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Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legendby Larry Tye
Synopses & Reviews
He is that rare American icon who has never been captured in a biography worthy of him. Now, at last, here is the superbly researched, spellbindingly told story of athlete, showman, philosopher, and boundary breaker Leroy “Satchel” Paige.
Few reliable records or news reports survive about players in the Negro Leagues. Through dogged detective work, award-winning author and journalist Larry Tye has tracked down the truth about this majestic and enigmatic pitcher, interviewing more than two hundred Negro Leaguers and Major Leaguers, talking to family and friends who had never told their stories before, and retracing Paiges steps across the continent. Here is the stirring account of the child born to an Alabama washerwoman with twelve young mouths to feed, the boy who earned the nickname “Satchel” from his enterprising work as a railroad porter, the young man who took up baseball on the streets and in reform school, inventing his trademark hesitation pitch while throwing bricks at rival gang members.
Tye shows Paige barnstorming across America and growing into the superstar hurler of the Negro Leagues, a marvel who set records so eye-popping they seemed like misprints, spent as much money as he made, and left tickets for “Mrs. Paige” that were picked up by a different woman at each game. In unprecedented detail, Tye reveals how Paige, hurt and angry when Jackie Robinson beat him to the Majors, emerged at the age of forty-two to help propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series. He threw his last pitch from a big-league mound at an improbable fifty-nine. (“Age is a case of mind over matter,” he said. “If you dont mind, it dont matter.”)
More than a fascinating account of a baseball odyssey, Satchel rewrites our history of the integration of the sport, with Satchel Paige in a starring role. This is a powerful portrait of an American hero who employed a shuffling stereotype to disarm critics and racists, floated comical legends about himself–including about his own age–to deflect inquiry and remain elusive, and in the process methodically built his own myth. “Dont look back,” he famously said. “Something might be gaining on you.” Separating the truth from the legend, Satchel is a remarkable accomplishment, as large as this larger-than-life man.
"Tye, a Boston Globe reporter and author of The Father of Spin, offers the first biography on Satchel Paige, the premier pitcher of the Negro Leagues. Having interviewed more than 200 veteran fellow players of the Negro and Major Leagues, he is able to flesh out the Satchel Paige persona. Through Paige's hardscrabble years in Jim Crow Alabama to his time with the all-black Monarchs, one of the powerhouses in segregated 'colored' ball, Tye dissects Satchel's mastery of pitching, his accuracy, power and velocity, and signature pitch, the sizzler. Satchel was among the peerless Negro Leaguers, who beat the white big leaguers more than 60% of the time; he struck out some of the biggest sluggers, like Ralph Kiner, Rogers Hornsby and even Joe DiMaggio, who got one hit off of Satchel and was signed by the Yankees immediately. He became one of four black athletes signed up in the late 1940s, with the Cleveland Indians, three years after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers (the two men were bitter rivals). This is the definitive biography of a black showman-athlete, and as Tye makes the case, one of the finest pitchers ever, who finally was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In 1937, during a self-exile from organized baseball, Satchel Paige pitched in the Dominican Republic for a team backed by the megalomaniacal dictator Rafael Trujillo. The Dragones roster was stacked with Negro Leagues stars fleeing their financially strapped clubs for a Caribbean payday, including James "Cool Papa" Bell and Josh Gibson. In Paige's telling, the season came down to... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a single game a day or two before a presidential election. Fans filled the rickety stadium. Soldiers brandishing knives and guns lined the field. Win and the Dragones would be heroes. Lose, Paige wrote years later, and they were as good as "passed over Jordan." Paige started, pitched the entire game and won, 6-5. The American ballplayers were whisked off the island the same night, and Trujillo was re-elected. It was a terrific story. The only hitch: Almost none of it was true. The game didn't determine a champion; had the Dragones lost, one more contest remained. Paige didn't pitch until there was one out in the ninth inning, and he allowed three runs. The Dragones won, but the final score was 8-6. Paige and his teammates stayed on the island at least a few more days. The presidential election wasn't for another year, and Trujillo didn't even run. The gap between myth and reality is a central theme of Larry Tye's Paige was born Leroy Robert Page in 1906 in Mobile, Ala. His mother washed clothes for white families. His father was a layabout. Paige earned his nickname because he carried suitcases, because his feet were as big as suitcases or because he stole suitcases. At age 11, he was caught shoplifting and sent to reform school. He emerged, at 17, a product of Booker T. Washington's philosophy that social change would come through personal industry — and as a first-rate pitcher. "Do you throw that fast consistently?" the manager of Mobile's all-black semipro team asked. "No, sir," Paige supposedly replied. "I do it all the time." It is hard today to imagine the career Paige crafted. In his 20s and 30s, he never stayed with one team more than three or four seasons. He established his success with Negro Leagues teams in Birmingham and Pittsburgh but refused to lay down roots and bolted for weeks, months or years when a better offer came for his prodigious talent and box-office personality. He claimed to have pitched in at least 2,500 games for as many as 250 teams, figures Tye deems plausible. Along the way, Paige squandered his money, alienated his bosses and embarrassed his opponents, sometimes having his fielders sit down while he struck out the opposing side. Few stayed offended for long, though, because wherever Paige went, fans and reporters, and a good story, always followed. As his Negro Leagues compatriot Buck O'Neil put it, "Satchel was a money tree for all of us." Tye adores his subject. His Paige is "skyscraping" with a "blinding" fastball that defied gravity and rose on its way to the plate, a pitcher who "never walked a batter unless he meant to, or almost never." And while Tye debunks some tales from Paige's life, he accepts others as gospel. For instance, he explains that a sportswriter composed Paige's famous rules for living ("Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you") but doesn't question other Paige-isms ("Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching"). Tye also is enamored a bit much of statistics compiled against inferior competition, like Paige's 29-2 record during a summer in Bismarck, N.D. And when writing about baseball itself, the author often lapses into period cliche: A pitcher is a "moundsman," New Yorkers are "Gothamites" and Philadelphians "Quakerites," Paige is "the suitcase sensation" and the "minstrel of the mound." The challenge in crafting a portrait of the "real" Paige is that Paige himself spent his life avoiding, and then subverting, reality. He was an egocentric loner, and his thoughts and motivations were as elastic as his pitching arm. Did Paige's shuffling gait, constant clowning, caricatured speech and itinerant selfishness make him a Stepin Fetchit or, worse, an Uncle Tom, someone who had the ability to directly confront a racist institution but refused? Or was he a subtle pioneer, a free agent decades before players would gain that right, a black star who played to the prevailing stereotype in order to soften a bigoted, white America by striking out its best hitters? Tye acknowledges the former opinion but clearly, and convincingly, sides with the latter. Until his death in 1982, Paige resented that he wasn't selected to break baseball's color barrier — he was signed by Cleveland in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson debuted in Brooklyn — and that his role in tearing down that wall went unacknowledged. Paige refused to play in towns unless he and his black teammates were given food and lodging. He helped integrate semipro teams. He headlined tours against major-league all-stars. And he did speak out, not only with his arm but in the pages of newspapers, black and white alike. After Paige returned from the Dominican Republic in 1937, his name bylined a column in the Baltimore Afro-American. "The opportunities of a colored baseball player on these islands are the same or almost the same as those enjoyed by the white major league players in the States," he wrote. "That's something to think about." The shame for Satchel Paige, and America, is that it took baseball so long to do so. Stefan Fatsis is a sports commentator on National Public Radio and the author of "Word Play" and "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL," which will be published in paperback in August. Reviewed by Stefan Fatsis, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Tye presents the definitive biography of Satchel Paige, an African-American pitcher in a segregated America, and his story of struggle and triumph.
About the Author
Larry Tye was a prize-winning journalist at The Boston Globe and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. An avid baseball fan, Tye now runs a Boston-based training program for medical journalists. He is the author of The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails and co-author, with Kitty Dukakis, of Shock. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.
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