Striking out Jim Crow
by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso
Hyperion Books, 2007, 90 pages
The problem common to most every sports biography is the over-the-top adulation directed at the subject. It's the rare book that makes it clear they are celebrating the accomplishments of a man, rather than a god.
But in his lifetime Satchel Paige rarely received that sort of worshipful adulation – he was a man as hated for his amazing abilities as admired. The experts place him among the very best baseball pitchers ever but when he was at his very best, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was dangerous to be that good, or at least, dangerous if you happened to be that good and black.
That he was black gave many at that time all the reason they needed to hate him. And the better he was, the more they hated him. A humble, subservient black man – that they could tolerate. But an accomplished one? A black who was not just as good, but clearly much better than any white he played against? That just didn't fit into their worldview... and yet it was so, and Paige wouldn't let them forget it!
So what makes this a great story is that it is about so much more than the man. To be sure, Paige is given the typical sports hero treatment – his physical abilities are shown as being just short of miraculous. But what's really being celebrated here is not the man, and not his talents, but the purpose he put his talents to. By showing – and even showing off – his baseball superiority, he proved to the opposing players that he wasn't their lesser. Because he was better, they had to acknowledge him as an equal. And while there were more than a few who simply refused to learn the lesson Paige was teaching, the paying audiences, black and white, understood.
This is a decently drawn, and a very well written graphic novel, that illustrates an important and painful part of US history. I would highly recommend it, but not before mentioning two cautions.
Second, while the moral of this story – that all human beings are worthy of respect – is one Christians will agree with whole-heartedly, it's important to note that this is not a Christian comic. When God and His Church are mentioning briefly in a two-page spread near the middle of the story, it is only to note that the hope and solace some blacks found by turning to God isn't shared by all. The narrator of the story remains bitter at how he and his family have been treated by whites, and only gains some hope after he sees Paige triumph. So the narrator's hope is found in a man, not God.
That's a notable problem, but it remains a remarkable book, and an engaging way to learn about this period of US history.
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Related Reviews: other great comic biographies
About a Canadian who was The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr
When silent film star Buster Keaton was a boy: Bluffton
On a failed expedition to the South Pole: Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey