Here’s a little something in case you can’t make it out to Brooklyn tonight to hear Larry Tye talk about his new book, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Larry was good enough to spend part of his morning last week talking to me about Satchel Paige and Negro League baseball. Enjoy…
BronxBanter: Your previous four books dealt with public relations, the Jewish diaspora, Pullman porters, and shock therapy. How did you get from there to Satchel Paige?
Larry Tye: When I was writing the Pullman porter book, the porters told that of all the extraordinary characters that they had carried on the trains, from Joe Louis to Louie Armstrong to Paul Robeson, their favorite was Satchel Paige. And I had grown up hearing wonderful stories about Satchel as being the guy that every pitcher was compared to, and yet nobody really knew much about Satchel. So the porters really reignited my childhood interest in Satchel, and it seemed like a great time to do it.
BB: Were you a baseball fan growing up?
LT: I was. I was a huge Red Sox fan growing up, and every time I would go to a ballgame, my dad, any time there was a great pitcher, would always compare him to Satchel. But when I would ask, “What about Satchel Paige?” nobody really seemed to know much because he had played so much of his career in a shadow world.
BB: Right, he seems almost like a legend as opposed to a real man with real statistics and real information behind him.
LT: He did, and sort of every journalist or author out there sort of trying to understand how much of every legend is real, and Satchel seemed a wonderful way to do that.
BB: I wonder if you could walk me through your process a bit. What kind of research was involved, and at one point did you sit down and start wrting?
LT: I spent more than a year reading everything that had ever been written about Satchel, which meant looking at references to him or entire books. Probably a hundred books about Satchel or the Negro Leagues or some mention. Tens of thousands of articles from African-American and mainstream newspapers, loads of magazine pieces done over the years, and most importantly interviewing. I interviewed more than two hundred old major leagues and Negro leaguers. So it was partly trying to see what was there in terms of the written evidence, and partly trying to fill in the blanks with first-hand recollections of people who had been there with him, playing with him or against him. It was only after that work was well along, after about a year, that I started writing.
BB: We think of Mobile, Alabama, as the birthplace of baseball greats like Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey, but they came a generation later than Paige. What was Mobile like during the beginning of the century when young Satchel was growing up?
LT: There are two ways to look at what Mobile was like then. One, is what was it like generally in terms of society then for a young, black kid like Satchel to come into the world? And the answer was that at the very moment that he was born, the Jim Crow segregation system was coming into force in the South generally, and in Mobile specifically. Mobile had been one of the more tolerant deep South cities when it came to race, but starting in Satchel’s birth year of 1906, there were lynchings and other things that suggested tolerance was out the window, and segregation and violence were the order of the day. So it’s not an easy time for a young black kid to come into the world, it was not an easy time to come in with what became a family of twelve kids. So he was born into poverty, he was born into a racially hostile environment, and in the baseball world then, he was born into a strictly segregated world that had him prepared for the wider segregated situation in terms of the Negro Leagues and the major leagues. It was a time like in the later generation when guys like Hank Aaron came along. It was a time where baseball was as important in black America as it was in white. There were just fewer opportunities, particularly in a place like Mobile.
BB: That kind of moves me right to my next question…
LT: Actually, one last thing I had to say about that. The good news for him was that Mobile was an extraordinary baseball city, and it’s not accidental that all these great players came out of Mobile. Baseball was everything there.
BB: Once he did discover his baseball skill, what kind of options were available to him at this time?
LT: The options were to play semi-pro baseball in Mobile and make no money and have to look for another way to earn his living, or in case he was lucky and the manager of the Chattanooga White Sox, an old black team, came in and scouted him and brought him to Chattanooga to play in these lower levels of the black professional leagues. The good news is he got out of Mobile, the bad news is if he had stayed in Mobile he would have ended up probably like his brother Wilson, who may have been as good or better a baseball player but ended up having to dig graves for a living and died an early death.
BB: What was it like, not necessarily for a star like Satchel Paige, but just in general, what was it like to play in the Negro Leagues? How different was that from major league baseball?
LT: It was different in that players made less money, played to smaller crowds, the teams were precariously financed, and every season teams would come and go. It was a world more on the edge. It was like every black institution in the era of Jim Crow. They all shared a lot with the parallel white universe, whether it was schools or busses or whatever. They were generally not nearly as well financed. The good news in terms of black baseball, again like other Negro institutions of that era, is it was an extraordinarily exciting game. On a Sunday afternoon, the activity in black America was to go watch the local Negro League baseball team. Ministers would let churches out early, women would don their best mink stoles and high heels and hats, men would go out there and for one time in the week not have to worry about any racial insults or any hostility. They would go out there in what was an almost entirely black world, and they’d watch players play an incredibly hard-driving brand of baseball. It was a lot like what we would call “small ball” today. There was a lot of bunting, there was a lot of base stealing, there was a much more hard edged, and I think, exciting brand of baseball to watch. And one thing we can say definitively, the best Negro League ball players were as good as the best of the white majors.
BB: It’s always tempting to compare the Negro Leagues to the major leagues for a lot of the reasons that you just mentioned. For one thing, Paige’s white contemporaries were bound to their teams, and the best players often remained with one team throughout their careers, but this was hardly true for Satchel, was it?
LT: No. Satchel was a free agent fifty years before we knew what free agency was, which meant that he would sign a contract and honor that signature only as long as it suited him, and when he’d get a better offer he’d jump from one team to another. He said he played for two hundred and fifty teams during his career. That’s kind of high, but I’d say he probably played for more teams than any player in the history of black or white baseball. Teams would rent him out for one or two games because he was guaranteed to draw a big crowd, and contracts were only as good as he wanted to make them.
BB: Satchel Paige is often paired with Josh Gibson in stories and memories of the Negro Leagues. What was their relationship like?
LT: They were on the one hand as different as two ballplayers could be. Satchel loved to be in the center of attention, Josh hated the spotlight. Satchel was brilliant at squeezing every nickel he could from owners, and Josh was a laidback guy who just didn’t do that kind of thing. Josh was somebody who was adored by his teammates, and Satchel was often resented by his teammates. On the other hand, the two of them had this special interaction. They knew that they were black baseball’s two biggest starts, they knew that their facing off against one another was going to get more attention than anything else that happened in the ballgame they were playing in, and they each had enough pride that they thought that they could get the better of it. So it was this wonderful drama every time that they played
BB: In the thirties and forties Satchel Paige was more than just a pitcher, more than just a baseball player. He was a cultural icon in Black America. How was he able to transcend baseball the way he did?
LT: Because he was such a natural showman. He would go out there before a game and do things that nobody else would ever dare to do. He’d put a matchbook on home plate and go back sixty feet six inches to the pitchers mound and throw nine out of ten balls over home plate. What he was doing was proving to any fans who were out there early to watch him – and fans were always out there early to watch him – proving that he could do extraordinary things. He was intimidating the heck out of any opponents who were out there watching what he was doing, and he had this innate understanding of what it took to make it worth somebody’s while to come and flop down the money to watch him play a ballgame. And he gave them a show. He never made a spectacle of himself, and he understood the way that great entertainers did, the way that Louie Armstrong did, the way that Joe Louis did. Satchel understood even better just what it was like to go out and really give fans more than their money’s worth by dazzling them as well as winning the ballgame.
BB: Satchel’s story can be seen as tragic, not just because he spent his prime in the shadows, but also because he wasn’t the player chosen to break the color line. I thought it was interesting to read about the tension between Paige and Jackie Robinson. Can you talk about that a bit?
LT: Sure. They were from two different generations, and they reflected the generational tension. Jackie never quite understood, I think, the fact that it was Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and all the great ballplayers of their generation upon whose shoulders he, Jackie, was standing when he broke the color barrier. He saw what he did, he saw the abuse that he, Jackie, took, and he never quite understood that people had been going through that in the Negro Leagues for fifty years before him, and he saw Satchel and many of his fellow Negro Leaguers as an embarrassment. Jackie never had much use for the Negro Leagues; he only played there for a year. And yet it was only because of Satchel that Branch Rickey knew about the Negro Leagues, and he knew about the all-black Kansas City Monarchs, and he knew about a guy who started out that season as a second-string second baseman, namely Jackie Robinson. So Satchel thought that he deserved, if not to be first, then at least be worthy of credit by the guy who was first, and Jackie never gave him that credit.
BB: I thought that was really interesting because we know that in Jackie’s later years he often complained that modern-day black players didn’t appreciate what he and others had done for them, so I thought it was ironic to read that he had fallen into the same generational trap. I guess we never appreciate what our predecessors have done for us, do we?
LT: It’s true, and it’s the same thing in the Civil Rights movement. If you ask kids today who study on Martin Luther King’s birthday or in Black History Month, the Civil Rights movement, you would think that the movement began and ended with Martin Luther King, Jr. They don’t acknowledge the history and the Pullman porters and guys like A. Phillip Randolph who really set the stage for King, the same way we don’t acknowledge that anything came before Jackie. We don’t also acknowledge that professional baseball at the highest levels was integrated in the 1800s. What Jackie did was not integrate baseball, he reintegrated it.
BB: Exactly, exactly. What about when the major leagues finally came calling for Satchel? How good was he at the age of forty-two?
LT: He was good enough that at the end of that first half-season with the Cleveland Indians he notched a 6-1 record, he had the second-lowest ERA in the American League. And my favorite is that twelve sportswriters in voting for the AP Rookie of the Year, twelve of them voted for Satchel, to which he replied, “I’m honored, but I’m not quite sure what year the gentlemen were talking about.”
BB: I wanted to back up a little bit. It seemed like throughout his story there are incidents where various major leaguers would come to the fore and say, “These other pitchers that we’re facing every day are great, but there’s also this guy Satchel Paige who’s even better.” Who were some of those major leaguers that were kind of instrumental in spreading the word about Satchel Paige. Dizzy Dean, sure, and some of these others. Who were the main ones?
LT: Well, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller saw it firsthand, but I think lots of people were out there doing it. Ted Williams absolutely understood just how great they were, and he spread the word in his early years and later on ended up taking time out from his induction ceremony at the Hall of Fame to call for the induction of Satchel and others. Joe DiMaggio did it in a dramatic way. It was a face-off against Satchel in California before DiMaggio was with the Yankees that convinced the Yankee scouts who watched him that day to sign DiMaggio. DiMaggio said repeatedly that Satchel was the best pitcher he ever faced. My favorite DiMaggio expression was he said that Satchel’s curve ball gave him optical indigestion. Lots of guys were doing it. Jimmy Foxx was doing it. All the old great ballplayers who barnstormed against Satchel in California and Latin America and across this country came back raving about him, and that was from the 1920s through the 1940s. Just about every great major league saw Satchel, and they just couldn’t help but talk about it.
BB: You mentioned barnstorming. I wanted to ask you about that real quickly. Can you explain what that environment was like, because you had black and white ballplayers on different teams, sometimes on the same team. What was the barnstorming culture like?
LT: It was basically a case where Negro Leaguers couldn’t come close to earning a living just by playing in their official Negro League games. So in between games they would go to any town anywhere nearby that could come up with enough money to bring them to town with a team to field against them. So it was in towns with more barns than streetlights with teams that ranged from really good semi-pro teams to a bunch of farmers who knew nothing about baseball other than that they loved it. It was a way for small town America to get really good baseball, and it was a way for Negro Leaguers and major leaguers to earn critical extra money when their families were sufficiently small.
BB: What about the legend of Satchel Paige? My favorite story was always the one where he was facing his buddy Josh Gibson and pulls his fielders off the diamond before striking him out. Did you have a favorite? Did you find a new one through this process?
LT: First of all I’ve got to say that in checking all the legend against the facts I found that about eighty percent of the things that Satchel claimed he did, he did. And that’s pretty extraordinary considering what his claims were. And that raises the question, why embellish the other twenty percent if all that would do is potentially call into question the eighty percent? And I think it was partly that Satchel was such a good story teller that he couldn’t resist, and partly that while the white legends, the Babe Ruths and Joe DiMaggios, had reporters there fanning their legend, Satchel was playing in this shadow world of the Negro Leagues and had to be out there telling his own story. It was a great story, and at times with each new telling he’d realize reporters needed something a little new to spice it up, and he’d give ‘em something a little new. My favorite stories were when he was out there in his later years. We all know the stories of his calling in his fielders, of his going out and performing all these stunts, having his teammates stand there with lit cigarettes in their mouths and he’d throw a hardball at their face at ninety miles an hour and they had enough confidence that he would knock it out and knock them out – and he did it. My favorites are what he did in his later years. I love the notion that he set a record that will never be broken in the major leagues in 1965 by going out and pitching three shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox. He was 59 years, two months, and eight days old, and his catcher that night was thirty years younger. I talked to a bunch of the ballplayers from the Red Sox and had them actually at my opening kickoff party for the book. The guy who pitched against him that night, Bill Momboquette and a bunch of others. And I talked to Carl Yastrzemski about what it was like facing off against Satchel that night. The only guy to get a hit off him in those three innings was Yastrzemski, he got a double. And what I loved was after the game, Yastrzemski went up to him and gave him a bear hug. And Yastrzemski, anybody who knew him in Boston knows that the last guy who’s ever played in the city that you would expect to give anybody a bear hug was the relatively cold, reserved Carl Yastrzemski. And he did it because a full generation before Yaz’s dad had faced off against Satchel in a semi-pro game on Long Island. I love that story because Satchel was the only guy in the history of baseball who pitched against fathers and sons and even grandsons. He lasted so long, he was so durable, that he was out there dazzling generations of fans. And this perpetual argument, as you well know, of who was the greatest pitcher of all times. What we can say without any argument is there’s no pitcher in the history of baseball who ever pitched at a higher level for longer than Satchel Paige.
BB: So finally, where do you rank Satchel amongst the all-time greats?
LT: I rank him as the most durable of the greats, and I would say that he did it longer than anybody, and I’d say that at his peak he would match up against Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, or Roger Clemens in terms of speed, in terms of accuracy, and he would top all of them in terms of putting on a show when he was out there. He went out and he could get out batters as easily as anyone ever in the history of baseball, but he did it with style and grace that nobody ever showed that I’m familiar with.