Finding Satchel

The Root talks with author Larry Tye about his new book, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Did this baseball Hall of Famer live up to the lore?


Baseball great Satchel Paige may be one of the most underrated black athletes of the 20th century. For many, he is known mostly for his longevity—in 1965, at the age of 59, plus or minus, he pitched in the major leagues. But at the top of his game, he was equal to any ballplayer who ever lived. In addition, his role as a groundbreaker in the struggle for civil rights has now been obscured.

Larry Tye, the author of Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class (Holt, 2005), aims to correct that with the exceptional new book, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House). Tye details the remarkable life of Satchel Paige and the changing racial climate in America that the Hall of Famer helped bring about. Last week, he answered questions from The Root.

The Root: Was there an “aha” moment when you were doing your research on Pullman porters that you realized that you had to write a biography of Satchel Paige?

Larry Tye: Yes. The porters told me about the amazing African-American icons they carried on their trains, from Joe Louis to Louis Armstrong to Paul Robeson. Their favorite, however, was Satchel Paige. This made me realize that Satchel probably was the most popular black man in America in the 1930s and ’40s. He was a sensational athlete, and a magical presence, and he pitched more baseballs, for more fans, in more ballparks, for more teams, than anyone in the history of baseball.

TR: Paige told numerous exaggerated tales of his feats. How hard was it sorting out the data from the lore, and what proved to be the most reliable approach to doing it?

LT: It was the most challenging task I have undertaken in 20 years of journalism and 10 of writing books—and the most fun. I tracked down every old black-oriented newspaper I could find that had covered him, along with stories in papers in the hundreds of towns where he had barnstormed. I read everything magazine writers had written on him, and authors. The most reliable approach, however, was interviewing old Negro leaguers and major leaguers who had played with or against him, some 200 in all. I trusted their accounts, which are shaded by time passed and legends they were repeating, only when I heard the same story repeated by independent sources.

TR: How did it flesh out?

LT: The amazing thing was that about 80 percent of his claims proved to be true. He said he called in his outfielders to sit in the infield while he dared a batter to try and hit the ball out of the infield, and he did that more, again and again, against second-rate opponents and top-notch ones, when the game was on the line, and almost always with success. Sometimes he had his infielders sit, too.