It was a fastball wrapped in a riddle that first drew me to Satchel Paige. I was an adolescent baseball fanatic and had grown up hearing that Satchel was the most overpowering and artful pitcher who ever lived. The stories were enchanting but they were not backed up by the won-lost records, earned-run averages, and other vital statistics that students of the game like me needed to decide for ourselves. I wanted to know more.
It was that same blend of icon and enigma that drew me back to Satchel thirty-five years later. I was writing a book on the Pullman porters called Rising from the Rails, and the venerable African-American railroad men I interviewed reignited my memories and my interest. They had watched Satchel play in his heyday in the 1930s, had talked to him when he rode the train, and told riveting tales of his feats on the diamond and off. Yet the more I probed, the clearer it became how thin their knowledge was of this towering talent. Everyone knew about him but no one really knew him.
That is understandable. Satchel Paige was a black man playing in an obscure universe. Few records were kept or stories written of his games in the strictly-segregated Negro Leagues, fewer still of his barnstorming through America’s sandlots and small towns. Did he really win three games in a single day and 2,000 over a career? Was he confident enough in his strikeout pitch to actually order his outfielders to abandon their posts? Could he really have been better than Walter Johnson, Cy Young, and the other all-time marvels of the mound? In a game where box scores and play-by-play accounts encourage such comparisons, the hard data on him was elusive. That helps explain why, while fourteen full-fledged biographies have been published of Babe Ruth and eleven of Mickey Mantle, there is only one on Satchel, who was at least as important to baseball and America.
To fill in that picture I tracked down more than two hundred veteran Negro Leaguers and Major Leaguers who played with and against Satchel. His teammate and friend Buck O’Neil told me about the Satchel he knew, a pitcher who threw so hard that catchers tried to soften the sting by cushioning their gloves with beefsteaks, with control so precise that he used a hardball to knock lit cigarettes out of the mouths of obliging teammates. Hank Aaron had his own Satchel stories, as did Bob Feller, Orlando Cepeda, Whitey Herzog, and Silas Simmons, a patriarch of black baseball whom I spoke with the day he turned 111. I talked to Leon Paige and other aging relatives in Mobile. In Kansas City, I heard Robert Paige and his siblings publicly share for the first time their recollection of their father. I retraced Satchel’s footsteps from the South to the Midwest to the Caribbean, visiting stadiums where he had pitched, rooming houses where he stayed, and restaurants where he ate in an era when a black man was lucky to find any that would serve him. I watched him in the movies and read everything written about him in books, magazines, and newspapers, thousands of articles in all. Researchers helped me recheck statistics and refute or confirm his claims on everything from how many games he won (probably as many as he said) to how many times he struck out the mighty Josh Gibson (not quite as many as he boasted).
Along the way I untangled riddles like the one about how old Satchel was. It was the most-argued statistic in sports. The answer depended on who was asking and when. In 1934 the Colored Baseball & Sports Monthly reported that Satchel was born in 1907. In 1948 he was born in 1901 (Associated Press), 1903 (Time), 1908 (Washington Post, New York Times, and Sporting News), and 1904 (his mother). The Cleveland Indians hedged their bets after signing him in 1948, writing in their yearbook that Satchel was born “on either July 17, Sept. 11, Sept. 18 or Sept. 22, somewhere between 1900 and 1908.” Newsweek columnist John Lardner took him back further, saying that Satchel “saved the day at Waterloo, when the dangerous pull-hitter, Bonaparte, came to bat with the bases full.”
The mystery over Satchel’s age mattered because age matters in baseball. It is a way to compare players, and to measure a player’s current season against his past performance. No ballplayer gave fans as much to debate about, for as long, as Satchel Paige. At first he was Peter Pan, forever young, confoundingly fast, treacherously wild. Over time his durability proved even more alluring. After a full career in the Negro Leagues he broke through to the Majors in 1948, helping propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series at the over-the-hill age of forty-two. He still holds the record as the game’s oldest player, an honor earned during one last go-round at an inconceivable fifty-nine. He started pitching professionally when Babe Ruth was on the eve of his sixty-home-run season in 1926; he still was playing when Yankee Stadium, the “House that Ruth Built”, was entering its fifth decade in 1965. Over that span Satchel Paige pitched more baseballs, for more fans, in more ballparks, for more teams, than any player in history.
With kids who watched Satchel getting to watch him a generation later with their kids and grandkids, it was natural to wonder how old the pitcher was. Satchel obliged with tales that grew more fantastic with each retelling. Proof of his birth date was in the family bible. Unfortunately, his grandfather was reading that bible under a chinaberry tree when a wind kicked up, blowing the Good Book into the path of the family goat who ate it. His draft record showed he was born September 26, 1908, his Social Security card had August 15, 1908, and his passport file indicated February 5, 1908. The three dates shared one thing: all were supplied by Satchel.
The truth was simpler and more complex. Pinning down Satchel’s date of birth should have been a straightforward matter of checking public records in his native Mobile, but in the post-Reconstruction Confederacy it was easier to track the bloodline of a pack horse than of a Negro citizen. Until 1902, descendents of slaves in Mobile were included in neither the city census nor the city directory. Even when they finally did enter into the accounting, it was with caveats. Like Satchel and his eleven sisters and brothers, most blacks were delivered not in an operating room at the hospital but in a bedroom at home, so health authorities had to rely on the family filing notice of the birth. Recordings that did make it into the official directories were accompanied by a “B” for black or “C” for colored.
All that might have made Satchel doubt whether Mobile officials ever got word of his birth and accurately registered it. Or it might have until he signed with Cleveland in 1948, and owner Bill Veeck did what Satchel could have done, and may have, years earlier. Veeck traveled to Mobile to get to the bottom of the elusive age issue. He contacted SatchelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mom Lula, who dispatched e Satchel’s nephew Leon Paige to accompany the Indians owner and his entourage to the County Health Department. “They saw his birth certificate,” Leon says. “They knew [Lula] had twelve children and they knew when they were born.” In Satchel’s case, the registry was clear: the baby was a boy, his race was Colored, and his date of birth was July 7, 1906.
So why the ruses?
Satchel knew that, despite being the fastest, winningest pitcher alive, being black meant he never would get the attention he deserved. That was easy to see in the backwaters of the Negro Leagues but it remained true when he hit the Majors at age forty-two, with accusations flying that his signing was a mere stunt. He needed an edge, a bit of mystery, to romance sportswriters and fans. Longevity offered the perfect platform. “They want me to be old,” Satchel said, “so I give ’em what they want. Seems they get a bigger kick out of an old man throwing strikeouts.” He feigned exasperation when reporters pressed to know the secret of his birth, insisting, “I want to be the loneliest man in the United States that nobody knows nothin’ about.”
In fact he wanted just the opposite: Satchel masterfully exploited his lost birthday to ensure the world would remember his long life.
It was not a random image Satchel crafted for himself but one he knew played perfectly into perceptions whites had back then of blacks. It was a persona of agelessness and fecklessness, one where a family’s entire history could be written into a faded bible and a goat could devour both. The black man in the era of Jim Crow was not expected to have human proportions at all, certainly none worth documenting in public records or engraving for posterity. He was a phantom, without the dignity of a real name (hence the nickname Satchel), a rational mother (Satchel’s mother was so confused she supposedly mixed him up with his brother), or an age certain (“Nobody knows how complicated I am,” he once said. “All they want to know is how old I am.”). That is precisely the image that nervous white owners relished when they signed the first black ballplayers. Few inquired where the pioneers came from or wanted to hear about their struggles. In these athletes’ very anonymity lay their value.
Playing to social stereotypes the way he did with his age is just half the story of Satchel Paige, although it is the half most told. While many dismissed him as a Stepin Fetchit if not an Uncle Tom, this book makes clear that he was something else entirely, a quiet subversive, defying Uncle Tom and Jim Crow. Told all his life that black lives matter less than white ones, he teased journalists by adding or subtracting years each time they asked his age, then asking them, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” Relegated by statute and custom to the shadows of the Negro Leagues, he fed Uncle Sam shadowy information on his provenance. Yet growing up in the Deep South he knew better than to flaunt the rules openly, so he did it opaquely. He made his relationships with the press and the public into a game, using insubordination and indirection to challenge his segregated surroundings.
His stagecraft was so successful that it amazed even him. He pitched spectacularly enough, especially when his teams were beating the best of the white big leaguers, that white sportswriters turned out to watch black baseball. He proved that black fans would fill ballparks, even when those parks had concrete seats and makeshift walls, and that white fans would turn out to see black superstars. He barnstormed here and in the Caribbean alongside Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, and other Caucasian champions, winning them over to him and to the notion that Negro Leaguers could really play ball. He drew the spotlight first to himself, then to his Kansas City Monarchs team, and inevitably to the Monarchs’ rookie second baseman Jackie Robinson.
The truth is that Satchel Paige had been hacking away at Jim Crow decades before the world got to know Jackie Robinson. Satchel laid the groundwork for Jackie the way A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. DuBois, and other early Civil Rights leaders did for Martin Luther King Jr. Paige was as much a poster boy for black baseball as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was for black music and Paul Robeson was for the black stage — and much as those two became symbols of their art in addition to their race, so Satchel was known not as a great black pitcher but a great pitcher. In the process Satchel Paige, more than anyone, opened to blacks the national pastime and forever changed his sport and this nation.
Baseball player Satchel Paige sitting alone on the ground, resting his sore feet. (Photo by George Silk//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)