At Malloy Conference, Satchel Paige’s story parallels mythological heroes

Satchel Paige pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs in Negro Leagues from 1942-1947.
Satchel Paige pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs in Negro Leagues from 1942-1947. File photo

In the early years of Robert Paige’s life, he never saw his father, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, as anything but a normal father. Robert thought all the men who fixed the family’s car, house or worked at the store played baseball.

While it took Robert years to fully realize what Satchel did for baseball and the color barrier in America, others have seen him a hero since the beginning.

Ruby Berryman, a playwright with a master’s degree from Spalding University, took that “hero” title one step further, placing Satchel’s life and a baseball narrative among the lives of mythological Greek heroes.

“By placing Satchel Paige’s hero’s journey on a baseball diamond of myth structure, we can observe how he traveled,” Berryman said in her presentation at the SABR Malloy Negro League Conference on Saturday in Overland Park. “From his ordinary world through the special world of baseball and home again.”

To Berryman, the connections between baseball and theater are everywhere. In fact, that link was the reason she fell in love with baseball in the first place. In every pitch, every out, every inning — there was drama, and it was all on a stage in front of thousands of people.

But when she looked at Satchel, it was more clear than any other player or any other game — he was a hero. The path started, on her diagram, at home plate, meaning the ordinary world.

Then came his first mentor, Rev. Moses Davis, who taught Paige the fundamentals of baseball and pitching. With that, he moved toward first base in the diagram, and discovered his herald, which was his brother.Satchel’s brother set up a tryout for Satchel while the future Baseball Hall of Famer was working a job picking up trash in Mobile, Ala.

“Satchel is what is known as a willing hero,” Berryman said. “This hero has compelling reasons to go or not to stay, and in this case, our hero Satchel has nothing to lose by leaving the stronghold of the Jim Crow South.”

By deciding to join the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, Satchel rounded first base on Berryman’s map of the hero’s journey. And this is when the Jim Crow Laws become the villain in Satchel’s story.

But like a hero would, Paige fought off Jim Crow with his performances on the mound.

“It takes a different kind of Superman to fight Jim Crow,” Berryman said. “And Satchel became that black Superman long before Muhammad Ali, rising to every occasion.”

Then came second base: the central or supreme ordeal for Berryman. Playing in an all-white league for the first time in Bismarck, S.D., Paige’s battle with the Jim Crow Laws was both on the field and in the city he was playing in. His teammates shunned him, newspapers portrayed him with “ape-like features” and no hotel in Bismarck hosted him.

Instead, he found shelter in a train boxcar, where he lived until his legendary arm and antics on the mounds shed racism once again. Soon, his team accepted him and he rounded second base of the myth structure with a championship under his belt.

Soon though, like any hero, Satchel would fall. In a play, it’s a death, or a confrontation with death. For Satchel, his throwing arm locked up while playing for Mexico City. His super power, which he already broken color barriers with, had vanished.

“It was as if the man himself had died,” Berryman said. “Without his pitching prowess, Satchel immediately begins receiving the cold shoulder from teams, and newspapers tout his demise.”

Just like myth structure dictates, Satchel would eventually be resurrected. Kansas City Monarchs owner J. L. Wilkinson made that happen.

And in Kansas City, as he used his playful antics to lighten up the crowd, Satchel became a changed man, using his “elixir” not only for himself, but for others. He started caring about the people who cared about him. Eventually, his arm healed and he pitched again for the Monarchs.

He started playing in games to raise money for military relief, since he was too old to join the military. He continued to fight against color barriers with his arm. He challenged Negro League baseball owners to pay players better wages.

And then, when he joined the Cleveland Indians and allowed two runs in his first major-league inning in 1948, he battled one more metaphorical death against time. Yet again, he was resurrected. He pitched five seasons in the major leagues, all beyond age 41, and was the first black player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Jim Crow receives his death blow when the choice is made to integrate the display,” Berryman said. “The ordinary world is changed forever by his return. He’s now a first-class citizen and a first-class immortal.”

It took all of that, and more importantly, it took time, for Robert, who was born at the very end of Paige’s career, to realize how much of a hero his father was.

“It was on point — his contributions and also the obstacles he had to go through,” Robert said. “Now I understand the legacy.”