Review: ‘Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow’
Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow
By James Sturm & Rich Tommaso
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, 2007, $16.99
This is a profoundly worthy book — produced under the asupices of The Center for Cartoon Studies, by two respected, serious modern cartoonists, published by the premier imprint for African-American children’s books, and about possibly the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. Luckily, it’s not as dry and dull as that might make it sound.
It’s not really a biography of the great pitcher [[[Satchel Paige]]], though it looks like one — it follows the life and very abbreviated Negro Leagues baseball career of an Alabama man named Emmet. (His last name isn’t revealed.) Emmet faced Paige in one of his first at-bats for the Memphis Red Sox, but broke his leg in stealing home — he made the run, but lost his career. Emmet’s life intersects Paige’s again, much later, but he also follows Paige’s career, and compares it to his wn life along the way.
Satchel Paige opens with Emmet’s fateful at-bat against Paige, and then moves on from there, with a few vignettes of Emmet’s life from the late twenties to the early forties. Emmet’s a sharecropper, a poor man in a poor part of the world, and moderately oppressed by the local white landowners. (His son is beaten once, and we see the aftermath of one lynching, but Emmet himself kowtows enough to keep himself and his family safe. Perhaps the correct word for his condition is “terrorized.”) The book makes it clear that those white landowners own everything — at one point Emmet thinks “walkin’ out your door is trespassing if they choose to call it that.”
The second half of the book is taken up by a baseball game played between Paige’s all-star negro team and a team made up of the local rich white men of Emmet’s home of Tuckwilla, in 1944. (This is frankly unbelieveable — that all of the rich, powerful white men of the town, from the mayor to the police chief, are young and spry enough to play baseball, especially in wartime — but it’s thematically acceptable in a book for kids.)
And does Paige show up the racist, nasty white men of Tuckwilla? There’s no other reason for Satchel Paige to exist; it’s a book about a man who played baseball so well that even racists had to admit his abilities. We can wish that the world had been other than it was — that someone like Paige could have come right up into integrated Major Leagues at the height of his powers as a young man — but at least he did live long enough, and play well enough, to help integrate the bigs in 1948.
The game as depicted in Satchel Paige is exciting, a strong contest that Paige’s team is mostly winning until a late rally puts that in jeopardy. But then Paige himself, who hadn’t been seen so far that day, comes into the game himself. And the result is very dramatic, and lesson-teaching, but quite clearly fictional.
An appendix explains some of the terms and ideas — like lynching, like sharecropper shacks; all of the rotten marks of an oppressive, racist society — that the younger audience of today is thankfully unaware of. There’s also an introduction by Gerald Early, the Director of the Center for Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.
[[[Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow]]] seems destined mostly for school libraries, but it will sit oddly there on the biography shelf, since it is primarily a piece of fiction. It’s a good story, and told well, and can help introduce young readers to a shameful time and place in American history. But I can’t help wishing for a real cartoon biography of Paige for kids — his life might not have had the obvious moral and historical lessons that Sturm and Tomasso weave into this book, but that life was more exciting, more event-filled, and, most importantly, more true.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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