Satchel Paige

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Leroy Robert ("Satchel") Paige (July 7, 1906, Mobile, Alabama–June 8, 1982, Kansas City, Missouri) was a legendary black baseball player who spent most of his career in the marginal and ill-paying Negro Leagues because the color of his skin barred him from playing in the all-white Major Leagues. Even though he toiled mostly in obscurity during his prime years, he was nevertheless well known throughout North America as being one of the greatest pitchers of his day, and late in his career he became even more famous as a seemingly ageless living legend who had at last managed to pitch his way into the Big Leagues. Although he was at least in his early 40s, and perhaps even older, when he first pitched in a Major League game, he still retained enough skills, including a blazing fastball, pinpoint control, and a baffling assortment of junk pitches, to be a successful pitcher for the next five years and he was, at least during his first year in the Big Leagues in 1948, a gate-pleasing attraction who drew overflow, record-breaking crowds to several different ballparks. He pitched in his last Major League game at the age of 59 in 1965 and in his last professional game in 1966. In 1971 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. Bill James, the ground-breaking baseball historian and sabremetrician, named Paige the 17th greatest player of all time, non-pitchers included, in his New Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001, just ahead of such great Caucasian pitchers as Lefty Grove, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Warren Spahn. [1]

Bill Veeck

Bill Veeck, the iconoclastic owner of the Cleveland Indians, brought Paige to his team in the midst of its 1948 summer drive for the American League pennant. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier just the year before and there were still only half-a-dozen black players in the major leagues, with Larry Doby of the Indians being the only prominent one in the American League. Veeck, who was reviled by baseball's Old Guard, including most of his fellow owners, as being nothing more than a half-mad promoter and vulgar showman, was widely disparaged for bringing in a 42-year-old player at such a critical moment in the pennant race. It was called "cheap and tawdry" and "an admission that I was writing off our pennant chances."[2]

J.P. Taylor Spink, the publisher of The Sporting News, the renowned baseball weekly,[3] wrote that:
To bring in a pitching "rookie" of Paige's age casts a reflection on the entire scheme of operation in the major leagues. To sign a pitcher of Paige's age is to demean the standards of baseball in the big circuits. Further complicating the situation is the suspicion that if Satchel were white, he would not have drawn a second thought from Veeck.

To which Veeck replies in his autobiography Veeck—As In Wreck:[4]

If Satch were white, of course, he would have been in the majors twenty-five years earlier.... Satch demeaned the standards of baseball with five big victories over the remainer of the season, plus some valuable relief work. After every Paige victory I would send Spink a telegram: NINE INNINGS. FOUR HITS, FIVE STRIKEOUTS. WINNING PITCHER: PAIGE. DEFINITELY IN LINE FOR THE SPORTING NEWS AWARD AS ROOKIE OF THE YEAR.

How old was Ol' Satch really?

Record keeping for the Negro Leagues and other leagues that Paige played in during his long career was often spotty and many records are scanty, missing, or inconclusive. Paige apparently began playing in Organized Baseball in 1926, although some sources claim an even earlier date. In any event, he pitched all over North America and the Caribbean for at least two decades before joining the Cleveland Indians. Born into deepest poverty, the precise date of his birth was always in question and as Paige grew older and more famous he made mischievous efforts to render it even more mysterious. He was one of many children, and when interviewed his mother would say, "I can't rightly recall whether Leroy was first born or my fifteenth."[5] Various birth certificates were unearthed at various times, for slightly different names, and all giving different dates. When Paige first came up to the Indians, it was accepted that he was born on July 7, 1906. Veeck, however, a consumate showman who loved to embellish a good story to make it even better, says in his autobiography that he hired private detectives to track down the real date of birth and eventually came to the conclusion that Paige could not have been born any later than September 18, 1899, thereby making him just shy of 49 years old at his Major League debut. [6] Other sources, including a commercial Website claiming to be his official Website, give slightly earlier dates in 1905.[7] Yet another source, although an oral one, moves the date back to 1900. A former Negro Leagues star named Theodore Roosevelt "Double Duty" Radcliffe said in an interview that, "Satchel and I were born in the same town, Mobile. Satchel didn't tell them when he was with Cleveland, but he was born in 1900. He is a few years older than me, and I was born in 1904." [8]

Pin-point control

Veeck, whose father was for many years the general manager of the Chicago Cubs, had seen Paige pitch in the Negro Leagues and barnstorming events since Veeck was a youngster. "In his younger days," says Veeck, "he had blinding speed, but only a little wrinkle of a curve. Satch, in fact, didn't develop a good curve until he was fifty-four years old." [9]
His great asset, though, was his control. One of his barnstorming gags was to set up a one-by-two plank behind home plate and stick four tenpenny nails into it. Then he'd drive the nails into the board by pitching from the mound. And never take more than ten pitches. That's control, man."

Staying young

Paige had a folksy, laid-back manner with a sly sense of humor that charmed most people, both white and black. During his burst of celebrity in the late 1940s and early 1950s numerous articles about him, and/or supposedly written by him, appeared in national magazines. In some of them the seemingly ageless pitching marvel expounded about his "Rules for Staying Young":

  1. "Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood."
  2. "If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts."
  3. "Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move."
  4. "Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society—the social ramble ain't restful."
  5. "Avoid running at all times."
  6. "And don't look back—something might be gaining on you."

Developing a strong arm

Bill James has a small box in his Historical Abstract chapter about the 1930s entitled: Thank God I'm a Country Boy. [10] The text reads:
Kirby Higby says in his autobiography that he developed his strong arm by throwing rocks at the Negroes. Satchel Paige says in his that he developed his arm by throwing rocks at the white boys.

Notes

  1. Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, The Free Press, New York, 2001, page 360
  2. Bill Veeck & Ed Lynn, Veeck—As In Wreck, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, July, 1962. All quotations here are from the paperback edition published by Bantam Books, New York, April, 1963. Page 188.
  3. Ibid., page 189.
  4. Ibid., page 189.
  5. Ibid., page 193.
  6. Ibid., page 193.
  7. see [1]
  8. John Holway, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, page 173
  9. Bill Veeck & Ed Lynn, Veeck—As In Wreck, Page 186 for both quotations
  10. Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, The Free Press, New York, 2001, page 165