Like Leroy (“Satchel”) Paige’s barnstorming baseball life itself, what we know about the man is flung far and wide, over decades of disparate newspaper and magazine stories and occasional biographical accounts. Larry Tye’s Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend probably separates fact from fancy as well as any major bio ever could, and the former Boston Globe writer’s lengthy bibliography serves as testament to thorough sourcing, not to mention to Paige’s obvious historical importance. But tying up the elusive threads of Paige’s legendary career at times seems to play second banana to Tye’s informative insights into the world of the old Negro baseball leagues and the Jim Crow culture that marginalized many great black ballplayers.
Not that societal realities ever seemed to affect Satchel. As the leading figure in what Tye calls “blackball,” Paige was pulling in $40,000 a year in his prime, traveling all over North America and the Caribbean, and winning acclaim as one of the greatest pitchers ever, even by the whites who wouldn’t let him into their game until 1948, when, at age 42, he helped the Cleveland Indians win a World Series title.
Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, Paige learned of his baseball gift at a reform school (shades of Babe Ruth) and from age 18 on, that was his life, throwing thousands of innings from Chattanooga to Bismarck, while establishing himself as a truly independent personality—digging women, cool clothes and big cars—until finally hurling his last fastball in 1965 for the Kansas City Athletics at the record age of 59. Paige had his peccadilloes—a little bigamy, some occasional over-imbibing, bouts of bad driving—but otherwise he emerges here as a genuinely enthusiastic person and athlete who made every minute count until his death in 1982.
For those flimflammed by Paige’s well-noted distortion of his age, Tye sets the record straight with a birth date of July 7, 1906, and he also cues us in that Satch’s penchant for catchy aphorisms—“Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common”—was the real deal.
Martin Brady writes from Nashville.