Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend by Larry Tye

When I think of legends, I think of St. Patrick or Pocahontas. These legendary figures lived in less documented times that allowed oral embroidering of their stories. Some of their well-told tales are, of course, improbable or impossible, such as St. Patrick chasing all the snakes out of Ireland. Because these stories are so good and speak to human emotions, however, they survive - at least until some biographer comes along, digs into the historical records, and reveals a more likely story. (Notice that I did not say the "true" story.) While debunking legends may sound like a formula for dismal reading, it has in fact yielded some fascinating books, such as St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography by Philip Freeman and Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat by Paula Gunn Allen. These books have a bit of mystery, a dose of author sleuthing, and surprisingly good characters revealed.

Modern times are not conductive to the emergence of new legends. To find any, the seeker has to get away from well-documented life and into overlooked places where "left behind" people gather. The ballparks of Negro League Baseball during the 1920s to 1940s were just such places, breeding grounds for many legendary characters. According to journalist Larry Tye in his book Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, Leroy "Satchel" Paige was the most famous of the legendary black ballplayers. He certainly spawned the greatest number of folktales.

Did Satchel Paige really wave his outfielders away and then strike out three opposing batters with the bases loaded? Yes, several times in varying circumstances against different opposing teams. Did he ever get burned by his flare for the dramatic? Yes. Did the fans adore him? Yes, even when he behaved poorly. Did he truly follow his rules for staying young? Now there is a really good question. The proponent of clean living was often seen with a drink and smoke.

While fans and many teammates worshiped Paige, managers often wanted him off the team. He broke almost every team rule without regret, as owners often paid manager-imposed fines for him. The managers usually got their ways eventually, as Paige would skip out. He never saw a contract he couldn't break.

In Satchel, Tye has succeeded in making Paige a likeable character without overlooking his many faults. There is enough game detail to please the sports reader without boring the biography reader. The book should be in most public libraries for years to come.

Tye, Larry. Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Random House, 2009. ISBN 9781400066513

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