Wednesday’s Book Review: “‘If You Were Only White’: The Life of Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige”

“If You Were Only White”: The Life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige. By Donald Spivey. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.

As the editor for the “Sports and American Culture” series at the University of Missouri Press I was delighted to have this book by eminent historian Donald Spivey, author of the path-breaking Fire From the Soul: A History of the African-American Struggle (2003), for the series. It was a stunning manuscript, and it made a superb book in every way.

This is the only intellectually sophisticated biography of Satchel Paige ever to appear. It is well researched, effectively written, and rigorously scholarly. While Larry Tye’s journalistic biography of Satchel Paige caused a stir when it appeared in 2009, Spivey’s work is much more comprehensive and insightful. It is an example of the best type of baseball history, telling a compelling story in an engaging manner, illuminating significant trends in the history of the subject, and is based on an innovative approach to historical research. Its contribution to the history of baseball is easily seen. What is nearly as easy to see is its relationship to the history of race relations in the United States in the twentieth century. At a fundamental level, this biography of Paige illuminates the issue of race in baseball and American society, the nature of business and sports, and the place of celebrity in sports.

One is compelling to compare this book favorably to Jules Tygiel’s award-winning Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983). This is because, while the book is a good biography of a truly significant baseball player, it is more importantly a stellar study of race relations in America. Spivey’s study goes far beyond the life of Satchel Paige to focus on these critically important themes in American history.

Leroy “Satchel” Paige is a commanding subject, well worthy of a biography. He was, without question, the greatest star ever to arise in the Negro leagues, eventually making his way to the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and helping them to win the World Series that year. The lanky right-hander parlayed a marvelous fastball (and a host of other colorfully-named pitches), a nimble wit, and an effervescent personality into a household name recognized by people who knew little about baseball, and even less about the players who performed in the Jim Crow era of organized baseball. His name became synonymous with the barnstorming exhibitions played between traveling black teams and their white counterparts. He never had much of a career in MLB, but only because of the Jim Crow restrictions.

The only negative aspect of this book is its relationship to the soap opera that was the University of Missouri Press during the summer of 2012. The president of the University of Missouri, Timothy F. Wolfe, chose to shutter the press ending more than 50 years of excellence and leaving such books as this one on Satchel Paige without much in the way of marketing or other support. It was an ill-considered decision and protests from around the scholarly world forced its reconsideration.

I have been associated with the University of Missouri Press for many years, not only as editor of the “Sports and American Culture” series but also as the author of two books published there. It has always been an effectively-run, professional organization with a major reputation and I was honored to be associated with it. I am delighted that this situation has been resolved with the reconsideration of the university president and the reconstitution of the press.

Please purchase and read “If You Were Only White”: The Life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige. I think you will agree upon reading Don Spivey’s book that it is an historical work of great substance, remarkable insight, and graceful expression.

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