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Lying about their age is nothing new for baseball players, who know that youthfulness generally draws more suitors and fatter contracts. None fudged his birth date longer and with more whimsy than Leroy “Satchel” Paige. But instead of making himself younger, the Negro Leagues’ strikeout king typically tacked on years to make himself as mysterious and moth-eaten as Methuselah.
In 1934 the "Colored Baseball & Sports Monthly" reported that Satchel was born in 1907. In 1948 he was born in 1901 (Associated Press), 1903 (Time magazine), 1905 (Pittsburgh Courier) and 1904 (his mother). The Cleveland Indians hedged their bets after signing him in 1948, writing in their yearbook that Satchel was born “on either July 17, Sept. 11, Sept. 18 or Sept. 22, somewhere between 1900 and 1908.” Newsweek columnist John Lardner took him back farther, saying that Satchel “got Hannibal over the Alps. He held Aaron Burr’s coat when the latter fought Hamilton. He saved the day at Waterloo, when the dangerous pull-hitter, Bonaparte, came to bat with the bases full.”
The mid-century mystery over Satchel’s age matters partly because it provides a lens into race relations during the sorry era of Jim Crow segregation. It also reminds us of his astonishing feats at an age—his real one—when most ballplayers are watching from the bleachers, and that today, a quarter-century after his passing, still is an inspiration for every older American.
After a full career in the Negro Leagues, Satchel broke through to the majors in 1948, helping propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series at the over-the-hill age of 42. He holds the record as the game’s oldest player. He earned the distinction during one last go-round at an inconceivable 59, in what was intended as a fan-pleasing stunt but ended up being three innings of shutout pitching against the hard-hitting Boston Red Sox. He started pitching professionally when Babe Ruth was on the eve of his 60-home-run season in 1926; he still was playing when Yankee Stadium, the “House that Ruth Built,” was entering its fifth decade in 1965. Over that span Satchel pitched more baseballs, for more fans, in more ballparks, for more teams, than any other player in history.
Secrets to Longevity
How did his velvet arm defy Father Time as well as Mother Nature? Reporters asked him, then did their own investigations. The secret is chloroform liniment with cologne, announced the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not bothering to explain how the exotic brew could yield more than a sweet smell. Collier’s begged to differ, although the best it could do was narrow the formula to perhaps wolfbane and wild cherry stems. Too complicated, said the New York Times. It’s “plain, old-fashioned olive oil.” Satchel agreed with everyone.
The truth about Satchel’s arm was there to see for anyone not distracted by his storytelling. From collarbone to fingertips, his right limb was the best conditioned on the planet, the product of flinging baseballs every day for 40 years. He railed against exercise but did more than anyone by doing his job. It was apparent as soon as he stepped out of the shower: His right arm was half again as big as his left. His wrist, the fulcrum for everything, was grade A beef. What he rubbed on was subterfuge; what mattered were the muscles and fibers, tendons and tissues.
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.
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.
“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.
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