Paige, Satchel (1899?-1982)

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Paige, Satchel (1899?-1982)

In an era when American major league sports were a white man's game, African American Leroy "Satchel" Paige achieved legendary fame as Negro League baseball's undisputed star and standard bearer. In a career spanning three decades, the lanky, limber right-handed pitcher hurled a reputed 2,500 games, won nearly 2,000, and came to symbolize the untapped potential of black professional athletes. He later followed Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby into the Major Leagues as one of baseball's first African-American players and solidified his reputation as one of the game's most talented performers. Joe DiMaggio, facing a Paige well past his prime, praised him as "the best and fastest pitcher I've ever faced."

Controversy has surrounded the issue Paige's age throughout his career, and his date of birth has been placed as early as December 18, 1899 and as late as July 7, 1906. By 1930, the young Alabaman had earned a reputation as one of the brightest young stars in Negro League baseball. He joined Gus Greenlee's Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1931 for an extraordinary $250 a week, and for the next six years teamed up with catcher Josh Gibson to form the dominant battery in black baseball. His performance with the Crawfords quickly demonstrated that he was worth his salary. In 1933, he won 21 games in a row and ended the season with a 31-4 record, racking up a professional record of 62 straight scoreless innings in the process; in 1935, he pitched on 29 consecutive days. Paige later led the Kansas City Monarchs to five pennants, earning both the nickname "the iron man" for his stamina and a reputation as the most respected—as well as one of the most talented—figures in Negro League Baseball. He also played before sell-out crowds in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

It was Paige's success in exhibition play against white performers, however, which helped earn him nation-wide renown. On barnstorming tours with white pitching aces Dizzy Dean in the 1930s and Bob Feller in the early 1940s, Paige proved that he could stand toe to toe with the best white baseball had to offer. He struck out the game's leading right-handed hitter, Rogers Hornsby, five times in one game and, in a 1930 exhibition match, struck out 22 big leaguers including future Hall-of-Famers Hack Wilson and Babe Herman. His 1934 1-0 victory in 13 innings over Dean is still widely touted as the greatest pitching performance of all time.

When Brooklyn Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey determined to break Major League Baseball's color barrier during the mid-1940s, Paige's name was circulated widely as a possible candidate. The veteran's age proved to be an obstacle and the pioneer's role fell to Paige's Kansas City Monarchs teammate Jackie Robinson. By the time Robinson entered the National League in 1947, Paige—well into his forties—appeared to be too old for the majors. His high salary demands did little to help his prospects. Although a nationally recognized figure, Paige seemed destined to follow fellow veteran Negro League stars Gibson, "Cool Papa" Bell, and Judy Johnson into obscurity.

Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians, considered purchasing Paige's contract in 1947 but abandoned the plan for fear his efforts would be misinterpreted as a publicity stunt. In 1948, however, Veeck's team was in a tight four-way pennant race and the young executive found himself desperately in need of pitching. Scouting reports suggested that Paige was the best player available. Confounding his critics, Veeck signed Paige—paying him a full year's salary to pitch the remaining three months of the season—generating one of the most vocal outcries in the history of professional sports. Tom Spink of the Sporting News typified Veeck's detractors with the observation that "to sign a player at Paige's age is to demean the standards of baseball in the big circuits … Were Satchel white, he would not have drawn a second thought from Veeck." Veeck's reply became legend: "If Satch were white," he said, "he would have been in the majors twenty-five years earlier and the question would not have been before the house."

On July 8, 1948, Paige made his Major League debut in Cleveland to a cheering crowd of 34,780 fans—the majority of whom had come to the ballpark to see the Negro League star's debut. In an unprecedented frenzy, press photographers ran onto the field to photograph his warm-up pitches; the forty-something Paige then stunned his audience with two scoreless innings. By the middle of August, he boasted a record of 5-1 and a 1.33 earned run average. Paige became, in historian Jules Tygiel's words, "the most discussed performer in baseball." The Indians went on to win the American League pennant.

Paige later pitched for the St. Louis Browns and the Kansas City Athletics. He ended his Major League stint with a modest 28-31 record and a 3.29 earned run average. Yet throughout his career, Paige continued to be one of baseball's most popular attractions. Author "Doc" Young estimated that on one occasion, one in six black residents of Cleveland came out to watch "Ol' Satch" perform. After retirement, Paige coached for the Atlanta Braves. He died in 1982 in Kansas City, Missouri.

During a time when many whites disparaged the abilities of black athletes, Paige's perennial feats served as a powerful symbol to the critics of segregated sports. Along with track star Jesse Owens and boxer Joe Louis, he became one of the leading African-American celebrities of the pre-integration era and a unifying, morale-boosting figure in the black community. Sports critic Tom Meany wrote in the Sporting News that Paige's Major League debut proved to be an event "far more interesting than was the news when Branch Rickey broke baseball's color line." Paige's celebrity and talent helped pave the way for pioneers Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. Moreover, he may have been the best pitcher ever to play professional baseball. Quite appropriately, when the Baseball Hall of Fame formed a Committee on Negro Leagues in 1971, Satchel Paige was the first man elected to the shrine in Cooperstown.

—Jacob Appel

Further Reading:

Bruce, Janet. The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball. Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Holway, John. Voices from the Great Negro Baseball Leagues. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1975.

Paige, Leroy "Satchel," and David Lipman. Maybe I'll Pitch Forever. New York, Doubleday, 1962.

Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1970.

Ribowsky, Mark. Don't look back : Satchel Paige and the Shadows of Baseball. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Tygiel, Jules. Baseball's Great Experiment. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Young, Andrew "Doc." Great Negro Baseball Stars and How They Made The Major Leagues. New York, AS Barnes, 1953.