While Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend is a book about baseball and one of the greatest pitchers of all time, this is a book about America. Satchel Paige’s incredible career stretched from 1927 to 1965. During the early part of his career, Paige was forced to pitch in the Negro Leagues. Author Larry Tye takes the reader on a journey to what it was like in segregated America. It was not a pretty picture. Racism was not confined to the South. Segregation was a fact of life for most of the country.
Even though there was not a written policy that prohibited whites and blacks from playing professional baseball together, the Major League owners had an unwritten policy that kept America’s Pastime segregated. This forced black players to play in together in the Negro Leagues. Many of these players made a good living playing professional baseball. While the best black players were making money, their frustration was that many of them were good enough to be playing on the same fields with white and Hispanic players.
Satchel understood that taking Jim Crow on would be suicidal, so he let his extraordinary baseball skills be his voice. His skill and exploits became well known, even among white fans. After the regular season was over every year for both the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues, both white and black players would travel and play exhibition games all over America. This allowed baseball fans, no matter the color of their skin, to see the best players, no matter the color of their skin, playing together. This allowed both the black and the white players to guage their skill as they played against each other. Satchel was a brilliant pitcher, no matter who he was pitching against.
Eventually, Satchel would get his chance to play in the Major Leagues. He was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1948 after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball. Paige was 42 years old when he made his Major League debut. Even though Cleveland picked him up late in the season, Paige finished with a 6-1 record and a 2.47 ERA. His best season in the Major Leagues was in 1952. At 46 years of age, Satchel compiled a 12-10 record and a respectable 3.07 ERA.
Satchel’s lifetime statistics are as good as any of the best pitchers of all time. The problem is that they are so incomplete. The Negro Leagues kept stats, but there are holes. Most newspapers did not carry boxscores for Negro League games. Satchel pitched in hundreds of exhibitions that left no score sheets behind. There were two years, 1938 and 1939, in which the author could find no stats at all on Paige, even though he had played both of those years. In spite of these challenges, the author was able to compile these numbers on Satchel Paige. He won 278 games and only lost 135 and recorded 3242 strikeouts.
Satchel is a good read. The author treats his subject with respect but does not airbrush his character flaws. There is also some interesting discussion on many other great baseball players including Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Hank Aaron and many others. Satchel was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971 to permanently take his place beside the greatest of all time.
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