He is that rare American icon who has never been captured in a biography worthy of him. Now, at last, here is the story of athlete, showman, philosopher, and boundary breaker Leroy "Satchel" Paige. Through dogged detective work, journalist Larry Tye has tracked down the truth about this enigmatic pitcher, interviewing Negro Leaguers and Major Leaguers, talking to family and friends who had never told their stories, and retracing Paige's steps to separate the truth from the myth Paige himself created. Here is the child born to an Alabama washerwoman with twelve young mouths to feed, the young man who took up baseball on the streets, inventing his trademark hesitation pitch while throwing bricks at rival gang members. Tye shows Paige growing into the superstar hurler of the Negro Leagues, establishing records that still stand, then emerging at age 42 to help propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series.--From publisher description.
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.
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.
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.
Much of what I have learned about Satchel Paige is in the same regard. It focused on his legendary pitching skills, his sayings, his personality, and his age, but never covered race. This biography of Paige tells the whole story. It also cuts through a great deal of mythology on the pitcher, finding his real age, his first start in Negro baseball, his rotator cuff injury that almost finished his career, and most shockingly, even though baseball was integrated, the Cleveland Indians ball club did not want him on the team and penalized him for problems that were more the fault of Jim Crow than his.
Intergration in Baseball, like Civil Rights, was not welcome, and those in the league tried to find other methods to push these new players out. Even though do many played in the Negro Leagues for so long, it was no guarantee that they would stay in the majors. It is also further shocking that many of these players, when their playing days were over, went to menial jobs like janitors and were left in poverty and forgotten from history. In fact it was only Satchel Paige's personality and his timeless arm that prevented the same for him. His stint in the majors was relatively shortlived when compared to his decades playing baseball. I think that another mythology from the book was his speed.
Others in the league were faster, but he was smarter, more accurate, and honed those skills more carefully than others realized. Many weren't just blown away, although early on most were, but were outsmarted.
Overall, this is the best biography on Satchel Paige and one of the best I've ever read. It isn't just about Sachel, but cuts through his mythology so we can truly appreciate the amazing man he was without question.
The book is an amazing look at life in Jim Crow America and the fascinating sub-culture of barnstorming and the Negro Leagues. It's also an excellent treatise on talent, race, publicity, loyalty, and sport. I found this book to be funny, exhilarating, heartbreaking, and poignant.
A remarkable achievement.
Living in Kansas City and knowing the President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, I've heard stories over the years about the Monarchs, Satchel Paige and Buck O'Neil. Buck was a supporter of the organization where I work and I missed meeting him by a few months. So, I recognize several names in this book. If you are in Kansas City, love baseball, stop by the Museum, it has a lot of fascinating history.
This book does jump around a lot but it has so much history and information that I want to know more about Satchel and about the Negro Leagues. Glad I found this on the shelf at the library. If you like baseball and the history of baseball, definitely pick this up.