The Epic Life of Satchel Paige

Larry Tye tells the story of the colorful and ageless Satchel Paige.

Growing up in Boston during the 70s and 80s, I was a die-hard Celtics fan.

The 70s saw the Cs earn their first-two titles after the glorious and unprecedented 11 rings in 13 season known simply as the Russell era.

Toward the end of the decade, though, the team was in serious decline-a period that reached its nadir during the 77-78 and 78-79 seasons.  Under the ownership of former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, the once proud franchise stumbled through two of its worst seasons and a selfish brand of basketball that for many was epitomized by Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe.

Tom “Satch” Sanders was the coach during part of the first of those seasons.  I did not realize, and was quite skeptical when my father told me, that the soft-spoken bespectacled man had played on half a dozen championship squads during the heyday and waning years dominated by Russell.

I also did not realize that his nickname came from a baseball player.

The Alabama-born, rubber-armed and ageless Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige had earned his place as one of America’s sporting legend decades before my birth.

Larry Tye has written Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, a biography of Paige that my dad and stepmother gave me and that tells the story of Paige’s fabulous life

I use the word fabulous deliberately because Paige seemed to obfuscate just about every significant detail about himself: his age; the number of teams he played for; the number of women he dated and married; and other more and less important information.

Certain stories from Paige changed from the first of his two memoirs to the second.

Tye spends a certain amount of time trying to uncover the truth in all of these accounts, and Satchel is more devoted to extolling Paige’s durability, his antics on and off the field, and the charismatic persona he cultivated.

By any standard, Paige had a remarkable career.

Whatever date one uses for his birth, there is little doubt that he joined the major leagues in his 40s, when he pitched effectively for the World Series-winning Cleveland Indians.

He also pitched three innings of scoreless ball at age 59, when he tutored then-rookie Jim “Catfish” Hunter in pitching ins and outs.

His persona was nearly as important as his pitching ability.  An inveterate prankster and storyteller who loved to be at the center of attention, whether he was pitching in Cuba, the United States, or anywhere else, Paige had a magnetic charm that few could resist.

Satchel is not just the tale of a genial sports icon, though.

Tye presents a generally admiring portrait of Paige that includes a warts and all element with his detailing the pitcher’s constant infidelity and erratic attention to other family members.

Tye argues that Paige is an unsung pioneer in the struggle for baseball’s racial integration-a feat that many know happened in modern times when Jackie Robinson broke the color line by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Robinson’s selection hurt Paige deeply. 

The two men had little regard for each other: Paige thought he had been unfairly bypassed and derided Robinson’s playing abilities, while Robinson considered Paige little more than an Uncle Tom figure.

Tye maintains that Paige’s captaining black teams that barnstormed against white stars and his integrating a team in the 30s in one of the Dakotas constituted putting the key in the door that Robinson ultimately opened.

Jim Trapp, our IT head and resident expert on all things baseball, does not agree, and I must say that Tye’s argument was less than fully convincing.

Tye explains that he began the work’s germination came during his research for Rising From the Rails, his book about Pullman porters.    I enjoyed the previous work more, and found myself at times laboring to get through the Paige book. 

I did end up learning more about a unique American whose influence clearly extended beyond baseball.  Still, to paraphrase the master himself, I wouldn’t criticize you if you put this book down and didn’t look back.

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