James Sturm, kissed and caressed not once, but twice by the baseball gods, has dipped his pen in the fountain of baseball legend and written a profoundly moving story featuring pitching great Satchel Paige.
Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow is a worthy successor to Sturm's amazing
The Golem's Mighty Swing.
The back cover of Satchel Paige contains wickedly false advertising, telling the potential reader that the book "follows Paige from his earliest days on the mound through the pinnacle of his career." This book is not a biography of Satchel Paige at all. It is a story of an unnamed black sharecropper who has a very short stint in the Negro Leagues. Paige's pitching has dramatic effect in this sharecropper's life, once in 1929, and again in 1944.
At the start of this novel, it is 1929, and an eighteen year-old husband and father leaves his sharecropping shack in Tuckwilla, Alabama to earn a much higher wage playing for the Memphis Red Sox, an organization in the Negro League. In a match-up against the famous Satchel Paige, he sustains a career-ending injury, and goes back home to cultivate cotton. Years of back-breaking work, suffering at the hands of privileged whites, take their toll on him. He keeps his anger bottled up inside.
Through a terse first-person narrative, Sturm reveals, in clear, simple terms, the system of white supremacy and the effect it can have on a man's heart. He shows how whites sustained their privileges through intimidation, humiliation, and violence. He shows how blacks compromised or submitted, to avoid further violence. Without preaching, and without moralizing, this novel dramatically illustrates the crimes of Jim Crow.
And then, in 1944, Satchel Paige's All-Stars come to town for an exhibition game with the all-white Tuckwilla All-Stars. The game signals the changes, already underway, that would rock the country a decade later with
Brown vs. Board of Education, and the mass struggle for civil rights. Our man's young son sees, for the first time, a black man who is not intimidated by whites. Satchel Paige plays the game of baseball and lives his life entirely on his own terms.
On the field of play, the white supremacists of Tuckwilla verbally assault Paige with racist slurs and threats of violence, but Paige is so good, his fastball so fast, that he humiliates them. Their humiliation is so complete that the outcome of the game doesn't matter. We don't bother to check in and see how the whites react. We don't even care who wins the game. This story is not about the whites. It is the story of a black sharecropper and his son that matters. It is the story of the turning of the tide, the awakening of a heart, to what a man is, and what he can be.
I love this book because it is about the hope that an oppressed people needs if they are going to end their oppression. It is about how they find that hope within themselves. It is about what it takes to stand up to the violence that oppresses you and demand justice in the face of lynching, and terrifying night-time attacks on your children. It is about how people who live at the cruel end of institutionalized and systematic racism find their power. That is not an easy story to tell, and it is particularly hard to communicate to children, who are often too innocent to comprehend the cruelty of adults, much less the courage required to stand up to it. Sturm and Tommaso do this the right way. They don't tell the reader. They show it.
Satchel Paige's America, by William Price Fox
No baseball player is more legendary than Satchel Paige. We have a pretty good sense of the lives and personalities of most of the truly great players, but it is hard to separate fact from fiction in Paige's life. Segregated baseball failed to compile his lifetime pitching statistics. Newspapers perpetuated stories about a laconic clown. In a real scandal of sports history, there is almost no footage of Paige pitching.
While it is clear that Paige was astoundingly charismatic, he was also intentionally mercurial, and no audio or video tape exists that would allow us to experience that magnetic quality of his that drew people to him. So why not show him as the stuff of legend? This story suggests Paige's most elusive qualities, showing why he was one of the most beloved athletes in American history. It is a much better approach to acquainting children with the great Satchel Paige than a straightforward biography of the kind promised by the book's back cover.
Photo from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
But while the story-telling is some of the best I've seen in sequential art, the art can only be called a missed opportunity. There is, for example, the problem of Satchel Paige's face. There is a sweet something in photographs of Paige that give us hints about what it was that made everyone gather around him, trying to touch him. Sturm's story helps us understand why people were so drawn to him. But Tommaso's pictures are flat. Paige's face is a kind of stick figure face, with no detail, no character, no strength or determination, none of the qualities that made him a great pitcher.
And while Paige was a hero to many, above every consideration Paige was a pitcher with revelatory skill. Tommaso doesn't capture that either. In Satchel Paige's America, William Price Fox wrote about looking at a sequence of eight photographs of Paige pitching, laid out side by side:
"What was surprising – why surprising I don't know – was his incredible hip rotation and high leg action and the enormous, seamless arcs of his arms. What was fascinating was the concentration and command in the set of his jaw and in his bright and glistening eyes. But what was so perfect – it was almost beatific – was in the last shot, after a strike had been called, and he was leaning in with both hands on his knees with nothing less than a pure and seismic satisfaction and pleasure shining in his face." (Fox 2005, 129-130)
Imagine having writing that vivid to inspire you, and then drawing something as thin as Tommaso's rendition. I understand that Tommaso was going for the timing. Any artist wanting to depict an athlete in action has to do that. But Tommaso's Satchel Paige could have been any pitcher with a crushing fastball. Not the man who was possibly the greatest pitcher of all time.
Still, the story is too amazing to be undermined by several disappointing aesthetic decisions. Make sure your children read this, provided they are over the age of 10. But make sure you read it with them. They need to know this central part of American history, and they need to understand how this history belongs to them, as instruction, challenge, and responsibility.
You will have to help them. In a baffling omission, the annotated footnotes (called "panel discussions") never mention the relationship between the desegregation of Major League Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, you will need to do some research in order to talk to your kids, and enrich their experience of this novel.
Recommended for further reading:
Chancellor, John, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Geoffrey C. Ward. 1994.
Baseball. [Alexandria, Va.]: PBS Home Video. See especially the second part of
Inning Six: The National Pastime 1940-1950.
Frystak, Timothy D. 2007.
Jackie Robinson: With Profiles of Satchel Paige and Branch Rickey. Biographical connections. Chicago: World Book.
King, Casey, Linda Barrett Osborne, and Joe Brooks. 1997.
Oh, Freedom!: Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement with the People Who Made It Happen. New York: A.A. Knopf.
Fox, William Price. 2005.
Satchel Paige's America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.