In the initial games, the Ciudad Trujillo All-Star team floundered. Living outside the shadow of segregation, Satchel and his recruits spent their nights carousing and their days dropping close games to their rivals, who were also stocked with great players. Desperate to restore discipline, Trujillo tapped the leader of his death squads to become part of the team management.
When Paige’s team ultimately rallied to win, it barely registered with Trujillo, who a few months later ordered the killings of fifteen thousand Haitians at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Paige and his teammates returned to the states to face banishment from the Negro Leagues, but they barnstormed across America wearing their Trujillo All-Stars uniforms.
The Pitcher and the Dictator is an extraordinary story of race, politics, and some of the greatest baseball players ever assembled, playing high-stakes games in support of one of the Caribbean’s cruelest dictators.
For more information about The Pitcher and the Dictator, visit thepitcherandthedictator.com.
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If I didn't show them now, they'd never believe I was one of the greatest of all times.
— Satchel Paige before pitching in his Major League debut at age forty-two
Satchel thought it was all so odd. He expected to play on the tight schedule he had grown accustomed to — on the bus, off the bus, lousy hotel, worse food, ball game, next town same thing. It had gotten to the point where he felt like a traveling salesman who hardly knew what town he was in on any particular day.
This was different. He found himself on an island where the weather was warm, the tempo relaxed. Where the games were in just three cities. Even better, they played only on weekends. A nice club in the capital city was his headquarters. And best of all, despite the color of his skin, Satchel and his friends had been able to eat, drink, carouse, and sleep anywhere they wanted — things he couldn't do freely in 1937 in the land of the free, home of the brave.
After a few days Satchel felt the tempo of Ciudad Trujillo (Trujillo City) in the Dominican Republic in his bones. People filled the streets promptly at 8:00 a.m. When noon arrived, the streets were flooded with businessmen in white suits wearing banded white hats. They came pouring out of stores and offices to head home for a lunch of soup, chicken or pork and depending on the day or mood, potatoes, beans, rice, plantains, melon, pineapple, tomato, and heart of palm salad, with pudding and coffee to finish. An hour-long siesta followed. At 1:45 sharp, to wake the napping populace, a pair of shrill ochre-colored, snail-shaped sirens, mounted on a tall white bell tower, were blown. Oddest of all, when the newspapers had a big story, the same sirens announced the scoop to the citizenry.
As he walked through the city, Satchel shook his head and blinked at what he didn't see: beggars, trash, vagrants, or barefooters. Streets were mostly paved. They were immaculately clean. Calle El Conde, the artery of the tony shopping district, was crowded with jewelers, clothiers, restaurants, and cafés. The calle clattered with motorcars and every variety of horse-drawn contraption. It seemed as if all the buggies and carriages that had disappeared from the streets of the United States had been transported whole cloth to the streets of Ciudad Trujillo. Satchel would hear their musical warning bells and turn to see the glimmer from the brass trimmings of hansoms, landaulets, cabriolets, victorias, surreys, herdics, and fiacres.
He found, without a doubt, that the most beautiful spot in the city was the palm-lined esplanade, which followed the contours of the Caribbean. Called by locals El Malecón (the Breakwater), it was skirted by Avenida George Washington, which was spotted with benches and meticulously manicured parks filled with well-dressed children. The avenida led to a freshly installed white marble obelisk, which was a one-quarter-size replica of the Washington Monument. He later learned that even though it stood on Avenida Washington, the obelisk wasn't dedicated to George Washington.
Time to Get a Job
The hot days in the Dominican Republic, cooled by an ocean breeze, felt the same to Satchel as when he had walked along the seashore of the Gulf Coast in Mobile Alabama, as a child. He still remembered that day his mother had looked him in the eye and told him it was time to get a job, time to help support his family. He was six. But there wasn't much choice; the family had to put food on the table, and that meant everybody had to contribute. After all his nine-year-old brother already had a steady job. At first the younger boy began by collecting bottles from trashcans and bathrooms to sell to bootleggers. When he turned seven, his mother told him that "bottle selling wasn't enough." It was simple; she said he needed to get a "job somewhere to help out more." It made the child feel like he "was fifty or sixty years old."
His mother told him he could make more money carrying bags at the train station. So for a dime each, the little boy began carrying bags for travelers arriving in the segregated city of Mobile, Alabama, in 1915. This clever child wanted to improve his income, and he got to thinking: "One satchel, one dime. Two satchels, two dimes. Three satchels, three ... the more satchels, the more dimes." So he began stringing the satchels to himself and onto a pole. He knew his invention "wasn't a smart-looking thing," but on a good trip he "could string up sixteen satchels, put one under each arm and two in [his] hands" for a two-dollar haul. The other children laughed at the sight of this small child walking around town loaded down with satchels strung to his odd invention. "You look like a walking satchel tree," they teased.
So he got the name "Satchel."
He was born Leroy Robert Page in Mobile, Alabama, in 1906.6 At first Satchel's family name was the common "Page," but his father added an extra "i" to make the name sound more "high tone." Satchel's mother was a washerwoman as well as the undisputed boss of the house. The eleven Paige children and the family goat lived in a four-room "shotgun" house. Often they relied on vegetables from a backyard garden or fish caught in the nearby bay.
Satchel grew up in a time of bitter racial oppression. Reconstruction had ended in Alabama in 1874 when a group of ex-Confederates seized control of state government and began passing a series of Jim Crow laws, transforming Alabama into an apartheid state. By the turn of the nineteenth century, lynchings had become commonplace in Mobile. Between Satchel's birth and his fourth birthday, five Mobile blacks died at the hands of white lynch mobs. Violent mobs became so emboldened that they staged one of these lynchings across the street from the city's oldest church.
One summer day twelve-year-old Satchel was arrested for shoplifting a handful of brass rings and sentenced to live out his adolescence at the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers in Mount Meigs. When Satchel arrived back in Mobile in December 1923, he was a young man determined to become a baseball star.
Two years after returning home, Satchel signed his first professional contract with Mobile native Alex Herman of the Chattanooga White Sox, in April 1926. He pitched opening day and was an immediate sensation.
Eleven years later, on a warm July Sunday, Satchel shook his head in disbelief as he found himself walking along the streets of Ciudad Trujillo. The city was vibrating to the pulse of un gran festival. By 6:00 a.m. thousands had tuned their radios to the powerful station with the call letters HIX to hear the drawing of the lottery numbers. Two violinists played to hundreds gathered at the central lottery offices, standing, watching as the colossal wire globe was spun on its axis. Like a roulette wheel, when it slowed, it tossed out a ball, and the numbered ball fell into a wire basket. "Numero siete," intoned the bald man with thick glasses. When the numbers lay in the basket, a smaller wire globe was spun. It slowed until it spit out the size of the prize. An attractive young woman with a singer's voice announced the results to the animated crowd.
It was only a short walk from the downtown area where Satchel was staying to the ballpark, which sat at the Caribbean's edge. The view from home plate to right field provided a panorama of the ocean broken only by some palms. A constant breeze filled the ballpark with a fine ocean spray, which cooled the field. Behind left field was Calle Piña, where kids roamed during batting practice and ball games, hoping to snag a home run ball. What especially caught Satchel's eye when he first walked into the stadium was the sight of a rusty abandoned warship looming beyond the right-field fence.
Seven thousand fanáticos impatiently waited for the three o'clock first pitch at the four-year-old stadium called the Campo Deportivo Municipal. Satchel was used to the Negro League stadiums with their gently curved stands studded with seats that slanted up a steep slope. It was odd he thought; this diamond "looked something like a bull ring." Especially once he realized "there are no bull fights down there." The ninety-degree-angled colonial white structure shot straight up three layers like a wedding cake. Each layer was held up by square columns flush with the field. The dugouts along each foul line were like giant open bread boxes half buried in the foul territory dirt. The stadium just stopped at the end of each foul line — with Piña Street running behind left field and El Malecón, which skirted the Caribbean, beyond the right field.
Satchel's unease had grown steadily as he traveled about the island. Everything looked clean and the people well off — as long as he didn't stray too far from the places patrolled by the police. Yet just a few blocks away, peasants were living in poverty not unlike the poor black neighborhood full of shotgun houses that he had grown up in. And without fail when he went out late at night, he would be approached by bare-boned, barefoot children selling newspapers and lottery tickets.
On game day before he left his club, Satchel soaked in a bath with water as hot as he could stand. He wouldn't get out until sweat was streaming down his forehead. After he toweled off, he carefully dressed in his thin white linen suit with sharp, shined black shoes. He surely kept thinking, "It's almost done." From that moment — until he pitched — he never stopped moving.
Satchel felt in his bones that today would be a high-pitched affair. He had known from the moment he landed that a "strong man" ran this country. Everywhere he went he saw the evidence: hosts of police officers and soldiers patrolling the streets with their flashy displays of guns, straps of ammunition, and knives.
When he arrived at the ballpark, limber, lean, six-feet-three Satchel went through his routine. First thing — to get all the muscles warm — he fielded bunts, hit balls to the infield, chased flies, worked out at third. When he finally glanced up, he saw that every seat on the first two levels was filled. As he looked higher, he could see that even the third level was overflowing with fanáticos willing to stand for the entire game. Beyond the outfield fences a thick crowd was jostling for a view.
The manager called the Dragones together for what Satchel thought would be just a routine long-winded, empty pep talk. Instead he simply growled, "You better win." As Satchel walked the length of the dugout, he hoped today he would only be needed to root for his teammates.
The fanáticos stood, roared, and waved their hats as the pinstriped Dragones took the field and their pitcher tossed his warmups. The sun, standing high over the third-base stands, cast short shadows of the batter, which fell toward first base.
As the game progressed, Satchel's nerves eased. His teammate from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, lefty Leroy Matlock, who had started the game, was cutting through the lineup of the Águilas Cibaeñas (Eagles of the Cibao Valley) using his great control to mix in sharp fastballs with curves, drops, screwballs, and sliders. He was coasting into the ninth with an 8–2 lead.
It was hard to tell if Matlock had run out of gas, if the hitters had figured him out, or if the sight of armed soldiers lined up in plain view had unnerved him, but he was suddenly hittable. In the twinkling of an eye, the championship game was in a state of collapse.
Single. Double. Single.
New York Cuban jumper and slick fielding first baseman David "Showboat" Thomas began the rally with a single for the Águilas. Then García doubled. Next "Big Splo" Spearman, another New York Cuban jumper, singled, cutting the lead to 8–3 with only one out and runners standing on first and third.
The manager stood, growled, and craned his neck to look down the length of the dugout to where Satchel was trying to keep out of sight. "Ven acá," he spat. In utter dread Satchel hastily warmed up and was soon summoned to pitch. As he walked to the mound, all he could think of were those soldiers standing in foul territory with long knives and guns in their belts — and the fact that "they could use them." The words "you better win" kept repeating in his head. Standing on the mound he felt so jittery that even as he talked to himself he was stuttering: "L-l-l-listen S-ss-atch, pull yourself together before they air-condition you. You're just a few pitches away from riding a big bird back to the land of Uncle Sam." It was small comfort to the tall, lanky right-hander that anything he threw near the plate would be called a strike "'cause the umpires saw the guns too."
Satchel's shattered nerves took a toll on his pitching. He quickly thought things through as clearly as he could. The first two hitters he would face were Pat Patterson and Santos Amaro. Because he had played with Patterson on the Pittsburgh Crawfords, he knew the speedy switch hitter could beat out almost any grounder to the hole. Next man up would be the tall, powerful, right-handed-hitting Cuban Santos Amaro. "El Canguro" was a different matter altogether. Satchel feared his power because he had already homered four times in this series.
Patterson touched Satchel for a single. When El Canguro came to the plate, he narrowed the lead to 8–5 with another single. Satchel finally got a break: he induced Philadelphia Star jumper "Red" Parnell to ground into a force at second.
The famous Cuban slugger Martín "El Maestro" Dihigo strode to the plate waving a bat in his hands. The sportswriter for Listín Diario later recounted what every fanático in the stadium was thinking: if the dangerous Dihigo, who led the league in homers and had hit three off Satchel got ahold of one, the game would be tied. With first base open, Satchel could walk Dihigo if he chose. Yet he decided to pitch to him.
Dihigo singled, driving in Pat Patterson for the sixth run. "Red" now stood at third. Dihigo took a healthy lead at first with his team down only two runs.
Standing on the mound, Satchel looked down at his feet. He closed his eyes for a split second to take stock. Everything felt okay but his stomach. A sick feeling kept growing down there from knowing that the outcome of this game was bigger than baseball.
Because no matter who told him, "you better win," Satchel knew it originated from one source: the dictator Rafael Trujillo. From the moment he landed on the island, Satchel had heard the whispers about what happened to people who crossed Trujillo. Worse, the men who worked for Trujillo, men who he knew had, without hesitation, without remorse, killed other men, had told Satchel, "You better win."
Show Me the Money
Satchel looked down at his feet. He scratched at the mound dirt with the toes of his spikes: in a flash he took stock of it all. He felt a residue of doubt mixed with a pinch of regret. Yet he refused to regret the day he had taken the bankbook with his name above the ledger line and $30,000 right below.
He could remember that April day vividly. Two weeks earlier he had arrived in New Orleans — a city he had fallen in love with a decade earlier as a twenty-year-old. The circumstances of that first trip were slightly embarrassing: he had jumped his team at the offer of an old jalopy to play for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Satchel easily made friends wherever he went. Here in New Orleans he would listen to his friend Jelly Roll Morton effortlessly modulate between keys as he improvised with all the elements of jazz, syncopation, and blues. Here, dressed in his canary-yellow suit, Satchel joined his friends to eat, wander, and play all along South Rampart Street. They all knew Satch. Heads turned when he sauntered into the long-countered diners, honky-tonks, pool halls and theaters on the main drag — Dix's Barbershop, Pelican Billiard Hall, Tick Tock Tavern, King's Shoe Shine Parlor, Polmer Tailoring, Cohen's Loan & Jewelry Company, and Reiner's Pawn Shop. For blocks he could hear the melodious cries of street vendors selling pies, roasted corn, bread, cake, ice cream, sweet watermelon slices, waffles, and candy, along with an array of handymen selling services ranging from umbrella repair to knife sharpening.
Yet when Satchel headed south — even to a big city like New Orleans — he was coldly reminded by the others that he was just a "nigger." Even in New Orleans he could walk by but not into the central park. The streetcars had placards that were moved back and forth during the day to segregate the riders. They read:
For Colored Patrons
— Only —
Just a few days after Satchel arrived in New Orleans, the talk suddenly modulated from a major key — girls, music, food, and baseball — to a minor one. Rapidly news spread that the previous day black Mississippians Roosevelt Townes and Robert McDaniels had been seized by a white mob while passing through the Grenada County jail yard on their way to be arraigned in court. Sheriff E. E. White had released his two black prisoners to the mob as he belly-laughed, remarking: "You have overpowered me boys."
Excerpted from "The Pitcher and the Dictator"
Copyright © 2018 Averell "Ace" Smith.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Preface: Recovery of a Lost History,
1. Trujillo City,
2. Time to Get a Job,
3. Show Me the Money,
5. The Americans,
6. A Long, Lanky Black Boy by the Name of Satchell,
7. Trujillo Es El Jefe,
8. Opening Day Away,
9. Royal Prerogative,
10. Total Catastrophe,
11. The Stars Arrive,
12. Después de la Victoria,
13. Nuevos Rumbos,
14. Black Babe Ruth,
15. Fiesta de la Chapita,
16. The Maestro's Coda,
17. The Heartbreaking End of Josh Gibson,
18. The Fall of Trujillo,
19. The Persevering Paige,
20. "El Gamo",
21. Y Otras,
Epilogue: Tenth Inning,
Appendix: Notes on Paige's Magical Pitching,