Leroy “Satchel” Paige just may be the closest thing our generation ever had to an American Folk Hero.
Paige toiled in The Negro Leagues for 22 years before signing a Major League contract with The Cleveland Indians on his 42nd birthday, July 7th, 1948. Two days later, when he took the field for the very first time, he became the oldest rookie in the history of Major League Baseball. (Baseball owner Bill Veeck … the Barnum and Bailey of Baseball … paid Paige $40,000 for the remaining three months in the season. This made Satchel the seventh Black Player to break the color barrier ... and also one of the highest paid players overall in the majors at the time.)
Prior to that, he was unquestionably one of the most colorful (pun only slightly intended) players of the old Negro League. Truth be told, Paige played ANYWHERE that would have him, as long as the money was good. He was often "hired out" or put “out on loan” to play for any number of teams, including pick-up teams wherever needed in order to play pick-up games in a relatively unstructured league of baseball. These situations often found him pitching as many as five games in a row … and also sent him to play in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and The Dominican Republic, all of this in addition to his MANY stops across the country, with services rendered in Baltimore, Birmingham, California, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Kansas City, North Dakota and Pittsburgh. By the time he reached The Major Leagues, Paige had already pitched in hundreds of games for dozens of teams.
The legend goes … because with folk heroes, there is always a legend … that Paige learned to pitch in reform school, under the tutelage of Reverend Moses Davis.
He had been sentenced there for a six year term, allegedly for shoplifting … Paige had been involved with several minor robberies by the age of twelve … but it is more recently believed that it was because he and his friends regularly participated in rock-throwing battles against the white boys of Oakdale School. (Perhaps THIS is where Paige first developed his exceptional throwing arm, prior to Reverend Davis honing those skills under his watchful command ... and landing those pitches “on target.”) In his autobiography, Satchel later summed up his years of incarceration thusly: “I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch. They were not wasted years at all. It made a real man out of me.”
Like most folk heroes, Paige’s history is heavily sprinkled with fiction, much of it fueled by Satchel himself. (At one point he claimed that the most valuable lesson he ever learned from his mother was “If you tell a lie, always rehearse it. If it don’t sound good to you, it won’t sound good to anybody else.”) Both Satchel and his mother lied regularly about everything from his upbringing to his age. Of course, having had twelve children in only 22 years, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to know that Satchel’s mom had a hard time remembering a lot of facts about ALL of her children, especially since she essentially had to raise them all on her own.
Perhaps Satchel's long-time Negro League teammate Buck O'Neil described it best ....
"Stories about Satchel are legendary ... and some of them are even true."
Satchel’s real age was always a point of contention. Accurate birth records weren’t always kept back then … especially for “colored folk” … and the mystery was complicated by Paige himself giving over a dozen different birth dates over the years. (Biographer Larry Tye finally pinned it down to July 7th, 1906.)
Paige assembled an incredible record over the years, unmatched by any other in either the Black or traditional White Major Leagues. In addition to a blinding fastball that spectators said they couldn’t actually see (and catchers said it actually hurt to catch!), Paige honed his skills over the years to include the curve, the knuckleball and even the slow-motion pitch. His lanky frame obscured the ball coming at the hitter, as he would often kick his leg up so high as to block the batter’s view! In addition, Satchel was quite adept with a bat in his hand, too, often helping out his own cause at the plate.
Satchel Paige legends abound …
Just like Babe Ruth pointing to the spot in center field where he was going to drop his next home run, Paige would sometimes have his players sit down for an entire inning and then proceed to strike out the side. Or, he’d eliminate one player from their position after throwing each pitch, challenging the competition to hit one off of him with no one there to field it!
However, the statistics don’t lie … and here are some stand-out statistics from his years pitching in The Negro Leagues:
1927 – Pitching for the Birmingham Black Barons, Paige assembled a Won/Loss Record of 7-1, with 69 strikes outs in 89 innings pitched
In 1929, (still pitching for the Birmingham Black Barons), his record dropped to 10-9, yet he still managed to record 176 strike outs in 188 innings pitched
On April 29th of that year, he struck out 17 Cuban Stars, thus exceeding the major league record of 16, held by Noodles Hahn and Rube Waddell. Six days later, he struck out 18 Nashville Elite Giants, a record that stood until Bob Feller tied it in 1938.
1934 – Now pitching for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Paige recorded a record of 14 wins and only 2 losses, striking out 144 batters in the 154 innings he pitched.
He also threw two no hitters that year, again striking out 17 on the 4th of July.
In what was billed as “The Little World Series,” Paige was signed to The Colored House Of David, a team of all white men, managed by Hall Of Fame Pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. Paige started (and won) three games in five days, pitching shut-outs in the first two games. In all, he struck out 44 batters in 28 innings … and soon the White Press were also touting his incredible achievements nearly as loud as the Black Press had been doing for years.
Later that year (in The California Winter League), Paige’s All Stars did battle with Dizzy Dean’s All Stars. (Dean had won 30 regular season games that year … plus two more in The World Series.) The two pitching aces battled for thirteen innings, with Paige’s team finally winning 1-0. One of the fans in the stands that day was a young Bill Veeck, who later described it as “the greatest pitchers’ battle I have ever seen.” Dean and Paige would continue to face off against each other through 1945, always drawing record breaking crowds clamoring to see two of the greatest pitchers that ever threw a baseball.
1935 – When Pittsburgh refused to raise Satchel’s salary to $250 per month, he jumped ship and returned to Bismarck (for $400 per month … plus a car!) That year he posted a 29-2 record with 18 complete games, 321 strikeouts and only 16 walks in 229 innings. (That’s an average of 1.4 strikeouts per inning!)
This showing earned The Bismarcks a spot on the first ever National Baseball Congress Tournament, with a payout of $7000 to the winning team. (In all, 32 teams competed … and Paige earned $1000 for himself and his Bismarck teammates just for attending!)
Bismarck went on to sweep the tournament in seven straight games. Along the way, Paige won all four games that he started and also pitched in relief in a fifth game. When the dust settled, he had struck out 60 more hitters.
1936 – Pittsburgh Crawfords – W 5 / L 0 – 47 strike outs in 48 innings
His strikeout ratio remained impressive. Even in a losing year (1945) Paige went 2-4 but still managed to strike out 54 batters in only 52 innings.
Better still, in the 1947 Winter League (pitching for a team called The Kansas City Royals!), Satchel went 2-1 but struck out 60 in just 35 innings … 1.7 batters per frame.
In that same Winter League, Paige pitched for Tom Wilson’s Elite Giants from 1932 thru 1936. During that time frame, he won 44 games while losing only 2, striking out an INCREDIBLE 554 hitters in only 398 innings.
It was not at all uncommon for team owners to “rent out” Satchel Paige to pitch for other teams as the schedule permitted. A game with Paige on the mound guaranteed a huge success at the gate … and put quite a bit of extra money in Satchel’s own pockets as well.
A team with Satchel Paige onboard drew sell-out crowds wherever they played … with attendance numbers often rivaling those in the big league games held in the Majors. An annual stretch of anywhere from 10-20 games featuring Satchel Paige’s All Stars (playing against the very best The Major Leagues had to offer, first spearheaded by pitching rival Dizzy Dean and then Cleveland ace Bob Feller), these players could earn more money in a three week jaunt across the country than they could playing an entire season of professional ball. (And Satchel was no dummy in these negotiations ... his take often included a percentage of the gate!)
Satchel Paige’s All Stars took on a persona not unlike The Harlem Globetrotters … except their play wasn’t for show … it was for REAL … and they regularly beat some of the best players in baseball at their own game. This was a display of incomparable talent that wasn’t being given the chance to be seen and appreciated by a wider audience, all thanks to the Jim Crow Laws in place.) Still, as more and more white baseball fans discovered the talent they were missing, you began to see more and more white faces in the stands at these events. It was not unlike white teenagers discovering the pulsating sound of rhythm and blues music in the early ‘50’s, a sound that ultimately became the backbone of rock and roll.
In between, Satchel spent his summers “barnstorming” across the USA, playing with any number of pick-up teams that would have him (which was many, as he was the major drawing card to these games. A line-up with Satchel Paige’s name in it guaranteed a bigger pay day for all parties concerned.) Attendance, normally in the low hundreds (200-800 range), would skyrocket to the 20,000-40,000 range if Satchel was on the mound. (As such, they tried to pitch him at least three innings in every game so that fans could see the spectacle for themselves!) Fans came out in droves just to see this legend in action, even if by the 1940’s he wasn’t quite the pitcher he had been ten years earlier.
Still, in the early 1940’s, Satchel was earning upwards of $40,000 a year (that’s the equivalent of about $750,000 in today’s money), nearly FOUR TIMES what the average player was earning playing for the pennant-winning New York Yankees. (To put this in perspective, Bronx Bomber Joe DiMaggio earned about $40,000 that year playing for the Yanks … Ted Williams earned about HALF that much playing for The Boston Red Sox and Stan Musial earned nearly half that again, playing for the St. Louis Cardinals … and these three were nothing short of baseball’s most ELITE players. Joe DiMaggio once called Paige “the best I’ve ever faced … and the fastest.”)
In all fairness, Satchel had to work all year ‘round to earn his money … and he typically spent it faster than he earned it … but if there was ever ONE player deserving of being the first Black ballplayer to cross over to the Major Leagues, Satchel Paige was the hands-down favorite.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until 1945 … by which time it was too late. Satchel was already 39 and past his prime … so that honor and distinction went to Jackie Robinson instead. (Negro League ballplayers will argue that there were at least a dozen other players more deserving than Robinson of such an honor … but he was “the chosen one” … and went on to win the Rookie Of The Year honor that year after signing with The Brooklyn Dodgers.) When Paige was finally selected by entrepreneur Bill Veeck to join The Cleveland Indians in 1948, he was already 42 years old … and although he would pitch to a 6-1 record that year, striking out 43 hitters in 73 innings, it just wasn’t the same. (Still, he shut out The Chicago White Sox 5-0 in a complete game performance … this after pitching before a record crowd of 72,562 fans in his previous outing against The Washington Senators.)
Paige stayed with the Indians for another season (4-7, 1949) before moving on to The St. Louis Browns for three years (1951-1953, 18-23 overall.) Paige pitched minor league ball for The Miami Marlins from 1956 – 1958, assembling an overall record of 31-22, but was then virtually inactive for the next seven years.
A common thread thru all of this was Bill Veeck, who knew what a drawing card Paige meant for his teams. (Each time he would make such a move his critics considered him crazy ... or showboating ... or both ... yet the fans still came out in droves to see Satchel pitch.)
After he sold The Indians and bought The St. Louis Browns, he invited Paige to pitch there. On August 6, 1952, he shut out The Detroit Tigers for twelve innings at the ripe old age of 46, making him the oldest player in history to throw a complete game ... and a shut-out at that! And this was easily twenty years past his prime!!!
A few years later when Veeck held an interest in The Miami Marlins, he again offered Paige a try-out on the team. When Don Osborn, the team's manager, objected to what he considered nothing more than a publicity stunt, Veeck offered this challenge to prove Satchel's worth to the team: "You just line up your nine best hitters and you tell them you're going to give them ten dollars for every hit they get off him ... I'm paying." Satchel then proceeded to strike out all nine men in a row, by which time Osborn (according to Veeck) "fell in love with him on the spot."
Satchel fell out of the Major League spotlight until 1965, when the ever-enterprising Charles O. Finley, owner of The Kansas City Athletics, reactivated Paige and signed him for one game to be played against The Boston Red Sox. (Finley, who was also quite the showman, famously brought The Beatles to Kansas City that year to perform on what was supposed to be an “off day” in their schedule … anything to please the people of his great city!)
Paige pitched three innings and struck out one with no decision, at the ripe old age of 59 years, 2 months and 8 days, setting another Major League record for longevity.
Finley billed the event as “Satchel Paige Appreciation Night” and milked it to the hilt.
He put a rocking chair in the bullpen in full view of the fans so Satchel could relax before being called into action ... and even had a “nurse” on duty to rub salve on his pitching arm between innings and warm-up pitches. (What did he have to lose? The Kansas City A’s were in last place, 37 games out of first, and had barely drawn 500,000 fans all season. For $3500, he was able to give Satchel one last moment in the spotlight.) The only Red Sox to get a hit off him that night in his three inning stint was Carl Yastrzemski, who doubled. (Ironically, Yaz’s father had hit against Satchel a generation earlier in a semi-pro game!) Otherwise, Satch retired nine batters on 28 pitches … and Yaz gave him a big bear hug prior to leaving the field. His final major league / professional strike-out came against pitcher Bill Monbouguete. Red Sox hitters estimated that even at age 59, Paige was still throwing 86-88 mile an hour pitches! Sadly, only 9289 fans were there to see it happen.
In 1968, The Atlanta Braves signed Paige to a one year contract as their pitching coach. (The move was really designed to earn him a major league pension … folks say that Paige did most of his coaching from his living room in Kansas City!) However, he DID actually pitch in one pre-season exhibition game … and stuck out Don Drysdale in the process!!! (That would have put him at just under 62 years of age! Amazing!)
Satchel Paige earned his nomination for The Baseball Hall Of Fame fifty years ago this week ... and when he was inducted in Cooperstown, New York, later that year, HE was the one the fans came to see … and the reporters came to write about. President Nixon even sent a telegram offering congratulations, saying “I you still persist in not looking back, your many friends and admirers are pleased to do it for you.”
(Incredibly, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn originally proposed “A Negro Wing” for The Baseball Hall Of Fame … so that other exemplary Black Ballplayers from The Negro League could also be inducted over time. Thankfully, this idea was later shelved so that ALL of the worthy ball players could be represented together, side by side, in one Hall.)
Of the eight Hall Of Fame Inductees that year, is there ANY name as immediately recognizable as Satchel Paige’s??? (Other players inducted in The Class of ’71 include Chick Hafey, Harry Hooper, Rube Marquard, Dave Bancroft, George Weiss, Jacob Beckley and Joe Kelley, the last two of which were inducted posthumously.)
For a very long period of time, Satchel Paige was the most recognized Black Man in the world. He was just as revered in Puerto Rico as he was here in the States.
(By the same token, he is quite likely the ONLY pitcher inducted to The Baseball Hall Of Fame with a LOSING Major League record! (28-31). Lol)
Thanks to the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, most feel that Satchel Paige SHOULD have been the first Black Major Leaguer … and that it should have happened YEARS sooner than it finally did. (Most felt this way at the time, too … but the truth is by then, his time had passed ... White America took too long to pull their heads out of their asses and give these great Black ballplayers their due.) The very fact that he was signed at all … at the age of 42! … is a true testament to his talent and legendary status.
But this is what legends and folk heroes are made of … THIS is why they stand out, head and shoulders above all the others.
Without question, some of Satchel’s accomplishments were
inflated … but the numbers don’t lie.
One look at the stats proves to you just what an incredible athlete (and
intimidating force) he really was. (Some of the most outrageous and preposterous stats ... ones that would seem inconceivable in hindsight ... are bared out as true based on newspaper documentation at the time.) In short ... NEVER underestimate the legacy of Satchel Paige ... he'll likely surprise you every time!
Satchel Paige … Legend.
Satchel Paige … Folk Hero.
The true mark of making it!
BARNSTORMING WITH BOB FELLER (1946 – 1947):
With Paige now over 40, he still remained the star attraction at these barnstorming games played across the country.
Feller recruited All-Star Major League Players from both leagues to participate … while Paige assembled the cream of the crop Black ballplayers on the circuit.
Feller scheduled 35 games in 31 cities in 17 different states, all to be played in just 27 days! The teams traveled by plane from site to site, encompassing 13,000 miles of travel. As such, several same-day, multi-city double-headers had to be played, just to accommodate the crowds scrambling for tickets.
Feller’s roster included Mickey Vernon (The 1946 American League Batting Champion) at first base, Johnny Beradino at second, Phil Rizzuto at shortstop and Ken Keltner at third. The outfielders included Jeff Heath, Charlie Keller and Sam Chapman … and , after the World Series was over, National League Batting Champion Stan Musial also joined the ranks. Catchers included Jim Hegan and Frankie Hayes … and The Bob Feller All-Stars pitching rotation boasted names like Bob Lemon, Dutch Leonard, Johnny Sain, Spud Chandler and Fred Hutchinson.
The Satchel Paige All-Stars consisted of Buck O’Neil at first base, Hank Thompson at second, Chico Renfroe and Artie Wilson playing shortstop, Howard Easterling and Herb Souell trading off at third … along with outfielders Gene Benson and Johnny Davis and Catcher Quincy Trouppe. Paige’s pitching staff included Barny Brown, Gentry Jessup, Rufus Lewis, Hilton Smith and Neck Stanley.
Whenever possible, Feller and Paige would start each game … and typically pitch anywhere from one to five innings. Games were played in Major League Stadium (including Yankee Stadium in New York!), Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati as well as other arenas in cities like Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, Kansas City, Richmond, Virginia, Wichita, Kansas and other non-major league states like Iowa and Indiana.
DIDJAKNOW?: In 1957, Paige appeared as Sgt. Tobe Sutton in the film “The Wonderful Country,” starring Robert Mitchum and Julie London.
DIDJAKNOW?: Satchel Paige’s first wife, Janet Howard, had him served with divorce papers as he was walking on to the field during a game at Wrigley Field. (Now that’s just COLD!!!) Then again, knowing the way Satchel had been running around, this was probably her best chance of finding him where he was supposed to be. (That being said, Paige was notorious for not showing up for games … or showing up in the 4th inning after sleeping in his car for the first three!!!) He got to the point where he felt he was above the game … he WAS the game. On many occasions he said, “Don’t worry about what time we get there … they can’t start the game without me” … until they finally decided to do so!
DIDJAKNOW?: There is a school in Kansas City named in Paige’s honor … Satchel Paige Elementary School.
DIDJAKNOW?: In 1937 … decades before there was a Civil Rights Movement … and eight full years before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robison to the Brooklyn Dodgers … Satchel (at the urging of “Daily Worker” sports writer Lester Rodney) ran this report (under the banner headline PAIGE ASKS TEST FOR NEGRO STARS):
In his article, Satchel proposed three experiments “to determine whether Negro Leaguers were the equals of Major Leaguers” …
1) The winners of the big league World Series would play Satchel Paige’s All-Stars at Yankee Stadium … with his crew not getting paid unless they won
2) He would pitch for any team in the Majors the following year, getting a paycheck only if he proved his worth
3) Big-League fans would vote whether to let in Blacks.
Part of the idea behind this article was to debunk the myth that Black players only wanted to play with Black players …
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
They all knew that the BIG payday came from playing in the Major Leagues …
And they were posting stats as good or better than some of the biggest names in baseball.
They were also holding their own when paired up against these white players in various competitions.
One can easily chalk it all up as being "a different time" in America ...
But was it really?
Our country has experienced more racial strife in this past year than we have in decades.
When you listen to the many music artists who toured our country in the turbulent '60's and hear the stories about how they were good enough to entertain us ... but not good enough to eat at white diners or stay at white hotels ... or even drink out of the same water fountain as white people ... it is embarrassing that we as a nation could have ever lived this way ...
And yet there is little evidence that some of us have evolved since then, based on many recent events.
We can certainly appreciate the tremendous amount of talent that we have worshiped and adored over the years of black athletes and musicians ... this crosses over to every OTHER field outside the entertainment industry as well. Let us not appreciate our icons too late in life.