Review of The Pitcher and the Dictator

Smith, Averell “Ace”. The Pitcher and the Dictator: Satchel Paige’s Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Pp. 240. 14 photographs, 6 illustrations, 2 tables, appendix, and index. $26.95 hardcover and eBook. $19.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Leslie Heaphy

Author Averell Smith paints a vivid picture of a season in the career of the legendary Satchel Paige. He offers insight into what precipitated Paige’s visit to the Dominican Republic, while also highlighting what happened while Paige was there. Smith emphasizes the mix of baseball and politics that occurred, allowing readers to understand the importance of the trip for dictator Rafael Trujillo, as well as for Paige. 

University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

Smith uses the first seven chapters to set the stage. Readers get background on Paige, Trujillo, and the politics of the day. For Paige, the 1937 season opened with some uncertainty. As Smith documents, owner Gus Greenlee had run into some financial difficulties, selling off stars such as Josh Gibson to make his payroll. Greenlee’s troubles set for Paige to be lured to the DR. The star pitcher was enticed by the promise of money and a chance to pitch in a place where he thought he would have complete freedom. When Greenlee tried to stop Paige and Cy Perkins from leaving, his effort backfired; instead, word spread that Trujillo and others were willing to pay big money to bring players south. Wholesale defections followed Paige’s initial jump. However, almost as soon as he arrived, Paige learned that he was there for more than a normal series of baseball games.  The fate of the dictator rested on his pitching and winning. The series was called “Championship for the Reelection of President Trujillo.” (p. 17) Trujillo had worked his whole life to become a leader and he was not giving that up.

Smith’s ability to tell a story is strongest in the chapters from twelve onward, as he describes what the ball games were like after Paige and the other Negro League stars arrived.  The excitement nearly jumps off the page; Smith describes the mood of the general populace before and during each game. Smith also offers a sense of what Paige and others were feeling as they prepared for each game. For Paige and Gibson, excitement and anticipation of a big game dominate their feelings initially. Those attitudes change over the course of the games, as the sense of win at all cost takes on greater urgency and a new meaning.  More was clearly at stake than just winning a series. In particular, the presence of soldiers everywhere reinforced the players concern about being able to leave the country.

In addition to the main narrative, Smith includes short biographies of key players in the series. He also intersperses some box scores and statistics in the text itself.  The appendix is a description of Paige’s pitching, including how he named his different pitches. Smith also provides a series of photos and newspaper clippings to complete the picture of baseball and politics. Overall, the variety of primary and secondary sources Smith relies on strengthens his research, with his inclusion of Spanish-language sources especially enhancing his work.  At times, Smith quotes some of his Spanish sources, although always with English translations. Usefully, all sources are well-documented in his extensive notes and bibliography.

While the story of Paige’s trip to the Dominican Republic is not a new one, Smith brings the story alive, making it clear that it was about much more than baseball.  This book adds greatly to the existing literature and is well worth a read for baseball fans, as well as those interested in politics and power.

Dr. Leslie Heaphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Kent State University. An admitted New York Mets fan, Dr. Heaphy has published several works on women in baseball and on the Negro leagues. 

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