Any real fan of professional baseball can tell you a little bit about the late, great African-American pitcher Satchel Paige, born in Mobile in 1906. Maybe they’ve read about his first game as a rookie with the all-black Chattanooga White Sox in 1926, when the wild young pitcher impressed everyone with his velocity but also hit virtually every player on the opposing team.
Perhaps they know that Paige, after years in the Negro Leagues—including a stint with the Birmingham Black Barons—got his shot in the majors with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 at the age of 42 and managed to finish the year with the second-best ERA in the American League.
They may know about his remarkable longevity, which allowed him to pitch one final game for the Kansas City A’s (and their flamboyant Birmingham-born owner Charles O. Finley) in 1965 at the age of 59, throwing three shutout innings against Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox.
And Paige was certainly a colorful character.
He was an avid musician and stylish dresser with a great sense of humor and—like his friend, legendary major league pitcher Dizzy Dean—a penchant for stretching the truth to give reporters good stories.
But there’s more to Paige than his on-field accomplishments or vivid personality, according to Larry Tye, the author of Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, an acclaimed biography now available in paperback. “We all know the legend of Satchel Paige has been around a long time, and we all know that [he] was a brilliant pitcher,” Tye says. “My book is actually two biographies in one, biographies of two American icons.
One is Satchel Paige and the other is Jim Crow, and my book says, and I believe passionately, and I hope I can convince [the reader], that Paige, in addition to being a great player, was a racial pioneer.”
Tye made these remarks to an audience of avid baseball fans prior to his recent book signing at the Levite Jewish Community Center (LJCC).
Tye admits that the image of the funny, goodnatured Paige as a racial pioneer is, as he puts it, “counterintuitive.” “That’s not the image we have of Satchel Paige,” he says. “The image is of a guy who was a Stepin Fetchit character, if not an Uncle Tom.” This was not the reality of Paige’s life and career, according to Tye. “In fact, for 40 years, Satchel Paige would go out barnstorming across America and take his team of all-stars into a town, whether it was Birmingham, Ala., or Des Moines, Iowa, and he would say. ‘I will not bring my team into your town unless you find me and my black ballplayers a place to eat and a place to sleep,’” Tye says. “Those of you who have been around for a while know that this was no easy thing to ask for, in those days of Jim Crow. And it worked.”
It worked, according to Tye, because of Paige’s enormous talent and charisma. “People wanted Satchel to come, because they knew it would draw a crowd like they had never drawn all season,” Tye says. “They wanted him badly enough, that places that were previously segregated he actually integrated for that one night, for his ballplayers to eat and sleep.”
Paige’s charisma benefited African-American ballplayers in another, much more public way, during the 1930s, when white fans and reporters discovered the Negro leagues. “There started to be a series of stories—in the New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Magazine— on the Negro Leagues, and every one of those stories was not just about the Negro Leagues in the abstract, it was about Satchel Paige’s Negro league, because he was the most sensational player,” Tye says. “I suggest to you that it was because of Satchel Paige that white America learned there was a great Negro league.”
According to Tye, Paige was partially responsible for Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948 and reintegrating major league baseball. “Rickey knew about this great team called the Kansas City Monarchs, an all-black team,” he says. “They were Satchel Paige’s Monarchs, and it was because of Satchel Paige that Branch Rickey knew about a guy who started that season in 1945 as a second-string second baseman by the name of Jackie Robinson. An old Negro League ballplayer said it much more eloquently than I could, ‘It was Jackie Robinson who opened the door to the new racial realities of baseball, but it was Satchel Paige who inserted the key.’”