Historian’s book about Satchel Paige headed to Hollywood

Donald Spivey photographed with his book, “If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige.” Photo: Andrew Innerarity for the University of Miami
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Donald Spivey photographed with his book, “If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige.” Photo: Andrew Innerarity for the University of Miami

Historian’s book about Satchel Paige headed to Hollywood

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
History professor Donald Spivey spent 12 years researching and writing “If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige.” Now, Apple Studios has acquired the rights to the text for a dramatic series on Negro Leagues Baseball, using the life of Paige as a backdrop.

Hollywood film director Ron Shelton had long yearned to read a definitive biography on Leroy “Satchel” Paige—one that didn’t merely recycle old information from an encyclopedia, but a thorough and accurate work that includes new details about the life of the legendary Negro Leagues baseball star.

Then, one day, the Oscar nominee of “Bull Durham” fame read University of Miami history professor Donald Spivey’s work, “If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige” and gave the researcher a call.

“He expressed his delight with the book and that he had been waiting for years for a work worthy of Paige’s legacy,” Spivey recalled. 

Now, the historian’s exhaustive nonfiction work is headed for Hollywood. Apple Studios has secured the rights to the book for drama development with an eye toward a series that will explore the epic story of Negro Leagues Baseball using the life of Paige as a backdrop. “This is exciting,” beamed Spivey, a Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In this Aug. 2, 1942, file photo, Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Leroy Satchel Paige warms up at New York's Yankee Stadium before a Negro League game between the Monarchs and the New York Cuban Stars.
Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Leroy Satchel Paige warms up at New York's Yankee Stadium before a Negro League game between the Monarchs and the New York Cuban Stars on Aug. 2, 1942. Photo: The Associated Press

Paige was a premier star of the Negro Leagues for more than two decades and arguably one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He was as much artist as he was athlete, barnstorming across the nation and showcasing his pitching prowess in exploits that are now legendary. Sometimes, for example, he would have his infielders sit down behind him and then strike out the side, sending a message that Black baseball players, who were forbidden from playing in the Major Leagues, were just as talented as their white counterparts. In 1948, at the age of 42, he made his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians. 

Spivey spent 12 years researching and writing the book, interviewing numerous Negro League greats and visiting cities such as Birmingham, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, where Paige played. His research also took him abroad to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, where Paige also pitched.

“I originally thought that to do a definitive biography of Satchel Paige would take me two years, three tops. I was wrong, really wrong,” Spivey said. “To get the history correct, the historian needs to be intimately familiar with the events, issues, and places. I once joked with Satchel Paige’s son that I started to dislike his father over the years because his travels forced me to read so many more histories and to travel everywhere.” 

Even as Spivey continued to work on the book, another biography on Paige published in 2006 ahead of his. “I was not finished then, and I was totally committed to doing more than just rehashing familiar stories,” Spivey explained. “I was committed to developing a full and accurate portrait, to getting the story right. It was too important to me as an African American, a historian, and a sport scholar. I took the time and got it right.” 

And that’s one of the reasons Spivey feels his book was selected by Apple Studios, which is co-producing the series with West Hollywood, California-based Kapital Entertainment. Shelton, who also directed “White Men Can’t Jump” and whose daughter, Valentina, is a senior in the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson are executive producers. The project is also being supported by Mandalay Entertainment’s Peter Guber, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and Major League Baseball.

Spivey will serve as a consultant but will not have veto authority. “If something is not a documentary, you will always have a challenge getting it to paint an accurate portrait. And this is why I am delighted to have Magic Johnson and Ron Shelton at the helm,” said Spivey, noting that the two are knowledgeable about Paige and Negro Leagues baseball and appreciative of the research Spivey put into his book. 

“My hope is that this series will help all to appreciate the obstacles and triumphs of these Negro Leaguers and to better understand the legacy of systemic racism that plagues the United States and the world,” said the historian, who also serves as special advisor to President Julio Frenk on racial justice. Spivey credits the University’s “superb leadership” for helping the “forward momentum” of the project.

The story of the Negro Leagues is more than just baseball. It’s also about the struggle for civil rights that occurred simultaneously during those times, Spivey said.

“Too often, the Negro Leaguers have been seen as only ballplayers,” he lamented. “They were Black in America, and they knew it. Players like Paige; Buck O’Neil; and the great dancer, entertainer, and black team owner Bill “Bojangles” Robinson supported the anti-lynching crusade, Black youth development, and the civil rights movement.”

Spivey said he intends to encourage the producers to convey those facts in the series.

It is long overdue, according to Spivey. “These great Negro Leagues ballplayers were relegated to the shadows because of the horrid color-line that existed in America,” he said. “Superbly talented, superior players in every position, they were, however, of the wrong color.”

Black athletes were not allowed to compete in the Majors until 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, stepping onto Ebbets Field to start at first base for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. But Robinson—who played in the Majors for 10 years, helping the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series—was just one of a multitude of Negro Leaguers who, if given the chance, would have not only started but also exceled in the Majors, Spivey noted. 

“Satchel Paige was one of them,” he pointed out. “He got his moment in 1948 when he was signed by Cleveland at the age of 42, well past his prime but still able to shine.” 

Spivey noted something else that has been long overdue: integrating the statistics of Negro Leaguers into the record books. 

Baseball-Reference, a website that compiles baseball statistics for every player in Major League Baseball history, is integrating data from the Negro Leagues era of 1920-1948 into its record books. And MLB, which elevated the Negro Leagues to major-league status, is doing the same, correcting a longtime oversight.

But stats alone “will never come close to undoing the monumental wrong done to so many over so many years,” Spivey said. “Let us hope that the series will.”