Long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of "organized baseball, " Satchel Paige (1906-1982) was a name well known to the general sports public. As an outstanding performer in "Negro baseball, " Paige had become a legendary figure whose encounters with major league players added considerable laurels to his athletic reputation.
Legend and folklore surround the career of pitcher Satchel Paige. Only a single indisputable fact emerges: Paige was one of the very best baseball players to take the mound in the twentieth century. The cruel irony of his life is that his best years were spent not in major league baseball as we know it today, but rather in the Negro Leagues and in numerous exhibition games. Paige, whose fastball was once clocked at 103 miles per hour, never performed for a major league team until he was well into his forties—and past his prime. Even so, the lanky pitcher's talent was such that he became a prominent national athlete, earning as much fame and fortune as most of the major league baseball players of his day.
"There is no question that Satchel Paige was one of the marvels of the century, " wrote Robert Smith in Pioneers of Baseball. "When he still enjoyed all his youthful strength, Leroy Satchel Paige may well have been the fastest pitcher in the nation, or even in history. It was said that when he really poured a baseball in to the plate with his full strength, it might tear the glove off the catcher."
Satchel Paige was born Leroy Robert Paige on July 7, 1906, in Mobile, Alabama. The seventh of eleven children of John and Lula Paige, he grew up poor and needy in the segregated South. He spent his childhood days tossing rocks at tin cans and anything that moved, even—occasionally—people. At the tender age of seven, Paige went to work at the Mobile train station, earning tips for carrying travelers' luggage. Reader's Digest correspondent John O'Neil noted that the enterprising youngster "fixed up a rig so he could carry more bags than any other kid, thus earning the name 'Satchel Tree."' The nickname, a bit shortened, stuck into adulthood.
Paige was ten years old when he began playing organized baseball with his elementary school team. The sport provided the only reason for him to attend school, from his point of view. As Smith put it, "Books just drove him to playing hooky, as they did many boys that age. But baseball consumed his soul. He loved to throw and he loved to hit and he seemed to do both equally well." The love of baseball could not keep Paige out of trouble, however. At twelve he was caught snatching some toy rings from a dime store. That episode and his truancy combined to earn him a sentence to the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama.
Practiced the Skills That Made Him a Master
The industrial school turned out to be just the right place for Paige. Freed from the distractions of his hometown—and under stricter discipline—he became educated and played baseball for the school team. He stayed in Mount Meigs until he was seventeen, practicing the baseball skills that would turn his arm into "the tool that would bring him his fame and fortune, " to quote O'Neil. After leaving the school, he set out to find work in professional baseball.
Paige had considerable skills at an early age. His principal pitch was the fastball, but he was also known for inventing the crafty "hesitation pitch." What set him apart from other pitchers was his control. As late as the 1950s, a teammate of Paige's from the St. Louis Browns told Sports Illustrated: "You hear about pinpoint control, but Paige is the only man I've ever seen who really has it. Once he threw me six strikes out of 10 pitches over a gum wrapper." This precision was not merely a "gift, " or natural talent, but was rather the result of Paige's obsessive practice throughout his youth, teen years, and early adulthood. "We had a lot of players when I came up could throw the ball hard, way harder than I could, as far as that's concerned, but they couldn't gain control, " Paige told Sports Illustrated. "It's such a thing as I practiced all the time; I just practiced control. Anything you practice you begin to come good at, regardless of what it is."
Paige began his baseball career in 1923 with the Mobile Tigers, an all-black semi-pro team. He earned a dollar a game. He also picked up spare change by pitching batting practice for the local white minor league team. By 1925 Paige had established himself in the fledgling Negro Leagues as a pitcher with the Chattanooga, Tennessee Black Lookouts. From $50 a month his first year, he soon was earning $200 a month with bonuses. Paige discovered that baseball was more than just a game: it was entertainment, and it was a business. He adapted his methods to meet those challenges. As an entertainer, he clowned and dawdled to and from the mound, saving his seriousness for pitching. As a businessman, he was constantly on the lookout for teams that would pay him more and exhibition games that would bring in extra cash.
A Star in a Segregated Game
Most professional pitchers work only every four or five days and then rest at season's end. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Paige's career is the fact that he pitched almost every day, all four seasons of the year. It is difficult to chart his career with any sort of precision, because he hopped from team to team in the Negro Leagues and was sent out on "loan" to other clubs by his parent team of the moment. These appearances were augmented by numerous exhibition games and barnstorming trips across country, as well as work with winter leagues in Cuba, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. An Ebony magazine contributor estimates that in his career Paige pitched some 2, 500 games and won 2, 000 of them—with 300 shutouts and 55 no-hitters.
In 1927 Paige pitched in Alabama for the Birmingham Black Barons for $275 a month. The following year he moved to the Nashville Elite Giants and toured in the off-season with a barnstorming group led by Babe Ruth. Barnstorming gave Paige the opportunity to test his mettle against white baseball players—in fact, the very best in the white major leagues. As Smith put it, "Satch pitched against some of the mightiest sluggers in the lily-white major leagues and left them all marveling. But he never had a chance to pitch against Babe Ruth, who seemed to be needed on the bench whenever Satch was scheduled to pitch. In a game on the West Coast, against the Babe Ruth All-Stars, Satch struck out twenty-two major-leaguers—and that would have been a new record in the major leagues."
Such accomplishments assured Paige a national audience of both races for his talents. In the early 1930s he joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the top Negro League teams, for a salary of $750 per month. In 1934 he served one season at top salary with an all-white independent league team out of Bismarck, North Dakota. It was with the Bismarck team that Paige set a never-to-be-duplicated record of pitching 29 games in a single month. After one year in North Dakota, Paige returned to the Crawfords. He left them again in 1937 to play in the Dominican Republic for the princely wage of $30, 000—a salary on par with the best white major leaguers of the time.
At the beginning of the 1940s, Paige was reported to be earning in the neighborhood of $500 per game pitched. The 1941 summer season in the United States found him with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. With Paige in their ranks, the Monarchs were able to advance to the Negro World Series in 1942 and again in 1946. During the off-season the pitcher again toured the exhibition game circuit, facing everyone from Dizzy Dean to a youngster named Joe DiMaggio. Smith wrote: "The Monarchs hung on to old Satch until the call came for him to try out with the Cleveland club in the American League. Satch pitched Sundays for the Monarchs and weekdays almost anywhere the dollars beckoned. He kept count one year and said he pitched in 134 games."
A Belated Invitation to the Majors
Baseball's "color barrier" was broken in 1946 when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Within a short time, most of the other major league clubs had recruited black players as well. Paige was 40 years old when baseball was integrated. Most owners considered him too old to be a force in the big leagues. During the 1948 season, however, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck approached Paige at mid-year about playing for the Indians. The team was in the midst of a pennant race, and Veeck, for one, thought Paige might help clinch a pennant.
On August 13, 1948, Satchel Paige became the seventh black player recruited into the major leagues when he pitched a 5-0 shutout for Cleveland over the Chicago White Sox. Veeck and Paige combined their talents as entertainers to enliven Paige's appearance in the American League. In a well-orchestrated plot, the two men told reporters that Paige was uncertain of his age and might be as old as fifty. Paige concocted a story about a goat eating the family Bible that held his birth certificate. Age notwithstanding, Paige pitched to a 4-1 record for the 1948 Indians with a 2.47 earned run average. In the World Series that year, he pitched two-thirds of an inning and did not allow a hit.
Paige was back with the Indians the following year, but his record in 1949 fell to 4-7, and he was released at season's end. He returned to barnstorming until 1951, then signed a contract with the lackluster St. Louis Browns. He stayed with St. Louis, pitching mostly in relief situations, until the team left town in 1954. Smith wrote of Paige: "His incredible stamina had begun to fade." Stomach problems almost forced him to retire, but he staged a comeback—at age fifty—with the minor league Miami Marlins. Once again in Miami he capitalized on his age, requiring a rocking chair in the dugout when he appeared.
A Home in the Hall of Fame
Paige's last hurrah as a pitcher occurred in 1965. He had applied for a pension from major league baseball that year and discovered that he lacked only three innings of work to qualify for the pension. Paige was granted the chance to work his last three innings with the Kansas City Athletics, owned by Charlie Finley. At the age of 59 he took the mound and shut out the Boston Red Sox through the required three innings. As he left the field, the lights went out and the crowd lit 9000 matches and sang songs to him. It was a fitting epilogue to a long and varied career.
Subsequent years found Paige serving as a batting coach with the Atlanta Braves and as an executive for the minor league Tulsa Oilers baseball team. He settled down in Kansas City with his second wife and eight children, completing an autobiography called Don't Look Back and adding his recollections to historical accounts of the Negro Leagues. He died of emphysema on June 5, 1982.
Paige rarely expressed any bitterness about his career, although he had every right to feel cheated by a segregated society. Many critics agree that it was actually American baseball that was the loser in the Paige saga. Any number of major league teams would have done better with Paige in their ranks when he was in his prime. Marginal teams might have won pennants; championship teams might have extended their domination. For Paige's part, he earned as much or more money than many major leaguers of his day, and he was among the most famous—if not the most famous—of the Negro League baseball stars. New York Times correspondent Dave Anderson wrote: "To the end, Satchel Paige had too much dignity to complain loudly about never being in the big leagues when he deserved to be."
At his death Paige was as well known for his "Satchel's Rules for Staying Young" as he was for his sports achievements. The "Rules" were first published in a magazine article in 1948 and were later repeated and quoted widely. The last of them even has made it into Bartlett's Quotations. In order, the rules are: 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 rumble ain't restful. 5. Avoid running at all times. 6. Don't look back; something might be gaining on you.
Satchel Paige was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.
Further Reading on Satchel Paige
Hotdogs, Heroes and Hooligans: The Story of Baseball's Major League Teams, edited by Michael L. LaBlanc, Visible Ink Press, 1994, pp. 537-57.
Paige, Leroy "Satchel, " and David Lipman, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, Grove, 1963.
Ribowsky, Mark, Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball, Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Smith, Robert, Pioneers of Baseball, Little, Brown, 1978, p. 135-49.
Ebony, September 1982, pp. 74-78.
Newsweek, June 1, 1981, p. 12.
New York Times, June 10, 1982, p. D-20.
Reader's Digest, April 1984, pp. 89-93.
Sports Illustrated, June 21, 1982, p. 9.