Satchel knew that, despite being the fastest, winningest pitcher alive, being black meant he never would get the attention he deserved. That was easy to see in the backwaters of the Negro Leagues but it remained true when he hit the Majors at age forty-two, with accusations flying that his signing was a mere stunt. He needed an edge, a bit of mystery, to romance sportswriters and fans. Longevity offered the perfect platform. "They want me to be old," Satchel said, "so I give 'em what they want. Seems they get a bigger kick out of an old man throwing strikeouts." He feigned exasperation when reporters pressed to know the secret of his birth, insisting, "I want to be the onliest man in the United States that nobody knows nothin' about." In fact he wanted just the opposite: Satchel masterfully exploited his lost birthday to ensure the world would remember his long life.While Tye digs deep — the book's bibliography and end notes are both at least 35 pages long, and he interviewed more than 200 Negro League and major league opponents and teammates — and lays waste to some of the tall tales surrounding Paige, what emerges is an altogether more nuanced and ultimately more compelling version of the ageless pitcher. Some of Paige's embellishments, such as his account of his pitching the championship finale for Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1937, don't stand up to the light of day. Others, such as the masterful control which allowed him to throw the ball over a chewing gum wrapper with amazing consistency or his brazen penchant for calling in his outfielders and then getting the crucial strikeout(s), he finds well-documented.
It was not a random image Satchel crafted for himself but one he knew played perfectly into perceptions whites had back then of blacks. It was a persona of agelessness and fecklessness, one where a family's entire history could be written into a faded bible and a goat could devour both. The black man in the era of Jim Crow was not expected to have human proportions at all, certainly none worth documenting in public records or engraving for posterity. He was a phantom, without the dignity of a real name (hence the nickname Satchel), a rational mother (Satchel's mother was so confused she supposedly mixed him up with his brother), or an age certain ("Nobody knows how complicated I am," he once said. "All they want to know is how old I am."). That is precisely the image that nervous white owners relished when they signed the first black ballplayers. Few inquired where the pioneers came from or wanted to hear about their struggles. In these athletes' very anonymity lay their value.
Playing to social stereotypes the way he did with his age is just half the story of Satchel Paige, although it is the half most told. While many dismissed him as a Stepin Fetchit if not an Uncle Tom, this 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.
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