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Satchel Paige

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by David Zingler

NEGRO LEAGUES 1925-47: Chattanooga Black Lookouts, New Orleans Black Pelicans, Birmingham Black Barons, Baltimore Black Sox, Nashville Elite Giants, Cleveland Cubs, St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, Memphis Red Sox, New York Black Yankees, East Chicago Giants, Philadelphia Stars, Chicago American Giants

Cleveland Indians 1948-49;
St. Louis Browns 1951-53;
Kansas City Athletics 1965

The combination of style and substance is rare in sports. We are bombarded daily with athletes that seem more concerned with getting on highlight reels than actually performing effectively and winning. Other athletes go about their business quietly, but do nothing to stir our imagination. One man, however, combined the art of style with determined, results-driven performance to near perfection. That man was Satchel Paige, possibly the greatest pitcher to ever take the mound.

Leroy Robert Paige was born on July 7, 1906, so they say - according to some accounts he may have been born as early as 1900. Leroy was the sixth of 12 children born to John and Lulu Paige in Mobile, AL. Leroy became "Satchel" as a child while working at train depot carrying suitcases. The young Paige invented a device consisting of a pole and rope that helped him carry several suitcases at a time. While carrying bags using the device he became known as the "satchel tree," which was later shortened to simply "Satchel."

Paige's baseball career began to take shape while at the state Industrial School for Negro Children. A mischievous youngster, he had been sent there for truancy and shoplifting, and used baseball as a cure for boredom. During the summers he played semipro ball and made his organized debut in 1924 for the Mobile Tigers.

Paige's career is nothing short of an odyssey. It has been estimated that he pitched in more than 2,000 games during the 1939s and 40s in a wide array of venues including Yankee Stadium and Comiskey Park and in small towns and public parks all over the country. Paige's travels were not, however, limited to the United States. He played winter ball in Mexico, South America, and several Caribbean Islands.

Paige even pitched in a series that may have been a life or death situation: Paige was part of a team assembled by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. It was rumored that the countries' election hinged on the series' outcome. Heavily armed "spectators" lined the stadium. Paige won the game and had reportedly secretly arranged a police escort to take the team out of the country after the game. One can only speculate on what would have happened had the team lost.

Back in the States Paige played for several Negro teams including the Kansas City Monarchs, whom he helped win six pennants, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. While pitching for the Crawfords, Paige went 23-7 in 1932 and then 31-4 in 1933. His '33 campaign included 21 straight wins and a 62 inning scoreless streak. Ever the promoter and always in remarkable physical condition, Paige would often tour with his own team, the Satchel Paige All Stars, on off days and fill up small town stadiums for the exhibitions.

Paige's colorful personality made him a hit at the box office, but it was his keen business sense that made him rich. He made upwards of $40,000 a year (more than just about every major leaguer at the time) during the depression - ridden 30s and even had his own airplane for the Satchel Paige All Stars.

Paige developed a wide array of pitches that he often gave names to, including "the Two-Hump Blooper": a moving changeup, "the Little Tom": his medium fastball, "the Long Tom": his hard fastball, and his "Hesitation Pitch" in which he paused after his left foot hit the ground during his delivery. Paige was an equal opportunity strike out artist. He often baffled white players during barn storming exhibitions. Joe Dimaggio called Paige "the best" and "fastest" he'd ever faced.

Dizzy Dean, the Cardinals ace at the time, lavished praise on Paige saying "My fastball looks like a change of pace along side that little pistol bullet old Satchel shoots up to the plate." Dean went on to say, "If Satch and I were pitching on the same team, we'd clinch the pennant by the fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time."

Paige's antics, such as calling all of his fielders in and having them sit behind the mound and guaranteeing he'd strike out the first nine hitters of a game, sometimes angered his Negro League colleagues and the black sportswriters of the day. Some felt he may have been holding back the integration of baseball.

Sam Lacy, perhaps the most prominent African American sports journalist of the day wrote, "Satchel Paige, judged on his ability as a moundsman, undoubtedly would have covered himself with glory in anybody's league in his heyday. But, Satchel soon learned that he could make more money as a showman than he could ever hope to draw as a brilliant flinger. The result was that the redoubtable Kansas City ace turned his slab assignments into a combination vaudeville act and pitching performance."

In reality, however, Paige opened many more doors than he closed. He brought and prominence and popularity that black baseball never had before. He, along with Josh Gibson, acted as the games ambassadors and remain it's most enduring figures.

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, it was bittersweet for Paige. He was, of course glad to see a black man in the major leagues, but at the same time he must of felt more than worthy of the honor. He would have to wait one year to break into the major leagues and become a "rookie" again.

When Paige signed with the Cleveland Indians on his 42nd birthday, the Sporting News billed it as a "publicity stunt" that "demeaned" baseball. Maverick Indians owner Bill Veeck responded, "If Satch were white, of course he would have been in the majors 25 years earlier and the question would not have been before the house."

Paige, however, let his amazing arm do the talking going 6-1 with a save and a 2.48 ERA. In the major leagues, Paige continued to be a box office draw; over 200,000 people attended his first three starts including a Cleveland single game record of 78,382. Paige helped the Tribe win the pennant and eventually the World Series. The 1948 title remains, today, as the teams' last World Series championship.

After going 4-7 with a 3.04 ERA in 1949 the Indians released Paige, he sat out the 1950 season. After Veeck had purchased the St. Louis Browns, he again signed Paige in 1951. Satchel would pitch three years in St. Louis, with his most productive being 1952 (12-10, 10 saves, 3.07 ERA).
After being released in 1954, Paige returned to the Negro Leagues and then bounced around the minor league circuit.

On September 25, 1965, at the age of 59, Satchel Paige pitched three scoreless innings of one hit ball for the Kansas City Athletics. The lone hit was a double by Boston's Carl Yazstremski. He remains the oldest player to pitch in the major leagues. Paige was done in the majors, but not with baseball - he barnstormed until 1969 when he became a coach with the Atlanta Braves.

In 1971 Leroy Robert "Satchel" Paige became the first Negro League player inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Satchel Paige died on June 8, 1982 in Kansas City, MO after a battle with emphysema. Wherever he is now, you have to believe he is still pitching.

-David Zingler, February 2002

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