball, to which he soon added an arsenal of curves, slowballs and breakers, all executed with pinpoint control. Anecdotes of Paige antics are plenty, like the one about him winning accuracy contests by knocking over matchboxes placed on homeplate, or telling his entire outfield to retire to the dugout as their services wouldn’t be necessary, and proceeding to strike out the opposing side. The ultimate showman on the mound, Paige sometimes sounds like the kind of towering figure who was more tall tales than substance, and Paige himself certainly did nothing to dispel his own myths. Tye did manage to get to the bottom of the one about Satchel’s age, forever a source of sportswriter conjecture, thereby substantiating Paige’s standing record for being the oldest pitcher ever to throw in a Major League game (he was 59). But could Paige actually, as he estimated, have pitched 5,000 complete games over his career, winning 2,000? There’s no way of telling for sure, but if you ask me, that’s part of his appeal.
One irrefutable truth about Paige is that he used his tremendous talent to build his own legend, and in so doing defied Jim Crow America to live life on his own terms. In a sport full of eccentric characters, Satchel comes close to outshining everybody as a fast-driving, barnstorming, contract-jumping, wisdom-dispensing ace who is fondly remembered by players and fans on both sides of the race barrier. A fun summer read.
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