On Sunday night ABC will air a two-hour, made-for-television, prime-time movie called Don't Look Back, based on the life of Leroy (Satchel) Paige. The near-legendary pitcher spent the best years of his five-decade career in the old Negro leagues, but his fame today rests largely on his amazing longevity and his supposed set of rules for living ("Don't look back, something might be gaining on you" and similar cheerful nonsense). His age was exaggerated when he reached the majors in 1948; publicists and sports-writers milked the how-old-is-he-really gag for all it was worth, and Paige, who understood good P.R. when he saw it, aided and abetted the canard. Yet his age was never a mystery; reporters long ago dug out Paige's birth certificate from city records in Mobile, Ala. and learned that he was born on July 7, 1906, which means he'll be 75 this summer.
His famous rules for living first appeared in a sidebar accompanying a memorable article on Paige by Richard Donovan in the old Collier's magazine. The rules were worked up by Donovan, who embroidered them a little, out of bits and pieces gleaned from Paige's colorful, nonstop conversations.
All this tends to obscure Paige's true ability. He was a very great pitcher for a very long time before Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians signed him at age 42. (He won six and lost one, helped the Indians win the pennant, and became the first black to pitch in the World Series.) Testimony to his extraordinary fastball and startling control came not only from black ballplayers but also from white major-leaguers who played against him in off-season exhibition games. A consummate showman, Paige was by far the biggest drawing card in Negro baseball. A witty, amusing man generally admired by other black players, he was at the same time a loner and a stiff-necked individualist.
Don't Look Back is an uneven film, but to its credit it passes over the age and rules legends and does a pretty good job of projecting the complexities of Paige's career. At the same time, it oversimplifies, and some of the liberties it takes, as well as some of its little gaffes, may irritate purists. For instance, the dozens, maybe even hundreds, of exhibition games played between whites and blacks before Jackie Robinson broke the major league "color line" in 1947 are boiled down to one momentous encounter between the "Dizzy Dean All-Stars" and the "Satchel Paige All-Stars." The Paige team wins on a Josh Gibson home run, and that serves to establish that the best black players in that benighted era were as good as, if not better than, the best white players. Dramatically and historically, the emphasis on this one game is overdone, but the harsh fact that it spotlights can't be ignored: The best blacks were as good as the best whites, yet they couldn't play in the majors—the permanently exiled Gibson was only 24 the year Joe DiMaggio broke in with the Yankees—and few whites were aware of or paid much attention to that injustice.
But don't get the idea that Don't Look Back is a polemic. It's basically the story of one very appealing man, played to perfection by Louis Gossett Jr. Gossett's resemblance to Paige is remarkable. In the 1948 World Series sequence, actual film clips of the game Paige pitched in are juxtaposed with shots of Gossett/Paige warming up in the bullpen, and they go together beautifully. Most of the actors are first-rate, with Ossie Davis particularly impressive in a cameo role as an all-but-forgotten old-time black player. So is Hal Williams as an antagonistic black owner/manager with whom Paige has several run-ins. And Ernie Barnes seems just right as Gibson.
Surprisingly, the most refreshing performance is turned in by that classic clichè of baseball movies, the play-byplay announcer. Taylor Lacher, portraying a white Southerner in a broad-brimmed panama hat, describes the action in a gleeful Mississippi Delta accent, delivering lines larded with amiable, patronizing, racist, red-neck appreciation of—and disdain for—the black players. He expresses perfectly the ambivalent attitude whites had toward black baseball 50 years ago. Lacher is terrific; he almost steals the show.