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'Satchel': The Story Of An American Baseball Legend [REBROADCAST]
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You can get an argument about it,
but some believe the greatest pitcher who ever lived was Leroy Satchel
Paige. In his prime, it's said his fastball was so terrifying, some
opposing batters called in sick.
In the 1940s, writes Larry Tye, no one was better known or move beloved
among black Americans than Satchel - not Joe Louis, not Count Basie or
Duke Ellington â because Paige was unstoppable on the mound and because
he played and lived with such style and charm.
Satchel Paige played his best seasons before baseball was integrated. So
he didn't get the years and records in the big leagues he might have.
But he is in the Hall of Fame and holds the record for being the oldest
player ever to throw a pitch in the Majors at age 59.
Larry Tye says there's another story in Paige's rich and colorful life,
about race in America and how Satchel's barnstorming through American
towns brought black and white fans and players together long before
Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.
On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to hear that story. FRESH
AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Larry Tye last June about his
biography called "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend."
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Larry Tye, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I thought we might begin by asking
you to just paint a little bit of a picture of Satchel Paige in his
prime. If someone went to the ballpark, say in the '30s, when he really
had his career going, just give us a little bit of a sense of sort of
what they would see, what made him distinctive and special.
Mr. LARRY TYE (Author, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American
Legend"): Before the game even started, everybody knew that you wanted
to come out early and watch Satchel. And what you wanted to watch was he
would set up on home plate a set of matches, and he'd set up this tiny
little matchbook, and he'd proceed to throw eight out of 10 pitches
directly over the book.
Some days, it might have been a postage stamp. Some days, it might have
been a gum wrapper. It was tiny objects, and he did that for two
reasons. One was to delight fans, and it always delighted fans, and they
always showed up early to watch him do something like that. The other
was he knew that opponents - whether it was a Negro League team or local
barnstormers who had never seen him before - were there early as well.
They knew this was the legendary Satchel Paige, and they were watching
what he was doing. And when you watched him burn these fastballs in with
this pinpoint accuracy that he could actually get it directly over a
book of matches, it started giving you precisely the second thoughts
that Satchel knew these shows would do. So he was somebody you came
early to watch, and you always got the show before the show.
DAVIES: His walk to the mound was even distinctive, right?
Mr. TYE: It was. He actually did what was more like a shuffle than a
walk. He knew that the game couldn't start until he got there, and he
was darn well going to take his time getting there, again letting fans
absorb this magic of this guy who had arms so long that it looked like
they were touching the ground, who had legs so long that he had to take
really large steps just to avoid tripping over his own legs and who was
distinctive and elegant enough that anybody who watched had to pay
attention and had to be struck by him.
DAVIES: And his windup and delivery was like no one else's, too, right?
Mr. TYE: It was, indeed. It was the famous Satchel Paige pose, which was
winding up, it could be a single, a double or a triple-windmill windup.
And imagine what a windmill does, turning over and over. Satchel could
pitch underhanded, he could pitch sidearm, and he could pitch a standard
Whatever he was doing, it looked like his leg went so high up into the
air that it blacked out the sky. His arm was so long that it looked like
it was in the pitcher's face by the time he released the ball, and he
had a kind of catapult release that sent the ball in at speeds that
people - they had no radar guns then - but that people said had to be
100 to 105 miles an hour.
DAVIES: So amazing athlete but a real performer - almost a circus act.
Mr. TYE: Yeah, a circus act that understood that there was a thin line
between entertaining a crowd and demeaning himself, and he would never
take it to the point where he was doing anything to demean himself. But
he also understood that Negro League baseball was something that, to
attract fans - and he attracted extraordinary numbers of fans, record
numbers of fans - to attract fans, you had to be more than just a
brilliant pitcher. You had to be a showman, as well. He was as
sensational a showman as I've ever seen or read or heard about in the
entire game of baseball.
DAVIES: All right, let's talk about his early life. He was born, what,
1906? Is that the established date now?
Mr. TYE: That is the established date. He was actually born on July 7th,
DAVIES: In Mobile, Alabama, a coastal city, where - and it's interesting
that you describe in the book that it was a place of considerable racial
tolerance before the turn of the century but became a hard-bitten and
segregated place. Tell us a little about kind of his family and early
Mr. TYE: Sure. He was one of 12 children. He was the seventh of 12
children, and his early life was a situation where his dad was almost
never around. His dad was somebody who liked to call himself a
landscaper, and what he in fact was, was a gardener, and generally an
His mom was a washer-woman who took in laundry from white families
across Mobile and tried to make a living, but with 12 mouths to feed and
with no real help from her husband, his mom had a really difficult time.
So all the kids from a very early age were taught that they had to: A,
get used to having nothing; and B, for whatever they did have in terms
of food or anything else, they had to go out and earn it themselves, and
he was out there at the age of nine, 10, 11, at the railway station
doing things that a redcap would do. He was actually pulling people's
bags. He was collecting a dime or a quarter per bag, and that's where
his name, Satchel, came from.
He had discovered a system that he could use pulleys and ropes to carry
two, three, sometimes even four bags at a time. And the way that he
talked about where his name came from was that friends looked at him and
said you look like a walking satchel tree, and the name stuck
immediately. But as with everything with him, there were three or four
versions of the story.
DAVIES: There were also stories that you found of his skill at hurling
things, even as a young kid, and this sort of brings up something that
you've run into, I'm sure, again and again when you're researching his
life, is that he did such prodigious things at a time when there weren't
the kind of records and videos and Internet stuff that there are now to
document them. It must be hard to separate legend from fact. But what
did you come to believe about what he'd done as a kid that proved he had
an amazing arm?
Mr. TYE: I came to believe that the stories that people told, enough of
them came from his friends who were eyewitnesses, and even taking
account for all the embellishments Satchel did and other people did, I
think he had an extraordinary ability to aim a rock or a brick or a
baseball and get it to its target with the kind of speed that was just
beyond the pale.
One of the things that he was able to do as a kid was, with a rock, he
was able to, at the distance of a pitching mound, knock down a chicken.
He was able to hit a squirrel. He was able to do extraordinary things,
but he was best, and he really showed his skills as a young boy when he
was part of a group of kids who lived near him, and they'd take on rival
gangs of kids. And Satchel was famous not just for being able to hit the
kid just where he wanted to but in developing something that became his
style when he became a pitcher later on, what he called the hesitation
If you were looking at the kids who you were trying to have this rock-
throwing contest with, and if you threw the rock at them, it was natural
that they would duck and that you'd often miss them. So what he did was
he'd lift his arm and start to fling it, and he'd stop midway through,
and they ducked, and he'd wait for them to duck, and then they were
literally a sitting duck, and he'd hit them, and that was what he did
with batters over the years. His hesitation pitch was hesitating mid-
delivery and then throwing it in a way that threw the batter off-stride
the same way it did the kids he was throwing rocks at.
DAVIES: Now a critical turning point in his life was - you know, he got
into some petty crime, stole enough stuff that he was finally sent away
to a reform school, Mount Meigs - am I saying that right?
Mr. TYE: You are.
DAVIES: Yeah. Now tell us about this institution and its, you know, its
place in the sociology of America at the time.
Mr. TYE: Sure. The shortened name for the school was Mount Meigs because
that's where it was, in Mount Meigs, Alabama. The actual title of the
school, to me, said a lot about what was going on behind its walls. It
was called the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers.
And the school was set up along the style dictated by Booker T.
Washington, which was the movement of black self-help.
Booker T. Washington believed that segregation was going to last, that
there was no point in contesting this Jim Crow system. It was incumbent
upon young boys like Satchel Paige to learn how to get along with it,
and so it taught them industriousness. He was working in the fields. He
was milking cows.
He was working from the time he got up in the morning to the time he
went to bed at night. But what he also got to do in that time was do
some athletics, and they had the kids doing everything from playing
baseball to running around just to burn off steam.
And Satchel learned during that time at Mount Meigs that he had an
extraordinary ability to throw a baseball, and he had a coach there who
recognized that ability and saw that this could be the key to saving
Satchel from the life of crime that he had entered into as a teenager
and that had gotten him into Mount Meigs.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Larry Tye. His new book is "Satchel: The
Life and Times of an American Legend." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Larry Tye.
He has a new biography of Satchel Paige. It's called "Satchel: The Life
and Times of an American Legend."
So Satchel Paige gets out of this reform school with a new sense of sort
of discipline, self-worth and some more-disciplined baseball skills than
he'd gone into. And soon, he's getting paid to play ball in, you know,
Negro League teams in Chattanooga and Birmingham. Tell us a little bit
about that life. He was away from home as a young man. What was the life
Mr. TYE: Sure. Let me tell you first of all what the life of the Negro
Leagues was like. This was a time where men in the community,
particularly on Sunday afternoons when the premier games were being
played, would come out in straw hats and patent leather shoes. Ladies
would take out their high heels, their white gloves, their fur stoles.
Ministers actually, for these games, would let people out of church
early on Sunday so no one was late, including them. Everybody wanted to
This was black society then. Black ball was black society, and Satchel
Paige was in the center of that world. The featured pitching duel of the
week was always on Sunday, and Satchel Paige was always in the center of
that Sunday matchup. He spent his life partly in that Negro League's
world pitching against other teams with extraordinarily skilled black
He spent the week - often during the week when there weren't Negro
League games going on, he'd be out there barnstorming around the
country. And what that meant was going to any small town that would have
him and playing against - whether it was a semi-pro team or whether it
was just a bunch of farmers who took an evening off and put on a
baseball glove and picked up a bat, they all wanted to play. Satchel
knew that was a way to earn money, and he'd play anybody, anytime he
The normal top athletes, the normal top baseball players in the country
who were playing in the Major Leagues or in the white Minor Leagues,
might play, if they were a pitcher, pitch every third, fourth, fifth
day. Satchel was pitching every day. He was out there exercising his
arm, trying to earn a living, doing it perpetually, and this was what
life was like for black ballplayers, and it was like - what life was
like for Satchel Paige, who was the best of them.
DAVIES: At this point, you know, Satchel was moving around the country,
he and other Negro League players, in a segregated world. What kind of
hardships and discrimination did that present?
Mr. TYE: It presented the risk that any time you went into a new town in
the South where there was this system of very strict Jim Crow racial
segregation, that if you walked into the wrong restaurant, or you used
the wrong bathroom, that you could - and they were - often arrested.
Players on Satchel's team and on lots of other Negro League teams were
shot at. They watched lynchings happen.
There was the risk of having to put up with extraordinary abuse in terms
of fans yelling racial slurs of them, all the way to the risk of losing
their life because it was a time when blacks were afforded few legal
rights and where knowing the particular byways of Jim Crow in every
small town you went was essential for a guy like Satchel to stay alive.
DAVIES: You write that he was known for moving around a lot. He would go
on these barnstorming tours. He would go to Latin America. And he would
also walk out on contracts if some other team offered him a better deal.
He was an early athlete entrepreneur. And there's a fascinating point in
his story where he ends up in, of all places, Bismarck, North Dakota.
Tell us what brought him there.
Mr. TYE: Sure, what brought him there again was what brought him
anywhere that he went, which was the enticement of money. He had walked
out on his owner of the Pittsburgh Couriers, one of the great Negro
League teams. He had just gotten married. He was in need of extra money,
and a white owner named Churchill in this town where there might have
been two or three blacks living, and in the entire state of North Dakota
maybe a handful, Satchel came in and was extraordinary.
He did exactly what this guy Churchill had wanted. He led the Bismarck
team to an extraordinary number of victories, particularly over this
nearby town, Jamestown, North Dakota. And Satchel was not the first
Negro-Leaguer to go to Bismarck, but he was the one who brought
attention - the Negro Leagues, of the national press and of everybody
else - to what was going on in these far-away communities, that there
was great baseball happening in out-of-the-way parts of America and that
there was great integrated baseball happening a decade and more before
the Major Leagues ever became integrated.
It was part of - for him, it was a way of earning money. For the
country, it was a way of testing out how integration might look on a
ball field long before the Major League owners were ready to integrate
DAVIES: And how did it work? How did he get along with his white
teammates? How did the white fans in Bismarck react to him?
Mr. TYE: He was extraordinary. All he would have to do, as one of the
very few blacks in town and as the only one who was this incredibly long
and elegant figure - everybody in Bismarck knew him. He was a celebrity
He started out having no idea how people would really react to him. And
he actually - when he first came to town, he had to rent out an old
boxcar that was on the side of the railroad tracks as a place to live
because finding housing was a really difficult thing for him to do
Very soon, he became a celebrity in town. People would rent their homes
to him and open up their hearts and their wallets. They bet on him. The
owner of the Bismarck team made a lot of money by making side bets on
whether Satchel would win or not, and he always won. And he took
Bismarck to this regional tournament that Bismarck, at that time, was
the best team, semi-pro level, in the country, in large because of
DAVIES: Now as his fame grew, and as this barnstorming, these sort of
ad-hoc games and, you know, and tours, which would pit him sometimes
against white teams or local teams, grew, he ended up getting some white
major-leaguers involved collaborating on some of these barnstorming
tours. How did that happen?
Mr. TYE: It happened with - first with - Dizzy Dean was the most famous
of the great white, star athletes who decided to team up with Satchel,
and Dizzy and Satchel realized that if they traveled around the country
- and they did travel all over the country playing games against one
another - that it would attract two kinds of people.
It would attract all the people who just wanted to see the greatest of
black and white baseball play against one another, and it also attracted
people who had a problem with the notion of integration and wanted to
see a face-off between black heroes and white heroes and saw it almost
as a little bit of a race battle or war.
They were willing to tap into whatever people's motivations were for
coming. What they knew was that they could draw large numbers of fans,
and they made a fortune on the thing.
DAVIES: So these white players and black players played out of mutual
self-interest. There was money to be made. But it had - you know, it had
social implications and impacts, and I want to talk about that a little
I mean, one thing was that the white players got - they had to at least
have some interaction with these ballplayers as they planned the trips
and as they played. Did that change, do you think, white attitudes about
black ballplayers among the players, among the umpires, among the
coaches in it?
Mr. TYE: I think it changed them extraordinarily, and I think that the -
you don't have to look any further than Dizzy Dean to see that. Dizzy
Dean was a good old boy who wasn't beyond all kinds of racial slurs that
were a part of his natural language, and he grew to adore Satchel. He
had - they would try to out-do one another not just pitching on the
field but telling stories.
And there was a great story once in Dayton, Ohio, where Dizzy hit a
blooper to first base and ended up making his way eventually to third
base with nobody out. And fans started yelling for Dizzy when he was on
third base and wanted him to score, and Satchel, in his wonderful way,
he would always decide to just sort of take a temporary respite from his
time on the mound and go out and talk to people who were on the bases.
The umpires let him get away with extraordinary things, and he walked
over to Dizzy, and he said I hope your friends brought plenty to eat
because if they're waiting for you to score, they'll be here past dark.
You ain't going no further.
Nobody out at the time, and Satchel proceeded, like he always did: He
would boast, and then he would back up his boast. He fanned the next
three ballplayers, and Dizzy was stranded there on third base. Dizzy
said - and again, this is this good old boy who had no love for blacks
generally and really had never known any black the way he did Satchel.
Dizzy said that if Satch and I played together, we'd clinch the pennant
by the Fourth of July, and we could go fishing till the World Series. He
said between us, we'd win 60 games.
So they had this extraordinary friendship, and yet there was another
dimension to it. And the dimension that essentially when they got done
with their barnstorming games, Dizzy would go back to Broadway, and
Satchel would go back to Outer Mongolia, playing in the Negro Leagues,
where very few people were watching him. And Satchel said they used to
say that Diz and I were about as alike as two tadpoles, but Diz was in
the Majors, and I was bouncing around the peanut circuit.
And he watched all of these guys who he made friends with - whether it
was Dizzy Dean or Bob Feller or Joe DiMaggio - he watched them take off
and their careers soar, and he watched himself stuck playing in this
shadow world when he knew he was their equal. He had proven it on the
GROSS: Larry Tye, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Davie Davies. Tye
is the author of "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend."
We'll hear more of their interview in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our
interview with Larry Tye about his biography of Satchel Paige. Paige
played his best years before Major League Baseball was integrated. But
Tye writes that Paige's barnstorming baseball teams that travelled
through American towns in the 1930s often brought black and white fans
and players together.
Tye spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies last summer.
DAVIES: What about the interaction among fans? And the fact that you
know these Negro ballplayers would move into town, to go through towns,
and they constantly confronted finding places to eat, finding places to
stay. Did their interactions with fans and others who knew they were,
after all you know guys of some note, in some cases celebrities, did
that help to break down, or at least soften any racial barriers in the
towns they played?
Mr. TYE: It did two different kinds of things. In some towns it
absolutely softened the racial barrier. Satchel, part of his condition
for bringing his barnstorming team to a town, and this is where I think
he was a quiet racial pioneer, he said, I'm not going to bring them to
town unless there's somewhere for them to stay and somewhere for them to
eat. And this was in these all-white towns, particularly when he was
barnstorming through the South, it presented a huge challenge at that
time because there often weren't places where they could stay or eat.
But he wouldn't come unless there were and he sort of set that as a
And at times watching him on the ball field, I think had the affect in
terms of people that I talked to who were part of those games and people
in the towns that watched him come through, had the affect - the way he
dazzled them off the field ended up translating, if not breaking down
their racial stereotypes, at least softening things. And at other times
it did nothing like that. At other times, he would play on the field
with them and then try to go into their store after the game. The very
people who were there watching him and cheering for him wouldn't serve
him. So it was both, being sort of pushing these racial limits at times
proved incredibly productive, and at other times it was amazingly
frustrating for him. And for a guy who never let himself get down, at
times he just couldn't help it.
DAVIES: And he made quite a lot of money really going back even to the
20s and spent it just as quickly, right? He loved cars. He loved great
Mr. TYE: He did. In fact, in the 1940s he was making $40,000 a year. And
to put that into context, it was four times what the average player on
the New York Yankees was making. It was precisely what the Bronx Bombers
were paying Joe DiMaggio. It was twice what Ted Williams, the batting
champ, was making. He was making extraordinary amounts of money. He was
making enough money that he actually had one closet just for his shoes,
four closets for his suits. He had a black Lincoln, a blue Caddy, a
jeep, a Chevy truck, two trailers, four cameras, 15 shotguns.
It was amazing what he had done in terms of the money that he was able
to accrue. The difference though between what he was making and what the
great white stars of that era were making was that he had to work year-
round and pitch nearly every night, whereas, if you were a white Major
Leaguer, like DiMaggio or Williams, you took the winter off.
DAVIES: And yet these wonderful stories about how him - when he would
get into a hotel room would often put up a Coleman stove and fry catfish
in the room. Is this real?
Mr. TYE: It is real. And he had an extraordinary appetite for everything
from fried catfish to barbecue, to all kinds of things that, given that
he had a bad stomach, were really difficult for him. When he finally
made it to the Major Leagues his roommate couldn't stand being in the
room with him because he - there were these incredible smells. There
were the safety risks of sort of plugging in his Coleman stove. He was a
character and he fed his appetites for food and for drink the same way
he did for women, which was to wonderful excess.
DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about his as a ballplayer. I mean we've
already described his unique delivery, huge, long arms, big legs, huge
high leg kick, and then a delivery which had all different kinds of
variations. He actually had a lot of colorful names for his pitches,
Mr. TYE: He did indeed. And the - he called his pitches everything from
bloopers, loopers and droopers to his wonderful barber pitch, which was
where he intended to give a batter a razor shave if they stayed in - if
they stepped in too close. He had what he called his tiddy pitch where
he nipped the chest of the opposing hitter. He had a nightmare pitch
which he said he had stayed up all night dreaming up. He had his fastest
pitch was a Long Tom. His slightly softer pitch was a Little Tom.
He could pitch a curveball in his later years with great accuracy. He
could pitch a knuckleball. But the extraordinary thing with all of his
names his catcher said they're all really the same thing. He's got a
faster pitch, he's got a little bit slower pitch, and in his early days
that was all he needed. He then refined it later with his curveball and
his knuckleball. But in the early days it was fast, faster, and fastest.
DAVIES: He was also a real student of the game, right?
Mr. TYE: He was indeed. And he had an amazing memory. Not for the faces
of the opposing batters, but from their batting stance. And one day Bill
Veeck, who was the owner who brought him to the Major Leagues in his
Cleveland - for his Cleveland Indians team and later rescued him and
brought him back to other teams, Veeck had a photographer snap shots of
25 hitters standing in a batter's box with just their hips showing. He
painted out all the ID marks and showed this picture of just the, sort
of, from the chest down to all the pitchers on his team.
Satchel picked 18 of them out. He could identify them just from their
batting stance, and the next best of Veeck's pitchers got just six. This
was - Satchel knew what was important. And the faces were interesting to
know who they were, but all that really mattered was their batting
stance because that was the way he could identify how they were going to
hit against him and remember how to pitch them so they couldn't hit
DAVIES: Somebody with that kind of eye for detail and memory would make
a great coach or a manager which, of course, he was never allowed to do
because once baseball was integrated, it was a long time before blacks
were allowed to manage.
Mr. TYE: No. He was only brought in as a pitching coach briefly for the
Atlanta Braves when they had just moved to Atlanta. And this was because
the owner of the Braves was rescuing him. He needed another year to
qualify for Major League pension so he was brought in for this time. But
Satchel had always said to baseball, you give me all these honors, show
what you really mean, if you are truly willing to integrate and hire me
as a manager. That was his dream and nobody ever offered. Veeck had
actually said at one point that he would pay half the salary if somebody
would bring Satchel in as a manager and still he got no offers.
DAVIES: One more baseball story we have to talk about - and this is
something I've never seen, I've never seen anything remotely like this
in my life of watching baseball. And that is Satchel, for - to
demonstrate how good he was, or to win a bet, or to humiliate an
opponent, would actually have his fielders leave the game and let him
finish off the batter alone?
Mr. TYE: He did indeed. The first time he did it was when he was in
Mobile playing with a semi-pro team called the Down the Bay Boys. And
his teammates had made three straight errors and he basically wanted to
show them up. Even though the bases were loaded and he was leading just
one to nothing, there were two outs in the ninth inning, and he said
come on in to the outfielders. And they sat around in the infield while
he had these batters facing him and the - knowing that any pitch hit out
of the infield was an automatic homerun: so, two outs in the ninth,
batter up, three strikes, point made.
He did it again and again sometimes with just the outfielders. They'd
sit around on the infield talking to one another, playing poker or at
least pretending to. Sometimes he actually had not just his outfielders
sit down, but he brought in his infielders and left the entire field
with just he and his catcher. And he did it not just when he knew he was
playing second rate opponents, but he did it against big leaguers like
Jimmie Foxx and other people who he knew had extraordinary hitting
But he was out there to make a point, whether it was a point to the
opponents on how good he was, a point to his teammates on how good he
was, or a point to people who had made a racial slur, which is often
when he did this. He did it in a way that nobody else had ever conceived
of doing it in these situations before, and he talked about it more
often, and he fanned his own legend with it.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us our guest is Larry Tye. His new
biography of Satchel Paige is called, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an
American Legend." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Larry Tye.
He has a new biography of Satchel Paige. It's called, "Satchel." For
many years, various Major League owners had expressed an interest in
trying to get Satchel into a big league uniform. It didn't happen. Then
Jackie Robinson was the one who broke the color barrier when the
Brooklyn owners, Brooklyn Dodgers' owner, Branch Rickey, brought him in.
It was a big moment for America and, of course, for baseball. First of
all, why wasn't it Satchel?
Mr. TYE: It wasn't Satchel for a number of reasons. One reason was that
he was considered too unpredictable. He had - he was wonderfully
quotable. He would say things that were often outrageous and this is not
the kind of guy that Branch Rickey was looking for when he was looking
for the first ballplayer to integrate. He wanted somebody who was
controllable. He also wanted somebody who was cheap and Satchel was
demanding the kinds of dollars that Rickey didn't want to pay. But maybe
most all it was because of Satchel's age. When Rickey was looking
around, Satchel was 39 years old. He was, in 1945, having, for him, what
was a mediocre year, and it just didn't look like he was the guy to come
in and take this extraordinary barrier-bursting step of being the first
DAVIES: So when Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodger brings
Jackie Robinson in, how did Satchel feel about it?
Mr. TYE: At the beginning he did just what Rickey and everybody else
hoped he would do. He gave the perfect politically correct answer. He
said basically they didn't make a mistake by signing Robinson and they
couldn't have picked a better man. That was what he said to start with
but that's not what he really felt. Later his reaction was, I'm the guy
who started all that big talk about letting us in the big leagues. And
he said that being denied this chance to be the first was, as he put it,
when somebody you love dies or something dies inside of you. He knew
that the only reason Rickey turned to the Kansas City Monarchs, which is
where he found Jackie Robinson, was because Satchel had shined a
spotlight on the Kansas City Monarchs.
He knew that Jackie had started out that year as a second string second
baseman and was only playing with the Monarchs as a first stringer
because the second baseman had gotten injured, and he felt that Jackie
had never put in his time. He hadn't done the coast-to-coast
barnstorming. He didn't understand what it was really like to take the
incredible abuse that Satchel had been suffering for 20 years, and he
felt that it was something that he had earned and Jackie hadn't.
DAVIES: And what did Jackie Robinson think of Satchel Paige?
Mr. TYE: Not much. He thought that Satchel was really old school and
that he was the kind of guy who was unpredictable, who was a drinker and
a womanizer. He thought all the things essentially that Branch Rickey
did and he didn't have a whole lot of tolerance for the Negro Leagues
generally. Jackie had only been in the Negro Leagues for a while and he
was relatively disparaging of it and he didn't think a whole lot of this
symbol of the Negro League's legend, Satchel Paige.
DAVIES: One of the things you write when you're talking about this
moment, and you know, this story of race in America, is that Satchel
Paige looks a lot like Stepin Fetchit to many blacks of his era and
later ones. Now I guess first, for some listeners who've not, don't
really remember Stepin Fetchit, explain who he was and why Satchel Paige
evoked that character.
Mr. TYE: Stepin Fetchit was a guy who was a stage actor whose whole
routine was built around the notion of a shuffling subservient black
man. And it was something that at the time was popular in the black
community as well as the white community because he was an
extraordinarily good actor and he was clearly putting on this role. But
blacks were used to being in a subservient position and this was an
embarrassment to a lot of younger blacks just as Satchel Paige was. And
it was very sad to me because I think that Satchel understood the limits
of his putting on a shuffling personality and he understood that he was
- first, his attempt was with white fans to disarm them. To come in and
look like he was walking slowly, languidly to the mound, and to maybe
entertain them with throwing the balls over a matchbook or all of these
But once he had disarmed them, he dazzled them with his pitching. And
Jackie didn't understand that it was necessary to do both. The disarming
part, the idea of winning over an audience to get white fans there in
the first place was something that Jackie had never had to live through.
He came up at a time at the end of the Negro League era and he helped
open this door to integration that - he clearly had to suffer all kinds
of abuse, Jackie did, when he first integrated the Major Leagues, but
was a very different world that he was living in than the Jim Crow world
that Satchel had grown up in and spent 20 years as a star pitcher in.
DAVIES: So what he had to do was to first appear unthreatening and then,
by being a great athlete, win them over.
Mr. TYE: Absolutely. He had to appear unthreatening. And to people of a
later generation who are unschooled in that whole era of Jim Crow, it
looked like that he was bowing to white's expectations of blacks, when
in fact, he was exceeding and defying those expectations.
DAVIES: How conscious was his act in that way?
Mr. TYE: I think that it looked like a natural act and it looked like
this was something that sort of came easily to him. But I think that he
was very conscious about what he was doing. When he said to those teams
that they were playing, in these small towns across America, I won't
come there unless you will serve me and my players at your restaurants
and find a place for us to stay. He was in his own quiet way, very
openly defying the Jim Crow standards that he had grown up with. And it
was very difficult to do at that time. There were very few Negro
Leaguers with the statue or the courage to do it in the way the Satchel
did. And it was just a very difficult environment Satchel had come from.
DAVIES: For years, a few Major League owners had talked about trying to
get Satchel into a big league uniform. It didn't happen until after
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. But then finally Satchel gets
his chance at the age of 42. Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland
Indians signs him to a contract. After all these years, how did he
measure up in the big leagues?
Mr. TYE: Well, I want to just give you a couple of numbers - baseball is
all about numbers. And Satchel pitched for half a season. He helped take
the Indians to the pennant and eventually they won the World Series that
year. He ended up with a six and one record, which was the highest
percentage of wins of anybody on that pennant winning staff on the
Indians. He had an earned run average of 2.47, which is extraordinary in
these days or any day. It's extraordinarily low. It means that you score
only 2.47 runs on average for every nine innings you pitch, which means
you're giving your team a chance to win every time you're out there.
That was the second best ERA in the entire American League.
And at age 42, he actually won 12 votes from Associated Press writers as
Rookie of the Year.
DAVIES: He played for several teams - did some starting assignments and
did some relief assignments and did respectably and moved around, didn't
always fit in, didn't go by team rules as was his want. I mean, he was
Satchel Paige. And many years later in 1971, he finally makes - is
inducted in to the Hall of Fame after a long, long debate about whether
black players who'd accomplished things in the Negro Leagues deserved to
be at Cooperstown. Tell us about - what did it mean to Satchel to
finally make the Hall of Fame?
Mr. TYE: Well, first I ought to tell you that when he finally, in 1971,
made the Hall of Fame, he was the first player in the country to make
the Hall based not on his record in the Major Leagues, but based on his
record in the Negro Leagues. And this was an extraordinary honor. But
the Hall of Fame initially said we're going to bring you into the Hall
of Fame but we're going to put you in a separate corridor. And there was
such an outcry from the press and from fans who said, jeez, this guy had
to play his baseball in a segregated world. And you're now talking about
segregating the Hall of Fame - it's just amazing.
DAVIES: You mean there would be like - there would be the regular Major
League players and then there would be a separate room for Negro League
Mr. TYE: They would be. They would've had a separate and clearly unequal
room for Negro Leaguers. But Satchel led other people at that point
protest that. And what he said was this is the proudest moment of my
life. And it's just amazing. He was finally not just being able to play
in an integrated baseball world but he was being honored by the denizens
of baseball for all the years that he had played in the shadow world of
the Negro Leagues. And he eventually was put into - they broke down that
barrier, that notion of having a segregated area for the Negro Leaguers.
And he was in the real Hall of Fame with everybody else.
But he didn't care what part of it he was in. He just cared that finally
the white baseball world was acknowledging how great he had been in all
those years when they didn't pay attention to him.
DAVIES: He wanted to manage, never got to, right?
Mr. TYE: Correct. He wanted to manage, he dreamed of managing. He, in
his speech at the Hall of Fame and every time he was quoted in the white
press he said, I'm out here and I can manage. I know how to run a team
and nobody ever took him up on the offer to hire him as a manager.
DAVIES: Larry Tye's book is called, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an
American Legend." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Larry Tye. His new
biography of Satchel Paige is called, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an
American Legend." He pitched for as long as he could, in as many places
as he could. I mean and after the Majors there were the Minors and there
were exhibition games and all kinds of things. But eventually he reached
a point where he just - he didn't have - he wasn't a ballplayer anymore.
And I have to say, the last couple of chapters of his life were kind of
sad. What did he do?
Mr. TYE: What he did was, he would get in his old station wagon with the
mud on it and with all these years of having barnstormed in it, and he'd
get in and he'd try to find another place that would hire him. He
traveled up to Canada. He traveled to the plain states of the United
States - all these place where he had been before in his great glory
days. He would farm himself out, rent himself out to anybody that would
hire him. At one point, he was actually working on a team called the
Indianapolis Clowns. And he was working next to a guy who was only like
three-feet tall. He was working next to another guy who dressed up in a
He was playing in a way that for a man who had always been
extraordinarily proud, and who had traversed very carefully that line
between being a showman and a clown, he was now playing for a team that
was actually called The Clowns. And it was very sad in his later life.
He had to support his kids. He had seven kids. He had had them at an
older age. And the only way he knew how to make a living was as a
ballplayer. So, he went out and did it for anybody who would hire him.
He actually tried to run for a public office and lost as a state rep
from Kansas City.
He worked very temporarily as a deputy sheriff. All of these were
positions that he wasn't qualified for and that he realized it and knew
it. So, he kept going back to what he did best, which was pitching. And
he did it with less and less success.
DAVIES: Did he become angrier about the discrimination he'd suffered in
his life as it went on. And after all, I mean, he was a guy who was a
national celebrity who was broke?
Mr. TYE: He did. In his later years when there was less acknowledgement
of who he had been and what he had done, his famous edict - he had all
these rules that he lived by and things that became wonderful quotations
- the quotation that he was most known for, and that put him in
Bartlett's book of "Familiar Quotations," was the one: don't look back,
somebody might be gaining on you. And for most of his life he followed
that edict. What that meant to him was, you've got to go ahead and do
what you do. If you stop to feel sorry for yourself, if you stop to
bemoan how unfair the world is, you're never going to make it anywhere.
So, he was always pushing ahead and pushing forward and staying
positive. That became really difficult to do in his later life. And it
was only in the rare occasion where people would recognize him and would
toast him again that he was really able to get that forward looking. The
rest of time he would often sit around and bemoan his mistreatment. And
he had plenty of legitimate things to complain about.
DAVIES: You know, I wanted to find an example of Satchel Paige's voice.
And I did find a clip from, "What's My Line," the old game show at which
he was, you know, they would occasionally have the celebrity mystery
guest. And he came on it at some point in the 1970s. And I thought we'd
listen to just a little bit of after the panel has figured out who he
is, Arlene Francis and Sandy Dennis and Soupy Sales. And the host, Wally
Bruner is just talking to him a little bit. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of TV Show, "What's My Line")
Mr. WALLY BRUNER (Host, "What's My Line"): How many years did you pitch?
Can you tell us that Satchel?
Mr. SATCHEL PAIGE (Baseball Player): Well, I had pitched 42 years
altogether with grade school and in the Southern League up until I got
to the Major League in 1942. To tell you how many games I have pitched,
I couldn't tell you because I played one in summer, and I'd pitched
about a year. We had started in the spring and I've pitched in a game -
pitched as high as 160 ballgames, pitched in a game.
Mr. BRUNER: When did you finally wrap it up?
Mr. PAIGE: I've wrapped it up two years ago in Atlanta when I was with
Atlanta playing some exhibition games.
Mr. BRUNER: Well did Dizzy Dean really help, you know, break it down for
you, so you can get into the Majors?
Mr. PAIGE: Yes he did. When he first won the World Series he started to
barnstorm women talking about how great I was. And then the rest of
players got out - the tops like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and it
really helped me, it really helped me to get it.
Mr. BRUNER: Well, Satchel...
DAVIES: You know, the interesting thing when I watched that episode of
"What's My Line," and when the celebrities on the panel are talking with
Satchel Paige, they just clearly adore him and they can recite, you
know, pieces of his baseball career and sayings he had. And what it
tells you is that at least for a certain part of white America in the
1970s; he had come to represent something that touched the nation's
conscience of exclusion, about the way African-Americans had been
treated for so much of the 20th century.
Mr. TYE: Yes, and about greatness. He was - he touched America's - these
cords in America because they started out with the recognition that like
Paul Robeson in the theater or like Joe Louis in the boxing ring, he was
as great as they got and so with achievement. And then they could look
in sort of - look at the story behind him. To me Satchel Paige is in
fact two stories in one. It's the story of Satchel Paige, this great
ballplayer, and he's the ideal lens as well to look at the story of Jim
Crow's segregation in America. You have to start out by being absorbed
by this legendary ballplayer to take you in and let you look at the way
he told the much bigger story through his life.
DAVIES: Well, Larry Tye, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Mr. TYE: Thanks for having me.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Larry Tye is the author of, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American
Legend." It will be published in paperback in May.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show in our Web site
freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.
I'm Terry Gross.
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