'Satchel' Recalls The Iconic Pitcher Who Helped Integrate Major League Baseball
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Baseball is back, for now at least. And many major league teams this year are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, which gave African Americans a place to showcase their talents before the game was integrated.
Today we'll listen to my interview with author Larry Tye about a man some believe was the greatest pitcher who ever lived - Leroy "Satchel" Paige. It's said that his fastball in his prime was so terrifying, some opposing batters called in sick. In the 1940s, Tye writes, no one was better known or more beloved among Black Americans - not Joe Lewis, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington - because Satchel 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's 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 Satchel'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. Tye's biography is called "Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: 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.
LARRY TYE: 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?
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?
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 his 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 that sent the ball in at speeds that people - they had no radar guns then - but that people said had to be at least 100 to 105 miles an hour.
DAVIES: So amazing athlete, but a real performer - almost a circus act.
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, he 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?
TYE: That is the established date. He was actually born on July 7, 1906.
DAVIES: In Mobile, Ala., 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.
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 washerwoman 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 9, 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 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?
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?
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.
TYE: Sure. The shortened name for the school was Mount Meigs because that's where it was - in Mount Meigs, Ala. 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 a 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 recognize 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: Larry Tye's book is "Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend." We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA RIFKIN'S "SCOTT JOPLIN'S NEW RAG")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, we're listening to my 2010 interview with author Larry Tye about Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige. His book is called "Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: 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?
TYE: Sure. Let me tell you, first of all, what the life of the Negro leagues was like then. 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 Leagues 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?
TYE: It presented the risk that anytime 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 at them, all the way to the risk of losing their life because it was a time 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: Now, 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 at his story where he ends up in, of all places, Bismarck, N.D. Tell us what brought him there.
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 at 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 Black people living - 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, N.D.
And Satchel was not the first Negro Leaguer to go to Bismarck, but he was the one who brought attention of the Negro Leagues, of the national press and of everybody else to what was going on in these faraway 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 ballfield 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?
TYE: He was extraordinary. 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 box car 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 part 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 some of these barnstorming tours. How did that happen?
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 attract people - 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 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, you think, white attitudes about Black ballplayers among the players, among the umpires, among the coaches?
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 ole 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 outdo one another not just pitching on the field but telling stories.
And the - 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 'cause 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 that, if Satch and I played together, we'd clinch the pennant by the Fourth of July, and we could go fishing until 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 the shadow world, when he knew he was their equal. He had proven it on the baseball field.
DAVIES: Larry Tye's book is "Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend." We'll hear more after a break. And our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, will remember journalist and author Pete Hamill, who died Wednesday. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOC CHEATHAM AND SAMMY PRICE'S "SQUEEZE ME")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues, and we're listening to my 2010 interview with Larry Tye about his biography of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige. Paige played his best years before major league baseball was integrated, but Tye writes that Satchel's barnstorming baseball teams that traveled through American towns in the 1930s often brought Black and white fans and players together.
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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? 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?
TYE: It did two different kinds of things. In some towns, it absolutely softened the racial barriers. 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. He sort of set that as a condition.
At times, watching him on the ball field, I think had the effect - 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 effect - 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?
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.
He - 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: Let's talk a little bit about him 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 pitchers, right?
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 titty 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?
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 these 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 'cause 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 manager, which of course he was never allowed to do.
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 a 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 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 better alone.
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 in 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: Larry Tye's book is "Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "IF I WERE A BELL")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, we're listening to my 2010 interview with author Larry Tye about Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige. His book is called "Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: 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?
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 of 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: 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?
TYE: Well, I want to just give you a couple 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 6-1 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 into the Hall of Fame after a long, long debate about whether Black players who had 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?
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, geez, 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.
TYE: There would be.
TYE: They would have had a separate and clearly unequal room for Negro Leaguers. But Satchel let 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?
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: He pitched for as long as he could in as many places as he could. I mean, 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?
TYE: What he did was he would get in his old station wagon with the mud on it and with all these years having barnstormed in it. And he'd get in, and he'd try to find another place that would hire him. He'd travel up to Canada. He'd travel to the plains states of the United States - all these places 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 to a guy who was only, like, 3 feet tall. He was working next to another guy who dressed up in a clown's uniform. And it was very sad in his later life. He had to support his kids. He had seven kids. He had had them in 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 public office and lost as a state rep in - 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: 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 she - he came on 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHAT'S MY LINE?")
WALLY BRUNER: How many years did you pitch? Can you tell us that, Satchel?
SATCHEL PAIGE: Well, I 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 winter and summer. And I've pitched about a year where it started in the spring, and I pitched in a game - pitched as high as 160 ballgames, pitched every day.
BRUNER: When did you finally wrap it up?
PAIGE: I wrapped it up two years ago in Atlanta when I was with Atlanta, playing some exhibition games.
BRUNER: Well, did Dizzy Dean really help, you know, break it down for you so you could get into the majors?
PAIGE: Yes, he did. When he first won the World Series, he started to barnstorm to women, talking about how great I was. And then the rest of the players got on to it - the tops like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. And it really helped me to get in.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Satchel...
DAVIES: You know, the interesting thing when I watched that episode of "What's My Line?" - and when these 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 of his. 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 about exclusion and about the way African Americans had been treated for so much of the 20th century.
TYE: Yes, and about greatness. He was - he touched America's - these chords 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 was achievement. And then they could look and 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 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 a much bigger story through his life.
DAVIES: Larry Tye, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
TYE: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Larry Tye's book is "Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend." Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan remembers writer Pete Hamill, who died on Wednesday. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.