Just this week, illustrator Don Tate wrote at The Brown Bookshelf on recent picture books about baseball. Included in his line-up is Robert Skead’s Something to Prove: The Great Satchel Paige vs. Rookie Joe DiMaggio, illustrated by Floyd Cooper and released in April.
In what Kirkus’ starred review calls “a loving tribute to Satchel Paige,” readers are front and center at the historic ball game that set out to test Yankees prospect Joe DiMaggio. It was 1936, and New York Yankees general manager, Ed Barrow, and his scout needed the rookie to prove his worth: “To see how good he is,” Barrow said, “he has to face the best.”
Cue Satchel, “the marvel of the country,” as Skead describes him, adding later that DiMaggio knew all too well the legend about Paige—that he “threw fire.” Because of the color of his skin, Skead explains, Paige was not allowed to play in the major leagues. But the Yankees knew that, no matter his race, Paige was just the guy to test DiMaggio. So, at a memorable February game, DiMaggio and Dick Bartell’s All-Stars, which included major-league stars, played against Paige, joined by a “gang of semipro pickup players.” Satchel wasn’t worried about his own performance, but his amateur teammates made him nervous.
It is with reverence and an infectious enthusiasm that Skead treats readers to the game itself, as if we’re right there on the field, highlighting Satchel’s genius throws and DiMaggio’s ability to ultimately “[get] a hit off Ol’ Satch.” Emphasizing the respect each had for the other, Skead leaves readers acutely aware of the institutional prejudice at work, closing the book with a note about how Satchel was eventually invited to play for a major league team, the St. Louis Browns—but not till he was 42 years old. This was despite the fact that even DiMaggio described Satchel as “the best and fastest pitcher I ever faced.”
“The reason for DiMaggio being in the game totally intrigued me,” Skead told me. “It was a test to see how good he really was, even though the Yankees were set on bringing him up to the Major Leagues that coming season. To face the greatest pitcher in the world who couldn't play in Major League Baseball because of the color of his skin...why, the game [was] about respect for Paige as well. For me, respect was the heart of the story, in addition to the race relations aspect. It was about earning and receiving respect for both men, but especially for Paige and his team as they took on a team of white major leaguers.”
Floyd Cooper brings Skead’s words to life with his soft-focus, sepia-toned illustrations, filled with movement and often putting readers directly at home base or the pitcher’s mound. The illustrator’s fervor for the game is evident here, too. “Yes, I am a baseball fan,” he told me. “A Yankees fan! I am also a fan of history, as well as the Negro League Baseball phenomenon and its heroes. I felt pretty lucky when I was offered to illustrate this special story from the archives that included Joe Dimaggio and Satchel Paige.”
Large thanks, Skead explained, for this dramatic picture book story goes to the editor. “Initially,” Skead said, “I submitted a different baseball manuscript to Carolrhoda Editorial Director Andrew Karre. Andrew knew I loved baseball and mentioned the little-known event in baseball history when Satchel Paige faced Joe DiMaggio in a barnstorming game. We both knew it was a story that needed to be told.”
Both author and illustrator agree that the research for bringing the story to life for young readers was the best part of the gig. “Sometimes research, tedious and mundane, can be mind-numbing,” Floyd said. “In this case, it was a thrill ride! Digging through the old photographs really took me back through time, and I enjoyed every second.” Skead added, “My imagination went crazy as I researched the game. Ah, to have actually have been there! Fortunately for me, the great Satchel Paige chronicled the game, almost play by play, in his autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever. I used a few other sources as well, but that was my primary source.”
If we can’t actually be there (I, for one, seem to have misplaced my wayback machine), I think this collaboration between Skead and Cooper is the next best thing.
Photograph of Floyd Cooper used with permission from Carolrhoda Books.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.