Thursday, August 13, 2009

Satchel Paige

I've just finished reading "Satchel" by Larry Tye, a biography of Leroy Robert ("Satchel") Paige, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of professional baseball and the marquee player of the Negro Leagues in the first half of the 20th century. While Tye has apparently done extensive research about Satchel's life and career, the book is, overall, disappointing.

The individual chapters read as if they were written as a series of essays and later glued together. This could possibly explain the repetition of information throughout the book; indeed, there were a few parts when I stopped and thought, "Did I already read this page?" For example, Tye discusses Satchel's age -- one of the facts Paige fudged throughout his decades-long career -- numerous times, but never quite gives a definitive answer.

Much of the book focuses on the prime of Satchel's career, through the 1930s and 40s, where he played anywhere and everywhere and always followed the biggest paycheck, even ignoring contracts he signed if something better came along. As Tye correctly points out, Satchel Paige was baseball's first free agent, long before they had invented free agents.
Unfortunately, the narrative moves chronologically while addressing one facet of Satchel's life, then jumps back in time to comment on another, complete with repetition of information we got in previous chapters. Tye tells us about Satchel's first wife, then does not mention her for a long period. Discussing the pitcher's two-year stint in Puerto Rico, Tye tells us of another woman Satchel became enamoured of. As I was reading about his marriage to this woman, I thought, "Hey, what happened to his first wife?" Tye reminds us that, by the way, Paige was already married, but he does not address the repercussions until much later.

That Satchel Paige was hurt to not have been chosen as the player to break Major League Baseball's color line is not surprising to learn. Indeed, he was the player in the Negro Leagues who brought in the crowds wherever he played. But he was in his forties by the time Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson and on the down-slope of his career, so, despite his popularity, Satchel was bypassed for the much younger Robinson.
Satchel did make it to the majors, pitching for the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and 1949 and then for the St, Louis Browns from 1951 to 1953. Amusingly, the "much-younger" Jackie Robinson was long-retired when Satchel made his last major league appearance -- albeit as a publicity stunt more than anything else -- pitching three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965.

Perhaps what is missing most in this book is the feeling that Satchel Paige, like Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra, is one of the great "characters" of baseball history. Tye mentions often that people would flock around Satchel just to listen to him tell stories, but doesn't give us examples. The book would certainly have benefited from their inclusion. One chapter highlights a number of Satchel's most quotable quotes, but more could have been done.

Finally, while Tye's research into Satchel Paige's life appears to be extensive, his knowledge of other players is lacking. Most jarring are his references to Joe DiMaggio; in one instance he calls him "Broadway Joe" (actually the sobriquet of Joe Namath) and in another refers to him as "Jumpin' Joe" rather than "Joltin' Joe."


The Wit and Wisdom of Satchel Paige

On age...
"Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter."
"How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?"

On baseball and his career...
"I never rush myself. See, they can't start the game without me."
"You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them."
"My pitching philosophy is simple; you gotta keep the ball off the fat part of the bat."
"Just take the ball and throw it where you want to. Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move."
"I use my single windup, my double windup, my triple windup, my hesitation windup, my no windup. I also use my step-n-pitch-it, my submariner, my sidearmer and my bat dodger. Man's got to do what he's got to do."
"I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I would toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation."
"I ain't ever had a job, I just always played baseball."

On life...
"Mother always told me, if you tell a lie, always rehearse it. If it don't sound good to you, it won't sound good to no one else."
"Avoid fried food, it angries up the blood."
"Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common."
"Don't pray when it rains if you don't pray when the sun shines."
"Money and women. They're two of the strongest things in the world. The things you do for a woman you wouldn't do for anything else. Same with money."
"Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching."

And my favorite...
"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."


  1. It likely WAS a series of articles and he's recycling it, which is so annoying.

  2. I had no idea that the last quote you give in the "on life" section was not originally from a dancer - I see it on so many dance websites and posters!