- "If You Were Only White": The Life of Leroy "Satchel" Paige by Donald Spivey
In the 2013 Hollywood feature film 42 focusing upon Jackie Robinson's path-breaking 1947 season and the smashing of the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB), there is a shot of a blackboard on which Branch Rickey has listed the names of Negro League stars whom he considered before selecting Robinson. A name circled on the board is Satchel Paige. And one of the many tragedies of baseball's segregationist past is that the name of perhaps the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball is unknown to many casual fans and film audiences. Paige did not make his appearance in MLB until 1948, when, as a member of the Cleveland Indians at age forty-two, he won six games with an earned run average of 2.48, and the Indians won the American League pennant. Nevertheless, Paige's MLB career was short lived in an era when segregation was still practiced in much of the nation. While the refrain of "if you were only white" may have limited his career in baseball's major leagues, his pitching in the Negro Leagues, international competitions, and barn-storming tours with MLB stars demonstrated Paige's extraordinary talent on the pitching mound and earned his reputation as one of the game's greatest pitchers.
The saga of Leroy "Satchel" Paige has been told numerous times by biographers such as Larry Tye and Mark Ribowsky and Paige's autobiographies, most notably Maybe I'll Pitch Forever (1962) for which ghost writer David Lipman allegedly earned more money than Paige. However, Donald Spivey, professor of history at the University of Miami, has produced what will likely remain the definitive biography of Paige in "If You Were Only White." Spivey spent twelve years researching Paige in numerous archival sources and interviewing many of Paige's Negro League comrades, most notably Theodore Roosevelt "Double Duty" Radcliffe and John "Buck" O'Neil. In addition, Spivey was granted exclusive insight into Paige's private life through the cooperation of the pitcher's children in this biography project.
Written with a passionate voice rather than scholarly detachment, Spivey places Paige's life within twentieth-century African-American history and culture. Rather than simply a flamboyant showman who often played to white racial assumptions, Spivey asserts that Paige was a pioneer who challenged racial barriers, while using his pitching skills to acquire paychecks often out of the reach of many major league players until the advent of the free agency in the 1970s.
As a youth, Paige spent six years at the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers in Mount Meigs, Alabama, where he learned the values of self-discipline and hard work championed by Booker T. Washington. After leaving the school, he began pitching in the Negro Leagues, enjoying great success with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Despite a sense of personal loyalty to Pittsburgh, Spivey argues that in the mid 1930s Paige sought greater economic opportunity in the California Winter League, where black teams could compete against white squads, and the Great Plains of North Dakota. In fact, one of [End Page 509] the major contributions of Spivey's book is the amount of space he devotes to Paige's playing on an inter-racial team in Bismarck. Spivey notes that Paige always spoke fondly of the teamwork and harmony that allowed Bismarck to claim the 1935 All-Nations Baseball Championship. According to Spivey, Paige's success in the Great Plains challenged "the absurdity of the color line while bringing joy and entertainment to throngs of grateful fans, of every race and ethnicity, who loved baseball" (p. 119).
After pitching internationally in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, by the early 1940s Paige was back in the Negro Leagues, leading the Kansas City Monarchs to the 1942 Negro League World Series. Seeking to maximize profits for the Monarchs as well as Paige, owner J.L. Wilkinson had few qualms...