Mon March 28, 2005
Satchel Paige's America
Satchel Paige talks freely and candidly in this memoir by William Price Fox. He discusses baseball past and present, finances and, of course, Alabama.
By Don Noble
In the early 1970s, novelist William Price Fox of South Carolina met with Satchel Paige, perhaps the best pitcher ever to play baseball, in the Twilight Zone Lounge of the Rhythm Lanes Bowling Alley in Kansas City.
Fox was there to interview Paige, who was 64, for a piece for Holiday Magazine, which he did.
For several days, Fox and Paige talked constantly, or, to be more accurate, Paige talked constantly and Fox, who was not using a tape recorder, snuck off as often as he could and wrote it down, as close to word for word as he could.
This book is actually Satchel Paige's story, not, as the title might suggest, a sociological treatment of America. It is really a monologue, and a very entertaining one.
Paige made his major league start pitching for the Cleveland Indians in 1948, but baseball people agree, if he had not been forced to play in the segregated Negro Leagues through most of his career, he would hold all the pitching records in the majors.
Leroy "Satchel" Paige began life in Mobile, Alabama. Born in 1908, Leroy was the seventh of 11 children, the son of a gardener. Dirt poor, as a little boy he scavenged bottles to wash and sell to bootleggers and then carried satchels for passengers at the Mobile train station.
Paige developed his arm by passing the time throwing rocks at trees, signs, birds, white bullies, and so on, then played ball for the W. H. Council School in Mobile. After being arrested for shoplifting in a five-and-ten-cent store on the 24th of July, 1918, he was sent to the Mt. Meigs Industrial School for Negro Children.
But he says, "I'll tell you the gospel truth on that one, the Meigs wasn't bad, wasn't bad at all. What they did there was try and find out what you liked to do, and then let you do it." At Mt. Meigs, Paige took up singing and, of course, pitching. After his release, he played in Mobile, Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.
Paige is unequivocal about the quality of the Negro League.
"In the 30s and 40s, any team in the Negro League could beat any white major league team any day of the week and twice on Sunday."
Sometimes Paige himself pitched every day of the week and twice on Sunday! It is thought he appeared in 5,000 games and racked up about 250 shut-outs and more than 25 no-hitters. No one else anywhere comes close.
Paige is, of course, the ultimate "character." He appeared in a Hollywood movie with Robert Mitchum and Julie London. He traveled with medicine shows, boxed with Sugar Ray Robinson, and sang and danced with Bojangles, who was best man at one of his weddings.
Paige loved to tell stories, and most of them were true, or, at the very least, entertaining.
Of baseball club owners and how they treat players, he says, "Guess what the elephants sang when they danced with the chickens? Every man for himself. Every man for himself."
At times, Paige made heaps of money. During one year he owned 40 tailored suits and 30 pairs of custom-made shoes, but other times he was broke, pawning his belongings for gas money and living once in a boxcar in North Dakota.
Paige admitted, "I have trouble holding onto the old green."
Throughout this entire 142-page book, all one hears and then all one can remember is Paige's voice, that endless, storytelling voice.
And though Paige himself probably didn't realize it, there is an element of Zen archery in his pitching advice.
"Aiming takes care of itself. You know when you aim real hard at something, right there's your guaranteed way to miss . . . forget that aiming business and just let it take care of itself."
Now that's some good advice, little butterfly.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.