Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you

Today (July 7) is Satchel Paige‘s birthday. It’s a day to honor a man who I wish I had known more about in my youth.

I’ve written before, going all the way back to the first thing I ever put in this space, about the Springfield Redbirds, who were once the triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. When they began playing in my hometown of  Springfield, Illinois in 1978, I was not quite ten years old.

Over the course of the next four seasons, a very high-quality baseball game could regularly be found in the summertime, about 20 minutes away from my house. I didn’t fully appreciate this quite yet, but over time it has come to mean a great deal. Baseball matters to me in a way that no other sport ever has, or ever will. I can only conclude that the Redbirds played a role in this process.

In 1980, the third year that the Redbirds were in town, and the year they won the championship of the American Association, they hired Satchel Paige in the figurehead role of Vice President. By that time he was a Hall of Famer, the highest honor that the majors could bestow on him.

But Paige was also a living legend, having pitched–by his own recordkeeping–for 250 teams, in 2,500 ball games. He claimed to have won 2,000 games, and pitched anywhere from 20 to 100 no-hitters. The barnstorming nature of teams in the pre-integration era didn’t provide accurate records, so the actual numbers probably depended on what mood he was in on any given day. But no one doubts that he was a dominant pitcher, and perhaps the greatest one who ever threw to a hitter from a pitcher’s mound.

I remember going to a game once in 1980 and asking him if he would sign a program for me. He obliged this request, and I kept it with my things at home. It was a special thing to me, but I must admit that, as the years went by and that program somehow vanished. And so it goes.

Satchel Paige made his first big-league appearance at the age of 42, well beyond the age of most productive players. And his final appearance came in 1965, just a few years before I was born. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A’s, at the age of 59. It’s a record that will probably never be broken.

Satchel Paige died in Kansas City in 1982. His Springfield job was the last stop in a professional baseball career that spanned across seven decades. He’s known as perhaps the greatest player, in the most important position, in the best sport that I’ve ever known. I’m happy to have crossed paths, no matter how briefly, with such an important figure in the game’s history. I wish I had held on to that program, though.

Credit where credit is due

I’ve worked in the publishing industry for over a decade, and there are certain traits that one needs to have in order to do this. First and foremost among these is a love of reading. It’s pretty simple, really. If you love reading books, then it makes sense to help with making more books. And if you don’t, well, the world needs ditchdiggers, too.

Technology is changing this field, like so many others, in very profound ways. And perhaps the change I like the best is the rise of NetGalley. It’s a free online service that allows for advance copies of books  to be downloaded onto a desktop or an e-reader, and perused before the general public has a chance to buy them. I haven’t used it as much as I would like, but today I came across a book that is worth spending a few moments discussing, even though it won’t be available commercially until early next year. Around Opening Day, to be more specific.

The book is called A People’s History of Baseball by Mitchell Nathanson. The book’s title is similar to the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and he acknowledges Zinn’s influence on his book. Nathanson addresses the stories of baseball as they have been told over the years, and prepares to challenge what people think they know about our national pastime.

I found lots of ideas for things to write about here, and each time I do incorporate something from Nathanson’s work, I’ll be sure to give him credit for it.

In general, the most interesting part is the description of Bill James, fantasy baseball, SABR, and baseball blogs in Chapter 6. Nathanson’s point here is that by granting access to the players, through post-game press conferences and other techniques, MLB has long been able to control the narrative about what is written about it. However, people who have no formal ties to the game in any way, which included Bill James once upon a time, have the freedom to say what they want about the game and those who play it.

I did not know, before I read this book, that Babe Ruth had been suspended on a number of occasions in 1922, and that the suspensions were not reported to the public. Such suspensions would be reported far and wide today, but the press at that time did not want to tarnish Ruth’s image.

The book addresses issues with race and the integration of baseball, the formation of the players union, and the role of “storytellers” throughout baseball history. If you like baseball’s prevailing narratives–like Branch Rickey was a noble proponent of baseball’s integration–then this book isn’t for you. But if you’d rather read some things that you didn’t know–like how Branch Rickey raided Jackie Robinson from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs without compensating them in any way–then this is well worth a look.