Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 26, 2009

The Shy Showman

For decades, Satchel Paige pitched thousands of times around the world, bewildering opponents and flummoxing anyone who sought to learn his story. A new biography sets out to sort fact from legend.

Max Lakin

When Leroy "Satchel" Paige died in Kansas City in 1982, he had already been enshrined in Cooperstown and had taken his place in a baseball gospel thick with outsize personalities. At Paige's funeral, Buck O'Neil reminisced about his contemporary in the Negro Leagues, and spoke directly to white America's guilt about segregation. "Don't feel sorry for us," he said. "I feel sorry for your fathers and your mothers, because they didn't get to see us play."

Larry Tye
"He loved performing, as anyone who watched him knew. But he was a private person—shy, almost."

Larry Tye

That's the sentiment that Larry Tye works to validate in his biography of the Alabama hurler, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Tye, a former investigative and sports reporter for the Boston Globe, chronicles Paige's travails, from pitching for seemingly every Negro League team in the country—and abroad—to breaking into the majors at the age of 42 and leading the Cleveland Indians to the World Series. Tye wades through the gauzy extended legend of Paige's existence to reveal an earnest, fearless, yet largely reticent man who could throw a baseball real, real well.

In the following interview, which was conducted via email and edited for clarity, Tye speaks to Gelf about the Paige mythology, how much of his impossible legacy is real, and how he opened the door for Jackie Robinson to knock the rest of the house down.

Gelf Magazine: Anyone who's seen more than four innings of professional baseball has probably heard the name Satchel Paige. Yet the paradox is that there's actually very little popular history about him, in the way of, say, Joe DiMaggio or Jackie Robinson. Why do you suppose that is, and why undertake a biography?

Larry Tye: Satchel played his prime years in the shadow world of the Negro Leagues, where record-keeping was sketchy, reporters were on hand only occasionally to record the action, and the crowds generally were modest-sized and all-black. All that meant it was difficult to piece together what he did during that critical first half of his career, and difficult for any biographer to sift the facts of Satchel's pitching from the legend. That, I think, is why there is so little written on him. It was precisely that difficulty—and that untold story—that drew me to Satchel. I had heard about him when I was growing up, when my dad compared every good pitcher we saw to the great Satchel Paige. I heard about Satchel again when I was writing my book on the Pullman porters, and they told me that of all the famous African-Americans they transported—from Joe Louis to Louis Armstrong—their favorite was Leroy "Satchel" Paige.

Gelf Magazine: We're talking about a man who supposedly won 2,000 games, pitched 50 no-hitters, and threw virtually every day, just about into his 60s. Are these inhuman stats simply symptomatic of an oral-heavy history, or were Paige's true statistics not far off?

Larry Tye: I tracked down as many of Satchel's claims as possible, and found that about 80 percent were true. Let's take one as a metaphor for the rest: his claim to have pitched 2,500 games. Pitching 2,500 games seems inconceivable since the Major League record-holder, Jesse Orosco, managed just 1,252. But Orosco's numbers are just for the big leagues, where he pitched 24 years starting every April and ending, when he was lucky, in October. Satchel's include games played as a semi-pro and professional, in the Negro Leagues, on barnstorming tours, in Latin America and Canada as well as the U.S., and in the Major and Minor Leagues. He played spring and summer, fall and winter. He often threw just three or four innings a game, but he did it every day or couple of days for 41 years. By that schedule, pitching 2,500 games amounts to slightly more than 60 games a year, which does not seem high enough.

Gelf Magazine: What about the nickname?

Larry Tye: Satchel's story is that, as a kid, he earned money by carrying people's suitcases at the L&N train station in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. He says that, rather than earning just a dime a time by lugging one bag, he learned to hook up ropes and pulleys that let him carry four at once and earn 40 cents. A friend saw him and said he looked like a walking satchel tree. And the name stuck. A buddy, Wilber Hines, says rather than carrying people's bags, Satchel was pinching them. Hines says he dubbed him Satchel in honor of his thievery.

Gelf Magazine: You write about Paige's theatrics on the mound, including his occasional insistence on pitching without fielders backing him up, or pitching over matchbooks sans home plate. I imagine getting hard numbers was tough enough, but what were you able to glean about his personality?

Larry Tye: He loved performing, as anyone who watched him knew. But he was a private person—shy, almost. There are two places someone shy can hang out: In the center of a crowd, where they don't have to relate one-on-one or open themselves up, or, as Satchel preferred, by himself at any nearby fishing hole, where he could sit quietly and wait for the bass to bite.

Gelf Magazine: As part of your research, you write that you spoke with over 200 former players—of the Negro and Major Leagues—who knew Paige in some capacity. What was it like to talk with these guys, who are basically the living history of the game?

Larry Tye: It was brilliant. Some of these guys, like Buck O'Neil, had told their stories many times before, but others were speaking up for the first time. And all of them, Buck included, were ancient and not especially well, so for better or worse, whatever stories I gleaned from them were likely to be the last chance of finding out first-hand what Satchel was like. I felt a major responsibility to get things right, but also had a blast listening and recording.

Gelf Magazine: In talking to a lot of the old-timers, did you run into any resistance—any guys who didn't want to talk about their experiences in the Negro Leagues out of bitterness—or did you find guys were pretty forthcoming? I'm also wondering if you got anything but effusive praise for Paige. You've got to believe if he was half the pitcher he's made out to be, he made a lot of guys look silly.

Larry Tye: I ran into a lot of guys who were reluctant—because they had told their stories before, because they were old and tired, because they felt they should get paid (understandably, but as you know it's not ethical for a journalist or author to pay sources, since it would make what they say questionable). Many eventually came around; some didn't.
Many people I talked to were critical of aspects of Satchel's personality—from his grandstanding to his ego—but most, in the end, appreciated that he was a brilliant pitcher and a well-meaning guy.

Gelf Magazine: Paige routinely was deflective toward the media, never illuminating concretely the source of his name and seldom addressing his basically approximated birthday, allegedly coining the phrase, "Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." Was this just part of his winning personality, or do you think personal questions genuinely bothered Paige?

Larry Tye: It was two things: Satchel having fun and Satchel realizing, as a black athlete in an era of Jim Crow segregation, that creating a bit of mystery around himself was the best way to fan his legend. He also knew that the issues where he was fudging—like how old he really was—were harmless. So when being young was cool, he made himself as young as Peter Pan, and when being old was what drew the media's attention, he became as old as Methuselah. (Ed. note: In another of his choice gnomic maxims, Paige credits Methuselah as "my first bat boy.")

Gelf Magazine: Paige did his share in dissolving the color barrier, though he trailed Robinson in the notoriety. Was that something he intended to do first, or was that less of a concern for him?

Larry Tye: He was not a modern militant, but he was a barrier-breaker. He refused to take his black barnstormers into a town unless the community could promise them a place to eat and sleep, no mean feats in those days of segregation. He barnstormed across America with white Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller, showing rather than just claiming that the best black players were the equals of the best whites. It was Satchel who shone the national spotlight on the Negro Leagues, on his all-black Kansas City Monarchs, and on Monarchs second baseman Jackie Robinson. As one old Negro Leaguer said, Jackie opened the door to the new racial reality in baseball but it was Satchel who inserted the key.

Gelf Magazine: In the end, stowing away all the grandstanding and showmanship, and gauging him on pure accomplishment, where do you place Paige in the spectrum of professional pitchers?

Larry Tye: No one in baseball history pitched better, for longer, than Satchel.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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