SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend

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9781400066513: SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend

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 Paige’s 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 don’t mind, it don’t 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. “Don’t 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.

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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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
Coming Alive


“I was no different from any other kid,

only in Mobile I was a nigger kid.”

Satchel Paige entered the world as Leroy Robert Page. He was delivered at home into the hands of a midwife, which was more help than most poor families could afford in 1906 in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Lula, was a washerwoman who already spent her nights worrying how to feed and sustain the four daughters and two sons who had come before. Five more would follow. Leroy’s father, John, alternated between the luxuriant lilies in the gardens he tended uptown and the corner stoops on which he liked to loiter, rarely making time to care for his expanding brood. With skin the shade of chestnut and a birthplace in the heartland of the former Confederacy, the newborn’s prospects looked woeful. They were about to get worse.

The hurricane that battered Mobile Bay just two months after Leroy’s birth started with two days of torrential rains carried in on the back of a driving northeast wind. By the next morning ten-foot-high surges had dispatched oyster and fishing vessels to the bottom of the sea. Tornado-like squalls ripped from their roots southern pines, blew tin roofs off Greek Revival homes, and made it look as if birds were flying backward. At historic Christ Church only the choir loft was left standing. The lucky escaped by fleeing to third-floor attics or climbing tall trees; 150 others were consigned to watery graves. One area hit especially hard was the Negro slum known as Down the Bay, where the Pages lived.

Their home was a four-room shack called a shotgun, because a shot fired through the front door would exit straight out the back. That is the path storm waters took when they burst through Down the Bay’s alleys on the way to more fashionable quarters. Rental units like the Pages’ were ramshackle and fragile, with no flood walls to protect them from the nearby sea and no electricity to ease their recovery. The Page cottage remained standing but the thin mattresses the children shared and their few furnishings needed airing out. That cleanup would have to wait: Lula’s white employers insisted she be at their homes early the next morning to mop up the storm damage. The kids would wait, too, the way they did every day when Mama headed to work, with the older ones watching over baby Leroy and the rest of the young ones.

Leroy’s world was being reshaped in another way that would mark him even more profoundly. Mobile historically was a center of the slave trade and the destination for the last slave ship to America, but Alabama’s oldest city also was home to more than a thousand blacks who bought or were granted their freedom in the antebellum era. That paradox was consistent with the coastal city’s push toward the conservative state of which it was part and its pull to a more tolerant world beyond its shores. For more than two hundred years Mobile had welcomed outsiders—Irish Catholics fleeing the famine, Jewish merchants, Yankees and English, along with legions of Creoles, the free offspring of French or Spanish fathers and chattel mothers—and they in turn challenged inbred thinking on everything from politics to race. The result, during the Reconstruction period, was a blurring of color lines in ways unthinkable in Montgomery, Selma, and most of the rest of Alabama. Jim Crow—the system of segregation named after a cowering slave in an 1820s minstrel show—was there in Mobile, but so was Booker T. Washington’s gospel of black self-help. The races were separated on trolleys and in other public settings, but the separation was done by tradition more than law. Blacks not only could vote for officeholders, a few even held political office. Paternalism more than meanness defined how whites treated Mobile’s 18,000 black citizens.

Unfortunately for Leroy, that live-and-let-live mind-set had begun fraying by the turn of the century and it unraveled entirely the very season of his birth. The reforms of Reconstruction were collapsing across the South, as whites who wielded power in the fallen Confederacy began to reinvent the realm and tear down Negroes’ new freedoms. The brief postwar honeymoon of racial coexistence survived longer in Mobile than in most of the South, but the backlash finally came there, too. An ordinance mandated separate seating on streetcars. Blacks were barred from most restaurants, cemeteries, saloons, hotels, and brothels. Whites and blacks were not allowed to attend the same school, marry one another, or live together. And in the wake of the devastating September hurricane, Mobile’s most influential newspaper stirred up reader resentment with its account of Negroes looting the homes of dead Caucasians and mutilating their bodies.

The rising tensions turned violent on October 6, 1906, when two black men accused in separate rapes of young white girls were being transported by train back to Mobile from protective custody in Birmingham. Forty-five vigilantes with masks and rifles boarded the train, took custody of the accused, and hanged them from a tree in the community of Plateau, just north of Mobile. As word of the killings spread, three thousand spectators, many arriving by streetcar, paraded by the black men’s limp bodies. Some snapped photographs. Others stole bits of the prisoners’ garments and cut souvenir segments from their noose. The double lynching ushered in four years of racist mobocracy in Mobile County. In 1907 Moses Dorsett, a Negro accused of raping an elderly white woman, was seized by a white mob and strung up fifty yards from the 1906 gallows. Two years later masked men snatched from the county jail a black inmate charged with killing a sheriff’s deputy, hanging the wounded man from an oak tree across from Mobile’s oldest church. This lynching stripped away any pretense that mob actions were confined to rural areas or resisted by law enforcers. It happened in the heart of the city, two blocks from the main police station, and investigators later established that the jail had been left unlocked.

Lest anyone doubt their meaning, the lynchers left behind notes. “Negroes must be taught that death will always follow attacks on white women,” one warned, while another advised, “There [are] plenty of ropes and trees left.” Blacks did not need the reminders. Many church and lay leaders from the Negro community had already gone, heading north or to larger cities in the South. Between 1910 and 1920, blacks’ share of Mobile’s population fell from 44 to 39 percent. While most had to stay, increasingly the city seemed less an oasis and more like the rest of Dixie. The Ku Klux Klan operated freely. Negroes disappeared from public offices and from voting rolls. In commerce, blacks were supplicants, whites selective benefactors. Less than two generations after the end of two centuries of slavery, liberation looked less like freedom than serfdom.

Leroy Page was too young to understand those developments but they were reinforced every day he spent in his native city. While record keepers used Colored to denote the city’s dark-skinned residents, the label used by most whites started with n. Those first few years “I was no different from any other kid,” Leroy wrote half a century on, “only in Mobile I was a nigger kid. I went around with the back of my shirt torn, a pair of dirty diapers or raggedy pieces of trousers covering me. Shoes? They was someplace else.” At a too-young age, he added, “I found out what it was like to be a Negro in Mobile.”

Lula and John had always known. John Page was at least a second-generation Mobilian. While he was born fourteen years after what many southern whites called the War of Northern Aggression, and he lived through the more hopeful years of Reconstruction, his ancestors almost certainly were dragooned in Africa and brought to America in shackles. John wed Lula when he was seventeen and began married life as a day laborer, which meant hoping he would be hired by white home owners or contractors for jobs ranging from hauling trash to laying bricks. Later he turned to gardening, although he preferred to be called a landscaper. Unemployed landscaper would have been more accurate. His kids saw less of him than they wanted and needed. Lula loved him but knew not to count on him or to argue with him when he was drinking. Still, she was proud that he never laid a hand on her.

Lula Coleman Page was almost four years older than her husband and would outlive him by more than forty years. As inattentive as John was, Lula was a present and steady figure in Leroy’s young life and those of his siblings. She raised and supported them. She taught them when to yield to their harsh surroundings and when to fight. She gave Leroy the love he seldom felt from his father and the certainty he could count on her. None of that was easy given how many other children she had asking for those same things. And none of it was done explicitly; she showed the way through her own struggle to get by.

Lula was pregnant close to half the time over a twenty-two-year stretch starting in September of 1894, nearly two years before she married John. Ellen was her first child, and like the rest she was delivered at home with no thought of a high-priced doctor or hospital. Three years later came Ruth, and the year after that John Jr. Julia was Lula’s first baby in the new century; she celebrated by naming the child after her mother, who was born a slave and was one of their few ancestors whose stories were passed on to Leroy and his siblings. There were two more children—Wilson and Emma Lee—before Leroy Robert made his entry in 1906. He had five younger siblings: the twins, Palestine and Eugene, then Clarence, another Lula, and, in 1917, the twelfth and last, Inez.

That averages out to a baby every twenty-two months, which made it a challenge to keep track of who was who in the family....

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