This article was written by Larry Lester
This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles
This article was originally published in “Unions to Royals: The Story of Professional Baseball in Kansas City,” the 1996 SABR convention journal.
Satchel Paige, the tall, talented, tan, talkative traveler from Mobile, Alabama, was known for his athletic achievement, phenomenal longevity and crowd-pleasing charisma which earned him the distinction of being baseball’s greatest gate attraction. Satchel was boastful and unpredictable, a brilliant pitcher with an infectious personality. The entertaining Paige had impeccable control and four different windups. One was called a hesitation or hiccup delivery—that major league baseball banned. His pitching arsenal included the Blooper, the Trouble ball, Long Tom (a super fastball) and the microscopic Bee-Ball (“it be where I want it to be”). Former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Dizzy Dean claimed: “I’ve seen all of them fellows except Matty and Johnson and I know who’s the best pitcher I ever seen, and it be old Satchel Paige, that big, lanky colored boy.”
He was born in 1906, the sixth child of 12 (including a set of twins) to John Paige, a gardener, and Lula Coleman, a domestic worker. Paige acquired his nickname as a seven-year-old by carrying passengers’ luggage or satchels on long poles across his shoulders at the Mobile train station. At age 12, he was found guilty of shoplifting and truancy from W. C. Council School and sent to the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama. He developed his pitching skills at the school and joined the semipro Mobile Tigers in 1924. After two years with the Tigers, he signed his first professional contract with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League. He made his professional pitching debut on May 1, 1926, defeating the Birmingham Black Barons, 5-4.
In 1928 the Negro National League Birmingham team purchased his contract, and paid him $275 a month. He stayed with the Black Barons until 1930, when he joined the Baltimore Black Sox for the remainder of the season. The following year, the Nashville Elite Giants purchased the tall (6’32”) hard-throwing right hander. The financially troubled Nashville franchise moved to Cleveland (Cubs) in mid-season, and eventually disbanded.
Businessman Gus Greenlee encouraged Paige to join his Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932. There his life took a new direction. In Pittsburgh, he met waitress Janet Howard and married her on October 26, 1934. Famed toe-tapper Bill “Bojangles” Robinson served as the best man. In 1935, the power-packed Crawfords became league champions. The team had four other future Hall of Fame members: Oscar Charleston, James “Cool Papa” Bell, William “Judy” Johnson, and Josh Gibson. He stayed with the Crawfords until 1937, when the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo enticed him and other prominent Negro League stars to play on his politically-motivated team. Stripped of his team’s nucleus, an angered Gus Greenlee sold Paige’s contract to Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles. Paige refused to report to the Eagles and headed for Mexico, where he quickly developed a sore arm. His future was in doubt.
In 1939 Paige joined the Kansas City Monarchs’ B-team, called either the Stars or the Travelers, depending on what part of the country they were playing. He pitched a few innings every week, but mostly played first base. After many therapeuic rub- down sessions with a special potion supplied by trainer Jewbaby Floyd, his once lame arm was rejuvenated. Monarch owner J. L. Wilkinson immediately called for Paige to rejoin the parent club, where he soon became the ace of the Monarch pitching staff. He led the Monarchs to World Series appearances in 1942 and 1946. In the first series, the Monarchs swept the powerful Homestead Grays in four games. Paige appeared in all four contests, winning three of the games. Always popular with the fans, they voted him to the annual East-West All-Star classic in 1934 and 1936 as a Pittsburgh Crawford and in 1941, 1942 and 1943 as a Kansas City Monarch. Paige’s All-Star career netted him a record ERA of 0.60 in 15 innings pitched. His All-Star won-lost record was 2-1.
Paige remained with the Monarchs until 1948, when owner Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians signed him to a major league contract. It just happened to be Satch’s 42nd birthday. Many fans viewed the signing of this middle-aged man as a box office promotion. It was a huge success. A record night-game crowd of 78,383 fans watched Paige make his first appearance in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Later, in his first starting role, he defeated the Washington Senators 5-3 in front of 72,434. In his third big league appearance, 51,013 fans jammed into Comiskey Park. Despite being baseball’s oldest rookie, in less than three months he claimed six victories and one loss, guiding the Indians to a pennant and making his only World Series appearance against the Boston Braves. To capitalize on this media frenzy, writer Hal Lebovitz and Paige collaborated on a semi-autobiography, Pitchin’ Man: Satchel Paige’s Own Story (1948).
In 1949, Veeck sold his controlling interest in the Indians. Paige was forced to seek employment elsewhere. However, two years later Veeck purchased the lowly St. Louis Browns and promptly signed Satchel again. Incredibly, the next year, at age 46, Paige enjoyed one of his finest major league seasons. He won 12 games and was selected to the American League All-Star team, becoming baseball’s oldest major league All-Star.
After the 1953 season, Paige was released again. He barnstormed across the country until the Miami Marlins signed him in 1956. Once again, under the guidance of Bill L. Veeck, now club vice-president, he spent three years with the International League team. In the three years, the great Satch walked only 54 batters in 340 innings. Quite an achievement for a player now in his fifties.
A change of mind in 1961 found Paige returning to baseball with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. At Portland, the ageless wonder, now 55, struck out 19 batters in 25 innings. Timely, he wrote his second semi-autobiography with David Lipman, called Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever (1961). It was complete with anecdotes and travels of the baseball legend. Baseball fans thought the final chapter of Paige’s had been written.
However, in 1965, he signed a two-month contract for $4,000 with Charlie O. Finley of the Kansas City Athletics. On September 5, Paige made his final major league appearance against the Boston Red Sox at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. The 59-year- old legend pitched three scoreless innings, yielding one stingy hit to future Hall of Fame member Carl Yastrzemski. At last, Paige appeared to retire permanently from baseball.
He later served as a deputy sheriff in Kansas City before losing a Democratic primary bid for the state legislature on August 6, 1968. He gathered only 382 votes against 3,870 votes for political veteran Leon M. Jordan.
A week later, on August 12, Atlanta Braves president William Bartholomay announced the signing of Paige as an advisor and part-time pitcher. The Braves assigned Paige his retirement age, 65, as his jersey number. Although Paige never pitched for the Braves, he was able to get the 158 days needed to qualify for his major league pension as a coach.
Fittingly, on August 9, 1971, he became the first player from the Negro Leagues to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. With Hall of Fame credentials, Paige’s popularity surged with a guest appearance on the popular Ralph Edwards show, This Is Your Life on January 26, 1972. Special guest appearances were made by his old catcher Frank Duncan, friends and family.
Paige, aged 75, suffering from lingering emphysema, made his last appearance on June 5, 1982. Only three days before his death, speaking from a wheelchair with the aid of a respirator, he graciously received recognition at the dedication of Satchel Paige Memorial Stadium, a $250,000 renovated park in Kansas City, Missouri.
Funeral services were held at the Watkins Brothers Memorial Chapel with the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver (later mayor of Kansas City) giving the eulogy. A 1938 Packard hearse carried Paige’s body to Forest Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in the city. He was survived by his wife and eight children. Later, in 1989, the original headstone was removed and replaced with a 6’8” tall, 7,000-pound granite monument, on a remote island along Racine Avenue, a street within the cemetery.
Despite little formal education, Paige was honored on October 9, 1991, with the dedication of a new magnet school in Kansas City, Missouri, called the Leroy “Satchel Paige Classical Greek Academy. The academy promoted the Greek philosophy of “body and spirit.” Over a span of five decades, Paige established himself as one of the most physically talented bodies to play the sport of baseball.