Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Larry Tye's Satchel

For a long time I had meant to read a biography of Satchel Paige, who I didn't know much of substance about. Larry Tye's Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend did not disappoint. It showed what a heroic and tragic figure he was, and how important for the game.

Of course, the book is framed by the Jim Crow South and how Satchel navigated it. Spurned later by Jackie Robinson, Satchel felt he should get more credit for being at the forefront of integration, actually playing with whites in games and getting the respect of fellow barnstormers Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller, both white baseball legends. He played everywhere and for anyone who would pay him, pitching constantly and often drawing white crowds. At the same time, like all African American players he had to find safe houses to sleep in and black restaurants to eat in. In many respects, he and other Negro League stars paved the way for Jackie.

He chased money constantly and Tye is careful to show how that sometimes was unethical (like skipping contracts) but that most often it was Satchel showing that he was worth money and therefore wasn't going to be pushed around because of his skin color. He made tons of money in his career, though he squandered most of it. Later in life the chasing became sad, as he was invited to hotels and ordered room service and liquor to bring home because he was out of cash.

His family life was complicated and also sometimes terrible--he was married to two women at one time at one point and one of them eventually committed suicide. He left a trail of women and at least one child he never knew. He had a lot of children and tended to be uneven in raising them. His third wife stayed with him until the end, when his health and spirits failed him.

The baseball part is incredible. He pitched as an old man in the majors and did pretty well. As an MLB rookie in his 40s he still threw bullets. We have few records because no one recorded the vast majority of his games, but he was one of the best pitchers ever. Tye captures him well.

BTW, you can listen to Tye talk about the book on the excellent Baseball by the Book podcast.


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