I had heard about the legendary Satchel Paige years ago. I read about his amazing feats and funny exploits both on the pitching mound and off of it. I read the grousing about the fact that Jackie Robinson being chosen over Satchel Paige as the first black to be allowed to play in Major League Baseball (actually he wasn’t - he was just the first to ever play on a major league team after 1900). But I had yet to read anything definitive about his life or the Negro Leagues, so when I saw Satchel on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I jumped on it.
As the author Larry Tye suggests in his preface, the undertaking of writing a book about Satchel Paige was no easy feat. After all, the very fact that Satchel was a black baseball player in an age of segregation lends to the difficulty. Not many papers covered his exploits and there weren’t a lot of statistics recorded in the Negro Leagues at the time. Add to that the fact that Satchel and his fellow players were born storytellers, often times over-inflating things and recounting specific events in a number of different ways. Even finding out just when Satchel was born was difficult as there were just so many tales told about date of birth to add to his mystique. But somehow Tye accomplished what others might have thought impossible, writing a biography that is incredibly engaging and extremely informative.
I always respected Paige’s abilities, but I had no idea as to the magnitude of his pitching prowess until I read this book. Having read about his amazing skill and aptitude on the pitching mound, I find it a damn shame that the powers that be in Major League Baseball could be so narrow-minded as to allow a man’s color to prevent him from becoming a Major League player until he was over forty years of age. To gauge a man by his skin color is ignorant and absolutely wrong. Satchel proved it every time he stepped up to the mound and performed his amazing feats, throwing with such speed as to blow balls past batters before they even knew they were coming, with so much power that he could pound nails through wooden boards and with so much accuracy that he could knock a matchbook from the top of a stick without a thought.
To look at Satchel’s mechanics was to be amazed as to how he could even pitch the way he did with so much success. How could anyone draw back so far and throw with so much power without hurting themselves permanently? How could he look at the third baseman while winding up, yet be as accurate as he was when delivering to the plate? He was as much a mystery to batters as fans and it was his amazing playing ability that should have been what he was judged by and not his skin color.
From what I could tell from reading this book, Satchel would have been the clear choice for integrating the leagues if they had only used talent as a means for making the decision. However, I can understand why it was eventually Jackie Robinson that was chosen first. Players like Satchel were not as polished as Jackie, having little schooling and relishing in the rowdier aspects of the “off the field play.” In theory, Robinson, a college graduate and military veteran, would be easier for people to accept and harder to goad into bad behavior. Still, with as many achievements and as much skill as Jackie Robinson had, one can’t help but wince at how long it took to someone with even more experience and skill into the game. One only wonders what kind of career Satchel would have had if he had been allowed to pitch in the Majors when he was in his prime. Just look at what he was capable of doing at forty-two for the Indians and even later in his career as a member of the Browns.
As Tye affirms in his Acknowledgements page, Satchel is just as much about Satchel Paige, the man and the pitcher, as it was about Jim Crowe and the laws and actions that held him back from his full potential. Thus, we not only read about Satchel Paige’s life, we also read how the rules of Jim Crowe and the attitudes of many in that day and age helped to shape the man he would become.
Satchel was a terrific read. I found it both entertaining and informative. My only issue with the writing style was that it often jumped back and forth within the timeline, sometimes repeating events that may have already been covered in another chapter. Other than that, I enjoyed reading this book. Before I read it, I had know Satchel for his amazing abilities at such a late age in his career - the abilities covered by Major League statistics. Now I respected him even more for his performances in the Negro Leagues and barnstorming all over America, Mexico and the islands. In my opinion, Satchel Paige is right up there with heroes of the game like Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean and more. If all the tales are true, he may even be better.
No self-proclaiming baseball aficionado should skip reading this book. The Negro Leagues may not have been covered as well as the Major Leagues, but the players they produced were amazing and most never got their chance at the Majors thanks to something as simple as skin tone. Any student of history would also be well-served to read this book so they can learn about the history of the African American and how he was treated throughout America and in other countries in Satchel Paige’s lifetime. Satchel serves both purposes - it serves as a terrific baseball book and a teaching tool for tolerance.