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Assessing a baseball legend

Satchel Paige was a raconteur, marketer, and one of the best pitchers ever, the author says.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

The Life and Times
of an American Legend

By Larry Tye

Random House.

392 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Rob Klugman

In 1946, Jackie Robinson famously took the field for the Montreal Royals, thus reintegrating "organized baseball" roughly 60 years after it had become segregated.

Shortly thereafter, other young Negro League standouts jumped to major league teams or their minor league affiliates, effectively killing the Negro Leagues. From 1947 to 1953, six of the seven National League Rookies of the Year were African Americans.

But many older, still active Negro League stars were passed over, primarily because of age. Men such as Josh Gibson (35 in 1946), Buck Leonard (39), and Buck O'Neil (35) never had the chance to play in the majors.

Then there was Satchel Paige - inveterate raconteur, marketer extraordinaire, and almost certainly one of the finest hurlers ever.

In his biography Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, Larry Tye, author of The Father of Spin and other non-baseball books, thoroughly and entertainingly documents, to the extent such a thing is possible, the life and career of Robert Leroy (sometimes "LeRoy") "Satchel" (or "Satchell") Paige (originally "Page").

Tye follows Paige from his birth in a Mobile, Ala., shotgun shack in 1906 to his death in his adopted hometown of Kansas City in 1982.

And what a journey it was!

Beginning with his debut with the semipro Mobile Tigers in 1924, continuing through his Negro League days and his eventual major and minor league years, and ending with an appearance for the Hampton, Va., Peninsula Pirates in 1966, Paige claimed to have pitched in 2,500 or so games (almost twice the major league record), winning perhaps 2,000 (compared with major league leader Cy Young's 511).

His baseball odyssey included stints in the Negro Leagues, the North Dakota League, the California Winter League, and leagues in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, plus annual barnstorming jaunts and miscellaneous tournaments.

Paige finally reached the majors in 1948 at age 42, debuting with the Cleveland Indians and posting a 6-1 won-loss record and a 2.47 ERA. He played through 1953 with the Indians and the St. Louis Browns, then returned to throw three scoreless innings for the Oakland A's in 1965 at age 59, making him the oldest person ever to play major league baseball.

Tye provides several interesting perspectives on Paige's numbers.

Since so many of Paige's appearances were in "unorganized baseball" - non-league affairs that were chronicled poorly, or not at all - his records are, at best, a matter of conjecture. But Tye's analysis leads him to believe that Paige's various claims may be accurate, given the length of his career, the number of games he pitched in a year (usually more than 100 during his prime), and the often inferior level of the opposition.

This last observation calls to mind the difficulty of placing Paige's accomplishments, chronicled or not, in context. He often did face weak batsmen (though he fared well against his fellow Negro League greats and against major league stars in the California League or in barnstorming appearances).

His official Negro League records seem not very impressive until one considers that the Negro League teams of the '30s and '40s played only about 50 games a year, and that Paige often pitched only three or four innings a game (making him ineligible to receive a win, but allowing him to draw another big crowd by appearing in a game the next day).

While the specifics of Paige's career never will be totally clear, there can be no doubt that he was a great player. Master sabermetrician Bill James lists Paige as the 17th-greatest player in baseball history and one of four "guys that you talk about when you're trying to figure out who was the greatest [pitcher] who ever lived."

Joe DiMaggio called Paige the best pitcher he ever faced. Bob Feller, who opposed Paige many times, called him "one of the top five [pitchers] in history."

Paige was also an able marketer and entrepreneur. Stunts such as calling in his outfielders packed parks around the country, attracting blacks and whites alike, making Paige - who would demand and get a piece of the gate - one of the best-compensated players of his day.

As his friend and teammate Buck O'Neil once said, "The stories about Satchel are legendary, and some of them are even true."

Part of Paige's marketing campaign was a purposeful and successful attempt to create an air of mystery about himself. Though there was never any doubt that he was born in 1906, Paige claimed various birthdates. Likewise, Paige obfuscated the spellings of his names, the origin of his nickname, his mysterious healing ointments, even the circumstances of his marriages.

And there was Paige the homespun philosopher. His "rules for staying young" were supposedly posted in the White House by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. And his most famous aphorism, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you," is in Bartlett's. (It is doubtful that he actually was the author of any of these.)

Unfortunately, another piece of the Paige marketing scheme ultimately worked against him. Although he was a very intelligent man, a great athlete, and a person of principle who, while barnstorming, would refuse "to play in a town unless it supplied lodging to him and his [African American] teammates," he also affected a Stepin Fetchit-like persona.

Maybe it was because of his lanky, "loose-limbed" 6-foot, 3 1/2-inch frame; maybe it was because he wanted to make sure that he appealed to the critical white fan market. Whatever the reason, some baseball historians think the caricature may have prevented Paige from becoming the first black major leaguer years before Robinson (who was Paige's Kansas City Monarch teammate when the Dodgers signed him).

It would probably be difficult to write a boring book about Satchel Paige, and Tye certainly has not done so. Through exhaustive research, interviews, and correspondence with more than 350 people, he has surely given us a definitive account of the man and of the player.

And probably the closest to the truth we are likely to get.