A legend in his own -- and several other -- times

Monday Book Reviews

April 04, 1994|By Milton Bates

DON'T LOOK BACK: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball. By Mark Ribowsky. Simon & Schuster. 338 pages. $22.50.

IN HIS remarkable, nearly 40-year career of throwing baseballs for a living, Alabama-born Leroy Robert "Satchel" Paige moved at two speeds: very fast and very slow. The first characterized both his "bee ball" and "jump ball," as he called his swift pitches, perhaps the most unhittable in the history of the game.

But it was Paige's "hesitation pitch" that he mimicked in the pace with which he approached the mound in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on a July afternoon in 1948. Responding to manager Lou Boudreau's bullpen summons, Satchel, then 42, trudged ever . . . ever . . . so slowly across the outfield grass. Finally he arrived, picking up the ball in his first appearance in a regular-season major-league game.

But languid as was the Paige gait, it was as lightning compared to the foot-dragging of baseball's powers, who had deferred the big-league debut of black baseball's best pitcher for more than two decades. They had, to their eternal discredit and their freight-paying customers' vast detriment, held the Jim Crow line in maintaining white-only teams until 1947, when, spurred by equal parts of altruism and economic self-interest, Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers from his Montreal farm team. That July, Cleveland's maverick owner, Bill Veeck, integrated the American League by signing a young outfielder, Larry Doby, and, on July 7 the following season, the inimitable Paige.

In his book, "Don't Look Back," with its meaningful subtitle "Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball," Mark Ribowsky tells three interwoven tales: the bittersweet life and times of Leroy Paige; the mottled history of black baseball with its many unsavory owners and talented, exploited players, and the unremitting struggle to change that hateful aspect of this race-sensitive nation which prevented its finest athletes from playing the national game on integrated major-league teams.

The odyssey of Satchel Paige receives the author's major attention. Statistics maintained by the Negro leagues of the era were sketchy, but The label of "legend" is overused. But, in this game so many of us love, and in this city where tradition is so alive, two men richly deserve the accolade.

enough data were preserved to make a strong case that Paige was indeed the sport's best pitcher. Faster than Walter Johnson, the Washington Senators' fabled "Big Train"? More swift than the majors' career strikeout king, Nolan Ryan? What of Grove? Koufax? Feller? Make your case, but it is indisputable that Paige's right arm was a marvel.

Paige claimed to have pitched in 2,500 games and won about 2,000. The career record for big-league appearances, held by one-time Oriole relief specialist Hoyt Wilhelm, is 1,070. So one can discount Satchel's numbers, to account for his tendency to amplify and embellish, and still conclude that he was in a longevity class of his own.

On finally joining Cleveland in 1948, having begun his Negro League career in 1926, he went 6 and 1, with a 2.48 ERA and two shutouts. The Indians won the pennant in a playoff over the Red Sox that year, their first flag since 1920. The ancient one clearly made a huge contribution to that result. And he threw his last major-league pitches in 1965 for Charlie Finley's Kansas City A's at the age of 59! His line? Three scoreless innings against the hard-hitting Red Sox.

Readers of this book will find mounds of statistics, some glittering: Paige's 13-inning, 1-0 classic over Dizzy Dean in 1934; 15 strikeouts for Dean, a 30-game winner that year, but 17 for Satchel! And, in 1946, a 16-strikeout shutout, beating Bob Feller. Yet, too often, the numbers numb the mind. And Mr. Ribowsky draws freely (perhaps too freely) on Paige's memoirs published in 1961 under the title "Maybe I'll Pitch Forever."

This isn't a fawning portrait. Paige's recollections are labeled exaggerated, self-serving. Satchel's appetites for rich food, hard drink and loose women were, we are told, as ample as his talent on the mound. Still, he was no more flawed than Ruth, Cobb, Hornsby and other titans of the white game. His hatred of discrimination comes through, even though he lived much better than his black teammates and earned much more.

The requisite "Paige's Rules for Staying Young" are all here: avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood, keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move, go light on the vices -- the social ramble ain't restful, and, of course, don't look back -- something might be gaining on you.

The label of "legend" is overused. But, in this game so many of us love, and in this country where tradition is so alive, two men richly deserve the accolade: Baltimore's white slugger George Herman "Babe" Ruth and Mobile's black pitcher/philosopher Leroy Robert "Satchel" Paige. It is the reminder of the latter that makes this book worth reading.

Milton Bates is a Baltimore writer.

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