Thursday, December 10, 2009

Whitey Herzog's Teammate Satchel Paige was Something Else!

Slammin' Sam on Sports Media

For a couple months, I’ve been seeing Larry Tye’s “Satchel” pop up on top book lists everywhere. Now that Winter Meetings have pushed baseball near the front of the sports buffet line again, I thought I’d see if this book was worth reading. It is.

Here’s why:

1. Decades before one-named superstars like Junior, Pedro and ARod captivated a baseball fan’s consciousness in my generation, Satchel Paige would have held legions of baseball fans hostage if he only had the chance. What’s more, he might have blown these players’ stardoms out of the water. We will never know due to the scarcity of statistics for black players throughout the majority of Satch’s career. The very prism through which we examine today’s stars was virtually non-existent as far as blacks were concerned. All indicators lead author Larry Tye to agree with Paige’s assertion that the pitcher won close to 2,000, not merely 200 games, through his career.

2. Fortunately Paige inscribed an indelible impression on players like Joe DiMaggio, and ultimately, on Bob Feller.

“Satch has a curve with so many bends it looks like a wiggle in a cyclone: It gave me optical indigestion. And his fastball? Say, when he fires it, the catcher gets nothing but ashes!” DiMaggio said. (Satchel, 97)

Feller came to call his pitching counterpart one of the top five hurlers in the history of baseball.

Thing is, by the time Major Leaguers tasted Paige’s offerings, the Hurler with a capitol H had already dished out the main course. Paige bided his time with what was in front of him with barnstorming tours and 20 years of Negro League play. All but a few baseball fans with keen eyes and open minds presumed the best players were the ones in view.

Visionary Bill Veeck knew better, as much as he dismissed what he saw for years. He witnessed a tete a tete between Paige and Dizzy Dean years before deciding that he could not ignore Paige’s promise any longer. In 1948, after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby each leapfrogged Paige to break baseball’s color barrier, Veeck summoned Paige for his team’s pennant push. Lou Boudreau might have been hitting about .400 at the time, but “against Paige, he batted .000” (206) as if Paige issued a silent roar – “What took so long?”

3. If Big League props aren’t enough to entice you, then the fact that Satchel is probably the sport’s most fabled player should.

Seemingly every page of Larry Tye’s book contains a story as big and as mythical as Paul Bunyan. Except Satchel Paige is not the stuff of tall tales. He was the epitome of a man who made the best of what was in front of him and managed to leverage his circumstances. “They want me to be old,” Satchel said, “so I give ‘em what they want.” (x)

Larry Tye’s entertaining read provides something for every reader and plenty left over to come back a second time.

Sam Miller/Free Keon

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