Biography of a trailblazing baseball showman and star

Satchel Paige is the subject of a biography by former Globe reporter Larry Tye. Satchel Paige is the subject of a biography by former Globe reporter Larry Tye.
By Bill Nowlin
June 29, 2009
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The charismatic pitcher Satchel Paige was to baseball’s Negro Leagues during the Great Depression what Babe Ruth was to white baseball. It’s difficult to document his early career because newspapers in Mobile, Ala., took little note of the black 40 percent of the city’s population. But biographer Larry Tye has dug in with over 200 interviews of those who still recall Paige and the legends surrounding him.

Leroy Paige earned the nickname Satchel by hustling suitcases at a train station, and purportedly developed his accuracy by throwing rocks at pheasants, to help his washerwoman mother feed her 12 children. Satchel being Satchel? Manny Ramirez had nothing on him.

He became the major draw of his day, during an era when baseball was the undisputed national pastime. Satch was good, and he didn’t hesitate to do all he could to inflate his own stature. A typical declaration: “It got so I could nip frosting off a cake with my fastball.’’ He was a showman, that’s for sure. No one barnstormed more, and he claimed to have pitched for 250 teams, earning as much as $500 for a few innings in each. Tye, a onetime Globe reporter, also says Paige walked out on more signed contracts than any player in history. He became such a good pitcher that white sportswriters began to cover his games, so dominating a personality that one writer declared him winner of a 1-1 tie game. At one point, Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neil said, he “might have been the most famous black man in America.’’

At times, he joined teams of black ballplayers that crisscrossed the country playing exhibition games against teams of white major leaguers, organized by someone such as pitcher Bob Feller - and often won. From 1924-39, the California Winter League pitted black players against white, and the Negro Leaguers won 13 of the 16 championships. The only integrated baseball being played was in Bismarck, N.D., so Satchel played there for a couple of seasons, proving that American family values wouldn’t collapse if baseball were more colorblind.

Paige attracted fans of both races, but Jackie Robinson got the call to be the first African-American ballplayer in the major leagues. That hurt, but Robinson had the temperament for the task. Paige likely would have taken some comfort in hearing a fellow Negro Leaguer say that Jackie had opened the door, “but it was Satchel who inserted the key.’’ Paige’s showmanship perhaps counted against him; he didn’t mind playing to the crowd, ambling to the mound with his loose limbs akimbo, or relaxing in a rocking chair placed in the bullpen with a bucket of ice and three cold beers alongside. Satchel was signed to a big league contract on his 42d birthday, and struck out his last major league batter in a cameo for Kansas City at age 59.

Tye’s writing is a pleasure, relaxed but economical, providing a more vivid sense of life in black baseball than any of the several other books on Paige and the Negro Leagues.

Satch never hesitated to pump up his own persona, claiming for instance, “Methuselah was my first bat boy.’’ Self-aggrandizing hyperbole aside, there was sufficient basis in stories told by others to merit closer investigation. Tye concludes that many of the tales about Paige don’t hold up in every regard, but have some basis in fact. Like Ruth, Paige was a product of reform school with an oversize appetite, someone who instinctively knew that the embellishments and ambiguity about his accomplishments helped make him a true folk hero.

Bill Nowlin is author of more than 20 books about the Red Sox, his latest is “The Ultimate Red Sox Home Run Guide.’’

SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend
By Larry Tye
Random House, 392 pp., $26

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