SATCHEL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AMERICAN LEGEND
By Larry Tye
Random House, $26, 392 pages
THE BALTIMORE ELITE GIANTS: SPORT AND SOCIETY IN THE AGE OF NEGRO LEAGUE BASEBALL
By Bob Luke
The Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95, 208 pages
REVIEWED BY PAUL DICKSON
Those of us who write on the topic of the National Pastime were taken aback by a question posed in print on June 4 by Clark Booth in the Dorchester, Mass., Reporter: "[W]hy is it that anyone can write a book about baseball whereas on other topics you need to establish credentials and maybe even some authority, or at least a personal connection like 'having been there' or 'done that.' Authors … are casually drawn to the task because it's easy, harmless, and highly profitable." Indeed.
Working backward from that statement, there have already been more than 150 new baseball books published this year, and that number will rise with the fall list. With any luck and a surge of Father's Day and holiday buyers, a very few will be "highly profitable" in the business sense of that term. Hold "harmless" for the moment and move on to easy.
"Easy?" Hardly. The baseball readers whose purchases feed these writers demand precision, especially when it comes to dates and statistics and look for no-nonsense narrative. Unlike any other sport and most other pursuits, baseball has an adhocracy that ferrets through books of baseball history looking for errors with the intensity of biblical scholars. Then there is the issue of credentials which are not — at least from what I can see — required for topics like politics, self-help and financial advice.
Two new books — Larry Tye's "Satchel" and Bob Luke's "Baltimore Elite Giants" — belie both the "easy" and "harmless" labels. Both authors did extensive research and interviewing of men and women in the later innings of their lives and were eyewitnesses to the events in their respective works. Both books are focused on the Negro leagues where records are scarce and often unreliable and both had to work through this handicap.
As for harmless, in the sense that they are not provocative, this is even further off the mark because they are about organized baseball and its longtime traveling companion: Jim Crow. These two authors have created complementary works about the struggle to attain racial equality in society and at the ballpark, but at the same time are fine baseball narratives.
Before discussing the two books individually, a disclosure needs to be made. The reviewer knows both these men — Mr. Tye by phone and e-mail and Mr. Luke in person — but this is, in part, the nature of writing about baseball and knowing a lot of writers.
Mr. Tye has taken Satchel Paige (1906-1982), who has long been credited as one of the game's legendary storytellers and one of the most entertaining players of all time, and rendered him as a full three-dimensional character. The tall, lanky fireballer was arguably the Negro leagues' hardest thrower, most colorful character and greatest gate attraction. His stunts were elaborate and telling of his prowess. On occasion, he would order his infield, outfield or both to vacate the field to demonstrate his confidence in striking out batters.
For several decades, the well-traveled pitcher barnstormed around the continent, baffling hitters with creatively named pitches such as the Hesitation Pitch and offering aphorisms and rules for living. In 1948, he was acquired by the Cleveland Indians on his 42nd birthday, becoming the oldest player to make a major league debut while helping the Indians to a World Championship. He was late to the majors and always thought he, not Jackie Robinson, should come first.
Paige learns to be graceful in the face of endless series of slights and slurs that extend through his entire life. When he is finally selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971 — pushed vigorously by Ted Williams, who makes a plea for the installation of Paige during his own acceptance speech — it is announced that Paige would be the first member of the Negro wing of the Hall of Fame. As others howled that this was an extension of Jim Crow in baseball Valhalla, Paige let the writers and fans cry foul: "I am proud to be wherever they put me in the Hall of Fame."
The public outcry got the plan changed and Paige went into the main room to be followed by others from the Negro leagues including one from the Elite (pronounced e-lite) Giants.
The Baltimore of 1938 to 1951 in which the Elite Giants played was in the firm grips of Jim Crow policies that seemed harsher than some cities below the Mason-Dixon line. An all-white school board kept black children in substandard and overcrowded schools, intermarriage could mean jail time and it took an executive order from the president to allow black workers to aspire to jobs in wartime industry. Every institution, no matter how august and outwardly open, seemed to be part of the problem.
When Johns Hopkins hired a black faculty member in 1944, he was at first denied access to the faculty club, and the Maryland Institute's School of Fine and Practical Arts told a black applicant in 1943: "We don't accept colored students."
It will be in Baltimore, in 1946, where Jackie Robinson, playing for the Montreal Royals team, faces his toughest harassing anywhere. White Baltimore's taunts and threats were to him worse than the intentional spikings he got as prepared to go to the Bigs. Quoting Mr. Luke on a 1946 game in Baltimore against the minor league Orioles: "The harassment continued after the game, when large numbers of whites crowded around the Royals' dressing room. As sports reporter and eyewitness Frank Lynch said, 'They weren't after autographs.' Police had to disperse the crowd."
But in this world, there was one absolute sanctuary where the community could escape from all of this and that was at the ballpark, where the only barrier was against Jim Crow and where, as one participant put it, white fans (at least 20 percent of the gate at Sunday games) were allowed to sit wherever they pleased.
People came to the Elite Giant games in their finest clothes as they headed to the ballpark from church. It was a place where families brought great hampers of food to watch the greats, including Josh Gibson of the rival Homestead Grays. The Elite Giants were never a dominant team and today lack the legendary cache of the Grays or the Kansas City Monarchs, but Mr. Luke argues persuasively that they should be given their due and argues for a permanent memorial to the team in Baltimore.
The Elite Giants developed players with great talent including eventual major league stars: Roy Campanella, who went on to a 10-year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers and then to the Hall of Fame; Joe Black, the first black pitcher to win a World Series game; and James "Junior" Gilliam, a player and coach with the Dodgers for no less than 25 years.
Journalist Larry Tye has written an epic biography of a man and his times while sociologist Bob Luke has created a prism reflecting the impact of one largely forgotten Negro league team on a city. Both books hit it out of the park.
• Paul Dickson is working on a biography of baseball's most colorful and innovative owner — Bill Veeck.