Editor’s Note: We’re very proud to present an excerpt from Larry Tye’s SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Satchel Paige, who became the oldest rookie to ever play in Major League baseball, was considered by many to be the best who ever pitched. A legend in Negro League baseball, his repertoire of pitches included the “Bat Dodger,” a “Midnight Creeper,” a “Hurry-up Ball,” and the “Whipsy-Dipsy-Do.”
A master showman, Paige warned batters that they’d have to bat by sound, as they’d be unable to see his pitches. Paige often touted his pitching ability by noting he “Guaranteed to strike out the first nine men!” With uncanny frequency, he delivered on his guarantee.
“Over a career that spanned four decades, Satchel pitched more baseballs, for more fans, in more ballparks, for more teams, than any player in history. Now there is a book worthy of this towering talent and boundary breaker.”
Chapter 1: Coming Alive
Satchel Paige entered the world as Leroy Robert Page. He was delivered at home into the hands of a midwife, which was more help than most poor women could afford in 1906 in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Lula, was a washerwoman who already spent her nights worrying how to feed and sustain the four daughters and two sons who came before. Five more would follow. Leroy’s father, John, alternated between the luxuriant lilies in the gardens he tended uptown and the corner stoops on which he liked to loiter, rarely making time to care for his expanding brood. With skin the shade of chestnut and a birthplace in the heartland of the former Confederacy, the newborn’s prospects looked woeful. They were about to get worse.
The hurricane that battered Mobile Bay just two months after Leroy’s birth started with two days of torrential rains carried in on the back of a driving northeast wind. By the next morning, ten-foot-high surges had dispatched oyster and fishing vessels to the bottom of the sea. Tornado-like squalls ripped from their roots southern pines, blew tin roofs off Greek Revival homes, and made it look like birds were flying backwards. At historic Christ Church only the choir loft was left standing. The lucky escaped by fleeing to third-floor attics or climbing tall trees; 150 others were consigned to watery graves. One area hit especially hard was the Negro slum known as Down the Bay where the Pages lived.
Their home was a four-room shack called a shotgun, because a shot fired through the front door would exit straight out the back. That is the path storm waters took when they burst through Down the Bay’s alleys on the way to more fashionable quarters. Rental units like the Pages’s were ramshackle and fragile, with no floodwalls to protect them from the nearby sea and no electricity to ease their recovery. The Page cottage remained standing but the thin mattresses the children shared and their few furnishings needed airing out. That cleanup would have to wait: Lula’s white employers insisted she be at their homes early the next morning to mop up the storm damage. The kids would wait, too, the way they did every day when Mama headed to work, with the older ones watching over baby Leroy and the rest of the young ones.
Leroy’s world was being reshaped in another way that would mark him even more profoundly. Mobile historically was a center of the slave trade and the destination for the last slave ship to America, but Alabama’s oldest city also was home to more than a thousand blacks who bought or were granted their freedom in the antebellum era. That paradox was consistent with the coastal city’s push toward the conservative state of which it was part and its pull to a more tolerant world beyond its shores.
For more than two hundred years Mobile had welcomed outsiders – Irish Catholics fleeing the famine, Jewish merchants, Yankees, and English, along with legions of Creoles, the free offspring of French or Spanish fathers and chattel mothers – and they, in turn, challenged inbred thinking on everything from politics to race. The result, during the Reconstruction period, was a blurring of color lines in ways unthinkable in Montgomery, Selma, and most of the rest of Alabama.
Jim Crow – the system of segregation named after a cowering slave in a 1820s minstrel show – was there in Mobile, but so was Booker T. Washington’s gospel of black self-help. The races were separated on trolleys and in other public settings, but the separation was done by tradition more than law. Blacks not only could vote for officeholders, a few even held political office. Paternalism more than meanness defined how whites treated Mobile’s 18,000 black citizens.
Living in the South
Unfortunately for Leroy, that live, let-live mindset had begun fraying by the turn of the century and it unraveled entirely the very season of his birth. The reforms of Reconstruction were collapsing across the South, as whites who wielded power in the fallen Confederacy began to reinvent the realm and tear down Negroes’ new freedoms. The brief postwar honeymoon of racial coexistence survived longer in Mobile than in most of the South, but the backlash finally came there too.
An ordinance mandated separate seating on streetcars. Blacks were barred from most restaurants, cemeteries, saloons, hotels, and brothels. Whites and blacks were not allowed to attend the same school, marry one another, or live together. And in the wake of the devastating September hurricane, Mobile’s most influential newspaper stirred up reader resentment with its account of Negroes looting the homes of dead Caucasians and mutilating their bodies.
The rising tensions turned violent on October 6, 1906, when two black men accused in separate rapes of young white girls were being transported by train back to Mobile from protective custody in Birmingham. Forty-five vigilantes with masks and rifles boarded the train, took custody of the accused, and hanged them from a tree in the community of Plateau, just north of Mobile. As word of the killings spread, 3,000 spectators, many arriving by streetcar, paraded by the black men’s limp bodies.
Some snapped photographs. Others stole bits of the prisoners’ garments and cut souvenir segments from their noose. The double lynching ushered in four years of racist mobocracy in Mobile County. In 1907 Moses Dorsett, a Negro accused of raping an elderly white woman was seized by a white mob and strung up 50 yards from the 1906 gallows. Two years later masked men snatched from the county jail a black inmate charged with killing a sheriff’s deputy, hanging the wounded man from an oak tree across from Mobile’s oldest church. This lynching stripped away any pretense that mob actions were confined to rural areas or resisted by law enforcers. It happened in the heart of the city, two blocks from the main police station, and investigators later established that the jail had been left unlocked.
Lest anyone doubt their meaning, the lynchers left behind notes. “Negroes must be taught that death will always follow attacks on white women,” one warned, while another advised, “There [are] plenty of ropes and trees left.” Blacks did not need the reminders. Many church and lay leaders from the Negro community had already gone, heading north or to larger cities in the South. Between 1910 and 1920, blacks’ share of Mobile’s population fell from 44 to 39 percent. While most had to stay, increasingly the city seemed less an oasis and more like the rest of Dixie. The Ku Klux Klan operated freely. Negroes disappeared from public offices and from voting rolls. In commerce, blacks were supplicants, whites selective benefactors. Less than two generations after the end of two centuries of slavery, liberation looked less like freedom than serfdom.
Leroy Page was too young to understand those developments but they were reinforced every day he spent in his native city. While record-keepers used Colored to denote the city’s dark-skinned residents, the label used by most whites started with “n.” Those first few years “I was no different from any other kid,” Leroy wrote half a century on, “only in Mobile I was a nigger kid. I went around with the back of my shirt torn, a pair of dirty diapers or raggedy pieces of trousers covering me. Shoes? They were someplace else.” At a too-young age, he added, “I found out what it was like to be a Negro in Mobile.”
Lula and John had always known. John Page was at least a second-generation Mobilian. While he was born fourteen years after what many southern whites called The War of Northern Aggression, and he lived through the more hopeful years of Reconstruction, his ancestors almost certainly were dragooned in Africa and brought to America in shackles. John wed Lula when he was seventeen and began married life as a day laborer, which meant hoping he would be hired by white homeowners or contractors for jobs ranging from hauling trash to laying bricks. Later he turned to gardening, although he preferred to be called a landscaper. The unemployed landscaper would have been more accurate. His kids saw less of him than they wanted and needed. Lula loved him but knew not to count on him or to argue with him when he was drinking. Still, she was proud that he never laid a hand on her.
Lula Coleman Page was almost four years older than her husband and would outlive him by more than forty years. As inattentive as John was, Lula was a present and steady figure in Leroy’s young life and those of his siblings. She raised and supported them. She taught them when to yield to their harsh surroundings and when to fight. She gave Leroy the love he seldom felt from his father and the certainty he could count on her. None of that was easy given how many other children she had asked for those same things. And none of it was done explicitly; she showed the way through her own struggle to get by.
Lula was pregnant close to half the time over a twenty-two-year stretch starting in September of 1894, nearly two years before she married John. Ellen was her first child, and like the rest, she was delivered at home with no thought of a high-priced doctor or hospital. Three years later came Ruth, and the year after that John Jr. Julia was Lula’s first baby in the new century; she celebrated by naming the child after her mother, who was born a slave and was one of their few ancestors whose stories were passed on to Leroy and his siblings. There were two more children – Wilson and Emma Lee – before Leroy Robert made his entry in 1906. He had five younger siblings: the twins, Palestine and Eugene, then Samuel, another Lula, and, in 1917, the twelfth and last, Inez.
That averages out to a baby every twenty-two months, which made it a challenge to keep track of who was who in the family. Leroy himself often failed to include Eugene when he listed his brothers and sisters, either because there were so many of them or because Eugene died at birth. There was confusion every time U.S. Census takers visited the Page household, with ages and other answers not quite dovetailing with the children’s birth certificates. Some discrepancies were legitimate, given that Lula could not read or write, add or subtract. Others seemed whimsical. She forgot not just when her acclaimed son Leroy was born but where he fits in the birth order. Discretion might have been the motivation when John and Lula’s marriage was described as predating rather than following Ellen’s birth. Leroy, who got from Lula more than he acknowledged of his wit and his aphorisms, did credit her for one illuminating maxim: “If you tell a lie, always rehearse it. If it don’t sound good to you, it won’t sound good to anybody else.”
Being a full-time mother to her eleven surviving children should have been more than a full-time job, but Lula could not afford the indulgence. John did not earn nearly enough to feed all those babies, so Lula took jobs she variously described as a washerwoman, laundress, and domestic. All amounted to the same things: scrubbing spotless the homes of wealthy white families; using blue bleach along with red-hot water to clean their clothes, a smoothing iron to remove wrinkles from blouses and dresses, and starch to firm up shirt collars; and helping with the cooking. Later, when her own children were older, she sometimes took home the washing and ironing, setting up a boiling pot and rubbing board in the front yard.
Domestic labor like that must have reminded Lula of her mother’s life during slavery. That plantation society was in many ways a simpler one, with clearer rules and relationships. In Lula’s day, even work as uncontroversial as a maid could raise racial hackles. “I don’t see why Mobile people shouldn’t have three meals a day, as they do in other cities all over the country,” a white woman complained to the Mobile Register in a 1912 article on the “servant problem.” “As it is, we have to beg the cook to give us two meals a day, and at night everybody has to eat scraps. Between meals, we have no servant to answer the doorbell and the telephone. I think that all servants should be employed for a full day’s work.” Black leaders rallied to the white cause, vowing to set up training programs to clarify the duties as well as set the wages of domestics and bring the “best class of servants in touch with the best class of employers.”
Lula’s wages of fifty cents a day helped feed her brood. Leroy never missed a meal, although it was more likely to be cereal, greens, and water than chicken, beef, or milk. Lula stood at the head of the table ladling out each spoonful to the dozen or so bowls set in front of her. When there was not money enough for store food the boys were sent down to the bay where the fish always were biting. “It was poverty-stricken living,” Leroy would say later, “before I knew what that meant.”
What he and his siblings did know by the age of six was that they had to pitch in. They also understood where, as young Negroes, they could safely work or play. Bienville Square, Mobile’s oldest public park with its gnarled oaks and iron fountain, was off-limits. So were the choicest beaches along the gulf, seats near the front of streetcars, and any public accommodation that did not say “Colored.” Everyone knew which days of the week the Sisters of Charity dispensary cared for Negroes and which were whites-only. It was okay for black boys to walk or play in back alleys or on city streets, especially those south of magnolia-shaded Government Street. Librarians winked at the strictures of segregation; police and judges did not. Guessing wrong could land a sepia-skinned adolescent in the lockup or even the morgue. Asking whether a racial reform tried elsewhere might work here drew this refrain: “This is Mobile and we don’t do that.” Before long no one bothered to ask.
Leroy worked the alleyways like a pro, collecting and cashing in empty bottles he found there. A half-pint could fetch a penny; four cents for a quart. Delivering ice, a valued commodity in steamy Mobile, also brought in small change. Leroy was springing up like a weed in a bog, and as he grew so did Lula’s and John’s expectations of his earning power. The obvious place to look for work was the nearby L&N Station, where five separate railroads provided passenger service.
Rail depots were a bonanza for Negroes back then. Black Red Caps hoisted trunks onto and off the trains. Black Pullman porters served as chambermaids and shoe shines, nursemaids and valets. Black chefs and waiters offered seat-side service of sugar-cured ham, Welsh rarebit, and 131 other culinary delights fit for New York’s finest eateries, while black firemen shoveled wood and coal to feed forever-hungry locomotives. And black youths like Leroy jumped when wealthy white travelers snapped their fingers in the air, polishing their boots or carrying bags to hotels like Mobile’s luxurious Battle House for as little as a dime or as much as a quarter.
Leroy was the quickest among the pint-sized porters, but he soon realized that he could not bring home a real day’s pay if he made just ten cents at a time. So he got a pole and some rope and jerry-rigged a contraption that let him sling together two, three, or four satchels and cart them all at once. His invention quadrupled his income to forty cents a load. It also drew chuckles from the other baggage boys. “You look like a walking satchel tree,” one of them yelled. The description fits him to a tee and it stuck. “LeRoy Paige,” he said, “became no more and Satchel Paige took over.”
Thus was born the most celebrated sobriquet in sports. Or so Satchel wrote in his 1962 autobiography. Fourteen years earlier, in his first memoir, it was a string, not rope that pulled the bags; his neck, shoulders, and waist rather than a pole that gave him traction; and sixteen satchels he carted instead of a mere four. Over the years he volunteered more versions, including telling a radio interviewer that he was first dubbed Satchel when he hung around the Mobile Bears ballpark collecting beat-up balls and broken bats. He brought his defective equipment to the schoolyard in a bag and “they started to call me ‘Satchel.’” Even his spelling of the moniker shifted, sometimes putting a second “l” in Satchel the same casual way he occasionally capitalized the “r” in Leroy. Relatives, friends, and sportswriters offered up their own etymologies. His real handle was Satchelfoot and grew out of his suitcase-size 14 feet, reporters insisted, even as Satchel insisted that his shoes were mere 11-AAAs. The tag was pinned on him by his family, said sister Palestine, after he borrowed his dad’s old tote-bag – or was it his mama’s suitcase?
There is one last explanation of why Satchel was called that since he was a boy – not because he toted suitcases, but because he swiped them. A man whose case he stole chased him, retrieved the bag, and gave young Leroy a hard slap across the face. “That’s when I named him Satchel, right on that day,” Wilbur Hines, a boyhood friend who said he witnessed the theft, recounted in 1991, two years before his death and nine years after Satchel’s.
Hines was Leroy’s neighbor in Mobile and his in the story is consistent with Satchel’s youthful behavior and with his adult determination to shape his own legend. But Satchel not only owned up to that stealing, it would become a riveting chapter in his saga of rising above his roots. Why would he, as Hines claimed, have been embarrassed by this most gripping of all narratives?
No government record can unravel the mystery over his epithet the way it did over his age, which is just the way Satchel would have wanted it. In the end, everyone connected with his life claimed a part in his naming. Each version, no matter how fanciful, adds to our understanding of Leroy and Satchel. Wherever the nickname came from, it caught on. Only Lula, who brought him into the world, and later Bill Veeck, who brought him to the Major Leagues, persisted in calling him, Leroy. To everyone else he was Satchel. Or just Satch.
But then why worry about the wellspring or even the spelling of a first name when your family name would be remade – Page to Paige – and the justification for that change would itself change? The modification was made just before Satchel launched his baseball career. “Page looked too much like page in a book,” said Lula. Satchel had a more exotic explanation: “My folks started out by spelling their name ‘Page’ and later stuck in the ‘i’ to make themselves sound more high-tone.” Whatever the reason, the result would be to make it difficult to track down the records on Satchel’s birth, letting him spin out the mystery over his age and keep prying reporters at bay.
Lula and John enrolled Satchel in the blacks-only W.H. Council School at the required age of six, the same way they did their six older children. He arrived just as Mobile’s black leaders were emerging from a decade-long debate over the mission for their segregated schools. Booker T. Washington and his followers argued that industrial training was the only practical way for blacks to better themselves; others dreamed of a liberal arts education that would equip young Negroes to attend college and, while they dared not say this aloud, to topple Jim Crow. The debate proved academic since influential whites already had sided with Washington.
The goal of Mobile’s all-black schools, as one Negro leader put it, would be to train “educated helpers” for white-owned businesses. Such a limited vision, city fathers reasoned, required only limited resources, so they gave black students broken-down buildings, barebones budgets for books and other supplies, and just twenty teachers for a system with 1,600 students. That meant one instructor for every eighty Negro pupils.
Satchel was at school too seldom to notice the overcrowding. Sometimes an empty stomach lured him to the waterfront with its promise of a free fish dinner. The need to bring home money also trumped the need for an education. All the Page children were forced to grow up fast, feeling compelled to strike out on their own and “to get married as soon as they could,” says Leon Paige, Satchel’s nephew. Ellen, Satchel’s oldest sister, was so eager to wed that she lied on her marriage license, saying she was the legally-required age of eighteen when she was just sixteen. Wilson and Inez likewise inflated their ages when they married.
Lula herself had been barely twenty on her wedding day and had never attended school. Yet she saw education as the route for her children to escape Down the Bay, and she took to heart Sunday sermons at Mount Zion Baptist denouncing truancy and encouraging parents to take a firm hand with renegade children. Satchel, who attended church even less often than school, remembered one time when Lula caught him and Wilson playing hookey. No sooner did they reach the baseball field than someone shouted, “Here comes your Ma.” The boys took cover the only place they could: in a huge pipe. Lula couldn’t see them and she was too sore to stoop down and peer into the conduit, but she sensed they were there and knew how to find out. Collecting papers and rags, she lit a fire at one end of the pipe. Satchel and Wilson dashed out the other end, gagging, and found themselves in her firm grip. “Have you learned your lesson, boys?” she asked as she marched them home. “Yes, Ma,” they said in succession.
Another lesson Satchel took away from his school years was the joy of baseball. There were no independent youth leagues then, black or white; America’s first Little League game was a generation away, and it would be two generations before black adolescents got their shot. But Mobile was a baseball town whose subtropical climate made it possible to play the game year-round while its passion for playing made it Alabama’s only city to allow Sunday ball. Seven days a week kids like Satchel took to the streets looking for enough space to make a field and enough other kids to cobble together two teams. Temperatures topping 100 and humidity nearly as high may have kept their parents rocking quietly on their porches, sipping sugared tea or hand-squeezed lemonade, but it was not enough to sideline these youthful ballplayers. Many learned to hit and pitch playing “top ball,” where a stick replaced the bat they could not afford and soda bottle caps substituted for baseballs. “I can still see him as a little boy,” said his sister Palestine, who was five years younger. “He had a sun hat, a ball and bat.” Lula had similar memories of baseball becoming Satchel’s escape and obsession: “Why, he’d rather play baseball than eat. It was always baseball, baseball.”
They played just off Davis Avenue, the main thoroughfare in black Mobile and the namesake of the first president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Ted Radcliffe, a catcher, and pitcher who grew up near the Pages, remembers that even the disappearing daylight did not stop intrepid young baseballers like Satchel and him. “We’d make cotton balls and soak them in oil and play night ball,” said Radcliffe. “We’d light them and run like hell.”
Satchel got his first taste of how good a ballplayer he could be at the Council School. Most elementary schools had teams in that era, although the youngest kids generally spent more time watching than playing. Not so with Satchel. The coach put him in when he was a mere eight years old, pairing him against boys two or three years his senior. He was gaunt and gangly then in a way that reminded people of an ostrich or a crane. He would later claim that he had played each of the nine positions, sometimes all in the same game. “If I’d pitch the whole game I’d strike out seventeen and eighteen with nothin’ but speed,” he said. “I was under 10 years old strikin’ out everybody.” He soon became known around the South Side of Mobile as the best school-age pitcher anyone had ever seen. It was partly how hard he threw and partly how precisely. When kids came to the plate and he surprised them with his slow pitch, he said, “they just wet their pants or cried. That’s how scared they were of my speed.”
While baseball would become his vocation, another childhood passion – fishing – also lasted a lifetime. A dropline or makeshift pole would do, especially during Mobile Bay Jubilee, that magical moment when blue crabs, shrimp, flounder, stingray, and eels abandoned the bay’s thirty-five-mile-deep sea and made shallow waters along with the shore boil with life. Firemen and police blared their sirens, a sign that the fish were jumping high as a tree, and Satchel headed for the beach with washtubs and croaker sacks to hold his catch. One challenge was keeping away the gnats: smearing dirt on his face helped. Another problem was remembering the many parts of the bay that were whites-only: shouts of “Get out of here, you no-good nigger!” reminded him.
His fascination with fishing was inspired partly by the joy of eating crabs, catfish, and shrimp. He also loved the serenity of the sea, a getaway from the frenetic city and his squalid slum. On the way there he walked under live oaks covered with Spanish moss and reached up to touch the cast-iron balconies of Spanish-style homes. Moisture made the shorefront air softer and swept away the smells of hemp and tar. By the hour he hung over a bridge and puffed on a cigarette, his brown eyes focused on the ocean. Close in were rows of long flat piers and beyond that steamships and schooners sailing to what Satchel imagined were exotic ports of call, places where skin color did not count for everything. No need even to fish on afternoons like these.
Hunting offered a different sort of escape. He had no guns then, and no need for them. He could bring down a butterfly with a clamshell, nail a squirrel with a rock using his catching hand rather than his throwing one, or make a lasting impression on an adversary’s backside with a brick, stone, or pebble. That precision and power made him special and kept him safe. One time he was ambling down the railroad tracks heading home from his job as a baggage porter. In his fist was a pile of rocks, in the air a pheasant. As it flew by he aimed and fired. Dead bird. Another pheasant, another whip-like release of a stone, a second direct hit. Quietly watching were four white men carrying shotguns. Seeing them too late to retreat, Satchel feared he might become their quarry. “You mean to tell me you killed those birds with rocks?” the first hunter asked, incredulous. “You ought to be a baseball player.”
Real enemies were not hard to find for Satchel, especially when he was with his South Siders. Their path took them by a white school where a gang was always waiting. When Satchel and his crew got close the rocks started flying. The whites were older and looked like Goliaths, with Satchel relishing the role of David. “I crippled up a lot of them,” he recalled. “Most people need shotguns to do what I did with those rocks . . . Those fights helped me forget what I didn’t have. They made me a big man in the neighborhood instead of just some more trash.”
Rock-throwing also gave birth to what would become one of the most controversial and deceptive deliveries in baseball: the hesitation pitch. When he aimed a brick at a rival gang member his adversary would instinctively duck. Knowing that Satchel stopped mid-delivery, catching his foe stooped over in a posture that made him easy prey. The misleading motion worked equally well when he was armed with a baseball. At the top of a painfully deliberate stretch, he paused longer than normal, arms high above his head, then thrust his left foot forward. He paused again – slowing but not stopping – as he whipped his arm and sent the ball flying. The result: batters swung at shadows long before the baseball itself arrived.
The brick and rock-throwing may have helped his image in the alley and the ballpark, but it did not fly at home. Lula had a low tolerance for brawling and she hit harder than any of his street adversaries. “I used to think she’d hit me because she didn’t know how I felt. She didn’t know how it was when they told me I couldn’t swim where the white folks did. Then I realized maybe she did,” he said. “I guess she learned to live with it.”
Sometimes Satchel told himself the fights and other troubles were his ways of not living with it, of battling back – against poverty, against Jim Crow, against being robbed of a real childhood. In later moments of candor, he acknowledged that it was a game. He was good at outfoxing or outrunning his white antagonists and the police. Like all boys that age, he felt he was invincible. So why not? He always had time for trouble.
At school, he was absent so often that the Page home became a regular stop on the truant officers’ rounds. At the L&N Station, he stopped pulling and started purloining suitcases. He stole bicycles, too, along with anything else that was easy to grab. One night in 1918, walking home after dark, he passed a five-and-dime store with an alluring display of gold-colored bands and red and green stones. In he went and when he thought no one was looking, he stuffed a fistful of the trinkets into his pocket. “Unless you’ve gone around with nothing,” he would explain afterwards, “you don’t know how powerful a lure some new, shiny stuff is.”
Unluckily for Satchel, a burly security guard saw him pocket the loot, nabbed him, and dragged him to police headquarters. That night the authorities released him to Lula. It would be his last night home for more than five years and would mark the end of his boyhood. The next day there was a hearing before a truant officer he called Mrs. Meanie. She was armed with a long list of infractions Satchel thought had escaped notice, from fistfights to skipping school to stealing to not listening to her repeated warnings. He thought she would never finish. She thought he would never listen and would end up on the trash heap that consumed so many black boys from Mobile. Her last words pronounced his punishment: confinement until the age of eighteen at the state reform school.
“No!” Lula screamed. Satchel was shaking so hard he could not say anything. Just two weeks before he had celebrated his twelfth birthday. Now he was being told he would not see freedom again for six long years. It seemed like a bad dream until they shut the door on him. That is when he knew it was real.
It was a bleak arrangement of timber and concrete buildings. A dormitory with 120 beds for 240 boys. Two small cemeteries with a handful of gravestones. A dairy barn and silo rose up before hundreds of acres of scrupulously sowed cow beans and corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and pecans. The sign out front said Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers. That was the only marker of the callow lives trying to sort themselves out behind the whitewashed walls.
When Satchel was dropped off on a steamy July morning in 1918 he had on his only pair of dungarees. His shirt was frayed, his black shoes scuffed. The rest of his possessions were stuffed into a paper bag cradled under his long arm. He had little notion what lay ahead but he knew enough to be scared.
The reformatory was not what he expected. The public image of the all-black institution in Mt. Meigs, just outside Montgomery, was of a pint-sized prison with barbed-wire fences, rock-tough wardens, and underage but hard-bitten inmates laboring in the fields from sunrise to sundown. That was what Alabama’s adult prisons were like then, especially for segregated Negro convicts, and it is a lot like today’s highest-security facility at Mt. Meigs. That steely picture surely was in Satchel’s head as he heard Mrs. Meanie render her verdict and she did her best to reinforce it.
In truth, Mt. Meigs was as much an orphanage as a prison. While many of its wards did, like Satchel, have run-ins with the law, others were just having tough times at home or had no home. Buildings were without bars. The 380-acre campus had neither walls nor fences. “We was free to go, you could go out, run away, go anywhere you wanted,” Satchel recalled. The institution was the invention not of white penal officials who saw young black lawbreakers as subhuman. They were happy to continue sentencing the youths to adult prisons. It was the brainchild of the Alabama Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which opened the school in 1907 to “reform wayward Negro boys.” The reformatory was part of the parallel black universe being erected across the South during that Jim Crow era. Denied entry to the dominant white world, blacks built their own network of funeral parlors and stores, churches, schools, and homes like Mt. Meigs for wayward boys. Even after the state took it over in 1911, the staff stayed all-black and ladies from the Colored Women’s Clubs kept serving as trustees and benefactors.
Having grown up deep within Mobile’s South Side slum, in a shack shared with his ten brothers and sisters and two parents, Satchel appreciated any comfort. It did not seem a hardship that he had to share his bed with another boy. The reformatory gave him more food than he was used to, with more clothes, warmth, and space. The school also was his only vestige of home. While other parents or grandparents visited often, his did seldom if ever. It is understandable why Lula, who had a brood of children in Mobile and no automobile, would have had a difficult time making the two-hundred-mile trip to Mt. Meigs. But try telling that to a twelve-year-old who was feeling abandoned.
Satchel tried out for the choir and had a voice so vibrant and resonant that he rose to be its leader. He made the drum and bugle corps. He did work hard, coaxing milk from cows, picking cotton, and helping construct new buildings, yet for at least half the year his daily routine also included ciphering, reading, and other lessons he would have gotten in elementary school. He did not like the school at Mt. Meigs any better than the one in Mobile, but there was no playing hookey this time. In spite of himself some of the learning was sinking in. While his days were full and tiring, evenings were for singing, band practice, and, starting in 1920, looking for an excuse to talk to Minnie Young, Ida B. Sanderson, and the other girls who had just arrived on campus.
Then there was baseball. More of it than he had seen or played at his school in Mobile or on sandlots. There was a coach, too, Edward Byrd, who for the first time taught Satchel the fundamentals, and for the first time Satchel paid attention. Byrd’s young protégé had an anatomy that was all up and down. Rising more than six feet and weighing barely 140 pounds, Satchel joked that if he stood sideways you could not see him. His wiry arms and stilt-like legs were aerodynamically perfect to propel a ball from mound to plate. They gave him motion. Momentum. Strength. And he had the ideal launching pads: hands so huge they made a baseball look like a golf ball, with wrists that snapped with the fury and flash of a catapult.
Byrd understood what God had given this manful boy with his outsized appetites, limbs, and talents, and the coach was determined that it not be squandered. He showed Satchel exactly how to exploit his storehouse of kinetic energy. The first thing was to kick his foot so high before unleashing the baseball that it blacked out the sky and befuddled the batter. Then the novice pitcher swung his arm far enough forward that it seemed like his hand was right in the batter’s face when he let go of the ball. So was born the Paige pose, the look that over the decades made Satchel stand out from pitchers before and after: left leg held skyward, right arm stretched as far as it would go behind him, the catapult cocked to give the ball maximum power as he whirled forward to release it.
Coach Byrd earned his living first as a janitor, then as a salesman at a drug store, but he made his mark helping shape young athletes at the reformatory. He was precisely the sort of instructor the Colored Women’s Clubs had in mind. Baseball coaches can not manufacture genius but the best of them, ones like Byrd, know how to nurture, embolden, and salute it when they discover aptitude like Byrd saw in Satchel. His coach showed him that physical gifts were not all it took to win. Satchel had to outwit his opponent. Watch a batter’s knees, Byrd advised, the way a bullfighter studies a bull. Detect any weakness in the setup of his feet, his stance, the positioning of his bat. Then put the ball where the slugger can’t hit it.
Satchel was better at doing that than anyone who had ever come through The Mount. It was less his accuracy, more his velocity. He threw hard. No curveball or slider, no change of pace or special finesse. Not yet. Oftentimes he almost fell off the mound as he was letting go of the ball. He was as wild as young and untamed pitchers often are. Sometimes his pitches hit a batter or several. However unconventional his demeanor, he delivered. A baseball weighs just 5 ounces – it is a mass of cork wound with woolen yarn and bound in cowhide – but flying off of Satchel’s fingers it resembled a cannonball. Most who came to the plate failed to connect by what looked like a mile. And he kept getting better, the way Coach Byrd said he could.
Tutelage like Satchel was getting on the ballfield was just one aspect of a
fantastic social experiment underway at Mt. Meigs even if he never knew it, and if the architect of the experiment died three years before Satchel arrived. It started with the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which saw the reformatory as a way to “give to the State of Alabama better citizens, and give to our race a better name.” The formula for doing that came from America’s best-known Negro educator, Booker T. Washington, whose base of operations was the nearby all-black Tuskegee Institute.
At the moment The Mount was founded in 1907, Washington was waging a fierce war with W.E.B. DuBois for the leadership of black America. Washington preached an economic avenue to advancement, arguing that if Negroes became disciplined and skilled workers they could achieve far more than by working to directly uproot a firmly-planted framework of Jim Crow. DuBois said Washington had it backwards: securing the vote and other civil rights was the only way for Negroes to prosper and be free. DuBois would test his theories at the NAACP and other organizations he helped launch. Washington tried his out on everyone from Negro businessmen in Mobile to the all-black legion of Pullman porters, but nowhere were his precepts applied more consistently and fervently than with the law-breaking boys at Mt. Meigs.
The reform school was started by disciples of Washington. He convinced Tuskegee trustees to donate money and he dispatched teams of advisors from his institute, which trained teachers. After Washington died in 1915, his wife Margaret used her post as president of the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs to open a Girls Rescue Home on the Mt. Meigs campus and raise funds for the boys’ school. The Washingtons’ most lasting influence on the reformatory was spelling out just what it meant to reform wayward youths.
Hard work was the centerpiece. The boys learned to build the bricks and pour the cement they would need to erect dormitories, a dairy barn, a silo, and half a dozen other structures at the school. They became experts in raising livestock and growing vegetables, producing almost everything they ate. Surplus corn, cotton, and hay brought in cash. “Think what it means for these ignorant and degraded negro boys to form the habit of caring for cows and keeping a dairy stable,” researchers invited in by Governor Charles Henderson wrote soon after Satchel arrived. The boys knew enough reading and writing that they could prepare reports with titles like “Every Day Pruning the Farmer Should Know.” While such practical training was critical, so too, the Washingtons believed, was catering to the spirit. Religious services were held on Sundays, special occasions, and “in case of serious illness.” The boys also did anything Washington and his acolytes thought might curry favor in Alabama’s halls of power, including assembling a dozen Christmas wreaths for the wife of the governor.
Satchel was an object lesson for the Washington philosophy of self-reliance. He arrived at The Mount in 1918 with just six years of schooling, most of that sporadic and unfocused. He had come there because neither the authorities nor his parents knew what else to do with him. He left in 1923 secure in his letters, numbers, and know-how on throwing a baseball, which was just the sort of utilitarian training that Booker T. Washington advocated. He was learning to harness his arm, using it to play a game that would become his career. He acquired discipline. His five years as a ward of the state also disentangled him from what he called the bums that he had befriended in Mobile. He spent much less energy now blaming his bad fortune on his skin color, even when discrimination was responsible for holding him back, and he discovered that he loved to sing and tap the drums.
While he likely never met the ladies of the women’s clubs, he took to heart their philosophy of using head, heart, and hands to make it in a world where whites ran everything from toy stores to ball teams. For the first time Satchel thought about the future and for the first time his future did not seem quite so desperate. The reform school was impressed enough with his progress that it paroled him on December 31, 1923, six months before his legally-mandated release at age 18. “Inmate,” Mt. Meigs officials wrote in the only surviving document on him, “has an excellent record at this institution.”
Satchel walked away such an apostle of the Tuskegee philosophy that he later claimed to have studied at the college, which he did not. “Those five and a half years there did something for me – they made a man out of me. If I’d been left on the streets of Mobile to wander with those kids I’d been running around with, I’d of ended up as a big bum, a crook,” he said decades later. “You might say I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch.”
. . . . . …………………………………………………………………………
The Mobile Satchel returned to in 1923 was full of optimism. The Great War had been good to the city, expanding Alabama’s only deep-water port and making Mobile a trading hub for products as varied as lumber, tractors, and blackstrap molasses. Mardi Gras was back after a wartime siesta, as was the city’s reputation as the Little Easy. It was less commercial and more free-spirited than its Big Easy neighbor to the West, New Orleans. Mobile joyfully embraced prostitution and intoxication and disdained the old evangelist Sam Jones, who a generation earlier had declared, “I’d be a stockbroker in hell before I’d be a director of a Mardi Gras . . . [where] men are drunk and carousing on the streets and girls go about in men’s clothing.” Keep it up, Jones admonished Mobilians, and “your city will be damned eternally.”
What damnation there was afflicted Negroes and came in the form of Jim Crow, a black slave played by a white minstrel performer. Crow’s name came to embody the amalgam of Southern statutes and customs that grew up during Reconstruction, formalizing separation of the races everywhere from public bathrooms to baseball diamonds. It also became shorthand for a racist way of life. By either definition, Jim Crow had gotten more firmly entrenched in Mobile while Satchel was at Mt. Meigs. Davis Avenue, the city’s black Broadway, was alive with black-owned businesses like Owl Drug and black churches featuring gospel groups like the Dixie Spiritual Singers. But Negroes were as unwelcome as ever in the antebellum mansions lining Government Street and in much of the city’s downtown district. Even after fighting for their country in the trenches of France, black men had to endure the indignity of whites addressing them as “uncle.” Black children were issued toothbrushes and instructions on basic hygiene as soon as they enrolled in school. No sooner did he return to his birthplace than Satchel was reminded that everything in the South gets back to the Negro.
Lula let him relax and celebrate his release from the reformatory for nearly a month before she reminded him that money was as scarce as ever in the Page household and he had better find work. Satchel knocked on doors, but anyone who knew he had been at the reformatory turned him down flat while others turned him down because they had no work to offer or he lacked the requisite skills. One afternoon he ended up at Eureka Gardens where his older brother Wilson pitched for the semi-pro, all-black Mobile Tigers. Wilson was not there, but after watching other prospects try out Satchel was sure he could measure up. A master of the first impression, he whistled in a few fast ones that “popped against the catcher’s glove like they was firecrackers.” Then he challenged the Tigers’ skipper to pick up a bat, blowing ten pitches by him. “Do you throw that fast consistently?” the manager asked. “No, sir,” Satchel answered. “I do it all the time.”
Satchel was signed on the spot, with a fresh dollar bill sealing the deal. He was eighteen at the time, and this was his first job and first team. He quickly established himself as a standout for the Tigers, to the point where fellow players wanted to buy him drinks and “all the gals just wanted to be around, squealing and hanging on my arms.” While he chalked up “a few” no-hitters, playing for a scrub team earned him just a dollar a game when fans turned out and a keg of lemonade when attendance was sparse.
Lemonade did not pay even Satchel’s bills, much less Lula’s, so he pitched not just for the Tigers but for any local team willing to pay. He also cut the grass and cleaned the grandstands where the all-white Mobile Bears played. One day several Bears challenged him to show what he could do, and, as always, he was delighted to oblige. The first batter swung and missed at three fastballs. All the second generated was a breeze. “We sure could use you,” one of the players finally told him. “If only you were white.”
The lament was familiar to Wilson “Paddlefoot” Page. With a nickname whose origin was beyond dispute – he had size-12 feet – this older brother was even faster than Satchel and could catch as well as pitch. Everyone in and out of the family agreed that Wilson could have been better than Satchel. “But he liked the girls. He didn’t want to play ball,” said Palestine. “He wanted to follow them dern girls.” The truth is that Wilson loved pitching, catching, and playing ball generally, says his son Wilson Jr., who still lives in Mobile. But he was the more responsible and employable of the brothers, so when the family was in especially dire straits, Wilson gave up baseball and “stayed around to help support his mother . . . he did regret not continuing to play.”
Most of Satchel’s brothers and sisters managed in those difficult years to find work, none of it easy or lucrative. Ellen was a housekeeper. Ruth worked as a servant and later as a laundress like her mother. John Jr. was a laborer, then a helper, then a shipbuilder. Clarence worked as a clerk at Odom Grocery. Inez was a cook. Wilson did deliveries for a grocer, was a gardener like his father, dug graves at the majestic Magnolia Cemetery, and tried but failed to launch a company to clean up graveyards. Their jobs were not the only things shifting for Lula’s family. They moved from one ramshackle rental to another, all within the narrow radius of Down the Bay. Even the spelling of their surname hinted at instability as it went back and forth between Page and Paige, finally settling on the high-tone version with the “i.”
The new name coincided with the death of Satchel’s father and may have signaled the family’s yearning for a fresh start. John Page Sr. was barely forty-seven at the time; Satchel was nineteen. John perished from what his death certificate called “acute deterioration of health,” a standard way of suggesting that he had abused his body more than it could stand and that there was no time or money for a more thorough post-mortem. A contributing factor was a strangulated hernia, which can starve the bowels of blood, kill tissue, and cause intense pain as well as a dangerous infection. He was buried in city-owned Cemetery 2, Square 2, Row 3, Grave 5. Directly across the street is Magnolia Cemetery, the statued meticulously maintained resting place for authors, statesmen, and 1,100 soldiers of the Confederate States Army. Grounds for admission to John’s graveyard were but two: being a pauper and being black. There is no vault, headstone, or other marker commemorating his death or his life. Lula visited the cemetery regularly to pull away weeds and scoop together a pile of dirt where she recalled John’s casket having been lowered. “We’d take a hoe,” says their grandson Leon Paige, “to make a mound to indicate it was a grave.”
Satchel said later that he had grown up without a real father, and even as a child he promised he never would abandon his children that way. There was one thing for which Satchel was thankful to John. When the boy began playing baseball his father would ask, “You want to be a baseball player ‘stead of a landscaper?” You bet, Satchel answered, at which point John would nod his head as if to say, “That’s okay by me.”
By the time his father died Satchel was on the way to realizing that ball-playing dream, building a success story that kept outstripping itself, especially in his retelling. In 1924, just a year out of Mt. Meigs, he won about thirty games and lost just once. That, he said, was the start of a string of winning streaks. The next year every team around wanted him. By mid-season the following year, 1926, he strung together twenty-five wins in a row. Going for win number twenty-six, something snagged: with a 1-0 lead in the ninth, and two outs, his infield made three straight errors. The bases were loaded and Satchel was fuming. The crowd began to hiss, which made him madder still. “Somebody was going to have to be showed up for that,” he wrote afterwards. “I waved in my outfielders. When they got in around me, I said, ‘Sit down there on the grass right behind me. I’m pitching this last guy without an outfield.’” He milked the situation the way he once did cows on The Mount, taking his time, pumping back and forth. Three pitches, three strikes, and a win preserved. It was his twenty-sixth straight victory and the crowd went wild. “You wouldn’t think a few hundred could make that much noise. But they did.”
That story, like others from those years with the Tigers, is impossible to verify. As far as white newspapers in Mobile were concerned the city had no blacks, or none worth covering, even though Negroes made up 40 percent of the population. Mobile’s black papers had trouble keeping their doors open and presses running. The result was that Satchel’s brilliant early history on the baseball diamond was left almost exclusively to him to tell and a few old-timers to embellish. Ted Radcliffe, who caught for Satchel when they both were kids, said he was “wild as a marsh hen.” Herb Aaron, Hank’s dad, remembered Satchel calling in his fielders. In 1949 Sports Illustrated interviewed his old manager from the Tigers and others connected to the team, but of the two Page-pitched games that it focused on, one was called because of darkness with the score tied while he lost the second in fourteen innings.
One person who did not watch Satchel play, then or ever, was Lula. She had neither the time nor the interest. She “didn’t like baseball, nohow. She never did see me pitch and I guess she never will,” Satchel wrote in 1948. “She thought baseball was sinnin’, always playin’ and never workin’.” Did that bother him? Absolutely, he maintained. “It’s a terrible strain on you when your mama ain’t behind you.”
But Lula did offer up her support – with caveats – when Satchel was recruited to play in the Negro Southern League. The proposal came from the owner of the Chattanooga White Sox, Alex Herman, a former semi-pro player who eventually returned to Mobile and a successful career running a funeral home, insurance company, and family bakery. “My father was driving down Congress Street and saw this kid throwing oyster shells,” recalls Kirk Herman. “He was a raggedy kid, he’d throw from a distance of twenty to thirty feet at the telegram poles. He’d throw fast, and curve it, and it hit the poles every time.” Herman was impressed enough that he watched Satchel pitch with the semi-pro Tigers, then tried to draft him for the White Sox, a team of full-time, paid ballplayers.
The timing was perfect. While Satchel had proven his pitching prowess, he still earned too little to move out of Lula’s shotgun shack or even buy drinks for the girls who flocked to him as he pitched his way to modest stardom with the Tigers. The only way out for him would be to sign with a professional team, and the only way that could happen was through the word-of-mouth network he would dub the ‘Bama grapevine. It worked, and now the all-black team with the ironic title of White Sox was here asking him to join. But there was a catch: Lula. Satchel was underage and needed parental permission to leave Mobile. So he and Herman sat down to work it out with Mother Paige. “Your Pa ain’t been dead more’n a year and you’re going off and leaving,” she complained. “You’re just a boy. You’ll probably even play on Sundays.”
Herman kept pressing. He told Lula that he would look out for the young ballplayer. He said Satchel would be paid $250 a month, of which the pitcher would collect just $50 with his mother getting the rest. He offered her $200 in advance. Lula knew that neither Satchel nor she ever would see money like that if he stayed in Mobile, so she relented. “All right Mr. Herman. He’s yours for the season,” she said. But “if he comes to any harm you’ll account to me. And don’t mess up on those payments.” Her decision was made easier when Wilson, whom Herman also tried to sign, said he was staying home.eH
It was settled. Satchel would get his first shot at seeing the world beyond Alabama and playing in a real baseball league. Alex Herman would get a tale to recite for the rest of his life. Driving his children by a weed-infested sandlot on the South Side of Mobile he would say, “That’s where Satchel Paige used to pitch. That’s where I discovered him.” There was a fire in Satchel’s belly even then, to hear Herman tell it, and the manager vowed to stoke it. So he swept the boyish ballplayer away from the city of his birth and brought him to Tennessee. Herman would say that, then stop, knowing his listeners knew that was where Satchel’s story takes off.
Excerpted from SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend by Larry Tye. Copyright © 2009 by Larry Tye. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend can be purchased at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Borders and other bookstores.
About Larry Tye
Larry Tye runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship, which is designed to help the media do a better job covering critical health care issues. Each year it trains 10 medical journalists from newspapers, radio stations and TV outlets from across the country, on topics ranging from public health and mental health to insuring the uninsured.
From 1986 to 2001, Tye was a reporter at the Boston Globe, where his primary beat was medicine. He also served as the Globe’s environmental reporter, roving national writer, investigative reporter, and sports writer. Before that he was the environmental reporter at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, and covered government and business at the Anniston Star in Alabama.
Tye’s first book, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, was published in 1998 by Crown. Spin was the subject of reports on CNN, CSPAN’s “Book Notes,” two shows on National Public Radio, and a multi-part BBC series on Bernays and his uncle, Sigmund Freud.
His second book, Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora, was published by Henry Holt in 2001. It looks at the renewal underway across the Jewish world, from Boston to Buenos Aires, Dusseldorf to Dnepropetrovsk deep in the Ukraine. In each community children are leading parents and grandparents back to their culture and faith, and in each Jews feel confident living in diverse societies while still embracing a core of beliefs and practices that define them as Jews.
Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, was released in 2004 by Henry Holt. It explores the 100-year history of the black men who worked on George Pullman’s railroad sleeping cars, looking at how they launched the first successful black trade union, helped kick-start the Civil Rights movement, and gave birth to today’s African-American middle class.
Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy (Avery/Penguin, 2006), was a collaboration with Kitty Dukakis, the former first lady of Massachusetts. It is partly a journalist’s first-person account of psychiatry’s most controversial treatment, partly a portrait of how that treatment gave one woman a new sense of control and hope after two decades of debilitating depression.
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