Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was both a victim of and a contributor to his own myth. Larry Tye’s Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House, $26) describes a man with an elastic, duplicitous, and mesmerizing right arm—and a mind to match it. According to Paige, his nickname came from his carrying multiple bags for white travelers at the train station, but according to an acquaintance it originated in Paige’s trying to steal those same bags. His date of birth, career records, marital status, and personal recollections were all subject to debate and dispute. What is not disputable is Paige’s sheer athletic ability and ingenuity, proved on every mound he stood upon. He was a dominant pitcher and an unsurpassed showman, and his legend grew through the Negro Leagues, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, barn-storming tours against white Major Leaguers, and finally the Major Leagues themselves as its first black pitcher and the oldest rookie in their history. Satchel seemed to enjoy fooling the media and the historians as much as he did the batters he faced.
Although fans remember Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr., as the quintessential basketball rivals, their careers were bookended by brief periods of fantastic teamwork. With Jackie MacMullen, Bird and Johnson recount When The Game Was Ours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), describing how two men elevated their profession from a sports afterthought in the late 1970s to the height of the Olympic “Dream Team” in the early 1990s. What linked Bird and Magic, more than the games in which they competed, was the reflection of themselves they saw in each other. This bond held their friendship and respect together through difficult losses, racial tension, media hyperbole, and personal tragedy. Although they each had many great teammates, where winning was concerned, Bird and Magic spoke to each other in a language no one else on the court could understand.
From John Kerry’s wind-surfing debacle to the recent outcry over human-rights abuses in China preceding the Olympics, the intersection of sports and politics has never been clearer. For those who wonder what came before “hockey moms,” or for anyone with memories of the great sports moments of the twentieth century, sportswriter Dave Zirin’s A People’s History Of Sports In The United States (New Press, $26.95) is a must-read. Paying particular attention to race, class, and gender on the American playing field, Zirin examines how sport has both reflected and influenced the larger political culture. Even as he casts well-known figures such as Muhammad Ali and Magic Johnson in a new light, Zirin goes beyond the headlines, telling the stories of collegiate and lower-level athletes and tracing the evolution of American sports from colonial times to the present.