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?

Advertisement

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?

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

He said he pitched 2,500 games, which would have been twice the major league record holder. Satchel’s include games played as a semipro and professional, in the Negro Leagues, on barnstorming tours, in Latin America and Canada as well as the United States, and in the major and minor leagues. He played spring and summer, fall and winter. He often threw just three or four innings a game, but he did it every day or couple of days for 41 years. By that schedule, pitching 2,500 games amounts to slightly more than 60 games a year, which does not seem high enough.

TR: Satchel Paige was in many ways a rascal. How much of that has contributed to his current obscurity, and how much of his current lack of renown (relative to, say, Jackie Robinson) owes to the lack of hard data and video of his accomplishments?

Advertisement

LT: Everyone loves a larger-than-life character, and Satchel was so large he was a fan favorite everywhere he went. Who could resist a star who openly boasted about having more than one wife and told anyone who would listen that he was the best ever, grinning as he said it? He was as good a storyteller as there was, and teammates, journalists and everyone else wanted to listen.

But … his roguishness also was a key factor in scaring away Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers when he came looking for a barrier-breaker to topple baseball's color barrier. It also made many journalists skeptical of Satchel's boasts and claims, even when they were indisputably true.

Advertisement

TR: Another Paige biographer, Mark Ribowsky, compared Paige to Miles Davis. What cultural figure do you think makes a good analogy for Paige?

LT: I think Paige was a lot like A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. DuBois and other early civil rights leaders who laid the groundwork for Martin Luther King Jr. Satchel did the same for Jackie.

Advertisement

Satchel was a racial pioneer. The evidence has always been there, but we never looked or saw. While many dismissed him as a Stepin Fetchit, if not an Uncle Tom, I hope my 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.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter