Paige, Leroy Robert ("Satchel")

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PAIGE, Leroy Robert ("Satchel")

(b. 7 July 1906 in Mobile, Alabama; d. 8 June 1982 in Kansas City, Missouri), baseball pitcher from the 1920s to 1967 who is considered to be one of the greatest players of the Negro Leagues.

Paige's parents were John Paige, a gardener, and Lulu Paige, a washerwoman. He and his ten siblings grew up poor. When Paige was twelve he was caught stealing, so from 1918 to 1924 he attended the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meiss, Alabama, where he developed an interest in baseball. His nickname might be derived from his attempt to steal a suitcase, which was one of several brushes he had with the law at a young age.

After leaving school, Paige pitched for the semiprofessional Mobile Tigers before he signed a contract with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts in 1925. Between 1926 and his entry into the major leagues in 1948 (he was only the seventh black player recruited), Paige played for ten Negro National League teams and also played in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. In 1935 he pitched for a white semiprofessional team in Bismarck, North Dakota, and in 1939 for a team he formed called "Satchel Paige's All Stars." When the regular season ended, Paige made barnstorm tours, playing irregularly for many teams.

Paige's frequent career moves stemmed from his dealings with exceedingly frugal club owners who outdid major league team owners in their zest for frugality. Although these frequent moves may make it seem as if Paige was obsessed with money, in the context of Negro League economics, he did what he had to do to capitalize on his talent and popularity. Paige had no agent or players association to rely on; he had to make his own deals.

From 1927 to 1934 Satchel compiled 101 wins versus only 30 losses in Negro League season play. Just as spectacular was his pitching in the annual East-West All-Star games, which sold out stadiums like Comiskey Park in Chicago. During this period his most memorable performance was a 1–1 ten-inning tie, pitching against Slim Jones in Yankee Stadium. Paige's flamboyant personality enhanced his popularity. He gave his unique pitches names like the "bee ball," "jump ball," "trouble ball," and "long ball." In 1934 he married Janet Howard. They divorced two years later.

In 1939 Paige joined the Kansas City Monarchs, a team that he would play for off and on until 1955. At the time Kansas City was a mecca of opportunity for African Americans. It boasted both a professional class of doctors, lawyers, dentists, and journalists and a growing group of entrepreneurs, including the first African-American automobile dealer in the United States. With no white major league team to compete with, the Monarchs consistently drew large crowds. From 1939 to 1942 it dominated Negro League play, winning four straight Negro League World Series titles, including a sweep of the Homestead Grays in the 1942 competition. In 1943 many key Monarchs, not including Paige, were drafted into service in World War II, and the team did not experience its former glory again until 1946, when it returned to the Negro League World Series. In 1947 Paige married Lahoma Jean Brown. They had four children.

Black sportswriters, who were passionate advocates for the integration of Major League Baseball, frequently criticized Paige, believing that he preferred to retain his high-salaried position in the Negro League rather than risk an attempt to pitch in the major leagues. Negro league players tended to be more interested in their own careers than in larger social issues. Paige was not optimistic that integration of Major League Baseball could be achieved, and speculated whether any major league team would pay him the $31,000 a year he claimed to be making in the Negro League. The endless salary disputes Paige engaged in with owners also drew the wrath of black sportswriters. They believed ballplayers needed to be ambassadors to white Americans and refrain from any selfish or disruptive conduct. Paige was criticized for forming his All-Star team in 1939 and for threatening to boycott the East-West All-Star game in 1944 unless the proceeds were donated to charity, a move that one African-American sportswriter believed revealed Paige to be little more than a pawn of the Jewish owner of one of the Negro League teams.

Coverage of Paige in the white press was more positive, although it relied on racial stereotypes. In a 1941 Life magazine article, Paige comes across as a happy-go-lucky, talented but undisciplined athlete who is much more interested in showmanship than in wins and losses. There is no mention of the Negro League or any other black ballplayer, although Dizzy Dean and Joe DiMaggio pay tribute to Paige. One picture stands out. It shows Paige striding down a street with several worshipful youngsters following him and a caption noting that Paige ranked with Joe Louis and "Bojangles" Bill Robinson as a role model for black youth.

Paige's career statistics remain elusive. Negro League game scores made only sporadic appearances in print. Seasons were punctuated by frequent barnstorming tours against semiprofessional teams. Paige's stints in foreign competition, winter leagues, and the 160 games he reportedly pitched for a semiprofessional team in North Dakota are a nightmare for statisticians.

Paige's reputation is mostly a result of his performances during exhibition games against teams composed of white major league players. He got to pitch against all-time greats like Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller, and Hall of Fame hitters like Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio claimed that Paige was the greatest pitcher he ever saw, and Dizzy Dean was equally generous with his praise. Unfortunately for Paige, his chance to compete regularly in the major leagues did not arrive until the late 1940s, when he was far past his pitching prime. But despite his age, Paige turned in some remarkable performances for the Cleveland Indians and the Saint Louis Browns from 1948 to 1953. He returned to pitch for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 when he was fifty-nine years old and ended his playing days with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1967.

Stories about Paige abound. Paige relished his showdowns with Josh Gibson, who was a feared Negro League hitter. Paige would tell Gibson what pitch he planned to throw and would still strike Gibson out. During exhibition games, Paige would walk the bases, call his outfielders to the infield, and then proceed to strike out the next three batters. When a rookie catcher did not show Paige the respect he demanded, Paige threw a warm-up pitch so hard that it knocked off both mitt and mask.

In 1971 Paige was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Eleven years later, he died of a heart attack while at home in Kansas City and was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery. Paige claimed to have pitched over 2,000 games during his five-decade career and gave himself credit for 300 shutouts and 55 no-hitters. Unfortunately, there is no way to verify or deny his claims. He endures as a legend, though the man behind the legend remains as difficult to pin down as his pitches were to hit.

Paige's two autobiographies are titled Pitchin' Man: Satchel Paige's Own Story (1948) and Maybe I'll Pitch Forever: A Great Baseball Player Tells the Hilarious Story Behind the Legend (1962). For information on Paige's life and career with the Negro Leagues, see Mark Ribowsky, Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball (1994). Obituaries are in the New York Times (9 June 1982), Ebony (spring 1982), and Sports Illustrated (21 June 1982).

Michael Polley