'Satchel': Confronting Racism One Fastball At A Time
'Satchel': Confronting Racism One Fastball At A Time
Journalist Larry Tye details the life and times of negro league pitcher Satchel Paige in the new biography Satchel.
Paige was a dazzling pitcher with a scorching fastball. A decade before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball, Paige helped integrate the sport by touring the country and playing exhibition games with white players.
He delighted crowds by throwing a fastball repeatedly over a matchbook or a postage stamp set on home page. But despite his talents, Paige was repeatedly passed over because of his race.
In 1971, Paige was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first player to make the hall based on his career in the Negro Leagues.
Fresh Air guest host Dave Davies conducts this interview.
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The Life and Times of an American Legend
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Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
By Larry Tye
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The Mobile Satchel returned to in 1923 was full of optimism. The Great War had been good to the city, expanding Alabama's only deep-water port and making Mobile a trading hub for products as varied as lumber, tractors, and blackstrap molasses. Mardi Gras was back after a wartime siesta, as was the city's reputation as the Little Easy. It was less commercial and more free-spirited than its Big Easy neighbor to the West, New Orleans. Mobile joyfully embraced prostitution and intoxication and disdained the old evangelist Sam Jones, who a generation earlier had declared, "I'd be a stockbroker in hell before I'd be a director of a Mardi Gras . . . [where] men are drunk and carousing on the streets and girls go about in men's clothing." Keep it up, Jones admonished Mobilians, and "your city will be damned eternally."
What damnation there was afflicted Negroes and came in the form of Jim Crow, a black slave played by a white minstrel performer. Crow's name came to embody the amalgam of Southern statutes and customs that grew up during Reconstruction, formalizing separation of the races everywhere from public bathrooms to baseball diamonds. It also became shorthand for a racist way of life. By either definition Jim Crow had gotten more firmly entrenched in Mobile while Satchel was at Mt. Meigs. Davis Avenue, the city's black Broadway, was alive with black-owned businesses like Owl Drug and black churches featuring gospel groups like the Dixie Spiritual Singers. But Negroes were as unwelcome as ever in the antebellum mansions lining Government Street and in much of the city's downtown district. Even after fighting for their country in the trenches of France, black men had to endure the indignity of whites addressing them as "uncle." Black children were issued toothbrushes and instructions on basic hygiene as soon as they enrolled in school. No sooner did he return to his birthplace than Satchel was reminded that everything in the South gets back to the Negro.
Lula let him relax and celebrate his release from the reformatory for nearly a month before she reminded him that money was as scarce as ever in the Page household and he had better find work. Satchel knocked on doors, but anyone who knew he had been at the reformatory turned him down flat while others turned him down because they had no work to offer or he lacked the requisite skills. One afternoon he ended up at Eureka Gardens where his older brother Wilson pitched for the semi-pro, all-black Mobile Tigers. Wilson was not there, but after watching other prospects try out Satchel was sure he could measure up. A master of the first impression, he whistled in a few fast ones that "popped against the catcher's glove like they was firecrackers." Then he challenged the Tigers' skipper to pick up a bat, blowing ten pitches by him. "Do you throw that fast consistently?" the manager asked. "No, sir," Satchel answered. "I do it all the time."
Satchel was signed on the spot, with a fresh dollar bill sealing the deal. He was eighteen at the time, and this was his first job and first team. He quickly established himself as a standout for the Tigers, to the point where fellow players wanted to buy him drinks and "all the gals just wanted to be around, squealing and hanging on my arms." While he chalked up "a few" no-hitters, playing for a scrub team earned him just a dollar a game when fans turned out and a keg of lemonade when attendance was sparse.
Lemonade did not pay even Satchel's bills, much less Lula's, so he pitched not just for the Tigers but for any local team willing to pay. He also cut the grass and cleaned the grandstands where the all-white Mobile Bears played. One day several Bears challenged him to show what he could do, and, as always, he was delighted to oblige. The first batter swung and missed at three fastballs. All the second generated was a breeze. "We sure could use you," one of the players finally told him. "If only you were white."
The lament was familiar to Wilson "Paddlefoot" Page. With a nickname whose origin was beyond dispute - he had size-12 feet - this older brother was even faster than Satchel and could catch as well as pitch. Everyone in and out of the family agreed that Wilson could have been better than Satchel. "But he liked the girls. He didn't want to play ball," said Palestine. "He wanted to follow them dern girls." The truth is that Wilson loved pitching, catching, and playing ball generally, says his son Wilson Jr., who still lives in Mobile. But he was the more responsible and employable of the brothers, so when the family was in especially dire straits, Wilson gave up baseball and "stayed around to help support his mother . . . he did regret not continuing to play."
Most of Satchel's brothers and sisters managed in those difficult years to find work, none of it easy or lucrative. Ellen was a housekeeper. Ruth worked as a servant and later as a laundress like her mother. John Jr. was a laborer, then a helper, then a shipbuilder. Clarence worked as a clerk at Odom Grocery. Inez was a cook. Wilson did deliveries for a grocer, was a gardener like his father, dug graves at the majestic Magnolia Cemetery, and tried but failed to launch a company to clean up graveyards. Their jobs were not the only things shifting for Lula's family. They moved from one ramshackle rental to another, all within the narrow radius of Down the Bay. Even the spelling of their surname hinted at instability as it went back and forth between Page and Paige, finally settling on the high-tone version with the "i."
The new name coincided with the death of Satchel's father, and may have signaled the family's yearning for a fresh start. John Page Sr. was barely forty-seven at the time; Satchel was nineteen. John perished from what his death certificate called "acute deterioration of health," a standard way of suggesting that he had abused his body more than it could stand and that there was no time or money for a more thorough post-mortem. A contributing factor was a strangulated hernia, which can starve the bowels of blood, kill tissue, and cause intense pain as well as a dangerous infection. He was buried in city-owned Cemetery 2, Square 2, Row 3, Grave 5. Directly across the street is Magnolia Cemetery, the statued, meticulously maintained resting place for authors, statesmen, and 1,100 soldiers of the Confederate States Army. Grounds for admission to John's graveyard were but two: being a pauper and being black. There is no vault, headstone, or other marker commemorating his death or his life. Lula visited the cemetery regularly to pull away weeds and scoop together a pile of dirt where she recalled John's casket having been lowered. "We'd take a hoe," says their grandson Leon Paige, "to make a mound to indicate it was a grave."
Satchel said later that he had grown up without a real father, and even as a child he promised he never would abandon his children that way. There was one thing for which Satchel was thankful to John. When the boy began playing baseball his father would ask, "You want to be a baseball player 'stead of a landscaper?" You bet, Satchel answered, at which point John would nod his head as if to say, "That's okay by me."
By the time his father died Satchel was on the way to realizing that ball-playing dream, building a success story that kept outstripping itself, especially in his retelling. In 1924, just a year out of Mt. Meigs, he won about thirty games and lost just once. That, he said, was the start of a string of winning streaks. The next year every team around wanted him. By mid-season the following year, 1926, he strung together twenty-five wins in a row. Going for win number twenty-six, something snagged: with a 1-0 lead in the ninth, and two outs, his infield made three straight errors. The bases were loaded and Satchel was fuming. The crowd began to hiss, which made him madder still. "Somebody was going to have to be showed up for that," he wrote afterwards. "I waved in my outfielders. When they got in around me, I said, 'Sit down there on the grass right behind me. I'm pitching this last guy without an outfield.'" He milked the situation the way he once did cows on The Mount, taking his time, pumping back and forth. Three pitches, three strikes, and a win preserved. It was his twenty-sixth straight victory and the crowd went wild. "You wouldn't think a few hundred could make that much noise. But they did."
That story, like others from those years with the Tigers, is impossible to verify. As far as white newspapers in Mobile were concerned the city had no blacks, or none worth covering, even though Negroes made up 40 percent of the population. Mobile's black papers had trouble keeping their doors open and presses running. The result was that Satchel's brilliant early history on the baseball diamond was left almost exclusively to him to tell and a few old-timers to embellish. Ted Radcliffe, who caught for Satchel when they both were kids, said he was "wild as a marsh hen." Herb Aaron, Hank's dad, remembered Satchel calling in his fielders. In 1949 Sports Illustrated interviewed his old manager from the Tigers and others connected to the team, but of the two Page-pitched games that it focused on, one was called because of darkness with the score tied while he lost the second in fourteen innings.
One person who did not watch Satchel play, then or ever, was Lula. She had neither the time nor the interest. She "didn't like baseball, nohow. She never did see me pitch and I guess she never will," Satchel wrote in 1948. "She thought baseball was sinnin', always playin' and never workin'." Did that bother him? Absolutely, he maintained. "It's a terrible strain on you when your mama ain't behind you."
But Lula did offer up her support - with caveats - when Satchel was recruited to play in the Negro Southern League. The proposal came from the owner of the Chattanooga White Sox, Alex Herman, a former semi-pro player who eventually returned to Mobile and a successful career running a funeral home, insurance company, and family bakery. "My father was driving down Congress Street and saw this kid throwing oyster shells," recalls Kirk Herman. "He was a raggedy kid, he'd throw from a distance of twenty to thirty feet at the telegram poles. He'd throw fast, and curve it, and it hit the poles every time." Herman was impressed enough that he watched Satchel pitch with the semi-pro Tigers, then tried to draft him for the White Sox, a team of full-time, paid ballplayers.
The timing was perfect. While Satchel had proven his pitching prowess, he still earned too little to move out of Lula's shotgun shack or even buy drinks for the girls who flocked to him as he pitched his way to modest stardom with the Tigers. The only way out for him would be to sign with a professional team, and the only way that could happen was through the word-of-mouth network he would dub the 'Bama grapevine. It worked, and now the all-black team with the ironic title of White Sox was here asking him to join. But there was a catch: Lula. Satchel was underage and needed parental permission to leave Mobile. So he and Herman sat down to work it out with Mother Paige. "Your Pa ain't been dead more'n a year and you're going off and leaving," she complained. "You're just a boy. You'll probably even play on Sundays."
Herman kept pressing. He told Lula that he would look out for the young ballplayer. He said Satchel would be paid $250 a month, of which the pitcher would collect just $50 with his mother getting the rest. He offered her $200 in advance. Lula knew that neither Satchel nor she ever would see money like that if he stayed in Mobile, so she relented. "All right Mr. Herman. He's yours for the season," she said. But "if he comes to any harm you'll account to me. And don't mess up on those payments." Her decision was made easier when Wilson, whom Herman also tried to sign, said he was staying home.
It was settled. Satchel would get his first shot at seeing the world beyond Alabama and playing in a real baseball league. Alex Herman would get a tale to recite for the rest of his life. Driving his children by a weed-infested sandlot on the South Side of Mobile he would say, "That's where Satchel Paige used to pitch. That's where I discovered him." There was a fire in Satchel's belly even then, to hear Herman tell it, and the manager vowed to stoke it. So he swept the boyish ballplayer away from the city of his birth and brought him to Tennessee. Herman would say that, then stop, knowing his listeners knew that was where Satchel's story takes off.
Excerpted from SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend by Larry Tye. Copyright © 2009 by Larry Tye. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.