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The Author Speaks

The Ageless Satchel Paige

As for what he put into his body, he ate less fried food in his later years, a concession to ulcers, acid reflux and other medical terms doctors at the Mayo Clinic attached to the condition he called stomach miseries. But he never entirely eschewed the skillet and deep fryer. There was nothing better after a game with the Kansas City Monarchs than a late-night trip to Gates Bar-B-Q and an order of short ends, the tender ribs at the front of a pork slab. On the road he kept an electric stove in his hotel room to pan-fry (in expensive sherry) the catfish he caught or bought. All of it, he admitted, “angried up” his stomach along with his blood, but that paled next to his fury when anyone tried to manipulate his diet.

How Old?

For kids who watched him, getting to watch him again a generation later with their kids and grandkids, it was natural to wonder how old the pitcher was. Satchel obliged with tales that grew more fantastic with each retelling. Proof of his birth date was in the family Bible. Unfortunately, his grandfather was reading that Bible under a chinaberry tree when a wind kicked up, blowing the Good Book into the path of the family goat, who ate it. His draft record showed he was born Sept. 26, 1908; his Social Security card had Aug. 15, 1908, and his passport file indicated Feb. 5, 1908. The three dates shared two things: All were supplied by Satchel, and all were fabrications.

The truth was simpler and more complex. In the post-Reconstruction Confederacy it was easier to track the bloodline of a pack horse than of a Negro citizen. Until 1902, descendents of slaves in Satchel’s hometown of Mobile, Ala., were included in neither the city census nor the city directory. Even when they finally did enter into the accounting, it was with caveats. Like Satchel and his 11 sisters and brothers, most blacks were delivered not in an operating room at the hospital but in a bedroom at home, so health authorities had to rely on the family filing notice of the birth. Recordings that did make it into the official directories were accompanied by a “B” for black or “C” for colored.

All that might have made Satchel doubt whether Mobile officials ever got word of his birth and accurately registered it. Or it might have until he signed with Cleveland in 1948, and owner Bill Veeck did what Satchel could have done—and may have—years earlier. Veeck traveled to Mobile to get to the bottom of the elusive age issue. He contacted Satchel’s mom, Lula, who dispatched Satchel’s nephew Leon Paige to accompany the Indians owner and his entourage to the county health department. “They saw his birth certificate,” Leon says. “They knew [Lula] had 12 children and they knew when they were born.” In Satchel’s case, the registry was clear: The baby was a boy, his race was Colored, and his date of birth was July 7, 1906.

So why the ruses?

Method to the Madness

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 42, with accusations flying that his signing was a mere stunt. He needed an edge, a bit of mystery, to romance sportswriters and fans. Age offered the perfect platform. He put a whole new twist on playing the age card—at first making himself out to be forever young like Peter Pan, in later years cashing in on his longevity, and throughout keeping people guessing.

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