TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You can get an argument about it, but some believe the greatest pitcher who ever lived was Leroy Satchel Paige. In his prime, it's said his fastball was so terrifying, some opposing batters called in sick.
In the 1940s, writes Larry Tye, no one was better known or move beloved among black Americans than Satchel - not Joe Louis, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington - because Paige was unstoppable on the mound and because he played and lived with such style and charm.
Satchel Paige played his best seasons before baseball was integrated. So he didn't get the years and records in the big leagues he might have. But he is in the Hall of Fame and holds the record for being the oldest player ever to throw a pitch in the Majors at age 59.
Larry Tye says there's another story in Paige's rich and colorful life, about race in America and how Satchel's barnstorming through American towns brought black and white fans and players together long before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.
On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to hear that story. FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Larry Tye last June about his biography called "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend."
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Larry Tye, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I thought we might begin by asking you to just paint a little bit of a picture of Satchel Paige in his prime. If someone went to the ballpark, say in the '30s, when he really had his career going, just give us a little bit of a sense of sort of what they would see, what made him distinctive and special.
Mr. LARRY TYE (Author, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend"): Before the game even started, everybody knew that you wanted to come out early and watch Satchel. And what you wanted to watch was he would set up on home plate a set of matches, and he'd set up this tiny little matchbook, and he'd proceed to throw eight out of 10 pitches directly over the book.
Some days, it might have been a postage stamp. Some days, it might have been a gum wrapper. It was tiny objects, and he did that for two reasons. One was to delight fans, and it always delighted fans, and they always showed up early to watch him do something like that. The other was he knew that opponents - whether it was a Negro League team or local barnstormers who had never seen him before - were there early as well.
They knew this was the legendary Satchel Paige, and they were watching what he was doing. And when you watched him burn these fastballs in with this pinpoint accuracy that he could actually get it directly over a book of matches, it started giving you precisely the second thoughts that Satchel knew these shows would do. So he was somebody you came early to watch, and you always got the show before the show.
DAVIES: His walk to the mound was even distinctive, right?
Mr. TYE: It was. He actually did what was more like a shuffle than a walk. He knew that the game couldn't start until he got there, and he was darn well going to take his time getting there, again letting fans absorb this magic of this guy who had arms so long that it looked like they were touching the ground, who had legs so long that he had to take really large steps just to avoid tripping over his own legs and who was distinctive and elegant enough that anybody who watched had to pay attention and had to be struck by him.
DAVIES: And his windup and delivery was like no one else's, too, right?
Mr. TYE: It was, indeed. It was the famous Satchel Paige pose, which was winding up, it could be a single, a double or a triple-windmill windup. And imagine what a windmill does, turning over and over. Satchel could pitch underhanded, he could pitch sidearm, and he could pitch a standard overhand.
Whatever he was doing, it looked like his leg went so high up into the air that it blacked out the sky. His arm was so long that it looked like it was in the pitcher's face by the time he released the ball, and he had a kind of catapult release that sent the ball in at speeds that people - they had no radar guns then - but that people said had to be 100 to 105 miles an hour.
DAVIES: So amazing athlete but a real performer - almost a circus act.
Mr. TYE: Yeah, a circus act that understood that there was a thin line between entertaining a crowd and demeaning himself, and he would never take it to the point where he was doing anything to demean himself. But he also understood that Negro League baseball was something that, to attract fans - and he attracted extraordinary numbers of fans, record numbers of fans - to attract fans, you had to be more than just a brilliant pitcher. You had to be a showman, as well. He was as sensational a showman as I've ever seen or read or heard about in the entire game of baseball.
DAVIES: All right, let's talk about his early life. He was born, what, 1906? Is that the established date now?
Mr. TYE: That is the established date. He was actually born on July 7th, 1906.
DAVIES: In Mobile, Alabama, a coastal city, where - and it's interesting that you describe in the book that it was a place of considerable racial tolerance before the turn of the century but became a hard-bitten and segregated place. Tell us a little about kind of his family and early life.
Mr. TYE: Sure. He was one of 12 children. He was the seventh of 12 children, and his early life was a situation where his dad was almost never around. His dad was somebody who liked to call himself a landscaper, and what he in fact was, was a gardener, and generally an unemployed gardener.
His mom was a washer-woman who took in laundry from white families across Mobile and tried to make a living, but with 12 mouths to feed and with no real help from her husband, his mom had a really difficult time.
So all the kids from a very early age were taught that they had to: A, get used to having nothing; and B, for whatever they did have in terms of food or anything else, they had to go out and earn it themselves, and he was out there at the age of nine, 10, 11, at the railway station doing things that a redcap would do. He was actually pulling people's bags. He was collecting a dime or a quarter per bag, and that's where his name, Satchel, came from.
He had discovered a system that he could use pulleys and ropes to carry two, three, sometimes even four bags at a time. And the way that he talked about where his name came from was that friends looked at him and said you look like a walking satchel tree, and the name stuck immediately. But as with everything with him, there were three or four versions of the story.
DAVIES: There were also stories that you found of his skill at hurling things, even as a young kid, and this sort of brings up something that you've run into, I'm sure, again and again when you're researching his life, is that he did such prodigious things at a time when there weren't the kind of records and videos and Internet stuff that there are now to document them. It must be hard to separate legend from fact. But what did you come to believe about what he'd done as a kid that proved he had an amazing arm?
Mr. TYE: I came to believe that the stories that people told, enough of them came from his friends who were eyewitnesses, and even taking account for all the embellishments Satchel did and other people did, I think he had an extraordinary ability to aim a rock or a brick or a baseball and get it to its target with the kind of speed that was just beyond the pale.
One of the things that he was able to do as a kid was, with a rock, he was able to, at the distance of a pitching mound, knock down a chicken. He was able to hit a squirrel. He was able to do extraordinary things, but he was best, and he really showed his skills as a young boy when he was part of a group of kids who lived near him, and they'd take on rival gangs of kids. And Satchel was famous not just for being able to hit the kid just where he wanted to but in developing something that became his style when he became a pitcher later on, what he called the hesitation pitch.
If you were looking at the kids who you were trying to have this rock-throwing contest with, and if you threw the rock at them, it was natural that they would duck and that you'd often miss them. So what he did was he'd lift his arm and start to fling it, and he'd stop midway through, and they ducked, and he'd wait for them to duck, and then they were literally a sitting duck, and he'd hit them, and that was what he did with batters over the years. His hesitation pitch was hesitating mid-delivery and then throwing it in a way that threw the batter off-stride the same way it did the kids he was throwing rocks at.
DAVIES: Now a critical turning point in his life was - you know, he got into some petty crime, stole enough stuff that he was finally sent away to a reform school, Mount Meigs - am I saying that right?
Mr. TYE: You are.
DAVIES: Yeah. Now tell us about this institution and its, you know, its place in the sociology of America at the time.
Mr. TYE: Sure. The shortened name for the school was Mount Meigs because that's where it was, in Mount Meigs, Alabama. The actual title of the school, to me, said a lot about what was going on behind its walls. It was called the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers. And the school was set up along the style dictated by Booker T. Washington, which was the movement of black self-help.
Booker T. Washington believed that segregation was going to last, that there was no point in contesting this Jim Crow system. It was incumbent upon young boys like Satchel Paige to learn how to get along with it, and so it taught them industriousness. He was working in the fields. He was milking cows.
He was working from the time he got up in the morning to the time he went to bed at night. But what he also got to do in that time was do some athletics, and they had the kids doing everything from playing baseball to running around just to burn off steam.
And Satchel learned during that time at Mount Meigs that he had an extraordinary ability to throw a baseball, and he had a coach there who recognized that ability and saw that this could be the key to saving Satchel from the life of crime that he had entered into as a teenager and that had gotten him into Mount Meigs.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Larry Tye. His new book is "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Larry Tye. He has a new biography of Satchel Paige. It's called "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend."
So Satchel Paige gets out of this reform school with a new sense of sort of discipline, self-worth and some more-disciplined baseball skills than he'd gone into. And soon, he's getting paid to play ball in, you know, Negro League teams in Chattanooga and Birmingham. Tell us a little bit about that life. He was away from home as a young man. What was the life like?
Mr. TYE: Sure. Let me tell you first of all what the life of the Negro Leagues was like. This was a time where men in the community, particularly on Sunday afternoons when the premier games were being played, would come out in straw hats and patent leather shoes. Ladies would take out their high heels, their white gloves, their fur stoles. Ministers actually, for these games, would let people out of church early on Sunday so no one was late, including them. Everybody wanted to go there.
This was black society then. Black ball was black society, and Satchel Paige was in the center of that world. The featured pitching duel of the week was always on Sunday, and Satchel Paige was always in the center of that Sunday matchup. He spent his life partly in that Negro League's world pitching against other teams with extraordinarily skilled black athletes.
He spent the week - often during the week when there weren't Negro League games going on, he'd be out there barnstorming around the country. And what that meant was going to any small town that would have him and playing against - whether it was a semi-pro team or whether it was just a bunch of farmers who took an evening off and put on a baseball glove and picked up a bat, they all wanted to play. Satchel knew that was a way to earn money, and he'd play anybody, anytime he could.
The normal top athletes, the normal top baseball players in the country who were playing in the Major Leagues or in the white Minor Leagues, might play, if they were a pitcher, pitch every third, fourth, fifth day. Satchel was pitching every day. He was out there exercising his arm, trying to earn a living, doing it perpetually, and this was what life was like for black ballplayers, and it was like - what life was like for Satchel Paige, who was the best of them.
DAVIES: At this point, you know, Satchel was moving around the country, he and other Negro League players, in a segregated world. What kind of hardships and discrimination did that present?
Mr. TYE: It presented the risk that any time you went into a new town in the South where there was this system of very strict Jim Crow racial segregation, that if you walked into the wrong restaurant, or you used the wrong bathroom, that you could - and they were - often arrested. Players on Satchel's team and on lots of other Negro League teams were shot at. They watched lynchings happen.
There was the risk of having to put up with extraordinary abuse in terms of fans yelling racial slurs of them, all the way to the risk of losing their life because it was a time when blacks were afforded few legal rights and where knowing the particular byways of Jim Crow in every small town you went was essential for a guy like Satchel to stay alive.
DAVIES: You write that he was known for moving around a lot. He would go on these barnstorming tours. He would go to Latin America. And he would also walk out on contracts if some other team offered him a better deal. He was an early athlete entrepreneur. And there's a fascinating point in his story where he ends up in, of all places, Bismarck, North Dakota. Tell us what brought him there.
Mr. TYE: Sure, what brought him there again was what brought him anywhere that he went, which was the enticement of money. He had walked out on his owner of the Pittsburgh Couriers, one of the great Negro League teams. He had just gotten married. He was in need of extra money, and a white owner named Churchill in this town where there might have been two or three blacks living, and in the entire state of North Dakota maybe a handful, Satchel came in and was extraordinary.
He did exactly what this guy Churchill had wanted. He led the Bismarck team to an extraordinary number of victories, particularly over this nearby town, Jamestown, North Dakota. And Satchel was not the first Negro-Leaguer to go to Bismarck, but he was the one who brought attention - the Negro Leagues, of the national press and of everybody else - to what was going on in these far-away communities, that there was great baseball happening in out-of-the-way parts of America and that there was great integrated baseball happening a decade and more before the Major Leagues ever became integrated.
It was part of - for him, it was a way of earning money. For the country, it was a way of testing out how integration might look on a ball field long before the Major League owners were ready to integrate their teams.
DAVIES: And how did it work? How did he get along with his white teammates? How did the white fans in Bismarck react to him?
Mr. TYE: He was extraordinary. All he would have to do, as one of the very few blacks in town and as the only one who was this incredibly long and elegant figure - everybody in Bismarck knew him. He was a celebrity in town.
He started out having no idea how people would really react to him. And he actually - when he first came to town, he had to rent out an old boxcar that was on the side of the railroad tracks as a place to live because finding housing was a really difficult thing for him to do there.
Very soon, he became a celebrity in town. People would rent their homes to him and open up their hearts and their wallets. They bet on him. The owner of the Bismarck team made a lot of money by making side bets on whether Satchel would win or not, and he always won. And he took Bismarck to this regional tournament that Bismarck, at that time, was the best team, semi-pro level, in the country, in large because of Satchel Paige.
DAVIES: Now as his fame grew, and as this barnstorming, these sort of ad-hoc games and, you know, and tours, which would pit him sometimes against white teams or local teams, grew, he ended up getting some white major-leaguers involved collaborating on some of these barnstorming tours. How did that happen?
Mr. TYE: It happened with - first with - Dizzy Dean was the most famous of the great white, star athletes who decided to team up with Satchel, and Dizzy and Satchel realized that if they traveled around the country - and they did travel all over the country playing games against one another - that it would attract two kinds of people.
It would attract all the people who just wanted to see the greatest of black and white baseball play against one another, and it also attracted people who had a problem with the notion of integration and wanted to see a face-off between black heroes and white heroes and saw it almost as a little bit of a race battle or war.
They were willing to tap into whatever people's motivations were for coming. What they knew was that they could draw large numbers of fans, and they made a fortune on the thing.
DAVIES: So these white players and black players played out of mutual self-interest. There was money to be made. But it had - you know, it had social implications and impacts, and I want to talk about that a little bit.
I mean, one thing was that the white players got - they had to at least have some interaction with these ballplayers as they planned the trips and as they played. Did that change, do you think, white attitudes about black ballplayers among the players, among the umpires, among the coaches in it?
Mr. TYE: I think it changed them extraordinarily, and I think that the -you don't have to look any further than Dizzy Dean to see that. Dizzy Dean was a good old boy who wasn't beyond all kinds of racial slurs that were a part of his natural language, and he grew to adore Satchel. He had - they would try to out-do one another not just pitching on the field but telling stories.
And there was a great story once in Dayton, Ohio, where Dizzy hit a blooper to first base and ended up making his way eventually to third base with nobody out. And fans started yelling for Dizzy when he was on third base and wanted him to score, and Satchel, in his wonderful way, he would always decide to just sort of take a temporary respite from his time on the mound and go out and talk to people who were on the bases.
The umpires let him get away with extraordinary things, and he walked over to Dizzy, and he said I hope your friends brought plenty to eat because if they're waiting for you to score, they'll be here past dark. You ain't going no further.
Nobody out at the time, and Satchel proceeded, like he always did: He would boast, and then he would back up his boast. He fanned the next three ballplayers, and Dizzy was stranded there on third base. Dizzy said - and again, this is this good old boy who had no love for blacks generally and really had never known any black the way he did Satchel. Dizzy said that if Satch and I played together, we'd clinch the pennant by the Fourth of July, and we could go fishing till the World Series. He said between us, we'd win 60 games.
So they had this extraordinary friendship, and yet there was another dimension to it. And the dimension that essentially when they got done with their barnstorming games, Dizzy would go back to Broadway, and Satchel would go back to Outer Mongolia, playing in the Negro Leagues, where very few people were watching him. And Satchel said they used to say that Diz and I were about as alike as two tadpoles, but Diz was in the Majors, and I was bouncing around the peanut circuit.
And he watched all of these guys who he made friends with - whether it was Dizzy Dean or Bob Feller or Joe DiMaggio - he watched them take off and their careers soar, and he watched himself stuck playing in this shadow world when he knew he was their equal. He had proven it on the baseball field.
GROSS: Larry Tye, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Davie Davies. Tye is the author of "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend." We'll hear more of their interview in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Larry Tye about his biography of Satchel Paige. Paige played his best years before Major League Baseball was integrated. But Tye writes that Paige's barnstorming baseball teams that travelled through American towns in the 1930s often brought black and white fans and players together.
Tye spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies last summer.
DAVIES: What about the interaction among fans? And the fact that you know these Negro ballplayers would move into town, to go through towns, and they constantly confronted finding places to eat, finding places to stay. Did their interactions with fans and others who knew they were, after all you know guys of some note, in some cases celebrities, did that help to break down, or at least soften any racial barriers in the towns they played?
Mr. TYE: It did two different kinds of things. In some towns it absolutely softened the racial barrier. Satchel, part of his condition for bringing his barnstorming team to a town, and this is where I think he was a quiet racial pioneer, he said, I'm not going to bring them to town unless there's somewhere for them to stay and somewhere for them to eat. And this was in these all-white towns, particularly when he was barnstorming through the South, it presented a huge challenge at that time because there often weren't places where they could stay or eat. But he wouldn't come unless there were and he sort of set that as a condition.
And at times watching him on the ball field, I think had the affect in terms of people that I talked to who were part of those games and people in the towns that watched him come through, had the affect - the way he dazzled them off the field ended up translating, if not breaking down their racial stereotypes, at least softening things. And at other times it did nothing like that. At other times, he would play on the field with them and then try to go into their store after the game. The very people who were there watching him and cheering for him wouldn't serve him. So it was both, being sort of pushing these racial limits at times proved incredibly productive, and at other times it was amazingly frustrating for him. And for a guy who never let himself get down, at times he just couldn't help it.
DAVIES: And he made quite a lot of money really going back even to the 20s and spent it just as quickly, right? He loved cars. He loved great suits, right?
Mr. TYE: He did. In fact, in the 1940s he was making $40,000 a year. And to put that into context, it was four times what the average player on the New York Yankees was making. It was precisely what the Bronx Bombers were paying Joe DiMaggio. It was twice what Ted Williams, the batting champ, was making. He was making extraordinary amounts of money. He was making enough money that he actually had one closet just for his shoes, four closets for his suits. He had a black Lincoln, a blue Caddy, a jeep, a Chevy truck, two trailers, four cameras, 15 shotguns.
It was amazing what he had done in terms of the money that he was able to accrue. The difference though between what he was making and what the great white stars of that era were making was that he had to work year-round and pitch nearly every night, whereas, if you were a white Major Leaguer, like DiMaggio or Williams, you took the winter off.
DAVIES: And yet these wonderful stories about how him - when he would get into a hotel room would often put up a Coleman stove and fry catfish in the room. Is this real?
Mr. TYE: It is real. And he had an extraordinary appetite for everything from fried catfish to barbecue, to all kinds of things that, given that he had a bad stomach, were really difficult for him. When he finally made it to the Major Leagues his roommate couldn't stand being in the room with him because he - there were these incredible smells. There were the safety risks of sort of plugging in his Coleman stove. He was a character and he fed his appetites for food and for drink the same way he did for women, which was to wonderful excess.
DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about his as a ballplayer. I mean we've already described his unique delivery, huge, long arms, big legs, huge high leg kick, and then a delivery which had all different kinds of variations. He actually had a lot of colorful names for his pitches, right?
Mr. TYE: He did indeed. And the - he called his pitches everything from bloopers, loopers and droopers to his wonderful barber pitch, which was where he intended to give a batter a razor shave if they stayed in - if they stepped in too close. He had what he called his tiddy pitch where he nipped the chest of the opposing hitter. He had a nightmare pitch which he said he had stayed up all night dreaming up. He had his fastest pitch was a Long Tom. His slightly softer pitch was a Little Tom.
He could pitch a curveball in his later years with great accuracy. He could pitch a knuckleball. But the extraordinary thing with all of his names his catcher said they're all really the same thing. He's got a faster pitch, he's got a little bit slower pitch, and in his early days that was all he needed. He then refined it later with his curveball and his knuckleball. But in the early days it was fast, faster, and fastest.
DAVIES: He was also a real student of the game, right?
Mr. TYE: He was indeed. And he had an amazing memory. Not for the faces of the opposing batters, but from their batting stance. And one day Bill Veeck, who was the owner who brought him to the Major Leagues in his Cleveland - for his Cleveland Indians team and later rescued him and brought him back to other teams, Veeck had a photographer snap shots of 25 hitters standing in a batter's box with just their hips showing. He painted out all the ID marks and showed this picture of just the, sort of, from the chest down to all the pitchers on his team.
Satchel picked 18 of them out. He could identify them just from their batting stance, and the next best of Veeck's pitchers got just six. This was - Satchel knew what was important. And the faces were interesting to know who they were, but all that really mattered was their batting stance because that was the way he could identify how they were going to hit against him and remember how to pitch them so they couldn't hit against him.
DAVIES: Somebody with that kind of eye for detail and memory would make a great coach or a manager which, of course, he was never allowed to do because once baseball was integrated, it was a long time before blacks were allowed to manage.
Mr. TYE: No. He was only brought in as a pitching coach briefly for the Atlanta Braves when they had just moved to Atlanta. And this was because the owner of the Braves was rescuing him. He needed another year to qualify for Major League pension so he was brought in for this time. But Satchel had always said to baseball, you give me all these honors, show what you really mean, if you are truly willing to integrate and hire me as a manager. That was his dream and nobody ever offered. Veeck had actually said at one point that he would pay half the salary if somebody would bring Satchel in as a manager and still he got no offers.
DAVIES: One more baseball story we have to talk about - and this is something I've never seen, I've never seen anything remotely like this in my life of watching baseball. And that is Satchel, for - to demonstrate how good he was, or to win a bet, or to humiliate an opponent, would actually have his fielders leave the game and let him finish off the batter alone?
Mr. TYE: He did indeed. The first time he did it was when he was in Mobile playing with a semi-pro team called the Down the Bay Boys. And his teammates had made three straight errors and he basically wanted to show them up. Even though the bases were loaded and he was leading just one to nothing, there were two outs in the ninth inning, and he said come on in to the outfielders. And they sat around in the infield while he had these batters facing him and the - knowing that any pitch hit out of the infield was an automatic homerun: so, two outs in the ninth, batter up, three strikes, point made.
He did it again and again sometimes with just the outfielders. They'd sit around on the infield talking to one another, playing poker or at least pretending to. Sometimes he actually had not just his outfielders sit down, but he brought in his infielders and left the entire field with just he and his catcher. And he did it not just when he knew he was playing second rate opponents, but he did it against big leaguers like Jimmie Foxx and other people who he knew had extraordinary hitting prowess.
But he was out there to make a point, whether it was a point to the opponents on how good he was, a point to his teammates on how good he was, or a point to people who had made a racial slur, which is often when he did this. He did it in a way that nobody else had ever conceived of doing it in these situations before, and he talked about it more often, and he fanned his own legend with it.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us our guest is Larry Tye. His new biography of Satchel Paige is called, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Larry Tye. He has a new biography of Satchel Paige. It's called, "Satchel." For many years, various Major League owners had expressed an interest in trying to get Satchel into a big league uniform. It didn't happen. Then Jackie Robinson was the one who broke the color barrier when the Brooklyn owners, Brooklyn Dodgers' owner, Branch Rickey, brought him in. It was a big moment for America and, of course, for baseball. First of all, why wasn't it Satchel?
Mr. TYE: It wasn't Satchel for a number of reasons. One reason was that he was considered too unpredictable. He had - he was wonderfully quotable. He would say things that were often outrageous and this is not the kind of guy that Branch Rickey was looking for when he was looking for the first ballplayer to integrate. He wanted somebody who was controllable. He also wanted somebody who was cheap and Satchel was demanding the kinds of dollars that Rickey didn't want to pay. But maybe most all it was because of Satchel's age. When Rickey was looking around, Satchel was 39 years old. He was, in 1945, having, for him, what was a mediocre year, and it just didn't look like he was the guy to come in and take this extraordinary barrier-bursting step of being the first to integrate.
DAVIES: So when Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodger brings Jackie Robinson in, how did Satchel feel about it?
Mr. TYE: At the beginning he did just what Rickey and everybody else hoped he would do. He gave the perfect politically correct answer. He said basically they didn't make a mistake by signing Robinson and they couldn't have picked a better man. That was what he said to start with but that's not what he really felt. Later his reaction was, I'm the guy who started all that big talk about letting us in the big leagues. And he said that being denied this chance to be the first was, as he put it, when somebody you love dies or something dies inside of you. He knew that the only reason Rickey turned to the Kansas City Monarchs, which is where he found Jackie Robinson, was because Satchel had shined a spotlight on the Kansas City Monarchs.
He knew that Jackie had started out that year as a second string second baseman and was only playing with the Monarchs as a first stringer because the second baseman had gotten injured, and he felt that Jackie had never put in his time. He hadn't done the coast-to-coast barnstorming. He didn't understand what it was really like to take the incredible abuse that Satchel had been suffering for 20 years, and he felt that it was something that he had earned and Jackie hadn't.
DAVIES: And what did Jackie Robinson think of Satchel Paige?
Mr. TYE: Not much. He thought that Satchel was really old school and that he was the kind of guy who was unpredictable, who was a drinker and a womanizer. He thought all the things essentially that Branch Rickey did and he didn't have a whole lot of tolerance for the Negro Leagues generally. Jackie had only been in the Negro Leagues for a while and he was relatively disparaging of it and he didn't think a whole lot of this symbol of the Negro League's legend, Satchel Paige.
DAVIES: One of the things you write when you're talking about this moment, and you know, this story of race in America, is that Satchel Paige looks a lot like Stepin Fetchit to many blacks of his era and later ones. Now I guess first, for some listeners who've not, don't really remember Stepin Fetchit, explain who he was and why Satchel Paige evoked that character.
Mr. TYE: Stepin Fetchit was a guy who was a stage actor whose whole routine was built around the notion of a shuffling subservient black man. And it was something that at the time was popular in the black community as well as the white community because he was an extraordinarily good actor and he was clearly putting on this role. But blacks were used to being in a subservient position and this was an embarrassment to a lot of younger blacks just as Satchel Paige was. And it was very sad to me because I think that Satchel understood the limits of his putting on a shuffling personality and he understood that he was - first, his attempt was with white fans to disarm them. To come in and look like he was walking slowly, languidly to the mound, and to maybe entertain them with throwing the balls over a matchbook or all of these things.
But once he had disarmed them, he dazzled them with his pitching. And Jackie didn't understand that it was necessary to do both. The disarming part, the idea of winning over an audience to get white fans there in the first place was something that Jackie had never had to live through. He came up at a time at the end of the Negro League era and he helped open this door to integration that - he clearly had to suffer all kinds of abuse, Jackie did, when he first integrated the Major Leagues, but was a very different world that he was living in than the Jim Crow world that Satchel had grown up in and spent 20 years as a star pitcher in.
DAVIES: So what he had to do was to first appear unthreatening and then, by being a great athlete, win them over.
Mr. TYE: Absolutely. He had to appear unthreatening. And to people of a later generation who are unschooled in that whole era of Jim Crow, it looked like that he was bowing to white's expectations of blacks, when in fact, he was exceeding and defying those expectations.
DAVIES: How conscious was his act in that way?
Mr. TYE: I think that it looked like a natural act and it looked like this was something that sort of came easily to him. But I think that he was very conscious about what he was doing. When he said to those teams that they were playing, in these small towns across America, I won't come there unless you will serve me and my players at your restaurants and find a place for us to stay. He was in his own quiet way, very openly defying the Jim Crow standards that he had grown up with. And it was very difficult to do at that time. There were very few Negro Leaguers with the statue or the courage to do it in the way the Satchel did. And it was just a very difficult environment Satchel had come from.
DAVIES: For years, a few Major League owners had talked about trying to get Satchel into a big league uniform. It didn't happen until after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. But then finally Satchel gets his chance at the age of 42. Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians signs him to a contract. After all these years, how did he measure up in the big leagues?
Mr. TYE: Well, I want to just give you a couple of numbers - baseball is all about numbers. And Satchel pitched for half a season. He helped take the Indians to the pennant and eventually they won the World Series that year. He ended up with a six and one record, which was the highest percentage of wins of anybody on that pennant winning staff on the Indians. He had an earned run average of 2.47, which is extraordinary in these days or any day. It's extraordinarily low. It means that you score only 2.47 runs on average for every nine innings you pitch, which means you're giving your team a chance to win every time you're out there. That was the second best ERA in the entire American League.
And at age 42, he actually won 12 votes from Associated Press writers as Rookie of the Year.
DAVIES: He played for several teams - did some starting assignments and did some relief assignments and did respectably and moved around, didn't always fit in, didn't go by team rules as was his want. I mean, he was Satchel Paige. And many years later in 1971, he finally makes - is inducted in to the Hall of Fame after a long, long debate about whether black players who'd accomplished things in the Negro Leagues deserved to be at Cooperstown. Tell us about - what did it mean to Satchel to finally make the Hall of Fame?
Mr. TYE: Well, first I ought to tell you that when he finally, in 1971, made the Hall of Fame, he was the first player in the country to make the Hall based not on his record in the Major Leagues, but based on his record in the Negro Leagues. And this was an extraordinary honor. But the Hall of Fame initially said we're going to bring you into the Hall of Fame but we're going to put you in a separate corridor. And there was such an outcry from the press and from fans who said, jeez, this guy had to play his baseball in a segregated world. And you're now talking about segregating the Hall of Fame - it's just amazing.
DAVIES: You mean there would be like - there would be the regular Major League players and then there would be a separate room for Negro League players.
Mr. TYE: They would be. They would've had a separate and clearly unequal room for Negro Leaguers. But Satchel led other people at that point protest that. And what he said was this is the proudest moment of my life. And it's just amazing. He was finally not just being able to play in an integrated baseball world but he was being honored by the denizens of baseball for all the years that he had played in the shadow world of the Negro Leagues. And he eventually was put into - they broke down that barrier, that notion of having a segregated area for the Negro Leaguers. And he was in the real Hall of Fame with everybody else.
But he didn't care what part of it he was in. He just cared that finally the white baseball world was acknowledging how great he had been in all those years when they didn't pay attention to him.
DAVIES: He wanted to manage, never got to, right?
Mr. TYE: Correct. He wanted to manage, he dreamed of managing. He, in his speech at the Hall of Fame and every time he was quoted in the white press he said, I'm out here and I can manage. I know how to run a team and nobody ever took him up on the offer to hire him as a manager.
DAVIES: Larry Tye's book is called, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Larry Tye. His new biography of Satchel Paige is called, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend." He pitched for as long as he could, in as many places as he could. I mean and after the Majors there were the Minors and there were exhibition games and all kinds of things. But eventually he reached a point where he just - he didn't have - he wasn't a ballplayer anymore. And I have to say, the last couple of chapters of his life were kind of sad. What did he do?
Mr. TYE: What he did was, he would get in his old station wagon with the mud on it and with all these years of having barnstormed in it, and he'd get in and he'd try to find another place that would hire him. He traveled up to Canada. He traveled to the plain states of the United States - all these place where he had been before in his great glory days. He would farm himself out, rent himself out to anybody that would hire him. At one point, he was actually working on a team called the Indianapolis Clowns. And he was working next to a guy who was only like three-feet tall. He was working next to another guy who dressed up in a clown's uniform.
He was playing in a way that for a man who had always been extraordinarily proud, and who had traversed very carefully that line between being a showman and a clown, he was now playing for a team that was actually called The Clowns. And it was very sad in his later life. He had to support his kids. He had seven kids. He had had them at an older age. And the only way he knew how to make a living was as a ballplayer. So, he went out and did it for anybody who would hire him. He actually tried to run for a public office and lost as a state rep from Kansas City.
He worked very temporarily as a deputy sheriff. All of these were positions that he wasn't qualified for and that he realized it and knew it. So, he kept going back to what he did best, which was pitching. And he did it with less and less success.
DAVIES: Did he become angrier about the discrimination he'd suffered in his life as it went on. And after all, I mean, he was a guy who was a national celebrity who was broke?
Mr. TYE: He did. In his later years when there was less acknowledgement of who he had been and what he had done, his famous edict - he had all these rules that he lived by and things that became wonderful quotations - the quotation that he was most known for, and that put him in Bartlett's book of "Familiar Quotations," was the one: don't look back, somebody might be gaining on you. And for most of his life he followed that edict. What that meant to him was, you've got to go ahead and do what you do. If you stop to feel sorry for yourself, if you stop to bemoan how unfair the world is, you're never going to make it anywhere.
So, he was always pushing ahead and pushing forward and staying positive. That became really difficult to do in his later life. And it was only in the rare occasion where people would recognize him and would toast him again that he was really able to get that forward looking. The rest of time he would often sit around and bemoan his mistreatment. And he had plenty of legitimate things to complain about.
DAVIES: You know, I wanted to find an example of Satchel Paige's voice. And I did find a clip from, "What's My Line," the old game show at which he was, you know, they would occasionally have the celebrity mystery guest. And he came on it at some point in the 1970s. And I thought we'd listen to just a little bit of after the panel has figured out who he is, Arlene Francis and Sandy Dennis and Soupy Sales. And the host, Wally Bruner is just talking to him a little bit. Let's listen.
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Mr. WALLY BRUNER (Host, "What's My Line"): How many years did you pitch? Can you tell us that Satchel?
Mr. SATCHEL PAIGE (Baseball Player): Well, I had pitched 42 years altogether with grade school and in the Southern League up until I got to the Major League in 1942. To tell you how many games I have pitched, I couldn't tell you because I played one in summer, and I'd pitched about a year. We had started in the spring and I've pitched in a game -pitched as high as 160 ballgames, pitched in a game.
Mr. BRUNER: When did you finally wrap it up?
Mr. PAIGE: I've wrapped it up two years ago in Atlanta when I was with Atlanta playing some exhibition games.
Mr. BRUNER: Well did Dizzy Dean really help, you know, break it down for you, so you can get into the Majors?
Mr. PAIGE: Yes he did. When he first won the World Series he started to barnstorm women talking about how great I was. And then the rest of players got out - the tops like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and it really helped me, it really helped me to get it.
Mr. BRUNER: Well, Satchel...
DAVIES: You know, the interesting thing when I watched that episode of "What's My Line," and when the celebrities on the panel are talking with Satchel Paige, they just clearly adore him and they can recite, you know, pieces of his baseball career and sayings he had. And what it tells you is that at least for a certain part of white America in the 1970s; he had come to represent something that touched the nation's conscience of exclusion, about the way African-Americans had been treated for so much of the 20th century.
Mr. TYE: Yes, and about greatness. He was - he touched America's - these cords in America because they started out with the recognition that like Paul Robeson in the theater or like Joe Louis in the boxing ring, he was as great as they got and so with achievement. And then they could look in sort of - look at the story behind him. To me Satchel Paige is in fact two stories in one. It's the story of Satchel Paige, this great ballplayer, and he's the ideal lens as well to look at the story of Jim Crow's segregation in America. You have to start out by being absorbed by this legendary ballplayer to take you in and let you look at the way he told the much bigger story through his life.
DAVIES: Well, Larry Tye, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Mr. TYE: Thanks for having me.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Larry Tye is the author of, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend." It will be published in paperback in May.
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GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show in our Web site freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.
I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Hall of Famer Satchel Paige started his career pitching in the Negro leagues and later became a Major League star. Author Larry Tye spotlights the player who helped integrate the sport, touring the country and playing exhibition games with white players, in the book Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend.
Satchel Paige was a dazzling pitcher with a scorching fastball. A decade before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball, Paige helped integrate the sport by touring the country and playing exhibition games with white players.
He delighted crowds by walking out onto the field before the game and throwing a fastball repeatedly over a matchbook or a postage stamp set on home plate.
Larry Tye, the author of the biography Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, describes Paige's pre-game performance as the show before the show.
"[Satchel was] a circus act that understood that there was a thin line between entertaining a crowd and demeaning himself, and he would never take it to the point where he was doing anything to demean himself," Tye says.
Tye describes the challenges of playing and touring for the Negro leagues in the days of Jim Crowe.
"Players on Satchel's team and on lots of other Negro league teams were shot at. They watched lynchings happen. ... Knowing the particular byways of Jim Crow in every small town you went was essential for a guy like Satchel to stay alive," Tye says.
Despite his talents, Paige was also repeatedly passed over because of his race. Even after his baseball career ended, Paige never got to realize his dream of managing a baseball team.
In 1971, he was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first player to make the hall based on his career in the Negro leagues.
This interview was originally broadcast on June 8, 2009.