“If You Were Only White”: The Life of Leroy“Satchel” Paige by Donald Spivey
“If You Were Only White” explores the legacy of one of the most exceptional athletes ever—an entertainer extraordinaire, a daring showman and crowd-pleaser, a wizard with a baseball whose artistry and antics on the mound brought fans out in the thousands to ballparks across the country. Leroy “Satchel” Paige was arguably one of the world’s greatest pitchers and a premier star of Negro Leagues Baseball. But in this biography Donald Spivey reveals Paige to have been much more than just a blazing fastball pitcher.
Q: Satchel Paige is a name we’re perhaps less familiar with than we should be, in spite of his monumental achievements both on and off the field. What compelled you to tell his story?
I knew of Satchel Paige as a sports fan and historian of sports and the African American experience. I had been saying since the early 1980s how much we needed a biography of him written by a professional historian. There had been a number of journalistic treatments of the pitching sensation, but nothing applying rigorous scholarship to bring to life the full story of the one and only Mr. Paige. It was at one of the historical conferences that the venerable historian John Hope Franklin heard and noted my remarks. Sometime later, when he was approached by the University of Missouri Press for the name of a scholar to do a biography of Satchel Paige, he gave them my name. Be careful what you wish for, it may come true! I accepted the offer and signed a contract with the press to produce the biography. My thinking was that the project would not take that long, a maximum of three years. How wrong I was. Twelve years later, the biography was finally finished. I am proud to have produced the first scholarly biography of Leroy “Satchel” Paige, and one that from the outset was dedicated to being readable and accessible to the public.
Q: People tend to think of Jackie Robinson as the person who integrated baseball. Why is Satchel Paige less known than Robinson?
Jackie Robinson, of course, received the glare of media attention when he became the first African American in the modern era to play Major League Baseball. Satchel Paige is critical because he paved the way for Robinson and the integration of the Majors. You would have been hard-pressed in the 1930s and 40s and well into the 1950s if not later to find anyone who claimed a love of baseball who was not familiar with the name of Satchel Paige, black or white. In his era, he was the most beloved African American in baseball and the greatest star of all in the Negro Leagues. All of us today should know his name and celebrate his arrival in the Majors when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 at the ripe young age of forty-two.
Q: It was Satchel’s ability not only as an athlete but also as an entertainer that bolstered his star and made him a household name. Was Satchel’s Vaudeville-inspired act degrading by definition, or do you feel it is more aptly described as subversive or tongue-in-cheek?
Satchel Paige saw no contradiction in playing a great game of baseball and entertaining the fans at the same time. Indeed, he like the rest of the ballplayers in the Negro Leagues understood that sport was a business, an entertainment business that required breathing life into the game and how you played it. Paige did stunts, to be sure, entertaining fans with fancy ball handling, behind-the-back throws, shadow ball, daring pitching, and humor on and off the field. He kept you glued to his performance with his antics. The press adored him. He was a master pitcher and master entertainer. When you think of Bill Veeck, the most innovative of the Major League team owners, you have to associate his name with the individual he always named as his favorite player, Satchel Paige. They did a lot of stunting together, and this brought fans out in record numbers. We can look back at Paige through present-day eyes and question some of his antics, but fans back then, both white and black, loved every moment of it.
Q: “If You Were Only White” draws attention to the impact Satchel Paige’s career had on baseball as well as the Civil Rights movement. What were Paige’s most significant contributions as an athlete and as a proponent for social justice?
I could list for you specific things that Paige did in support of the cause of civil rights such as contributing to the defense fund of the Scottsboro Boys, supporting the call for anti-lynching legislation, and pushing Major League Baseball, once he got in, to bring other blacks into the fold. But I think, without a doubt, that Paige’s greatest contribution to the struggle for civil rights came from his personal protest demonstrations. He did it from the pitcher’s mound. Every time he stepped out there and took on the best of white Major League players while barnstorming and then finally in the Majors, he was making a statement about the absurdity of the color line with his brilliant performances on the mound.
Q: What impact do you think Satchel Paige’s persona has had on modern celebrity?
Paige was a role model. He was one of the first bona-fide superstar black athletes outside of boxing. Only Joe Louis rivaled him in terms of fan adulation. He well understood every time he stepped out on the mound that he represented a race and that he was making a statement for fairness and equal opportunity. He literally struck out Jim Crow. This book is an effort to put him where he belongs: center stage in the African American struggle for equality and justice.
Q: What kind of correctives to the legend of Satchel Paige do you offer the knowledgeable Paige fan?
Twelve years was spent on this project to separate reality from myth in the legendary career of Satchel Paige. Who really did teach Satchel Paige to pitch? That is answered definitively in this book, and it was not the person all previous studies claimed. Another important question is what happened to Paige when he was in reform school, and why were those years so critical in his transformation? I can answer all that for you right here, but would rather have you get your copy of the book for the answers to those questions and many more.
Q: Do you have any upcoming books or projects readers can anticipate?
Readers can look forward to my forthcoming anthology, Black Pearls of Wisdom: Voicing the African-American Journey for Freedom, Empowerment, and the Future, which will be out in December. Also, I’m working on a biography of Milton L. Olive, III, the first African American awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War.