History professor’s lecture on Satchel Paige makes history–on C-SPAN

During a C-Span filming of Donald Spivey’s class on Sport in American History: The Black Athlete, the UM Arts and Sciences history professor talked about the impact Negro League baseball players had on the civil rights movement.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 14, 2014) — It was pitching prowess with a purpose, a demonstration from the diamond intended to be more protest than bravado.

When iconic Negro Leagues pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige would have his infielders sit down behind him and then strike out the side with ease, he was sending a message that black baseball players, who were forbidden from playing in the Majors, were just as talented as their white counterparts.

Paige, whose exploits as a pitcher were matched by his charisma as a showman and storyteller, was “always at odds with his environment” in the era of desegregation, and from the pitcher’s mound, he did “his best to strike out Jim Crow,” University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences professor Donald Spivey explained to his Sport in American History: The Black Athlete class on Thursday.

The hour-and-15-minute class had previously met nine times during this still-young spring semester. But what made this session unique was its new location—in the Senate Room of UM’s Student Activities Center—and the presence of studio cameras and technicians who were recording the lecture for an episode of a C-Span series that showcases history classes from colleges and universities around the nation.

During a C-Span filming of Donald Spivey’s class on Sport in American History: The Black Athlete

With cameras rolling and students hanging on Spivey’s every word, the professor talked about the impact Negro League baseball players—in particular, Paige—had on the civil rights movement. When they weren’t barnstorming throughout the country, drawing larger crowds than Major League games, Negro Leaguers got involved in anti-lynching campaigns, Spivey said, noting that they collected money for the legal defense of nine black teenagers—Scottsboro Boys—accused of rape in Alabama in 1931.

Spivey also called attention to the social activism of Negro League owners like Effa Louise Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles baseball franchise from 1935 to 1946, who organized a boycott of stores that refused to hire black salesclerks.

He based much of his lecture on his latest book, If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige(University of Missouri Press, 2012), which is one of the required readings of his course.

The biography, which details every facet of Paige’s life—from his days growing up in Mobile, Alabama, to the time he spent in a Mount Meigs reformatory school, to his pitching prowess for various teams during the 1920s through 1950s, to the integration of baseball and his eventual entry into the Major Leagues—was the longest project on which Spivey has ever worked. “I thought it could be done in three years. But I soon found out that it couldn’t be completed in that time span because Paige went everywhere,” said Spivey. “And he didn’t have a stash of personal papers, which meant I had to dig and conduct research from every imaginable archive.”

Spivey interviewed more than 160 former Negro League players, sometimes traveling to Negro League Baseball Museum events to interview groups of the players in a single day. He conducted the longest and most extensive interviews with legendary Negro Leaguers John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil and Theodore Roosevelt “Double Duty” Radcliffe.

A former collegiate halfback who attended the University of Illinois on a football scholarship, Spivey also visited scores of libraries. “You name it—the Library of Congress, Baseball Hall of Fame, University Library in Puerto Rico, the National Archives,” he recounted. Even UM’s own Richter Library, where Spivey consulted the Pan Am Collection, using it to learn that Paige flew on one of the airline’s planes to the Dominican Republic.

Spivey admits that writing the book wasn’t the hard part. It was the search for information to write the book—a process that even carried him out of the country—to the D.R. and Puerto Rico—and on a chase for leads that sometimes yielded little information. “I couldn’t do my research using just books,” he said. “I needed to be there and experience it.”

A longtime fan of Paige, Spivey wanted to write the book because other source material that existed on the Hall of Famer was merely a restating of facts or altogether wrong. “Getting the story correct and putting it into a historical context was important to me,” said Spivey.

UM student William Saunders, 22, a history major from Baltimore who was among the 50 students in Spivey’s class, already knew about Satchel Paige from stories his father told him. “But I didn’t realize how much of a social icon he was, and how much hope people got from him,” said Saunders.

According to C-Span, Spivey’s lecture will be broadcast on C-Span 3 in late March or early April as part of the network’s “Lectures in History” series, which airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. and midnight. C-Span 3 streams every weekend at c-span.org/history.

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