Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend

by Larry Tye

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Overview

He is that rare American icon who has never been captured in a biography worthy of him. Now, at last, here is the superbly researched, spellbindingly told story of athlete, showman, philosopher, and boundary breaker Leroy “Satchel” Paige.

Through dogged research and extensive interviews, award-winning author and journalist Larry Tye has tracked down the truth about this majestic and enigmatic pitcher. Here is the stirring account of the child born to a poor Alabama washerwoman, the boy who earned his nickname from his enterprising work as a railroad porter, and the young man who took up baseball on the streets and in reform school before becoming the superstar hurler of the Negro Leagues.
In unprecedented detail, Tye reveals how Paige, hurt and angry when Jackie Robinson beat him in breaking the Majors’ color barrier, emerged at the improbable age of forty-two to help propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series. (“Age is a case of mind over matter,” he said.  “If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”)

Rewriting our history of baseball’s integration with Paige in the starring role and separating truth from legend, Satchel is a story as large as this larger-than-life man.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812977974
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/04/2010
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 340,820
Product dimensions: 8.26(w) x 5.62(h) x 0.95(d)

About the Author

Larry Tye was a prize-winning journalist at The Boston Globe and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. An avid baseball fan, Tye now runs a Boston-based training program for medical journalists. He is the author of The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails and co-author, with Kitty Dukakis, of Shock. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



Coming Alive


“I was no different from any other kid,

only in Mobile I was a nigger kid.”

Satchel Paige entered the world as Leroy Robert Page. He was delivered at home into the hands of a midwife, which was more help than most poor families could afford in 1906 in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Lula, was a washerwoman who already spent her nights worrying how to feed and sustain the four daughters and two sons who had come before. Five more would follow. Leroy’s father, John, alternated between the luxuriant lilies in the gardens he tended uptown and the corner stoops on which he liked to loiter, rarely making time to care for his expanding brood. With skin the shade of chestnut and a birthplace in the heartland of the former Confederacy, the newborn’s prospects looked woeful. They were about to get worse.

The hurricane that battered Mobile Bay just two months after Leroy’s birth started with two days of torrential rains carried in on the back of a driving northeast wind. By the next morning ten-foot-high surges had dispatched oyster and fishing vessels to the bottom of the sea. Tornado-like squalls ripped from their roots southern pines, blew tin roofs off Greek Revival homes, and made it look as if birds were flying backward. At historic Christ Church only the choir loft was left standing. The lucky escaped by fleeing to third-floor attics or climbing tall trees; 150 others were consigned to watery graves. One area hit especially hard was the Negro slum known as Down the Bay, where the Pages lived.

Their home was a four-room shack called a shotgun, because a shot fired through the front door would exit straight out the back. That is the path storm waters took when they burst through Down the Bay’s alleys on the way to more fashionable quarters. Rental units like the Pages’ were ramshackle and fragile, with no flood walls to protect them from the nearby sea and no electricity to ease their recovery. The Page cottage remained standing but the thin mattresses the children shared and their few furnishings needed airing out. That cleanup would have to wait: Lula’s white employers insisted she be at their homes early the next morning to mop up the storm damage. The kids would wait, too, the way they did every day when Mama headed to work, with the older ones watching over baby Leroy and the rest of the young ones.

Leroy’s world was being reshaped in another way that would mark him even more profoundly. Mobile historically was a center of the slave trade and the destination for the last slave ship to America, but Alabama’s oldest city also was home to more than a thousand blacks who bought or were granted their freedom in the antebellum era. That paradox was consistent with the coastal city’s push toward the conservative state of which it was part and its pull to a more tolerant world beyond its shores. For more than two hundred years Mobile had welcomed outsiders—Irish Catholics fleeing the famine, Jewish merchants, Yankees and English, along with legions of Creoles, the free offspring of French or Spanish fathers and chattel mothers—and they in turn challenged inbred thinking on everything from politics to race. The result, during the Reconstruction period, was a blurring of color lines in ways unthinkable in Montgomery, Selma, and most of the rest of Alabama. Jim Crow—the system of segregation named after a cowering slave in an 1820s minstrel show—was there in Mobile, but so was Booker T. Washington’s gospel of black self-help. The races were separated on trolleys and in other public settings, but the separation was done by tradition more than law. Blacks not only could vote for officeholders, a few even held political office. Paternalism more than meanness defined how whites treated Mobile’s 18,000 black citizens.

Unfortunately for Leroy, that live-and-let-live mind-set had begun fraying by the turn of the century and it unraveled entirely the very season of his birth. The reforms of Reconstruction were collapsing across the South, as whites who wielded power in the fallen Confederacy began to reinvent the realm and tear down Negroes’ new freedoms. The brief postwar honeymoon of racial coexistence survived longer in Mobile than in most of the South, but the backlash finally came there, too. An ordinance mandated separate seating on streetcars. Blacks were barred from most restaurants, cemeteries, saloons, hotels, and brothels. Whites and blacks were not allowed to attend the same school, marry one another, or live together. And in the wake of the devastating September hurricane, Mobile’s most influential newspaper stirred up reader resentment with its account of Negroes looting the homes of dead Caucasians and mutilating their bodies.

The rising tensions turned violent on October 6, 1906, when two black men accused in separate rapes of young white girls were being transported by train back to Mobile from protective custody in Birmingham. Forty-five vigilantes with masks and rifles boarded the train, took custody of the accused, and hanged them from a tree in the community of Plateau, just north of Mobile. As word of the killings spread, three thousand spectators, many arriving by streetcar, paraded by the black men’s limp bodies. Some snapped photographs. Others stole bits of the prisoners’ garments and cut souvenir segments from their noose. The double lynching ushered in four years of racist mobocracy in Mobile County. In 1907 Moses Dorsett, a Negro accused of raping an elderly white woman, was seized by a white mob and strung up fifty yards from the 1906 gallows. Two years later masked men snatched from the county jail a black inmate charged with killing a sheriff’s deputy, hanging the wounded man from an oak tree across from Mobile’s oldest church. This lynching stripped away any pretense that mob actions were confined to rural areas or resisted by law enforcers. It happened in the heart of the city, two blocks from the main police station, and investigators later established that the jail had been left unlocked.

Lest anyone doubt their meaning, the lynchers left behind notes. “Negroes must be taught that death will always follow attacks on white women,” one warned, while another advised, “There [are] plenty of ropes and trees left.” Blacks did not need the reminders. Many church and lay leaders from the Negro community had already gone, heading north or to larger cities in the South. Between 1910 and 1920, blacks’ share of Mobile’s population fell from 44 to 39 percent. While most had to stay, increasingly the city seemed less an oasis and more like the rest of Dixie. The Ku Klux Klan operated freely. Negroes disappeared from public offices and from voting rolls. In commerce, blacks were supplicants, whites selective benefactors. Less than two generations after the end of two centuries of slavery, liberation looked less like freedom than serfdom.

Leroy Page was too young to understand those developments but they were reinforced every day he spent in his native city. While record keepers used Colored to denote the city’s dark-skinned residents, the label used by most whites started with n. Those first few years “I was no different from any other kid,” Leroy wrote half a century on, “only in Mobile I was a nigger kid. I went around with the back of my shirt torn, a pair of dirty diapers or raggedy pieces of trousers covering me. Shoes? They was someplace else.” At a too-young age, he added, “I found out what it was like to be a Negro in Mobile.”

Lula and John had always known. John Page was at least a second-generation Mobilian. While he was born fourteen years after what many southern whites called the War of Northern Aggression, and he lived through the more hopeful years of Reconstruction, his ancestors almost certainly were dragooned in Africa and brought to America in shackles. John wed Lula when he was seventeen and began married life as a day laborer, which meant hoping he would be hired by white home owners or contractors for jobs ranging from hauling trash to laying bricks. Later he turned to gardening, although he preferred to be called a landscaper. Unemployed landscaper would have been more accurate. His kids saw less of him than they wanted and needed. Lula loved him but knew not to count on him or to argue with him when he was drinking. Still, she was proud that he never laid a hand on her.

Lula Coleman Page was almost four years older than her husband and would outlive him by more than forty years. As inattentive as John was, Lula was a present and steady figure in Leroy’s young life and those of his siblings. She raised and supported them. She taught them when to yield to their harsh surroundings and when to fight. She gave Leroy the love he seldom felt from his father and the certainty he could count on her. None of that was easy given how many other children she had asking for those same things. And none of it was done explicitly; she showed the way through her own struggle to get by.

Lula was pregnant close to half the time over a twenty-two-year stretch starting in September of 1894, nearly two years before she married John. Ellen was her first child, and like the rest she was delivered at home with no thought of a high-priced doctor or hospital. Three years later came Ruth, and the year after that John Jr. Julia was Lula’s first baby in the new century; she celebrated by naming the child after her mother, who was born a slave and was one of their few ancestors whose stories were passed on to Leroy and his siblings. There were two more children—Wilson and Emma Lee—before Leroy Robert made his entry in 1906. He had five younger siblings: the twins, Palestine and Eugene, then Clarence, another Lula, and, in 1917, the twelfth and last, Inez.

That averages out to a baby every twenty-two months, which made it a challenge to keep track of who was who in the family. Leroy himself often failed to include Eugene when he listed his brothers and sisters, either because there were so many of them or because Eugene died at birth. There was confusion every time U.S. Census takers visited the Page household, with ages and other answers not quite dovetailing with the children’s birth certificates. Some discrepancies were legitimate, given that Lula could not read or write, add or subtract. Others seemed whimsical. She forgot not just when her acclaimed son Leroy was born but where he fit in the birth order. Discretion might have been the motivation when John and Lula’s marriage was described as predating rather than following Ellen’s birth. Leroy, who got from Lula more than he acknowledged of his wit and his aphorisms, did credit her for one illuminating maxim: “If you tell a lie, always rehearse it. If it don’t sound good to you, it won’t sound good to anybody else.”

Being full-time mother to her eleven surviving children should have been more than a full-time job, but Lula could not afford the indulgence. John did not earn nearly enough to feed all those babies, so Lula took jobs she variously described as washerwoman, laundress, and domestic. All amounted to the same things: scrubbing spotless the homes of wealthy white families; using blue bleach along with red-hot water to clean their clothes, a smoothing iron to remove wrinkles from blouses and dresses, and starch to firm up shirt collars; and helping with the cooking. Later, when her own children were older, she sometimes took home the washing and ironing, setting up a boiling pot and rubbing board in the front yard.

Domestic labor like that must have reminded Lula of her mother’s life during slavery. The plantation was in many ways a simpler society, with clearer rules and relationships. In Lula’s day, even work as uncontroversial as a maid’s could raise racial hackles. “I don’t see why Mobile people shouldn’t have three meals a day, as they do in other cities all over the country,” a white woman complained to the Mobile Register in a 1912 article on the “servant problem.” “As it is, we have to beg the cook to give us two meals a day, and at night everybody has to eat scraps. Between meals, we have no servant to answer the door bell and the telephone. I think that all servants should be employed for a full day’s work.” Black leaders rallied to the white cause, vowing to set up training programs to clarify the duties as well as set the wages of domestics and bring the “best class of servants in touch with the best class of employers.”

Lula’s wages of fifty cents a day helped feed her brood. Leroy never missed a meal, although it was more likely to be cereal, greens, and water than chicken, beef, or milk. Lula stood at the head of the table ladling out each spoonful to the dozen or so bowls set in front of her. When there was not money enough for store food the boys were sent down to the bay where the fish were always biting. “It was poverty-stricken living,” Leroy would say later, “before I knew what that meant.”

What he and his siblings did know by the age of six was that they had to pitch in. They also understood where, as young Negroes, they could safely work or play. Bienville Square, Mobile’s oldest public park with its gnarled oaks and iron fountain, was off-limits. So were the choicest beaches along the gulf, seats near the front of streetcars, and any public accommodation that was not labeled “Colored.” Everyone knew which days of the week the Sisters of Charity dispensary cared for Negroes and which were whites only. It was okay for black boys to walk or play in back alleys or on city streets, espe- cially those south of magnolia-shaded Government Street. Librarians winked at the strictures of segregation; police and judges did not. Guessing wrong could land a sepia-skinned adolescent in the lockup or even the morgue. Asking whether a racial reform tried elsewhere might work here drew this refrain: “This is Mobile and we don’t do that.” Before long no one bothered to ask.

Leroy worked the alleyways like a pro, collecting and cashing in empty bottles he found there. A half-pint could fetch a penny; four cents for a quart. Delivering ice, a valued commodity in steamy Mobile, also brought in small change. Leroy was springing up like a weed in a bog, and as he grew so did Lula’s and John’s expectations of his earning power. The obvious place to look for work was the nearby L&N Station, where five separate railroads provided passenger service. Rail depots were a bonanza for Negroes back then. Black redcaps hoisted trunks onto and off the trains. Black Pullman porters served as chambermaids and shoe shines, nursemaids and valets. Black chefs and waiters offered seatside service of sugar-cured ham, Welsh rarebit, and 131 other culinary delights fit for New York’s finest eateries, while black firemen shoveled wood and coal to feed forever-hungry locomotives. And black youths like Leroy jumped when wealthy white travelers snapped their fingers in the air, polishing their boots or carrying bags to hotels like Mobile’s luxurious Battle House for as little as a dime or as much as a quarter.

Leroy was the quickest among the pint-size porters, but he soon realized that he could not bring home a real day’s pay if he made just ten cents at a time. So he got a pole and some rope and jury-rigged a contraption that let him sling together two, three, or four satchels and cart them all at once. His invention quadrupled his income to forty cents a load. It also drew chuckles from the other baggage boys. “You look like a walking satchel tree,” one of them yelled. The description fit him to a tee and it stuck. “LeRoy Paige,” he said, “became no more and Satchel Paige took over.”

Thus was born the most celebrated sobriquet in sports. Or so Satchel wrote in his 1962 autobiography. Fourteen years earlier, in his first memoir, it was string, not rope, that pulled the bags; his neck, shoulders, and waist rather than a pole that gave him traction; and sixteen satchels he carted instead of a mere four. Over the years he volunteered more versions, including telling a radio interviewer that he was first dubbed Satchel when he hung around the Mobile Bears’ ballpark collecting beat-up balls and broken bats. He brought his defective equipment to the schoolyard in a bag and “they started to call me ‘Satchel.’ ” Even his spelling of the moniker shifted, sometimes putting a second l in Satchel the same casual way he occasionally capitalized the r in Leroy. Relatives, friends, and sportswriters offered up their own etymologies. His real handle was Satchelfoot and grew out of his suitcase–size 14 feet, reporters insisted, even as Satchel insisted that his shoes were mere 11-AAAs. The tag was pinned on him by his family, said sister Palestine, after he borrowed his daddy’s old tote bag—or was it his mama’s suitcase?

There is one last explanation of why Satchel was called that since he was a boy—not because he toted suitcases, but because he swiped them. A man whose case he stole chased him, retrieved the bag, and gave young Leroy a hard slap across the face. “That’s when I named him Satchel, right on that day,” Wilbur Hines, a boyhood friend who said he witnessed the theft, recounted in 1991, two years before his death and nine years after Satchel’s. Hines was Leroy’s neighbor in Mobile and his story is consistent with Satchel’s youthful behavior and with his adult determination to shape his own legend. But Satchel not only owned up to that stealing, it would become a riveting chapter in his saga of rising above his roots. Why would he, as Hines claimed, have been embarrassed by this most gripping of all narratives?

No government record can unravel the mystery over his epithet the way it did over his age, which is just the way Satchel would have wanted it. In the end everyone connected with his life claimed a part in his naming. Each version, no matter how fanciful, adds to our understanding of Leroy and Satchel. Wherever the nickname came from, it caught on. Only Lula, who brought him into the world, and later Bill Veeck, who brought him to the Major Leagues, persisted in calling him Leroy. To everyone else he was Satchel. Or just Satch.

But then why worry about the wellspring or even the spelling of a first name when your family name would be remade—Page to Paige—and the justification for that change would itself change? The modification was made just before Satchel launched his baseball career. “Page looked too much like page in a book,” said Lula. Satchel had a more exotic explanation: “My folks started out by spelling their name ‘Page’ and later stuck in the ‘i’ to make themselves sound more high-tone.” Whatever the reason, the result would be to make it difficult to track down the records on Satchel’s birth, letting him spin out the mystery over his age and keep prying reporters at bay.

Lula and John enrolled Satchel in the blacks-only W. H. Council School at the required age of six, as they had their six older children. He arrived just as Mobile’s black leaders were emerging from a decade-long debate over the mission for their segregated schools. Booker T. Washington and his followers argued that industrial training was the only practical way for blacks to better themselves; others dreamed of a liberal arts education that would equip young Negroes to attend college and, while they dared not say this aloud, to topple Jim Crow. The debate proved academic since influential whites already had sided with Washington. The goal of Mobile’s all-black schools, as one Negro leader put it, would be to train “educated helpers” for white-owned businesses. Such a limited vision, city fathers reasoned, required only limited resources, so they gave black students broken-down buildings, bare-bones budgets for books and other supplies, and just twenty teachers for a system with 1,600 students. That meant one instructor for every eighty Negro pupils.

Satchel was at school too seldom to notice the overcrowding. Sometimes an empty stomach lured him to the waterfront with its promise of a free fish dinner. The need to bring home money also trumped the need for an education. All the Page children were forced to grow up fast, feeling compelled to strike out on their own and “to get married as soon as they could,” says Leon Paige, Satchel’s nephew. Ellen, Satchel’s oldest sister, was so eager to wed that she lied on her marriage license, saying she was the legally required age of eighteen when she was just sixteen. Wilson and Inez likewise inflated their ages when they married.

Lula herself had been barely twenty on her wedding day and had never attended school. Yet she saw education as the route for her children to escape Down the Bay, and she took to heart Sunday sermons at Mount Zion Baptist denouncing truancy and encouraging parents to take a firm hand with renegade children. Satchel, who attended church even less often than school, remembered one time when Lula caught him and Wilson playing hooky. No sooner did they reach the baseball field than someone shouted, “Here comes your Ma.” The boys took cover the only place they could: in a huge pipe. Lula couldn’t see them and she was too sore to stoop down and peer into the conduit, but she sensed they were there and knew how to find out. Collecting papers and rags, she lit a fire at one end of the pipe. Satchel and Wilson dashed out the other end, gagging, and found themselves in her firm grip. “Have you learned your lesson, boys?” she asked as she marched them home. “Yes, Ma,” they said in succession.

Another lesson Satchel took away from his school years was the joy of baseball. There were no independent youth leagues then, black or white; America’s first Little League game was a generation away, and it would be two generations before black adolescents got their shot. But Mobile was a baseball town whose subtropical climate made it possible to play the game year-round, while its passion for playing made it Alabama’s only city to allow Sunday ball. Seven days a week kids like Satchel took to the streets looking for enough space to make a field and enough other kids to cobble together two teams. Temperatures topping 100 and humidity nearly as high may have kept their parents rocking quietly on their porches, sipping sugared tea or hand-squeezed lemonade, but it was not enough to sideline these youthful ballplayers. Many learned to hit and pitch playing “top ball,” where a stick replaced the bat they could not afford and soda bottle caps substituted for baseballs. “I can still see him as a little boy,” said his sister Palestine, who was five years younger. “He had a sun hat, a ball and bat.” Lula had similar memories of baseball becoming Satchel’s escape and obsession: “Why, he’d rather play baseball than eat. It was always baseball, baseball.”

They played just off Davis Avenue, the main thoroughfare in black Mobile and the namesake of the first president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Ted Radcliffe, a catcher and pitcher who grew up near the Pages, remembers that even the disappearing daylight did not stop intrepid young baseballers like Satchel and him. “We’d make cotton balls and soak them in oil and play night ball,” said Radcliffe. “We’d light them and run like hell.”

Satchel got his first taste of how good a ballplayer he could be at the Council School. Most elementary schools had teams in that era, although the youngest kids generally spent more time watching than playing. Not so with Satchel. The coach put him in when he was a mere eight years old, pairing him against boys two or three years his senior. He was gaunt and gangly then in a way that reminded people of an ostrich or a crane. He would later claim that he had played each of the nine positions, sometimes all in the same game. “If I’d pitch the whole game I’d strike out seventeen and eighteen with nothin’ but speed,” he said. “I was under 10 years old strikin’ out everybody.” He soon became known around the South Side of Mobile as the best school-age pitcher anyone had ever seen. It was partly how hard he threw and partly how artfully. When kids came to the plate and he surprised them with his slow pitch, he said, “they just wet their pants or cried. That’s how scared they were of my speed.”

While baseball would become his vocation, another childhood passion—fishing—also lasted a lifetime. A dropline or makeshift pole would do, especially during Mobile Bay Jubilee, that magical moment when blue crabs, shrimp, flounder, stingray, and eels abandoned the bay’s thirty-five-foot-deep sea and made shallow waters along the shore boil with life. Firemen and police blared their sirens, a sign that the fish were jumping high as a tree, and Satchel headed for the beach with washtubs and croaker sacks to hold his catch. One challenge was keeping away the gnats: smearing dirt on his face helped. Another problem was remembering the many parts of the bay that were whites-only: shouts of “Get out of here, you no-good nigger!” reminded him.

His fascination with fishing was inspired partly by the joy of eating crabs, catfish, and shrimp. He also loved the serenity of the sea, a getaway from the frenetic city and his squalid slum. On the way there he walked under live oaks covered with Spanish moss and reached up to touch the cast-iron balconies of Spanish-style homes. Moisture made the shorefront air softer and swept away the smells of hemp and tar. By the hour he hung over a bridge and puffed on a cigarette, his brown eyes focused on the ocean. Close in were rows of long, flat piers and beyond that steamships and schooners sailing to what Satchel imagined were exotic ports of call, places where skin color did not count for everything. No need even to fish on afternoons like these.

Hunting offered a different sort of escape. He had no guns then, and no need for them. He could bring down a butterfly with a clamshell, nail a squirrel with a rock using his catching hand rather than his throwing one, or make a lasting impression on an adversary’s backside with a brick, stone, or pebble. That precision and power made him special and kept him safe. One time he was ambling down the railroad tracks heading home from his job as a baggage porter. In his fist was a pile of rocks, in the air a pheasant. As it flew by he aimed and fired. Dead bird. Another pheasant, another whiplike release of a stone, a second direct hit. Quietly watching were four white men carrying shotguns. Seeing them too late to retreat, Satchel feared he might become their quarry. “You mean to tell me you killed those birds with rocks?” the first hunter asked, incredulous. “You ought to be a baseball player.”

Real enemies were not hard to find for Satchel, especially when he was with his South Siders. Their path took them by a white school where a gang was always waiting. When Satchel and his crew got close the rocks started flying. The whites were older and looked like Goliaths, with Satchel relishing the role of David. “I crippled up a lot of them,” he recalled. “Most people need shotguns to do what I did with those rocks. . . . Those fights helped me forget what I didn’t have. They made me a big man in the neighborhood instead of just some more trash.”

Rock throwing also gave birth to what would become one of the most controversial and deceptive deliveries in baseball: the hesitation pitch. When he aimed a brick at a rival gang member his adversary would instinctively duck. Knowing that, Satchel stopped mid-delivery, catching his foe stooped over in a posture that made him easy prey. The misleading motion worked equally well when he was armed with a baseball. At the top of a painfully deliberate stretch he paused longer than normal, arms high above his head, then thrust his left foot forward. He paused again—slowing but not stopping—as he whipped his arm and sent the ball flying. The result: batters swung at shadows long before the baseball itself arrived. The brick and rock throwing may have helped his image in the alley and the ballpark, but it did not fly at home. Lula had a low tolerance for brawling and she hit harder than any of his street adversaries. “I used to think she’d hit me because she didn’t know how I felt. She didn’t know how it was when they told me I couldn’t swim where the white folks did. Then I realized maybe she did,” he said. “I guess she learned to live with it.”

Sometimes Satchel told himself the fights and other troubles were his ways of not living with it, of battling back—against poverty, against Jim Crow, against being robbed of a real childhood. In later moments of candor he acknowledged that it was a game. He was good at outfoxing or outrunning his white antagonists and the police. Like all boys that age, he felt he was invincible. So why not pick a fight? He always had time for trouble.

At school he was absent so often that the Page home became a regular stop on the truant officers’ rounds. At the L&N Station he stopped pulling and started purloining suitcases. He stole bicycles, too, along with anything else that was easy to grab. One night in 1918, walking home after dark, he passed a five-and-dime store with an alluring display of gold-colored bands and red and green stones. In he went and, when he thought no one was looking, he stuffed a fistful of the trinkets into his pocket. “Unless you’ve gone around with nothing,” he would explain afterward, “you don’t know how powerful a lure some new, shiny stuff is.”

Unluckily for Satchel, a burly security guard saw him pocket the loot, nabbed him, and dragged him to police headquarters. That night the authorities released him to Lula. It would be his last night home for more than five years and would mark the end of his boyhood. The next day there was a hearing before a truant officer he called Mrs. Meanie. She was armed with a long list of infractions Satchel thought had escaped notice, from fistfights to skipping school to stealing to not listening to her repeated warnings. He thought she would never finish. She thought he would never listen and would end up on the trash heap that consumed so many black boys from Mobile. Her last words pronounced his punishment: confinement until the age of eighteen at the state reform school.

“No!” Lula screamed. Satchel was shaking so hard he could not say anything. Just two weeks before he had celebrated his twelfth birthday. Now he was being told he would not see freedom again for six long years. It seemed like a bad dream until they shut the door on him. That is when he knew it was real.

Table of Contents

Preface vii

Chronology xv

Author's Note xvii

l Coming Alive 3

2 Blackball 26

3 The Glory Trail 53

4 The Game in Black and White 77

5 South of the Border 108

6 Kansas City, Here I Come 136

7 Master of the Manor 158

8 Baseball's Great Experiment 180

9 An Opening at Last 204

10 Crafting a Legend 11

11 Maybe I'll Pitch Forever 267

Acknowledgments 299

Appendix: Satchel by the Numbers 301

Notes 305

Bibliography 343

Index 379

Reading Group Guide

1. Satchel Paige’s age was a matter of perpetual mystery. Every time he was asked he offered a different answer, depending on who was asking and when. Why was it so difficult to pin down a straightforward matter like his birth date? And why do you think Satchel sometimes tried to make himself forever young, like Peter Pan, and other times as old as Methuselah?

2. Satchel grew up in Mobile in the early 1900s, long after the failure of the Reconstruction era, which promised a New South after the Civil War ended slavery. It was the era of Jim Crow and Uncle Tom. Who were Jim Crow and Uncle Tom? What do they tell us about what life in Mobile was like for a young boy like Satchel Paige?

3. Satchel Paige entered the world as Leroy Robert Paige. How did he come to be called “Satchel?” The roots of his nickname, like everything in his life, have several possible explanations. Why didn’t he clear up the mystery with a simple answer?

4. The Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers is where Satchel discovered just how overpowering a pitcher he could be, and just how much he loved the game of baseball. What landed Satchel in the reformatory? Did it matter that the school was based on the black self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington and run by the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs? What lessons did Satchel take away from his five years in reform school?

5. Some people say that Satchel was the greatest pitcher ever to toss a baseball, a claim backed up with statistics like his pitching 2,500 games, winning two thousand of them, and recording fifty no-hitters. Why is it so difficult to separate truth from legend in the days ofthe Negro Leagues? What evidence is there that the claims about Satchel were the truth? What evidence that they were legend? Why was there separate Negro Leagues in the first place, and was baseball in America always racially segregated?

6. Satchel was a showman as well as a star, calling in his fielders, pitching over matchbooks he placed on home plate, and dazzling fans with his aphorisms along with his antics. Why did he feel it necessary to perform like that? Did he ever slip, as critics say, into the role of the Uncle Tom?

7. Satchel was a great friend to and competitor of the “black Babe Ruth,” Josh Gibson. What was their relationship like? How were they different? Were those differences a matter of personality–or of divergent responses to being a baseball star in a racially divided universe?

8. Satchel barnstormed across America, pitching night after night in mining towns and farming ones, from springtime through summer, fall, and winter. Why did he pitch so often, while white big leaguers threw just every third or fourth day and took off most of the fall and all winter? What did he learn about himself and about America by barnstorming?

9. Baseball owners historically exercised an imperial control over their players, buying and selling them as they would property, holding on to them for life if they so chose. That was true in the Negro Leagues as in the Majors. How did Satchel’s jumping from team to team affect that feudal system? How, if at all, did Satchel’s unprecedented salaries, and his throwing off owners’ shackles, affect his fellow ballplayers?

10. If Satchel was so special, why did Branch Rickey pass him over for his Kansas City Monarchs teammate Jackie Robinson as the man who would break the color barrier in baseball? And, having been passed over, what role if any can Satchel claim in having integrated America’s pastime?

11. Why do we know so little about Satchel today? What is the real legacy of Satchel Paige?

Foreword

1. Satchel Paige’s age was a matter of perpetual mystery. Every time he was asked he offered a different answer, depending on who was asking and when. Why was it so difficult to pin down a straightforward matter like his birth date? And why do you think Satchel sometimes tried to make himself forever young, like Peter Pan, and other times as old as Methuselah?

2. Satchel grew up in Mobile in the early 1900s, long after the failure of the Reconstruction era, which promised a New South after the Civil War ended slavery. It was the era of Jim Crow and Uncle Tom. Who were Jim Crow and Uncle Tom? What do they tell us about what life in Mobile was like for a young boy like Satchel Paige?

3. Satchel Paige entered the world as Leroy Robert Paige. How did he come to be called “Satchel?” The roots of his nickname, like everything in his life, have several possible explanations. Why didn’t he clear up the mystery with a simple answer?

4. The Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers is where Satchel discovered just how overpowering a pitcher he could be, and just how much he loved the game of baseball. What landed Satchel in the reformatory? Did it matter that the school was based on the black self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington and run by the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs? What lessons did Satchel take away from his five years in reform school?

5. Some people say that Satchel was the greatest pitcher ever to toss a baseball, a claim backed up with statistics like his pitching 2,500 games, winning two thousand of them, and recording fifty no-hitters. Why is it so difficult to separate truth from legend in the daysof the Negro Leagues? What evidence is there that the claims about Satchel were the truth? What evidence that they were legend? Why was there separate Negro Leagues in the first place, and was baseball in America always racially segregated?

6. Satchel was a showman as well as a star, calling in his fielders, pitching over matchbooks he placed on home plate, and dazzling fans with his aphorisms along with his antics. Why did he feel it necessary to perform like that? Did he ever slip, as critics say, into the role of the Uncle Tom?

7. Satchel was a great friend to and competitor of the “black Babe Ruth,” Josh Gibson. What was their relationship like? How were they different? Were those differences a matter of personality–or of divergent responses to being a baseball star in a racially divided universe?

8. Satchel barnstormed across America, pitching night after night in mining towns and farming ones, from springtime through summer, fall, and winter. Why did he pitch so often, while white big leaguers threw just every third or fourth day and took off most of the fall and all winter? What did he learn about himself and about America by barnstorming?

9. Baseball owners historically exercised an imperial control over their players, buying and selling them as they would property, holding on to them for life if they so chose. That was true in the Negro Leagues as in the Majors. How did Satchel’s jumping from team to team affect that feudal system? How, if at all, did Satchel’s unprecedented salaries, and his throwing off owners’ shackles, affect his fellow ballplayers?

10. If Satchel was so special, why did Branch Rickey pass him over for his Kansas City Monarchs teammate Jackie Robinson as the man who would break the color barrier in baseball? And, having been passed over, what role if any can Satchel claim in having integrated America’s pastime?

11. Why do we know so little about Satchel today? What is the real legacy of Satchel Paige?

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Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
French_Louie More than 1 year ago
easy read, well done, very enjoyable...great book for those who enjoy or want to learn about baseball in the old days.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was one of the best reads I've had in the summer of 2010. The history of Satchel and other prominent Negro Leaguers is captured here with excellent detail. Great game description, storytelling, and word-painting by Tye. If you want to learn more about Negro League Baseball and details of Satchel off the field as well - this book is for you and for any baseball history buff for that matter. Go get it! ABSOLUTELY RECOMMENDED! Terrific read!
delphica on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was decent enough, and certainly an interesting subject. I have a lot of sympathy for the author, for it was apparent that he was caught up in a very understandable quandary involving how much background to include. Can you understand the career of Satchel Paige without understanding the Negro Leagues and can you understand the Negro Leagues without understanding Jim Crow and on and on. It landed in one of those places that is probably too much for some readers and not nearly enough for others, but what do you do? I felt this was a good overview of Paige's career and it offered a Satchel-centric view of the desegregation of modern major league baseball, which I would say was 80% thoughtful and only 20% whiny, not a terrible split although it skated a little close to calling Branch Rickey an opportunist and Jackie Robinson an ingrate. I was also somewhat alarmed at the willingness to lump together Paige's tall-tales about his early days in baseball, his dissembling about his age, and his willingness to marry someone when he was already married to another person as several examples of the self-creation of a folksy mythology. Hey, maybe they are are aspects of a folksy mythology, but Tye should have made some sort of case for this. In the absence of any convincing argument, I'm going to go with the tall-tales (throwing a ball so far that the catcher caught it the following day) being, you know, stories told for entertainment value that were clearly not intended to be believed; the age issue being evidence that he needed to lie about his age in order to continue making an income, which could start up a discussion about whether lying is an acceptable way of avoiding discrimination; and the getting married more than once thing, oh, let's call that one bigamy. Maybe I'm crazy but these seem like three very different things.Baseball-wise, there is a lot of good information and you get a great mental picture of Paige's career, especially the barnstorming years, and you are left with a real churn about the absolute unfairness of it all.
n2funstuff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent biography of one of the greatest pitchers of all-time.
rocketjk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a particularly interesting biography about a seminal figure in American history. Not just baseball history, but American history as a whole. Paige was a larger than life figure throughout his incredibly long baseball career, hurling thousands of games both in the Negro Leagues and in barnstorming exhibitions across the country and into Latin America for decades, before finally making a belated entrance into the Major Leagues in 1948 while in his 40s. Although most of us have heard of Paige and his famous saying, "Don't look back, somebody might be gaining on you," I wasn't really aware of how famous a figure Paige was throughout the Depression and through the war years.Tye obviously did lots and lots of research and interviews, and he goes as deeply as he can to separate fact from legend when it comes to Paige. The fact that we can't ever know, in places, how successful he's actually been at this is part of the book's charm. When he can't do any better, he simply relates the different versions of particular stories as supplied to him by the different sources he's found. At any rate, legend aside, I learned a heck of a lot about Paige and came to realize just how influential a figure he was to baseball history and how famous he was across the country during his heyday, how he pushed back racial boundaries simply by being himself and insisting on living life by his own rules.This book is just full of intriguing information about Paige, about the history of the Negro Leagues and even about the ultimate integration of the Major Leagues. For example, I was fascinated to learn that Paige and many of the other Negro League veterans had very little use for Jackie Robinson, although they said all the right things to reporters, and he had very little respect for them or all that they had accomplished and endured. This book will go a long way toward shining a light on a compelling figure in American history before he recedes too far into the mists of time to make such research feasible. I'm giving it 4 1/2 stars, due to the fact that, occasionally, Tye's writing style goes a little dry. Overall, though, wow.
tymfos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Admittedly, Larry Tye had a difficult task in writing a biography of Satchel Paige. While on the one hand, the subject himself is so fascinating that instant interest is generated, it's difficult to pin down many facts of the man's life and career. The old "Negro League Baseball" didn't keep the kinds of statistics MLB did; and Satchel Paige did a lot of barnstorming baseball, of which there are even fewer records. And then, the man was a bit of a yarn spinner himself, frequently embelishing some aspects of his life, and creating mystery around others. He was one of those rare persons whose first name (or, rather, nickname) creates immediate recognition in many listeners. But few people really knew him; he was, at heart, a loner. He was a complex character who refused to be "owned" by any team in an era long before baseball had heard of the concept of free agency. He was no saint; he spent big, bigger than he could afford to; at one point, he was apparently a bigamist. He was larger than life and possibly more talented than any baseball pitcher who walked the planet.I think Tye does a pretty good job with this book, all things considered. There were times when I got confused about the "when" of some things, as he didn't keep to a strict chronological order. There were times when I felt the writing dragged a bit, that he repeated certain information too often.The main things I walk away with are a sense of how awesome Satchel Paige's talent truly was, and wonderment that he could pitch so well so long, and dismay at how bigotry denied this man the kind of career he should have had, both in his prime days as a player and in later years when his baseball knowledge could have nurtured young players through coaching.
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DeFran More than 1 year ago
Excellently researched. Interesting, informative and fun.
lakesinger2591 More than 1 year ago
Satchel tells the story of one of baseball's great players. It follows him from his boyhood through the Negro League, and his barnstorming years in Cuba and other Latin American countries. It tells of his long-delayed entry into the major leagues, where he helped Bill Veeck's Cleveland Indians win the pennant in 1948. Among the great players in baseball history very few lived lives so colorful and interesting to warrant a full biography. Satchel Paige is one of them. The author gives great insight into this larger-than-life figure. Satchel is a must read for all baseball fans.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Extremely well done; very informative and well written. Whether or not you are a baseball fan, you will love this book.
HughToo2 More than 1 year ago
Satchell: The Life and Times of an American Legend portrays one of the greatest baseball talents in history, who was forced by Major League baseball's segregation to work in relative obscurity during his prime performance years. In Paige's early 40s, Bill Veeck game him the opportunity to pitch for the Cleveland Indians, whom he helped lead to a World Series championship in 1948. The book also provides a sad, but not bitter, picture of Jim Crow and widespread discrimination against blacks in the North as well. This is an excellent book for baseball fans, but not only for baseball fans. You will like it if you are interested in American history for the fist half of the 20th century, and especially African-Americans' struggle for justice and equality. It will help you understand people as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jr. and LBJ to Barack Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book for my dad as a Fathers' Day present. Baseball has always been a commonality between us, and this insight into one of the greatest players to ever play the game was outstanding. I had read the book and chose to give it to my father, and he truly liked it. My dad had the chance to actually see this enigmatic character play when he was a kid, and this book added a different perspective to the history of baseball, the US and the sad part that was segregation. Paige was incredible, and this book put him as a historical character in the midst of some strange times, when baseball was a different game as dictated by different social and economic factors
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T.T loser
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was interested in Satchel Paige and did learn more about him, but the book leaves much to be desired. Rather than telling a well presented and strictly chronological story, the chapters are loosely chronological and some of the chapters read like independent essays about different aspects of Satchel Paige's life. The result is a story that is poorly told and loosely organized. The prose style is fair at best. It's like the rough draft of a potentially better book. I'm surprised the editors published it without revision.