“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. 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.
Paving a Long Road
Playing to social stereotypes the way he did with his age is just half the story of Satchel Paige, although it is the half most told. While many dismissed him as a Stepin Fetchit if not an Uncle Tom, a closer look makes clear that he was something else entirely—a quiet subversive, defying Uncle Tom and Jim Crow. Told all his life that black lives matter less than white ones, he teased journalists by adding or subtracting years each time they asked his age, then asking them, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” Relegated by statute and custom to the shadows of the Negro Leagues, he fed Uncle Sam shadowy information on his provenance. Yet growing up in the Deep South, he knew better than to flaunt the rules openly, so he did it opaquely, using insubordination and indirection to challenge his segregated surroundings.
His stagecraft was so successful that it amazed even him. He pitched spectacularly enough, especially when his teams were beating the best of the white big leaguers, that white sportswriters turned out to watch black baseball. He proved that black fans would fill ballparks, and that white fans would turn out to see black superstars. He drew the spotlight first to himself, then to his Kansas City Monarchs team, and inevitably to the Monarchs’ rookie second baseman Jackie Robinson.
Satchel laid the groundwork for Robinson the way A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. DuBois and other early civil rights leaders did for Martin Luther King Jr. Paige was as much an example for black baseball as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was for black music and Paul Robeson was for the black stage—and much as those two became symbols of their art in addition to their race, so Satchel was known not as a great black pitcher but a great pitcher. In the process Satchel Paige, more than anyone, opened to blacks the national pastime and forever changed his sport and this nation.
Adapted from Satchel: "The Life and Times of an American Legend," written by Larry Tye and published by the Random House Publishing Group. Copyright 2009.