'If You Were Only White'
The Life of Leroy 'Satchel' Paige
University of Missouri Press 2012
Of all American sports, baseball has contributed the greater number of folk heroes to the larger culture. Fictional characters of awe-inspiring ability, like the mighty Casey and Roy Hobbs, or quirky sages such as Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra are broadly known in a way that few representatives of other sports are. And one of baseball’s great folk heroes–a man of both extraordinary talent and peculiar sagacity–is Satchel Paige. As a pitcher in the Negro Leagues and the barnstorming circuits of the Twenties and Thirties, Paige’s exploits on the field were the stuff of legend. Rearing back his tall, lanky body, with a double and sometimes triple wind-up of his arm, Paige would unload rocket pitches that buzzed like a bee as they flew past the batter. There were innings when Paige would tell his fielders to sit down, or even stay on the bench. He didn’t need fielders when the batters weren’t even close to hitting his pitches. But Paige also understood that fans not only wanted to see impressive displays of prowess. They wanted to be entertained. So he cultivated a nonchalant, even lazy persona on the field. He taunted batters from the mound. And as the years passed, he cast himself as the wizened old man of baseball, dispensing homespun proverbs such as: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
The problem with legendary figures like Satchel Paige is that their accomplishments are often buried under an accumulation of exaggerations and fables. In his biography of Paige, historian Donald Spivey digs through the mythology to present the first scholarly account of the great pitcher’s life. The result of more than a decade of research, “If You Were Only White”: The Life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige (University of Missouri Press, 2012) shows that, even without embellishment, Paige’s life was epic, sometimes turbulent, and often humorous. From the Alabama reform school where Paige learned to throw a baseball to the black teams of the South that endured Jim Crow at every stop, from high-paying stints in North Dakota and the Dominican Republic to his World Series-winning season with the Cleveland Indians as a 42-year-old “rookie,” the story of Satchel Paige roams far and wide. But it is more than a colorful tale. As Don argues, Paige’s ability to draw large crowds of black and white fans, and a talent that drew praise from white Major Leaguers, were important factors in eroding the segregation of baseball. While Jackie Robinson is hailed as the man who broke the color line in 1947, it was the wide popularity of Satchel Paige in the Thirties and Forties that set the stage for him.