01/18/2008 6:21 PM ET
Looking back at Paige and Gibson
Two New York plays highlight Negro Leagues stars
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Satchel Paige, above, and Josh Gibson are celebrated in two upcoming plays in New York. (MLB.com)
'Satchel: A Requiem of Racism' and 'Josh,' Part 1 400K
Some of the greatest baseball to ever be played went largely unnoticed in a racially divided America, but over 60 years since Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier, the fantastic stories of the Negro Leagues endure.
Starting Jan. 31 and running through most of Black History Month, baseball fans and theatre-goers can revel in the telling of some of the most incredible stories from this era when they see "Satchel: A Requiem for Racism," a historic play by Fred Newman that will play at the New Federal Theatre.
"Satchel" follows an African-American Harvard student taking a train to Florida and, as luck would have it, sitting next to Satchel Paige himself. Paige, the legendary Negro Leagues pitcher and character who finally made it to the Majors as an old man, is on his way to Spring Training and teaches the young man something Harvard never could: the impact of segregation on the black community.
"Satchel" will be staged at the New Federal Theatre as part of a double bill with "Josh" by Michael A. Jones. "Josh" focuses on the famed Negro League catcher, slugger and close friend to Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson.
"We always wanted to do something on baseball, especially Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson," says Woodie King Jr., the artistic director of the New Federal.
"One of the things about doing these types of plays is that it's very important for young baseball players, especially black players, to know who pioneered, who made it possible for them to be where they are today. A lot of the younger players can come in and see the journey of Satchel Paige, the journey that Josh Gibson took, and see it in a literary, entertaining kind of way."
The plays were especially gratifying for director Eric Coleman, who grew up in Louisville, Ky., with a father who had seen the Negro League players when they came through town.
"I was very excited about the plays simply because people do not know these names, not nearly enough," Coleman said. "(My father) saw Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. Being a baseball fan and overall sports fan, he would share those stories with me, even as a child. I think people should know these names. They're important in sports history.
"This is history to some of us, but it's totally revelatory and new to so many others. (People) leave the theater feeling, 'There were two great lives well-lived and well-worth looking at.'"
One thing everyone associated with the plays agreed on was that Satchel Paige was almost a mystical figure, and that helped Newman place the story within a slightly surreal frame.
"It's a man who feels very close to fantasy," Newman said. "The genre of the play is a kind of fantastic realism. And Satchel is not a bad character to be in a play (as) an example of fantastic realism, because he lived his life that way. And baseball's like that in the first place."
A lifelong New Yorker, Newman grew up in a Bronx apartment building that overlooked center field in Yankee Stadium. He said he watched Satchel pitch when the Black Yankees played in the House that Ruth Built when the Yankees were on the road.
"He was just living his life and doing what he could do and dealing with the situation he was in, which was not an easy situation," Newman said of Paige. "This was before baseball was integrated.
"He lived the life of an African-American ballplayer in a segregated game. I found something very attractive in that."
He also was a true character for the ages, something that wasn't lost on Coleman.
"Satchel was such a cut-up," Coleman said. "Along with being a great athlete, part of his allure, his appeal, was his ability to put on a show. It's so interesting that many of the historians say that off the field, he was a rather quiet, reserved sort of fellow. But once he hit that field, he was like an actor on a stage, a real performer, an entertainer on a stage."
"Satchel: A Requiem for Racism" hits the stage Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., all ET.
You can order tickets with a credit card by calling 212-279-4200 or at www.ticketcentral.org. For more information, call 212-353-1176 or go to www.NewFederalTheatre.org.
Doug Miller is a Senior Writer for MLB.com/Entertainment. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.