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Glory at Half Price

By (July 1, 2009) One Comment

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend

By Larry Tye
Random House, 2009

1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society – the social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. And don’t look back – something might be gaining on you.

The above list has become known as Satchel Paige’s “Rules For Youthful Living.” Leroy “Satchel” Paige began pitching with the Chattanooga White Sox in the Negro minor leagues in 1926 and ended his career pitching three scoreless innings with the Kansas City A’s against the Boston Red Sox in 1965 at the tender age of 59, by far the oldest player to compete at the major league level. I just had to put his rules at the top of this review, because it’s the only listing of note that Larry Tye omits in Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, his wonderful, loving portrait of a gigantic figure that truly deserves to be called legendary.Of course, the prime creator of the Satchel Legend was Paige himself. His “rules,” as he delivered them in his 1963 autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, exhibited his effortless ability to express himself in a way that was self-effacing and self-promoting at the same time. I remember drinking in the old Black Cat paperback edition, believing every incredible story about his pitching exploits, because there was always enough genuine humility mixed in to make the stories ring true. Compared to the bland bios ballplayers wrote in the 50’s and 60’s, even Paige’s ghost-writer seemed livelier than the competition.

Tye makes the stories resonate anew by grounding the reader in the climate Leroy Paige faced as an African American ballplayer starting his career during the Babe Ruth era of the late Twenties. The fact that blacks had a place in baseball at the very beginnings of the game is given full attention, starting with John W. “Bud “ Fowler, who played second base with minor league teams in Lynn and Worcester Massachusetts as far back as 1878. Tye hits a happy rhythm in these passages:

The next year a nineteen–year–old college student named William Edward White was recruited to fill in for the injured first baseman on the Providence Grays. Thus a man named White, from a university named Brown and a team called Gray, was the first of his race to make it to the Major Leagues. White had a personal story as gripping as his baseball one: his father was a Caucasian railroad president, his mother a mulatto servant in the father’s household in Milner, Georgia. William got a hit, scored a run, and handled twelve balls without an error during his first game with the Grays on June 21, 1879. But his big league career began and ended with that historic appearance, which was not unmasked until 2003.

The fact that these appearances became more common did not mean the black players were treated normally. Bud Fowler’s son, also a second baseman, “was spiked so often playing second base that he finally enclosed his lower legs in wood.”

Black players were sometimes not photographed with the rest of the team. In addition to collisions in the field, there were encounters with pitchers who blatantly threw pitch after pitch at them. Nonetheless, Larry Tye states that at least thirty three blacks played in the late 1800’s, by some estimates as many as seventy.

As Paige moved from his coaches at the Mobile, Alabama orphanage/reform school through the black minor and major league teams, he found Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, willing to sign up a tall, long-legged kid who seemed to throw so hard the ball “never hit the bat…or the catcher’s mitt either” The Negro Leagues evolved out of a marathon meeting of black businessmen in 1920. A Negro National League functioned with eastern teams during the 1920’s; an American League drawn from Midwestern cities was added in the thirties, but it was not a cooperative venture. Teams were supposed to complete a 100 game schedule, but some teams played 50. Due to the scarcity of black newspapers, coverage was spotty and record keeping lackadaisical. When scheduling permitted, games were played in major league parks (though access to showers and locker rooms was usually denied). Contracts between owners and players were likewise drawn on sketchy trust, since the funds provided by many of the owners came from underworld sources. Despite the shaky foundations, Paige was able to play four seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Crawfords during the thirties, and he came back with the Kansas City Monarchs for another seven seasons in the forties, before finally getting called by the Cleveland Indians, in 1948. He was passed over for Royal teammate Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in the National League, but Paige joined another forgotten pioneer, outfielder Larry Doby, to begin integrating the American League.

A fascinating aspect of all this is that Satchel had broken the ‘race barrier’ many times as a barnstormer. Between seasons, many players, white and black, signed on to travel the country, taking on local teams, or other teams of barnstormers. Tournaments were a big deal. For years, the Denver Post sponsored a tournament featuring teams from all over the country. One of those tournaments was won by the House of David – a team entirely composed of Jewish players. Their featured pitcher: Satchel Paige (so the team was now ‘almost entirely’). In 1933, some six years into his career, he took off from the Pittsburgh Crawfords for a stint in Bismarck North Dakota, on a racially mixed team owned by one of the many memorable characters of the book, an eccentric gent named Neil Churchill, who wanted to show those all-white teams on the North Plains just how baseball was played. Satchel served in Bismarck for an entire season, in an environment that proved baseball could be played by any mixture of races without the stands collapsing or the fans rioting.

Tye has a nice lilt describing what baseball was like in the Negro Leagues:

What they saw, for half the price of admission to white games, was the most intoxicating baseball on the planet. There were old–fashioned hit–and–runs, where the base runner was off with the pitch and the batter always managed to put the ball into play. Bunts were executed precisely. Players slid face first to beat the tag.

This was against the grain of the Babe Ruth home run style of baseball then in vogue, but seeing a Negro League Game went beyond that:

Negro Leaguers pioneered the widespread use of lights – and night baseball – a full fifteen years before the Majors. Night games meant that fans who worked all day and watched only on weekends could now come on week nights too. It let owners squeeze three and even four games between sunrises. The generators sputtered and coughed. Moths flocked around the bulbs. So short were the towers and so dim the lights that catchers held up their mitts rather than their fingers to signal the pitcher what to throw. Balls vanished into the jet–black sky and fielders, as one related, “just looked up and prayed, ‘dear lord, bring it here’”. But no one complained. The motorcade – with players in cars, and the generators and lights carried in trucks – crawled across the countryside, signing up promising young players without benefit of white baseball’s network of scouts, farm teams, and spring training sites.

Tye fights the tough battle of trying to organize the chronology of Paige’s pitching career, forced to weave his story of the player’s seasons on the Crawfords and later the Kansas City Monarchs, with excursions to Mexico City, and later the Trujillo-ruled Dominican Republic in a tale Hollywood would need five writers to layer properly. Did I mention the barnstorming tours against teams of white major leaguers led by Dizzy Dean, and later on by Bob Feller? How about the one time he pitched to Babe Ruth? (I won’t spoil it).

Luckily, Kansas City businessman J. L. Wilkinson became the owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, and at that point the book gains a character who in sheer inventiveness, almost rivals Paige. J. (His dad said “here’s a letter – you pick the name”) Leslie Wilkinson started by using the recently invented Bloomer pants for women as an excuse to form the Hopkins Brothers Champion Lady Baseball Club in 1909. From there, he formed the All Nations baseball team in 1913 featuring players from Cuba, Hawaii, Japan, and the Cherokee Nation. The second baseman (base person?) on that team was called “Carrie Nation,” for obvious marketing reasons. The team’s barnstorming record that season was 119 wins and 17 losses. Wilkinson built a gigantic grandstand and had it towed to sites, where wrestlers challenged the crowd, bands played, and a family could make a day of it. He rented out his generators and lights to other teams and leagues, and when he submitted his bid to create the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League, the other owners were shocked to find the most stable franchise in the league being run by a white businessman. And his chief financial officer had been in the KKK.

Wilkinson was also unusual in the way he treated his players. A train with Pullman accommodations replaced the raggedy cars that got the players to the games. Each new player was fitted for two tailor–made suits. Paige was encouraged to invest his sizeable earnings in some Kansas City real estate, take his wife and young family and settle down for the first time in his career. This advice Paige was wise enough to take. When teammate Jackie Robinson was accepted into the Brooklyn Dodger organization to be the first black to play in the modern majors, Paige pouted and said he felt slighted, especially when Jackie refused to acknowledge his old teammates, or his old team, when interviewed by a press ravenous for any info on Jackie’s past. It is surprising to read any criticism of Jackie Robinson, but Tye relates that a number of Robinson’s old Monarch teammates felt Jackie could have said more about his roots in the Negro leagues. It’s unclear whether his former teammates realized that Robinson was selected as much for his fiery character as his ability. As it turned out, Jackie’s acceptance in baseball sounded the death knell for the Negro Leagues, as fans realized now they could see all the all the best players, finally on the same major league fields.

It took another eccentric, creative owner to boost Paige into the Major leagues. Bill Veeck invited Paige to “try out” for the Cleveland Indians, and Paige was a key reliever helping Cleveland win the World Series. It’s gratifying that he got to play for the Indians, and in the fifties for the St Louis Browns of the National League, fans got to see flashes of the legendary player of the thirties. He was a reliable bullpen guy in 1948, going 6 – 1 with a gaudy 2.47 ERA as a forty two year–old rookie. Even more remarkably, in 1952 he went 12 – 10 with a 3.07 ERA, mainly as a starter with the lowly St. Louis Browns, also owned by Veeck, the same guy who marked his regime there by officially sending a midget up in an actual game as a pinch hitter. Veeck kept Paige from driving his manager crazy by ignoring all the team rules. By then fans got to see the whole arsenal of pitch deliveries:

“I got bloopers, loopers, and droopers. I got a jump ball, a be ball, a screwball, a wobbly ball, a whipsy-dipsy-do, a hurry–up ball, a nothin’ ball and a bat dodger. My be ball is a be ball ‘cause it be’ right where I want it, high and inside. It wiggles like a worm.

I throw with my knuckles, some with two fingers. My whipsey–dipsey-do is a special fork ball. I throw underhand and sidearm that slithers and slinks. I keep my thumb off the ball and use three fingers. The middle finger sticks up high, like a bent fork.”

Naming pitches was only one way to establish your credentials. Paige kept his own records over the years and here’s what he came up with:

The Paige almanac had him pitching in more than 2500 games and winning 2000 or so. He professed to have labored for 250 teams and thrown 250 shutouts. His per-game strikeout record was twenty-two, against Major League barnstormers, which would have been an all–time record for all of baseball. Other claims that would have set marks: fifty no-hitters, twenty-nine starts in a month, twenty-one straight wins, sixty-two consecutive scoreless innings, 153 pitching appearances in a year, and three wins the same day.

The most enjoyable part of this remarkable story is how Tye looks into the stunts and tricks that were so much a part of the legend and finds so many verifications of Satchel’s signature moves. On a number of witnessed occasions, Satchel would wave in his outfielders in from their positions and have them sit in the infield (sometimes playing cards!) while Satchel proceeded to strike out the next hitter (sometimes the next three hitters, if Satch was really frustrated):

Generally the prank ended well, but not always. One night in the 1930’s pitching for Bismarck against Jamestown, Satchel stood on the mound, mopping his brow with his pitching hand. His team was ahead by one run with a man on base in the last of the ninth, and he was wiping away perspiration. His outfielders saw something else: their pitcher’s well-honed signal for them to take the rest of the inning off .

“While my outfield was strollin’ off the field behind my back,” Satchel related to Donovan and Collier’s, “I fed the cleanup man a little outcurve which I intended him to hit on the fly to right field. He did. It was sometime before I again visited the city of Bismarck.”

The Satchel Paige who emerges from these pages is a self-motivated man who frustrated every major league manager he ever worked for with his refusal to follow team rules. Even in the 1930s, teammates got irritated by his deliberate stroll to the mound, a manner too “plantation” for some ballplayers. His three distinct relationships with women finally produced a stable third marriage. His children all claimed a share of his attention, and from their accounts he played no favorites, not even with his one (non-ballplaying, alas) son. He had a great ability to not take himself too seriously. More than anything his extraordinary, exceptional, adaptable talent gave him pleasure at every stage of his career, and he passed that love on to spectators instantaneously.

Satchel Paige makes a great flashlight to shine on down the corridors of the never-to-be-known Negro Leagues. His passage through the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a period where his remarkable arm went completely dead, to redemption for the Kansas City Monarchs, the other significant franchise in black baseball history – it all makes the Paige story resonate with virtually all the other legends from that time, from Josh Gibson (The “Black Babe Ruth”) to Cool Papa Bell, a man so fast he could steal two bases on one pitch. Tye gives equal weight to the myths and to what numbers remain. It’s a balanced portrait, and one that should please fans and history buffs, who’ll take away in equal measure one solid truth: Satchel Paige never looked back because he knew no one would be gaining on him.

Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.

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