Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
The Greatest Pitcher of All-Time? Satchel Paige is in the discussion, and is also the subject a new biography by Larry Tye: Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Dig the prologue below and then check out the entire book.
Peep don’t sleep.
By Larry Tye
It was a fastball wrapped in a riddle that first drew me to Satchel Paige. I was an adolescent baseball fanatic and had grown up hearing that Satchel was the most overpowering and artful pitcher who ever lived. The stories were enchanting but they were not backed up by the won-lost records, earned-run averages, and other vital statistics that students of the game like me needed to decide for ourselves. I wanted to know more.
It was that same blend of icon and enigma that drew me back to Satchel thirty-five years later. I was writing a book on the Pullman porters called Rising from the Rails, and the venerable African-American railroad men I interviewed reignited my memories and my interest. They had watched Satchel play in his heyday in the 1930s, had talked to him when he rode the train, and told riveting tales of his feats on the diamond and off. Yet the more I probed, the clearer it became how thin their knowledge was of this towering talent. Everyone knew about him but no one really knew him.
That is understandable. Satchel Paige was a black man playing in an obscure universe. Few records were kept or stories written of his games in the strictly-segregated Negro Leagues, fewer still of his barnstorming through America’s sandlots and small towns. Did he really win three games in a single day and 2,000 over a career? Was he confident enough in his strikeout pitch to actually order his outfielders to abandon their posts? Could he really have been better than Walter Johnson, Cy Young, and the other all-time marvels of the mound? In a game where box scores and play-by-play accounts encourage such comparisons, the hard data on him was elusive. That helps explain why, while fourteen full-fledged biographies have been published of Babe Ruth and eleven of Mickey Mantle, there is only one on Satchel, who was at least as important to baseball and America.
To fill in that picture I tracked down more than two hundred veteran Negro Leaguers and Major Leaguers who played with and against Satchel. His teammate and friend Buck O’Neil told me about the Satchel he knew – a pitcher who threw so hard that catchers tried to soften the sting by cushioning their gloves with beefsteaks, with control so precise that he used a hardball to knock lit cigarettes out of the mouths of obliging teammates. Hank Aaron had his own Satchel stories, as did Bob Feller, Orlando Cepeda, Whitey Herzog, and Silas Simmons, a patriarch of black baseball whom I spoke with the day he turned 111. I talked to Leon Paige and other aging relatives in Mobile. In Kansas City, I heard Robert Paige and his siblings publicly share for the first time their recollections of their father. I retraced Satchel’s footsteps from the South to the Midwest to the Caribbean, visiting stadiums where he had pitched, rooming houses where he stayed, and restaurants where he ate in an era when a black man was lucky to find any that would serve him. I watched him in the movies and read everything written about him in books, magazines, and newspapers, thousands of articles in all. Researchers helped me recheck statistics and refute or confirm his claims on everything from how many games he won (probably as many as he said) to how many times he struck out the mighty Josh Gibson (not quite as many as he boasted).
Along the way I untangled riddles like the one about how old Satchel was. It was the most-argued statistic in sports. The answer depended on who was asking and when. In 1934 the Colored Baseball & Sports Monthly reported that Satchel was born in 1907. In 1948 he was born in 1901 (Associated Press), 1903 (Time), 1908 (Washington Post, New York Times, and Sporting News), and 1904 (his mother). The Cleveland Indians hedged their bets after signing him in 1948, writing in their yearbook that Satchel was born “on either July 17, Sept. 11, Sept. 18 or Sept. 22, somewhere between 1900 and 1908.” Newsweek columnist John Lardner took him back further, saying that Satchel “saved the day at Waterloo, when the dangerous pull-hitter, Bonaparte, came to bat with the bases full.”
The mystery over Satchel’s age mattered because age matters in baseball. It is a way to compare players, and to measure a player’s current season against his past performance. No ballplayer gave fans as much to debate about, for as long, as Satchel Paige. At first he was Peter Pan – forever young, confoundingly fast, treacherously wild. Over time his durability proved even more alluring. After a full career in the Negro Leagues he broke through to the Majors in 1948, helping propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series at the over-the-hill age of forty-two. He still holds the record as the game’s oldest player, an honor earned during one last go-round at an inconceivable fifty-nine. He started pitching professionally when Babe Ruth was on the eve of his sixty-home-run season in 1926; he still was playing when Yankee Stadium, the “House that Ruth Built,” was entering its fifth decade in 1965. Over that span Satchel Paige pitched more baseballs, for more fans, in more ballparks, for more teams, than any player in history.