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August 24, 2007


CR Review: Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow

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Creators: James Sturm, Rich Tommaso
Publishing Information: The Center For Cartoon Studies and Hyperion Books for Children, 96 pages, December 2007, $16.99
Ordering Numbers: 9780786839001 (ISBN13)

The second of the historical biographies for young readers made possible by a team-up of the Center for Cartoon Studies and Hyperion Publishing, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow provides an almost mirror image to line's previous book Houdini: The Handcuff King. Where that book compressed history into one day and dug into peculiar details of its subject's life, Satchel Paige covers a decade and a half and show its larger than life object of attention as seen through the eyes of a former competitor turned spectator. Paige not only doesn't appear for the majority of the book, he doesn't even enter the concluding athletic contest until it's nearly over. It's a compelling approach for a short story, and a daring one for a history.

imageAgain functioning in direct opposition to the earlier book, Satchel Paige seems to be a better short story than it is a jumping off point to historical study. The baseball scenes are tautly portrayed, the bold lines on the page during action breaking the visual stillness with a flood of vibrancy similar to the way sudden movement rips into the static look of a baseball diamond. Satchel Paige cuts a heroic rather than a clownish profile here, and the comic is effective in its myth-making (see below). The removal the reader feels necessary to build this spectator's view of Paige makes the direct subject matter slippery to the grasp; the mythic portrayal is so complete it doesn't ask any questions as to the details of its subject's life, the intricacies and ironies. He's perfect just the way he is, seen from the grandstand, felt in the clapping of the crowds and the stomping of the feet in the poorer sections of the small stadium where most of the action takes place.

What this does, however, is put a great deal of pressure -- maybe too much -- on Paige's symbolic value as a figure above or even counter to the specific brand of extreme racism experienced in the American South in the first half of the 20th Century. The poetic shorthand that serves the portrayal of Satchel Paige so well when he's bearing down on an opponent feels like it lacks the kind of rigorous detail one might desire when it comes to describing the life of the sharecropper/protagonist who serves as narrator. And although one can see the logic in making Paige a figure that might transcend the culture of oppression in which so many struggled to give people hope that they or their children might find a life's calling at the outer edge of their ability, I'm not sure the structure of the narrative makes the case that this could have truly been the case for more than a very few people. For those of us that know of Paige's major league baseball career, it's clear from the flashes of brilliance he showed as a 42-year-old rookie and even beyond that in the end he suffered, too.

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