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Satchel Paige: Unsung Hero


Yesterday, the latest group of baseball greats were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Two of them were African-American players, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice. And it was interesting to know how little their race actually seemed to matter. Not so for the first black baseball player to enter the Hall of Fame: Satchel Paige, a pitching legend in the Negro leagues long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of our national pastime. Not everybody remembers the name Satchel Paige, but everybody probably remembers some of the things he is believed to have said. Sayings like, don't look back, something might be gaining on you. And age is a question of mind over matter, if you don't mind it doesn't matter. Both are remarkably upbeat statements from a man who led a hard life and suffered deeply from the racism that marked his times.

Even in death, Paige seems to suffer from a certain neglect among baseball historians. Author Larry Tye is trying to change that. He has gone to great lengths to scour the record and separate hard fact from fiction to compile the recently published book "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend." And Larry Tye joins us now from Kansas City. Welcome. Thank you so much.

Mr. LARRY TYE (Author, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend."): Great to be with you.

MARTIN: How did he get the name Satchel?

Mr. TYE: There are, with everything about Satchel, at least two versions of the story. The one that he told is that when he was a kid, he was one of 12 kids in a very poor family in Mobile, Alabama, just as the Jim Crow segregation laws were coming onto the books. And to help his family earn a living, he had to go down at the age of 8 or 9 to the local L & N train station and lug suitcases for a dime a time. He realized that if he put together ropes and pulleys, he could string along three or four at once, earn three or four dimes. And a buddy saw him and dubbed him a walking satchel tree, and the name stuck. His buddy Wilbur Hines(ph) tells a slightly different story, which is rather than lugging suitcases, Satchel was filching them and that he, Wilbur, dubbed him Satchel for that reason.

MARTIN: Oh, dear. So what was his real name?

Mr. TYE: His real name Leroy Robert Paige.

MARTIN: And among his many spectacular achievements was coming back to pitch three innings at the age of 59 years old. But before we get to that, his age was long a matter of dispute as well, was it not?

Mr. TYE: His age was a wonderful mystery and as a longtime journalist, I thought it would be as simple as going back and looking at the government records. So, I dug up his Social Security record, his draft file and his passport record, which had three different dates. Those dates shared two things: They were all supplied by Satchel Paige, and they were all lies. The real story was as simple as his birth certificate sitting there in the Mobile County records department, which showed that he was born on July 7th, 1906. And I think that the reason Satchel was supplying all those different dates and having fun with them is that he understood that while the great white ball players of his era had journalists out there following their every move and fanning their legend, he had to create a bit of mystery about himself.

MARTIN: But was he, in fact, 59 when he pitched those three innings? I mean, is he in fact the oldest player ever to have pitched in the majors?

Mr. TYE: Fifty-nine years, two months and eight days. He's the oldest by a full two years, and it's a record that I think will never be broken.

MARTIN: And of course, I don't want to just focus on him at the end of his career. I think one of the wonderful things you do in the book is revive the beginning of his career, which many people will not have been familiar with. But just tell us about those famous innings and how he worked it.

Mr. TYE: Sure. I'd love to take you and your listeners back to Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, for those three innings in 1965. Charlie Finley, a real character who owned the Kansas City A's back then, couldn't fill his ballpark. So he figured bringing Satchel back would be enough of a spectacle that it would work.

He put him out near the bullpen in a rocking chair, with a nurse in a white uniform rubbing salve into his arm, and with his own water boy. And Finley had filled the stadium, and he didn't much care what Satchel did when he took the mound, but Satchel never let anybody write the last word.

He went out there, pitched three shut-out innings against the Boston Red Sox. The only guy to get a hit off him was the hard-hitting Carl Yastrzemski, who after the game gave Satchel an enormous bear hug. And that was because a full generation before, Yaz's dad had faced off against Satchel on Long Island in a semi-pro game. Satchel was the only player in the history of baseball who stuck around long enough that he could pitch against fathers and sons and even grandsons.

MARTIN: But it was a great moment. He obviously was a great showman.

Mr. TYE: He was an extraordinary showman, and I think the idea that he could go out there and put on these shows from his 20s into his 60s, and do it with such extraordinary vigor and class, was really amazing.

MARTIN: Besides his longevity, what else was great about him?

Mr. TYE: Let's start with his pitching. He had a ball that he threw so hard and so fast that catchers had to cushion their gloves with beefsteak so that their hands wouldn't be burning after the game. And he learned to pitch with such accuracy that teammates would actually stand there with lit cigarettes in their mouth - letting him, with his fastball, knock the cigarettes out of his mouth. That we know of, he never knocked out a ballplayer. He knocked out one cigarette after another, and that was extraordinary faith.

MARTIN: We're talking about these incredible moments of grace, of skill, but your book has an undercurrent of sadness, really beginning from the very first page, just the acknowledgements page, which I am going to read.

You dedicate the book to Negro League veterans. I'll just read it: To Buck O'Neil, Silas Simmons and the other Negro League veterans who enthusiastically shared with me their stories about Satchel but did not live to see them told.

And there is, throughout the book, a sense of wistfulness about opportunities that these men did not have because of their race.

Mr. TYE: It's true, and Silas Simmons was a great case study of that. Silas Simmons was a guy whose 111th birthday I went to. He had a party in Tampa, Florida, and this guy, at 111, was still able to tell extraordinary stories of the earliest days of racial segregation in baseball.

They told stories of this experience of Negro League baseball. This was black society of the era. It was a place where red caps and postal workers and Pullman porters sat side by side for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, where they could put aside all the humiliation they had to endure during that era of segregation, and they could enjoy great baseball.

MARTIN: One of the remarkable things about Satchel Paige was his longevity but was also his amazing athletic ability. Why, then, was Jackie Robinson the one chosen to break the color barrier in baseball? Why wasn't it Satchel Paige, and was he bitter about that? Was he angry about that?

Mr. TYE: He was indeed, and Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was looking for a guy to break the color barrier who was a college guy and who would do just what he said and say what he told him to. Satchel Paige was 39 back then. He was not having the best season of his life but most importantly, he was a guy whose very being was something that ran counter to this teetotaling conservative, Branch Rickey.

Satchel was not about to go spend two years in the minors the way that Jackie did, and he was not about to say just what anybody told him to say. And when he heard that Jackie Robinson had been signed and not him, his first reaction was the perfect politically correct one. He said, you couldn't have picked a better guy.

He went on to say: It should have been me. I was the one who brought the white press and white America in to see how good the Negro Leagues were. I was the one who shone the spotlight on my all-black Kansas City Monarchs, and I was the reason that Branch Rickey even knew about this rookie second baseman named Jackie Robinson.

MARTIN: He was amazingly popular. We happened to find this clip from when he was on "What's My Line?" and here it is.

(Soundbite of television program, "What's My Line?")

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, he's well-known in the sports world. Is that because you are a champion, or you have been a champion?

Unidentified Man #2: I don't think you could ever call this gentleman anything else.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: And finally, I don't even want to ask this question because I don't want you to burst my bubble, but you've gone to such lengths to separate fact from fiction, to clear up some of these mysteries that he, as you point out, himself perpetuated, you know, for his own legend. But some of the sayings that we know best, that we attribute to him, did he actually say those things? Did he make those sayings up himself?

Mr. TYE: He said and he did at least 80 percent of what he claimed, and that's enough for anybody for a lifetime.

MARTIN: Larry Tye is the author of "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend." He joined us from NPR member station KCUR in Kansas City. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. TYE: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.