SABR

Satchel Paige

This article was written by Larry Tye.

Satchel Paige threw his first pitch in professional baseball in 1926 for the Chattanooga White Sox, an inappropriately-named team in the lower levels of the segregated Negro Leagues. He played his last game in organized baseball in 1966 – a full 40 years later – for a Virginia club called the Peninsula Pilots. In between, the Hall of Famer pitched more baseballs, in more ballparks, for more teams, than any player in history. It also is safe to say that no pitcher ever threw at a higher level, for longer, than the ageless right-hander with the whimsical nickname.

Satchel entered the world as Leroy Robert Page. He was delivered at home into the hands of a midwife, which was more help than most poor women could afford in 1906 in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Lula, was a washerwoman who already spent her nights worrying how to feed and sustain the four daughters and two sons who had come before. Five more would follow. Leroy’s father, John, alternated between the luxuriant lilies in the gardens he tended uptown and the corner stoops on which he liked to loiter, rarely making time to care for his expanding brood. With skin the shade of chestnut and a birthplace in the heartland of the former Confederacy, the newborn’s prospects looked woeful. They were about to get worse.

For more than 200 years Mobile had welcomed outsiders – Irish Catholics fleeing the famine, Jewish merchants, along with legions of Creoles, the free offspring of French or Spanish fathers and chattel mothers – and they in turn challenged inbred thinking on everything from politics to race. The result, during the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, was a blurring of color lines in ways unthinkable in Montgomery, Selma, and most of the rest of Alabama. Unfortunately for young Leroy, that live-and-let-live mindset had begun fraying by the turn of the century and it unraveled entirely the very season of his birth, when a local ordinance mandated separate seating on streetcars. Blacks were barred from most restaurants, cemeteries, saloons, hotels, and brothels. Whites and blacks were not allowed to attend the same school, marry one another, or play baseball on the same fields of green. Leroy Page was too young to understand those developments but they were reinforced every day he spent in his native city. Those first few years, “I was no different from any other kid,” he wrote half a century on, “only in Mobile I was a nigger kid. I went around with the back of my shirt torn, a pair of dirty diapers or raggedy pieces of trousers covering me. Shoes? They was someplace else.”

All the Page kids knew by the age of six that they had to help to help to put food on the table and, in a good year, shoes on their feet. Leroy worked the alleyways like a pro, cashing in empty bottles he found there. Delivering ice also brought in small change. But he was springing up like a weed in a bog, and as he grew so did Lula’s and John’s expectations of his earning power. The obvious place to look for work was the nearby L&N station, where the pint-sized porter polished the boots of wealthy white travelers or carried their bags to hotels like Mobile’s luxurious Battle House for as little as a dime. Realizing he could not bring home a real day’s pay if he made just 10 cents at a time, he got a pole and some rope and jerry-rigged a contraption that let him sling together two, three, or four satchels and cart them all at once. His invention quadrupled his income. It also drew chuckles from the other baggage boys. “You look like a walking satchel tree,” one of them yelled. The description fit him to a tee and it stuck. “LeRoy Paige,” he said, “became no more and Satchel Paige took over.”

His last name eventually was rewritten, too, from Page to Paige. “Page looked too much like page in a book,” his mother offered. Satchel had a more exotic explanation: “My folks started out by spelling their name ‘Page’ and later stuck in the ‘i’ to make themselves sound more high-tone.”

While he played baseball as a boy, it was in reform school that he became a player. Two weeks before his 12th birthday Satchel was sentenced to the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers. It was partly that he missed school so often. And at the L&N station he stopped pulling and started purloining suitcases, along with anything else that was easy to grab. Now court officials were telling him he would not see freedom again for six long years. It seemed like a bad dream until they shut the door on him. That is when he knew it was real.

The good news was that his new home gave him endless time for his favorite pastime: pitching a baseball. There was a coach, too, Edward Byrd, who for the first time taught Satchel the fundamentals, and for the first time Satchel paid attention. Byrd’s young protégé had an anatomy that was all up and down. Rising more than six feet and weighing barely 140 pounds, Satchel joked that if he stood sideways you could not see him. His wiry arms and stilt-like legs were aerodynamically perfect to propel a ball from mound to plate. They gave him motion. Momentum. Strength. And he had the ideal launching pads: hands so huge they made a baseball look like a golf ball, with wrists that snapped with the fury and flash of a catapult. Byrd understood what God had given this manful boy with his outsized appetites, limbs, and talents, and the coach was determined that it not be squandered. He showed Satchel exactly how to exploit his storehouse of kinetic energy. The first thing was to kick his foot so high before unleashing the baseball that it blacked out the sky and befuddled the batter. Then the novice pitcher swung his arm far enough forward that it seemed like his hand was right in the batter’s face when he let go of the ball. So was born the Paige pose, the look that over the decades made Satchel stand out from pitchers before and after: left leg held skyward, right arm stretched as far as it would go behind him, the catapult cocked to give the ball maximum power as he whirled forward to release it.

His coach also showed him that physical gifts were not all it took to win. Satchel had to outwit his opponent. Watch a batter’s knees, Byrd advised, the way a bullfighter studies a bull. Detect any weakness in the setup of his feet, his stance, the positioning of his bat. Then put the ball where the slugger can’t hit it. Satchel was better at doing that than anyone who had ever come through the reform school. It was less his accuracy, more his velocity. He threw hard. No curveball or slider, no change of pace or special finesse. Not yet. Oftentimes he almost fell off the mound as he was letting go of the ball. He was as wild as young and untamed pitchers often are. Sometimes his pitches hit a batter, or several. However unconventional his demeanor, he delivered. A baseball weighs just five ounces – it is a mass of cork wound with woolen yarn and bound in cowhide – but flying off of Satchel’s fingers it resembled a cannonball. Most who came to the plate failed to connect by what looked like a mile. And he kept getting better, the way Coach Byrd said he could. Looking back, Satchel said of his time under Byrd’ tutelage, “You might say I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch.”

The young hurler quickly put those lessons to work for a series of Negro League teams, starting with Chattanooga and progressing to bigger, better clubs in Birmingham, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. The best available information suggests that he had an overall record in black baseball of 103-61, with 1,231 strikeouts and just 253 bases on balls. Those numbers, compiled for a study supported by Major League Baseball, understate his dominance because he was not used in a conventional way. As the best drawing card in the Negro Leagues, he started often, but might leave the game after three or four innings, which was too short an appearance to be credited with a win but long enough to be stuck with a loss. The records also don’t include his games barnstorming in small towns across the country the way he did between games and seasons for more than 40 years, playing against sandlotters, semi-pros, and big leaguers from California to the Caribbean, or playing for teams like the one in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he managed a 35-2 mark over two seasons. Even the official Negro League games did not always produce records that were complete or reliable, since blackball generally could afford neither statisticians nor record keepers.

Satchel defied that shadowy system by keeping his own records. He carried a notebook listing innings pitched, game scores, opponents, strikeouts, bases on balls, and, according to one sportswriter who said he saw it, “a very important item to [Satchel], his end of the gate.” The Paige almanac had him pitching in more than 2,500 games and winning 2,000 or so. He professed to have labored for 250 teams and thrown 250 shutouts. His per-game strikeout record was 22, against major-league barnstormers, which would have been an all-time record for all of baseball. Other claims that would have set marks: 50 no-hitters, 29 starts in a month, 21 straight wins, 62 consecutive scoreless innings, 153 pitching appearances in a year, and three wins the same day.

The numbers were dizzying, but each required an asterisk explaining that Satchel kept records the way he set them: with flair, grace, and hoopla. The numbers changed as he added to his accomplishments and as yet another reporter wanted to peak at his books. Each longed for something new and daring, an exclusive to impress their editors; none asked why the numbers or stories kept shifting. His tally of no-hitters was as low as 20, as high as a hundred, and perhaps most accurately, “so many . . . I disremember the number.” The picture was equally muddled for shutouts. Press accounts, and Satchel’s, offered options: 250, 300, or 330. Sometimes he dished out a figure so outrageous he seemed to be testing whether his reader was paying attention, like when he wrote that “I never batted less than .300 any season.” (His career Negro Leagues average was .218; in the majors he dropped to .097.)

Just when any serious statistician might be tempted to dismiss it all as a ruse, closer scrutiny suggests that much of it was true. Pitching 2,500 games seems inconceivable since the major-league record-holder, Jesse Orosco, managed just 1,252. But Orosco’s numbers are just for the big leagues, where he pitched 24 years starting every April and ending, when he was lucky, in October. Satchel’s include games played as a semipro and professional, in the Negro Leagues, on barnstorming tours, in Latin America and Canada as well as the United States, and in the major and minor leagues. He played spring and summer, fall and winter. He often threw just three or four innings a game, but he did it every day or two for 41 years. By that schedule, pitching 2,500 games amounts to slightly more than 60 games a year, which actually does not seem high enough.

The same is true for his other assertions. One hundred no-hitters, or even 20, looks dubious considering that Nolan Ryan holds the major-league record with just seven, followed by Sandy Koufax with a mere four. But press accounts detail Satchel doing it against highly-touted opponents like the all-black Homestead Grays, and it is easy to imagine him repeating the feat with relative ease and considerable frequency against the sandlot teams he faced in his wayfaring across the Western Hemisphere. His 2,000 wins would give him four times as many as Cy Young, whose name is attached to the award signaling pitching excellence. His calculation of career strikeouts would have bested Ryan not by a hair but by several thousand. Some pitchers were brilliant during short runs at glory; others made their names for duration as much as dominance. Satchel excelled at both, to the point where it is difficult to overstate all that he did or to dismiss even his most outrageous boasts.

Satchel’s stats are clearer when he finally made it to the majors, belatedly signed by owner Bill Veeck in the summer of 1948 to play for the Cleveland Indians. That milestone occurred on July 7, Satchel’s 42nd birthday. His earned run average for the remainder of that season, a measly 2.47, was second best in the American League. His performance over the half season he played so impressed the nation’s baseball writers that, when the Associated Press polled them, 12 voted for Satchel as Rookie of the Year in the American League, enough to place him fourth (he joked that if he had won the honor he would have declined since “I wasn’t sure what year the gentlemen had in mind.”). His 6-1 record was neither a joke nor an afterthought; it was the highest winning percentage on an outstanding Indians staff and a crucial factor in the team capturing the pennant, which it did by a single game over the Red Sox. Each game he won had fans and writers marveling over what he must have been like in his prime and which other lions of blackball had been lost to the Jim Crow system of segregation.

That was the best of his six seasons in the majors, two of which were with the Indians, parts of three with the old St. Louis Browns, along with one unforgettable game with Charles O. Finley’s A’s of Kansas City. Satchel’s record in the big leagues was just 28-31, with a 3.29 earned run average. Mediocre – until you consider that he was 42 when he launched his major-league career, and 59 years, two months and eight days when he ended it with the Athletics in 1965. That final appearance set a major-league record that might be broken. He was two years older than the runner-up, 33 more than his catcher that night, and Paige seemed as old as baseball itself when he shut out the hard-hitting Boston Red Sox for three innings. He needed just 28 tosses to get nine outs. He struck out one and walked none over three innings. Batters popped up his pitches and tapped meek grounders. The only base hit was a double by Carl Yastrzemski, an All-Star who led the league in doubles that season and had seen his father hit against Satchel a generation earlier in a semipro game on Long Island.

The denizens of baseball were impressed enough with that and all Satchel’s other achievements that they inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 1971, the first vintage Negro Leaguer to be voted into this most exclusive club.

Satchel’s last years were quiet ones. Too quiet for this man who adored being on the mound, in the middle of the action. Satchel last appeared in public on June 5, 1982, in Kansas City, where he had spent most of his adult years and, with his wife Lahoma, raised seven children. The roar was gone from his voice as he wheeled closer to the microphone, an oxygen tube strapped to his face while his hand gripped a baseball. “I hope the next time you come out, I can stand up,” he said hopefully as the thin crowd stood in his honor. They were dedicating in his name a baseball stadium near his home. The ballpark was as decrepit as the old ballplayer, weeds poking through fresh-cut grass and wind pouring through breaches in the grandstand roof. Friends who knew his condition had rushed to organize the naming ceremony, hoping it would lift his spirits. But it would take more than that. “I am honored with the stadium being named for me. I thought there was nothing left for me,” he said. “I’ve been in Kansas City 46 years and I can walk down the street and people don’t know me.”

Two days later Kansas City was battered by a rainstorm that felled trees and knocked out power. Satchel woke that night with a headache. The next morning, the 8th of June, he could not find a comfortable position to lie or sit. His shoulder was throbbing. He had the chills. Lahoma applied a hot water bottle and draped her jacket around him, then she headed to the store for ice to keep food from spoiling during the outage. While she was gone Carolyn, their second oldest, found Satchel in a daze. She fanned him, calling, “Daddy, daddy can you hear me?” All he could manage was, “Ugh.” His daughters called the paramedics, but their arrival was delayed by a fallen tree. In the meantime Lahoma got home and tried to resuscitate Satchel using the CPR she had learned as a nurse’s aide. He was “limp as a dish rag,” she said. His heart gave out for good in the ambulance and he was pronounced dead at 1:15 p.m. at Truman Medical Center. In the days just before “he knew he was going to pass on,” his wife recalled. “We would try and not talk about it.”

Looking back, we can see that it was more than his memorable pitching form that made Paige stand apart and earned him a cherished spot not just in the Hall of Fame, but in a Satchel statue that now graces its grounds. There was also his role as a racial pioneer, a role that got lost in his showmanship and bluster. Satchel pitched spectacularly enough during the era of segregated baseball, especially when his teams were beating the best of the white big leaguers, that white sportswriters turned out to watch black baseball. He proved that black fans would fill ballparks, even when those parks had concrete seats and makeshift walls, and that white fans would turn out to see black superstars. He barnstormed here and in the Caribbean alongside Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, and other Caucasian champions, winning them over to him and to the notion that Negro Leaguers could really play ball. He drew the spotlight first to himself, then to his Kansas City Monarchs team, and inevitably to the Monarchs’ rookie second baseman Jackie Robinson.

The truth is that Satchel Paige had been hacking away at baseball’s color bar decades before the world got to know Jackie Robinson. Satchel laid the groundwork for Jackie the way A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. DuBois, and other early Civil Rights leaders did for Martin Luther King Jr. Paige was as much a poster boy for black baseball as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was for black music and Paul Robeson was for the black stage – and much as those two became symbols of their art in addition to their race, so Satchel was known not as a great black pitcher but a great pitcher. In the process Satchel Paige, more than anyone, opened to blacks the national pastime and forever changed his sport and this nation.

Sources

Hogan, Lawrence D. Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2006.

Paige, Satchel and David Lipman. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever: A Great Baseball Player Tells the Hilarious Story Behind the Legend. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Paige, Satchel and Hal Lebovitz. Pitchin’ Man: Satchel Paige’s Own Story. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1992.

Ribowsky, Mark. Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Torriero, E.A. “‘We Lost Satchel’: KC Neighbors Shed Tears as Legendary Baseball Pitcher Dies.” Kansas City Times. June 9 1982.

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