“The Pitcher and the Dictator: Satchel Paige’s Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic” by Averell “Ace” Smith
Baseball, history, Negro Leagues, politics
April 1, 2018
4 ½ of 5 stars (excellent)
Satchel Paige is one of the most talented and entertaining players to have participated in the Negro Leagues before Major League Baseball became integrated. However, in 1937, he and several other Negro League players, including Josh Gibson and James “Cool Papa” Bell, left the Pittsburgh Crawfords to play in the Dominican Republic. However, this was no ordinary league in which they participated – it was a baseball tournament in support of the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The account of Paige and his teammates, as well as the brutal regime of Trujillo, is told in this excellent book by Averell Smith.
The players, starting with Paige, were lured to the island with the promise of easy money. Paige was offered $30,000 to play in the tournament and immediately broke his contract with the Crawfords and went to the Dominican Republic. His salary was much better than he could make in the United States, without the racism he was experiencing. He found he could stay in any hotel he wished, go to any restaurant or club, and walk the streets being accepted for who he was. He was able to convince his personal catcher, William Perkins, and the aforementioned Gibson and Bell to join him.
However, this isn’t to say that all was happy for the players in the Dominican Republic. The manager of the dictator’s baseball team, Dr. Jose Aybar, recruited Paige in New Orleans and let him and the other players know that they were being watched closely and that they had to perform well for the dictator. Armed soldiers with guns and machetes were always in sight. This atmosphere and the background behind Trujillo’s rise to power is also described in the book, so when Paige arrives on the island, the reader has an inkling of what he is feeling.
This also affected Paige’s performance in the first few games he pitched as he was nervous and knew that anything short of winning the tournament would result in dire consequences. However, once Gibson and Bell arrived for reinforcements, Trujillo’s team got hot and won the tourney. Gibson’s bat provided the spark for the championship game against a team that featured the best Cuban player in the game at that point, Martin Dihigo. The baseball passages were written well, with the reader feeling the drama of the games. The talents of Paige, Gibson and Dihigo were certainly on display throughout the book, with short chapters written after the tourney on each player’s career and life after the end of the tourney.
The book is not just about the baseball as it will tell the reader about the brutal regime of Trujillo, including the slaughter of Haitians who were attempting to return to their home country after the dictator took power. While the brutality is well illustrated, as well as the romantic interests and military might of Trujillo, this part of the book, like the chapters on the three ballplayers noted above, left me wanting to know more as it felt like more could be written about his dictatorship.
If a reader wishes to learn more about this season in the Dominican Republic for three of the greatest stars of the Negro Leagues as well as the first Cuban player inducted into the American Baseball Hall of Fame, this is a good book to start that journey. While it doesn’t get into great detail about any of the topics, it is nonetheless a very informative book to introduce the reader to the baseball played in or the politics of the Dominican Republic at that time.
I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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