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Originally published Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

'Satchel' celebrates story of mythic baseball pitcher

Larry Tye's "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend" offers a rich and nuanced portrait of Satchel Paige, a pathbreaking pitcher whose career spanned both the Negro leagues and the major leagues.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend"

by Larry Tye

Random House, 392 pp., $26

The life of Leroy "Satchel" Paige lends itself to storytelling on a mythic scale. The lanky baseball great from Mobile, Ala., was one of the best pitchers in history and perhaps the game's most memorable character.

Yet many of his exploits are difficult to verify. As fellow Negro Leagues star Buck O'Neil famously put it, "The stories about Satchel are legendary, and some of them are even true." Professional black baseball in the first half of the 20th century received scant coverage by newspapers, even in the black community. In autobiographies and interviews, Paige himself told different versions of his upbringing, altering details such as his birth date and the origins of his nickname.

One of the challenges for his biographer, then, is to distinguish the actual from the apocryphal — but to give readers enough of the latter for its sheer entertainment value. In this definitive and impressively researched biography, Massachusetts-based journalist and author Larry Tye succeeds in doing precisely that, offering a rich and nuanced portrait of Paige that is as complex as it is thrilling to read.

One of 12 siblings, Paige (1906-1982) grew up in poverty in the Jim Crow South. At age 12, he was caught shoplifting and spent six years in a reform school, where he got an education and played on the school baseball team.

Like other major institutions and businesses in America, baseball was strictly segregated. From the mid-1920s, Paige began playing in the black "minor leagues," but word of his pitching prowess quickly spread, and he was recruited by the famed Pittsburgh Crawfords; he later played for the equally celebrated Kansas City Monarchs.

As a young pitcher, Paige had a blazing fastball, unorthodox delivery and a wildness that broke the fingers and spirits of opposing batters. He soon developed pinpoint accuracy to complete a devastating pitching arsenal. A natural showman, he was known to call in his outfielders at a crucial point in a game and then strike out the last batters. He also could be a difficult teammate, showing up late for games and even changing teams without notice.

There was no offseason for Paige and many Negro Leaguers, who "barnstormed" through small towns across the country. As the star attraction, Paige drew large crowds and was paid handsomely. Especially memorable were matchups with future Hall-of-Famers Dizzy Dean, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller. At various times he played in Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

His legend grew as much off the field as on. "Satchel was being Satchel fifty years before Manny Ramirez started being Manny," notes Tye. Married twice, he was a renowned ladies' man, and he loved flashy clothes and expensive cars. His gift of gab was incomparable. When the media finally noticed, they found a wellspring of material. He named his pitches (Slow Gin Fizz, Midnight Creeper) and coined rules for staying young ("Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.")

Paige felt deep resentment when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to enter the major leagues in 1947, but he was just as much a pioneer as the younger Robinson. Paige may have been American sports' first free agent, demanding and making as much as $40,000 in the early 1940s. His appearances with star white players laid the groundwork for acceptance of blacks in professional white sports.

Paige finally entered the major leagues in 1948 with the Cleveland Indians at age 42, and he eventually was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But while the sweet certainly outweighs the bitter in this remarkable story of one of baseball's greatest players, the reader also is left with a mingling of longing and regret for what might have been.

David Takami is the author of "Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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