Larry Tye, author of a Satchel Paige biography, will join Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Wil Haygood, Washington Post columnist, in a discussion about the famous pitcher at the Carmichael Auditorium of the National Museum of American History tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m as part of an event hosted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. ATM talked with Tye about the legend of Paige, the real story and how to tell the two apart.
Why was Satchel Paige such a legend?
He was arguably the fastest, hardest throwing pitcher of his era. And he became a legend for two reasons. One, is because he played better baseball than anyone. He could throw so accurately that his teammates would stand there with lit cigarettes in their mouths and let him, with a hard ball thrown at their face at 90 mph, knock the cigarettes out. But that’s only half the Satchel story. The other half is that he pitched for most of his career in the shadow world of the Negro Leagues. This guy embodied this embarrassing era in American history, of segregation. And that, every bit as much as what he did on the ball field, the idea that he survived and thrived during this miserable era, is why he is the legend that he is today.
How did you get interested in Satchel Paige?
When I was a kid, every baseball game I went to with my dad, if there was a good pitcher out there, the point of comparison was always to the great Satchel Paige. I became intrigued about this guy. My father, and every adult I knew, knew about Satchel Paige, and yet their knowledge was only an inch deep. I wanted to know more. Decades later, I was writing a book about the Pullman porters, these black men who worked on the railroads. They the most prominent African Americans of their era, and yet the guy they loved the most was Satchel Paige. They told me that I had to write a book about him.
What was the most interesting thing you uncovered in your research for the book?
This guy was so surrounded by legend, but 80 percent of the legends were factual. I’ll just give you one example. When Satchel Paige was on the mound pitching, he had such confidence in his ability to strike out a batter that he would call in his outfielders and have them sit in the infield. Sometimes he’d call in his infielders, too. It was basically him against the batter. He did it, and he did it again and again.
Do you think a major league pitcher could get away with that today?
I don’t think anybody in the major leagues would have the confidence to try it. I think that if anybody did have that confidence, or arrogance, to try it, few of them could deliver as often as Satchel did. I didn’t believe that he really did it until I found one account after another in newspapers and from eyewitnesses that I interviewed that told me about him doing it.
So, how do you tell fact from fiction?
You work a little bit harder in terms of finding people who are still alive who knew him. I tracked down more than 200 old, major leaguers and negro leaguers, and I didn’t believe a story until I heard it at least twice. I got all the paper records there were. I talked to hundreds of people, and I looked at everything that had ever been written about him anywhere and tried to piece together something that I felt comfortable enough putting my name to in terms of things that I knew he had done.
What’s the best false legend you came across?
He went one year to play in the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo. He made it seem like he was on the dictator’s personal team. He told these wonderful stories that the dictator’s troops were lining up for the critical last game. If he won, he’d be okay, and he’d be celebrated as a hero. And if he lost, he’d go in front of a firing squad, that there really was this kind of life or death situation. And that was a wonderful story. And it would have been even better if it were true.
So he totally made it up?
No, he never started with whole cloth. He always had at least a kernel of truth, and then he was such a good storyteller and he told the story so many times, they became a little better with each retelling.