This article was written by Mark Stewart
Among the men who set the early standard for today’s closers was left-hander Joe Page of the New York Yankees. Page used his physical presence—he was six feet three and 200 pounds—along with an excellent fastball and an occasional spitball to dominate batters in the late 1940s.
Joseph Francis Page was born on October 28, 1917, in Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania to Joseph and Lorena (Couch) Page. He grew up in Springdale, a coal-mining area near Pittsburgh. Page was the eldest of seven children—four girls and three boys. As soon as he was able, Joe worked in the mines. He would rise before dawn, take a ferry with his father over to a mine in the community of Barking, and work there as a breaker boy. Breaker boys worked with elderly and incapacitated miners, removing by hand impurities from hunks of coal that ascended from the depths.
Page’s ticket out of coal-mining was his powerful left arm; but his budding career almost ended when he nearly lost a leg in a 1936 car accident. He suffered a compound fracture of his left fibula that required surgery and a five-month hospital stay. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty he was discouraged from competing in any sports.
Page had not attracted much attention from scouts as a teenager, and he went completely off the radar during his convalescence. However, a couple of years working in the mines added muscle to his body and a few miles per hour to his fastball.
After some semi-pro experience, Page pitched in Pittsburgh’s amateur league. Several teams instructed their scouts to report on him, but no one was overly impressed. In 1939 the hometown Pirates gave Page a tryout but did not sign him. The following year, Yankees scout Bill Haddock, swayed by the twenty-two-year-old’s towering presence, advised the team’s head scout, Paul Krichell, to take a closer look. The Yankees eventually signed Page in 1940. He broke in with the Butler Yankees in the Class D Pennsylvania State Association, going 11-3 with a 3.67 earned run average.
In the off-seasons, Page kept in shape working for a local aluminum company, loading sixty-pound blocks of metal into boxcars. Before his departure for spring training in 1941, Joe married Catherine “Kay” Carrigan, whom he had met while playing semi-pro ball in Springdale.
That summer, Page pitched for the Class B Augusta (Georgia) Tigers in the South Atlantic League. Page appeared in forty games while splitting twenty-four decisions. His ability to pitch both as a starter and a reliever—and a no-hitter he threw against Savannah—made the Yankees’ brass take notice.
Page’s career took a major step forward in 1942 when he moved up to the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ top farm team. He went 7-6 with a 4.19 ERA in twenty appearances, including thirteen starts. The Bears won the International League regular season by ten games but lost in the first round of the league’s playoffs.
Newark finished second to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1943, as Page made twenty-three starts and five relief appearances, logging 186 innings. He won fourteen and lost five, had three shutouts, and led the team with 140 strikeouts and 119 walks.
Page was not drafted for military service after being classified as 4-F. His leg injury had not mended particularly well. In fact, he sometimes picked tiny slivers of bone out of his leg that had worked their way up as high as his hip. Page also suffered from a stomach ulcer.
In 1944, Page was promoted to the Yankees, a team that was a far cry from the pennant-winning clubs of 1941, ’42 and ’43. Gone from the lineup were high-profile stars like Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller, and Spud Chandler. Sadly, three members of his immediate family would not be around to enjoy his big league career. During the 1943 season, Page’s mother died. Between the 1943 and 1944 seasons his oldest sister died after being hit by a car. In the summer of 1944 his father suffered a heart attack and died while in the hospital for a minor procedure. Everyone in Page’s family now depended on him.
Page got into his first Major League game on April 19, 1944, pitching two perfect innings in a loss to the Boston Red Sox in the second game of the season. He made his first start and earned his first victory eleven days later, pitching into the seventh inning against the Washington Senators.
Manager Joe McCarthy added Page to the rotation, where he pitched well enough to be named to the American League All-Star squad. He had won five of his first six decisions, but his record later fell to 5–7, and his ERA ballooned by nearly two full runs. In Page’s final two starts, he gave up eleven runs in 1⅔ innings and was banished to the bullpen. After getting shelled in a July relief outing against the Detroit Tigers, McCarthy sent him to Newark for the rest of the season.
In a sport full of tough guys and hard drinkers, Joe Page stood out among his peers when it came to after-hours activities. He may have been drinking milk to calm his ulcers between breakfast and lunch, and between lunch and dinner. But between dinner and breakfast it was mostly the hard stuff. Page’s carousing concerned McCarthy early in the 1944 season, but winning helped the team look the other way for a while. Once the Yankees began to fade from pennant contention, McCarthy had no hesitation in sending Page to Newark.
In terms of his toughness, Page was strong physically, but as a rookie he had a hard time tuning out the bench jockeys. Al Simmons, then coaching for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, especially seemed to have Page’s number. This would soon change.
Page missed the first two months of the 1945 season with a sore arm. When he returned, he pitched primarily out of the bullpen until September when McCarthy put him back in the rotation. Page won five of his six September starts and finished the year 6-3 with a 2.82 ERA for the fourth-place Yankees, the best mark among hurlers with at least 100 innings. Yet wildness continued to be an issue; Page walked almost as many batters as he struck out.
Because of postwar housing shortages at their spring training base in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Yankees had to get creative with their rooming situation in 1946. They often had to split their squads and keep one group on the road. One day Page found himself assigned to a team populated almost exclusively with Yankees farmhands. He packed his bags and stormed out of the team’s hotel in nearby Bradenton. Page ran into traveling secretary Red Patterson in the lobby and informed him that he could make more money pitching semipro ball around Pittsburgh than toiling for Newark again. Patterson eventually convinced Joe that he would be with the Yankees when the season opened.
Page’s touchiness may have had something to do with the attention he was drawing from McCarthy. Again and again during the spring of 1946, the manager tried to hammer home to him that he had to turn the corner on his career and start thinking of the team before he disappeared on one of his nocturnal jaunts.
When the season began, Page was a member of the rotation. But McCarthy, suffering from a touchy gall bladder and exasperated by the team’s play, took out his frustrations on Page, berating him in front of the team during a flight out of Detroit. McCarthy quit two days later, after only thirty-five games.
In mid-July, Page’s record stood at a lackluster 5-4. The team stashed him in the bullpen for most of the second half. In August the Yankees asked waivers on Page, presumably to farm him out. The Senators put in a claim, forcing New York to pull him back and keep him on the big league roster. Page made a few spot starts, pitched fairly well, and finished 9-8 with a 3.57 ERA. The Yankees, a non pennant-winner for the third year in a row, went shopping for a new manager.
The man they chose was Bucky Harris. Dubbed the Boy Wonder in 1924, when he led the Senators to a World Series victory at the age of twenty-seven, he had later managed the Tigers, Red Sox, and Phillies. With baseball fully recovered from its wartime talent drain, Harris had lots of quality pitchers in camp when it came time to set his starting staff. He had heard the stories of Page’s drinking and was skeptical about the high-living left-hander being a consistent contributor.
The 1947 season started slowly for the Yankees. On May 26, having taken the first three games of the series, they faced the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium in front of a packed house. Rookie Frank Shea was getting cuffed around and Harris sent for Page with no one out in the third inning and two men on. Page had been in six games to that point and the Yankees had been losers in each.
The first batter Page faced was Ted Williams, who reached on an error to load the bases. Page then threw three straight balls to Rudy York. Harris later admitted that at this moment Page was literally one pitch away from the minors. York was taking all the way on the next two deliveries, so Page fired a pair of fastballs across the plate. The payoff pitch was a perfect curve, which caught York by surprise. He waved helplessly at it for the first out. Page fanned the next batter, Bobby Doerr, and got Eddie Pellagrini on a fly ball to right field to end the inning. Page later learned that as he strutted off the field to the adoring roar of 75,000 fans, the paperwork for his demotion was being prepared by the team’s front office staff. Harris called owner Larry MacPhail and told him to hang on to it.
The Yankees came back to tie the score and ultimately scored nine runs. Page went the rest of the way, allowing Boston two hits and three walks while striking out eight. It was a transformational moment both for Page and the Yankees; and for Harris. He sent Page to the mound forty-nine more times in 1947, all but one of those appearances coming in relief.
The night of the Red Sox game, Page had been sitting about ten feet away from his teammates in the bullpen. When he returned to the pen the next day, he plunked himself down in the same spot. He would maintain that approximate distance for the rest of the season—and the balance of his career.
The Yankees moved into first place in June and opened up a double-digit lead over the Tigers and Red Sox a week after the All-Star break during a magnificent 19-0 run. Page, who appeared in only six games during the streak, figured directly in five of those victories, with two wins and three saves (though the save statistic wasn’t being tabulated at that time). His looming presence in the bullpen no doubt played a part in other Yankee triumphs, as it forced enemy managers into early game-altering decisions. One sportswriter summed it up as follows: “If you’re going to beat the Yankees you have to get your runs before the seventh inning . . . or you get Page.”
Page’s new role was recognized that July when he pitched the final inning and a third of the All-Star Game to earn a save in the 2–1 American League win. Soon everyone was calling New York’s new relief ace Fireman Page.
The nickname fit because he was the man who rushed to the scene to extinguish fires. However, the story behind the Fireman Page moniker was a bit more complicated. During World War II thousands of New York apartments were occupied by workers lured to the city by war-industry jobs. When the veterans returned from overseas in 1945 and 1946, the few remaining apartments disappeared quickly. Page and Kay rented a room from a retired firefighter named Dan Malkin, who lived with his wife in a Bronx building. Malkin gave Page a red FDNY shirt that he often wore to the ballpark.
Page’s newfound success did little to dampen his postgame club-hopping. He became fast friends with the team’s more famous Joe—DiMaggio—who was also a night owl. The two spent so much time together that the other players starting teasing Page. DiMaggio’s nickname for his happy-go-lucky, blue-eyed friend was the Gay Reliever (when gay meant carefree). The Yankee Clipper drew the line, however, when it came to heavy drinking. He often chided Page about how his carousing might hurt the team one day.
That day certainly did not come in 1947. Page finished the year with a 14-8 record, a 2.48 ERA, and 116 strikeouts in 141⅓ innings. He retroactively qualified for a league-best seventeen saves. Page finished fourth in the MVP voting, won by DiMaggio. He received seven first-place votes—one less than DiMaggio and four more than runner-up Ted Williams.
Page’s relief appearances ranged in length from a third of an inning to 7⅔, but down the stretch Harris typically limited him to just an inning or two. The Yankees finished the year 97-57, twelve games ahead of Detroit.
The Page story got even better in a wild World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Page saw action in four games. He saved the opener for Shea, pitching the final four innings of a 5–3 victory. In Game Three, Page entered in the sixth inning with the Dodgers up 9–7. He threw three scoreless innings, but the Yankees lost, 9–8.
Page’s next appearance was in Game Six. He allowed four runs in one inning of relief and was the losing pitcher in Brooklyn’s 8–6 victory.
Harris started Shea on one day’s rest in Game Seven, and the Dodgers quickly tagged him for two runs. Bill Bevens relieved Shea in the second, but was pulled for a pinch-hitter during a fourth-inning rally that saw New York take a 3–2 lead. Harris now had to make his biggest decision of the season. He stood by as coach Frank Crosetti phoned bullpen coach Johnny Schulte. MacPhail was in the dugout, too. “Schulte says the Indian is knocking the glove off his hand,” reported Crosetti, referring to Allie Reynolds. “Page hasn’t got a thing.”
Despite Schulte’s advice, Harris decided to go with his ace reliever one more time. Page retired the Dodgers in order in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth. With the score 5–2, Miksis singled for Brooklyn with one out in the ninth, but Page got Edwards to ground the ball to Phil Rizzuto, who started a Series-ending double play. Page was credited with the victory. A few months later Sportfolio, an influential magazine of the era covering all sports, named Page its Professional Athlete of the Year for 1947.
Page and the Yankees could not repeat the magic of ’47 the following season. The team finished third in an exciting three-team tussle with Cleveland and Boston. Page led the league in appearances and games finished and had sixteen saves, but his ERA climbed to 4.26 and his record was a mediocre 7-8. He had been sharp during the season’s first three months, but lost some of his stuff after the All-Star break. His ERA was over 8.00 during July and August, during which the Yankees fell from second place to fourth.
Page regained his bearings in 1949 under new manager Casey Stengel. Stengel was a master when it came to getting the matchups he wanted, and late in games the matchup he wanted most was Joe Page versus anyone carrying a bat. Stengel ran Page out to the mound a league-high sixty times, and he responded with thirteen wins, a 2.59 ERA, and 99 strikeouts in 135⅓ innings. His twenty-seven saves were seventeen more than runner-up Al Benton and at least eight more than any other American League team. At season’s end, Page finished third in the MVP tally behind Williams and teammate Rizzuto.
The Yankees and Red Sox went down to the wire, with Boston owning a one-game lead with two to play—both against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. In the first game, the Red Sox opened an early 2–0 lead. Stengel pulled an ineffective Allie Reynolds in the third inning and sent in Page. Joe walked the first two batters, forcing in two runs to make the score 4-0. Stengel strolled out to the mound to see if there was a problem. “I’ll get us out of this,” Joe assured his manager.
True to his word, he went the rest of the way, hurling 6 2/3 innings of one-hit ball. The Yankees tied the score in the fifth and won the game, 5–4, on a Johnny Lindell homer in the eighth inning. Page’s thirteenth win of the year is still considered one of the great clutch pitching performances in history. That Joe McCarthy was Boston’s skipper made this moment extra-sweet for Page. The following day, Vic Raschi outpitched Ellis Kinder to win 5–3 and nail down the pennant.
The Dodgers and Yankees tangled again in the World Series. After the teams split a pair of 1–0 pitching duels, the Yankees swept the remaining three games. Page got the win in pivotal Game Three with one of his patented multi-inning relief jobs after relieving Tommy Byrne in the fourth inning with one out and the bases loaded. He got Luis Olmo to pop out and retired Duke Snider on a grounder to second. The Yankees broke a 1–1 tie with three runs in the top of the ninth to make the score 4–1. Page allowed a pair of Brooklyn home runs in the home ninth but Stengel stuck with him and he got Bruce Edwards looking to end the game.
Page made one more appearance, in Game Five in relief of Vic Raschi. He took the mound in the seventh inning and preserved a 10–6 New York lead. Page allowed two base runners in the ninth inning, but struck out Snider, Jackie Robinson, and Gil Hodges to preserve the victory. He received the inaugural Babe Ruth Award as the World Series MVP.
That winter, the Yankees raised Page’s salary to $35,000. It was the biggest contract ever given a relief pitcher. Joe Page wasn’t the game’s first ace reliever, but with that salary he certainly helped glamorized the role of the closer.
Page’s career took a turn for the worst in 1950. He relieved twice in a May doubleheader against the Athletics and felt something pop in his hip. He lost the “rise” on his fastball and the sharp break on his curve, and he could only get by on his swagger for so long. By mid-September his ERA was over 5.00 and he was not on the roster when the Yankees defended their world championship against the Phillies that October.
Page injured his arm during spring training in 1951 and split the year between the team‘s farm clubs in Kansas City and San Francisco. His now-aching left arm could manage only thirty-six innings. The thirty-four-year-old Page caught on with the International League Syracuse Chiefs in 1952 but quit after three appearances. He went home to Pennsylvania and reinvented himself as a sinker ball pitcher. He still threw a spitball—something he did not admit until 1955, when his playing days were done—but he no longer had that overpowering fastball.
Page was back in the big leagues in 1954 with the Pirates, where he was used in a mop-up role during the early days of the season. He was effective in his first five appearances, but then allowed seven runs (two earned) to the Cardinals in 1/3 inning on May 20. After he was touched for seven runs by the Giants in an inning of work, the Pirates released him.
Page operated two bars in his retirement years, The Bullpen in Irwin, Pennsylvania, and Page’s Rocky Lodge near Laughlintown. Divorced from Kay in 1955, he later married Mildred Brown. The pair had three sons, Charles, Joseph Jr., and Jon. Page was a regular at the Yankees’ Old Timers Day in the 1960s. In 1970, while in New York for the event, he suffered a heart attack. His life was saved by open-heart surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, but a few years later he developed throat cancer.
Page was a victim of identity theft in the early 1970s, when sportswriter Dick Schaap interviewed a man in a bar who claimed to be Joe Page. Schaap ran a story in Sport magazine, which painted Page as a degenerate drunk. Joe sued the publication for $1.5 million and later settled for $25,000.
In the spring of 1980, Page, sixty-two, entered a Latrobe, Pennsylvania hospital after suffering a heart attack. Three weeks later, on April 21, while still in the hospital, he died of heart failure. Joe Page was survived by Mildred and their three sons; he is buried at Greenwood Memorial Park in Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania.
This biography is included in the book “Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees” (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.
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Gentile, Derek. The Complete New York Yankees. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2001
Heiman, Lee, Dave Weiner, Bill Gutman. When the Cheering Stops. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1990.
James, Bill and Rob Neyer. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004
Madden, Bill, Pride of October. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2004
Spatz, Lyle. Yankees Coming, Yankees Going. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2000.
The Saturday Evening Post
Binghamton Sunday Press
New York Daily News
New York Mirror
New York Post
New York Sun
New York World-Telegram
Telephone conversation between Thomas Bourke and Page’s grandson, Joseph Page, July 2, 2011.