I’m ready for baseball season to come back again, but players don’t report for spring training for another month. In the meantime, I am left with baseball documentaries and books. Recently, I finished reading Larry Tye‘s Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend.
The life of long-lived pitcher LeRoy “Satchel” Paige is a difficult one to report on accurately. Not even Satchel could tell the truth about himself. He couldn’t even give a straight answer about his birth date. Satchel relished tall tales and changing his story so as to keep people guessing and build his mystique. Tye did not have an easy task ahead of him, but he did a great job of researching and, I believe, wrote a very clear and detailed biography that is as accurate as the subject allows.
The research was sound, even if the prose wasn’t always. There were many awkward sentences and a few times when his statements weren’t quite accurate. For example, on page 150 (of the 2010 Random House Trade Paperback Edition), Tye states, “[Satchel] ended the 1941 season with a 5-0 record in Negro League games, pitching a modest sixty-four innings and striking out fifty. The next year with the Monarchs he nearly doubled his innings, to ninety-five, and his strikeouts swelled to seventy-nine.” I may be splitting hairs here, but 95 is not almost double 64. It is approximately half again as much, but not nearly double. I feel, and here I’m speaking as the copy editor that I am, that it was a failure on the part of Tye’s editor to catch an inaccuracy in prose like that. Of course, that is minor.
More disagreeable is the way Tye would leave loose ends. For example, Tye states that Satchel’s first wife did not like living in North Dakota so she moved back to Pittsburg “to wait for him.” This is the last mention of the woman until Satchel marries another woman, and only then does Tye remind readers that Satchel is still married to his first wife at the time of the second marriage. I want to know what happened to his first wife in the intervening years between when she went to Pittsburg and when Satchel decided to marry again and what she was doing with her time. Did she know that the marriage was over or was that Satchel’s unilateral decision? Any additional information would have been appreciated.
An additional word of caution goes to non-baseball fans. Tye assumes the reader has a thorough understanding of baseball fundamentals. For example, he does not explain how batting averages are calculated, how strike zones are determined, or what constitutes a balk. As an avid baseball fan, this was not a problem for me, but if you are new to the sport, you’ll want to have Google open so you can look up terms that puzzle you.
Despite some small downfalls in prose and pace, Tye’s biography was an excellent read. He covers the legendary pitcher’s humble beginnings; attempts to explain Satchel’s psychology; gives a beautifully detailed account of what it was like to play in the Negro Leagues; and addresses racial segregation and how it affected players, owners, and fans. In addition to giving readers a good look at an American icon, the book also gives readers a snapshot of American life during the gradual decline of Jim Crow just before the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Excellent book for baseball fans and those interested in race relations in the United States after Reconstruction and before the push for Civil Rights. Recommended.