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Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend

Illustration for article titled Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend

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.

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.

Dig this excerpt from Larry Tye's biography of Satchel Paige.

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