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Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend

Satchel Paige: the biography of an ace pitcher and racial trailblazer.

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When the Saturday Evening Post, America’s most popular magazine, published a four-page article on him in 1940, Paige was a household name and one of the most famous African-Americans of the day.

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“The formula was always the same,” Tye says of Paige’s recipe for attracting fans by the tens of thousands. “Use humor to disarm those who think they hate you, then dazzle them with your talent.... White onlookers loved that he was unthreatening and unstoppable, blacks loved that he could lick the finest that whiteball threw against him.”

Paige’s shtick played into popular, highly negative stereotypes of black behavior. Were his Stepin Fetchit-type antics really “his way of bucking the system” and “a brilliantly defiant parody” deliberately concocted to combat racism, as the author suggests? That is a stretch, but Tye makes a very convincing argument for Paige’s important and underrecognized role as a trailblazer in race relations and a force for integration.

In the 1930s, Paige played for an integrated team in Bismarck, N.D., showing that black and white players could play, not just on the same field, but even on the same team, without dire consequences. For many years in the 1940s, Paige headed an all-star team of black players that went on hugely lucrative barnstorming tours against white all-star teams, headed first by Dizzy Dean and later by Bob Feller.

There is no doubt that pitting a black team against a white team added an extra element of crowd-pleasing drama to the contests, but the games also demonstrated that the best of the Negro League players were every bit as skilled as their white major-league counterparts.

“In his own way,” writes Tye, “he was as important a race trailblazer as any who surfaced in that era of baseball or America.”

As pressure built for organized baseball to integrate, most assumed Paige would be the first African-American player to cross the line. When that honor – and burden – fell to Jackie Robinson, Paige was resentful. But he got his turn the next year, signing with the Cleveland Indians and helping them win the 1948 American League pennant.

It may have been Jackie Robinson who finally opened the door, but, as Negro League veteran Minnie Minoso put it, it was Satchel Paige who inserted the key.

David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo. 

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