It is rare for a small book to have a big impact, but Wes Tooke’s King of the Mound: My Summer with Satchel Paige is one that does. In only 160 pages, the story covers just one summer in the life of an adolescent boy in 1935. Tooke deftly weaves in all the history needed to understand Nick’s life with uncluttered but rich prose.
We meet Nick as he is being released from the hospital after being there for a whole year recovering from polio. Once a great youth league pitcher, he now has a weak leg that requires a brace. His widowed father, a catcher for a minor league team in Bismarck, North Dakota, has been gruff and a bit unkind since the death of Nick’s mother, but without even baseball to bind them, he is more unfeeling than ever. Nick is glad to be home, but fears he will never pitch again—and therefore never regain his father’s pride or affection. The only thing he looks forward to is working a summer job for the Bismarck Churchills and watching the magnificent Satchel Paige pitch.
Layered over the fictional story is the fact that Paige really played for Bismarck in the summer of 1935 for team owner Neil Churchill. This was one of the only integrated teams in existence at the time, and Tooke accurately portrays the prejudice they encountered when traveling to other towns. In one case, there was no hotel at all for black people and those team members had to sleep in a cornfield.
Paige’s difficulties with racism help Nick appreciate that his own troubles are not nearly so bad. Plus, Paige takes Nick under his wing and encourages him to strengthen his leg and practice his pitching again, giving him marvelous words of wisdom along the way.
Tooke has written a true marvel of a book: historical detail about racism in the 1930s, the emotional life of a boy finding his own personal strength, and exciting, edge-of-your-seat play-by-play of some record-breaking baseball games. King of the Mound is highly recommended for readers of all ages.
Jennifer Bruer Kitchel is the librarian for a pre-K through eighth grade Catholic school in Nashville.