Satchel Paige: Off on His Own, at the Center of the Crowd
This article was published in the Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal.
Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
by Larry Tye
Random House (2009)
$26.00, cloth. 416 pages
Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert: The Wild Sage of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson
by Timothy M. Gay
Simon and Schuster (2010)
$26.00, hardcover. 368 pages
“If Jackie Robinson was the father of equal opportunity in baseball, surely Satchel Paige was the grandfather,” Larry Tye declares in one of the many provocative passages in Satchel. I don’t necessarily agree with this statement, because Paige was too independent and self-centered a figure ever to truly represent any social movement. He was also almost forty years old when Branch Rickey decided to break the color line in 1945, so clearly Paige was born too early. Although I take issue with Tye’s occasional unnecessary denigration of the roles of Rickey and Jackie Robinson in taking the first steps toward the racial integration of baseball, I can still recommend Satchel as a good read and a probing study of a man who from the most modest beginnings became almost a household name.
Tye, whose previous credits include a valuable book about Pullman porters, Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class (2004), does a fine job of getting to the core of what made the man born Leroy Robert Page in Mobile, Alabama, in 1906 tick. I am struck by the similarity in the story of Paige and the stories of two slightly older icons of twentieth-century American culture, Louis Armstrong and Babe Ruth. All three were great natural raw talents who needed the supervision provided by juvenile institutions before they could fulfill their promise. Paige, who probably got his nickname from carrying many bags on a pole as a Mobile railroadstation porter, was not yet twelve years old when he was arrested for stealing trinkets from a five-and-dime store. His mother, Lula, cried when she heard the news, but she had her hands full trying to support six older children on a washerwoman’s wages without any support from her absentee husband.
It was from his mother that, Tye tells us, Paige inherited some of his style and native wit. It was Lula who may have changed the family name to Paige because the other spelling “looked too much like page in a book” and who advised her seventh child (she would have five more later on), “If you tell a lie, always rehearse it. If it won’t sound good to you, it won’t sound good to anyone else.”
During his five years of incarceration at the segregated Alabama Mount Meigs Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers, Paige joined the choir, learned the basics of dealing with white society, and perfected many of his baseball skills. Babe Ruth had his Brother Matthias in Baltimore and Satchel Paige had as his mentor coach Edward Byrd, who taught him the fundamentals of baseball, like how to use his tall frame and high leg kick to best hide the baseball. (I wish Tye had told us more about Byrd.)
In 1923 Paige was released from Mount Meigs with a letter stating that “inmate has an excellent record at this institution.” And shortly thereafter began his remarkable career in segregated black baseball. Tye does a good job of describing the chaotic conditions Paige encountered, first with the black minor-league teams he played for, the Chattanooga Black Lookouts and the New Orleans Black Pelicans, and then in 1927 with his first team in the black major leagues, the Birmingham Black Barons, for which he played off and on for the next four years.
It was actually more off than on, because the club’s owner knew he had a great drawing card in Paige and rented him out many times to semipro and barnstorming teams. Paige’s mound exploits and colorful wandering lifestyle soon made him a legend not just in black communities but wherever baseball fever was high.
In the early 1930s, Paige’s primary employer became the Pittsburgh Crawfords, founded by the cunning and charismatic Gus Greenlee, who also operated the Crawford Grill, what Tye calls the Harlem Cotton Club of Pittsburgh. (For some reason Tye chooses not to use the usual spelling “Crawford Grille”—a hot spot, incidentally, where Duke Ellington met his great future collaborator Billy Strayhorn.) “In Pittsburgh, the redhaired, cigar-chomping Gus Greenlee did it all,” Tye explains in an instructively jam-packed sentence, “hijacking beer trucks, bootlegging, buying off politicians, masterminding gambling, and assembling a black baseball dynasty called the Crawfords.”
Greenlee couldn’t hold Paige’s services for long, however, and by 1933 he was playing for an interracial team in Bismarck, North Dakota. Then in the summer of 1934 he pitched for the House of David team at the Denver Post integrated tournament, and then it was back to Bismarck in 1935. Tye tells these stories with aplomb and good narrative drive. In 1937 Paige played for a team sponsored by Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. “Games were played exclusively on weekend mornings or afternoons, and they were hot as well as wild,” Tye writes, adding one of the more gruesome stories in the biography about Trujillo’s massacre at this time of more than 15,000 Haitians who, living at the border of the Dominican Republic, had the misfortune of giving the wrong pronunciation for the Spanish word for parsley.
It is to Tye’s credit that he does not ignore the many black sportswriters who were critical of Paige’s teamjumping. Chester Washington of the Pittsburgh Courier, the most prestigious of the black weeklies, called him “as undependable as a pair of second-hand suspenders.”
Shortly after his Dominican experience Paige journeyed to Mexico, where he came down with a mystery arm ailment that threatened to curtail his career. The ministrations of one of the great personages in the Negro Leagues, Frank “Jewbaby” Floyd, trainer for the Kansas City Monarchs, slowly restored Paige to health. (More is needed to be known about the dark-skinned Floyd and how he developed his politically incorrect nickname.)
The second stage of Paige’s Negro League career began with the backing of J. Leslie “Wilkie” Wilkinson, the co-owner of the well-regarded Monarchs and earlier the founder of the first racially diverse baseball team, the All-Nations Team of World War I vintage. Without going into depth about the issue, Tye does mention that Wilkinson’s co-owner, Thomas Baird, was a member of the Kansas City chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Until Bill Veeck signed Paige for the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and again for the St. Louis Browns from 1951 to 1953 and later had a role in Paige’s pitching for the minor-league Miami Marlins, Wilkinson was the only owner toward whom Paige felt a real loyalty. “He gave Satchel fat paychecks when all he could deliver was fat pitches” is how Tye felicitously phrases the roots of Paige’s affection.
As noted earlier, the one area where Tye’s account strikes a false note is in his criticism of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. They weren’t saints, of course, and their ambition and self-possession earned them many enemies in both white and black baseball. It does seem a gratuitous slap for Tye to write in describing Robinson’s brief period as Paige’s Monarch teammate in 1945, “Satchel had little use for Jackie and he was not alone.” Tye also errs when he says that Robinson was a Monarch second baseman; he was a shortstop in Kansas City, though he came to realize that he didn’t have the arm for that key position.
There are other nagging errors in Tye’s book that have not been corrected in the paperback edition. The biggest one is that he has the second Joe Louis–Max Schmeling bout occurring shortly before Paige broke into the majors with the Indians in 1948 when of course it was 1938 when the Brown Bomber avenged an earlier loss to the German heavyweight with a first-round knockout. Tye also makes a reference at one point to a Sports Illustrated article from 1949, but the magazine was not founded until 1954. And in praising the Monarchs for playing games under the lights as early as 1930, he exaggerates how long it took white owners to follow suit. It was five years, not fifteen, when the first major-league night game was played (hosted by Larry MacPhail’s Cincinnati Reds in 1935). In his copious bibliography and notes, Tye somehow has omitted David Zang’s indispensable biography Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer (1996). He does mention that Moses Fleetwood Walker and his younger brother Welday Wilberforce Walker predated Jackie Robinson’s appearance in the majors by more than sixty years, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the extreme black nationalism of Fleet Walker’s post–playing career attracted no followers.
On balance, though, Tye’s Satchel is a very worthy contribution to both the literature of baseball history and biography. He has drawn a memorable portrait of an earthy, contradictory man who once said that he “wasn’t married but I’m in demand” but in fact was married three times, once to two women in different countries. “What his teammates did not really grasp was that Satchel Paige was an introvert,” Tye explains. “There are two places to hide if you are shy: off on your own or at the center of a crowd. Satchel did both.”
Satchel Paige shares top billing with Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller in Tim Gay’s Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert. The writing in Gay’s opus is much more pedestrian than in Tye’s book, and for the most part it presents a chronicle of the many barnstorming tours that Paige, Dean, and Feller engaged in with their “all-star” aggregations. Certainly the reader who wants deep insight into Paige should consult the Tye volume, but every now and then Gay turns a phrase or digs up a source that should be valuable to baseball researchers.
He cites, for instance, an army superior’s description of Dizzy Dean, who lied about his age in order to enlist: “That boy couldn’t pour piss out a boot with directions on the heel.” In the early 1950s, when Dean went to Hollywood to serve as an adviser on the biopic The Pride of St. Louis (my vote for one of the worst baseball-themed movies ever), he was thrilled to receive $50,000 as his fee. “Jeez, they’re gonna give me 50,000 smackers just fer livin’!” When, two days into the shooting, Dan Dailey, cast as Dizzy, had a nervous collapse and production was halted for two weeks, Dizzy quipped, “He’s only been me for two days, and already he’s nuts!”
Gay also provides some tantalizing tidbits about other barnstorming teams of the 1930s and 1940s. One was led by Earle Mack, one of Connie Mack’s sons, and another was led by one-armed Pete Gray, the St. Louis Browns outfielder whose presence in World War II baseball provided integration activists with vivid evidence that white owners would rather hire disabled white players than fully abled black ones. Gay informs us that on one of Pete Gray’s tours he competed against a one-armed black player.
There is no great insight in the bulk of Gay’s book, and his dismissal of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the stock racist in so many histories is not helpful. We could have used some hard evidence on how he tried to stop interracial barnstorming, even though there is no doubt that he did try. And Gay’s treatment of Branch Rickey is no better and has some unfortunate errors. The biggest is that Rickey gave tryouts to aging Negro Leaguers at the Dodgers’ Bear Mountain spring-training headquarters in 1945 as a “publicity stunt” when in fact he was outraged when the black activist journalist Joe Bostic barged into the camp with the players. Rickey tried them out only to avoid being branded indifferent to the cause.
Just when I thought that only duty would force me to finish Gay’s book, a genuine highlight came near the end, when Bob Feller opened up to him about his memories of playing interracial baseball with Paige after the Second World War. Where Larry Tye in Satchel was largely dismissive of Feller’s dour, self-centered personality, Tim Gay presents a more nuanced picture of Feller, even if he bluntly called his All-Star games against Paige “racial rivalry” games and felt the customers liked to see black–white competition.
Feller could indeed be stubborn and prickly, and Paige and Jackie Robinson at separate times sued him for not living up to his contractual obligation to pay them their fair share of the exhibition proceeds. It must be remembered that major-league ballplayers were very underpaid in the 1940s and that barnstorming augmented their meager salaries. Gay notes that Stan Musial commented that he would have made more money barnstorming than playing in the 1946 World Series! The author also valuably augments the Feller section of his book by citing his 1957 TV interview, with Mike Wallace, in which the recently retired pitcher uttered strong criticisms of baseball owners for their penurious ways.
Near the end of his book Gay quotes an author unfamiliar to me, Robert Cole: “Black–white exhibitions . . . had an edgy, almost forbidden quality—a little like sneaking off to an all-night jazz club on the wrong side of the tracks.” I wish more of the book had captured that flavor instead of being a litany of the runs and hits in games played. It may be heretical to say in this age of statistical overload and political correctness, but what is needed in future studies of the pivotal era of mid-twentieth-century baseball is greater probing into the depths of the participants as they played the exhibition games joyfully, demonstrating by their example on the field, and without trying to prove a political point, what cooperation off the field might mean.
LEE LOWENFISH, a member of SABR since 1978, is author of "Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman" (Nebraska Press, 2007), for which he won the 2008 Seymour Medal. His first book, "The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars", originally a collaboration with the late Tony Lupien, has recently appeared in a third, expanded edition (Nebraska, 2010).