To any qualified observer—players, coaches, even the owners who refused to grant him an opportunity to pitch in the majors—Satchel Paige was among the greatest handful of pitchers to ever take a mound. In his youth, Paige dominated with an overpowering fastball and extraordinary control. As the years and miles accumulated, he became the game’s greatest magician, flummoxing hitters with an unending variety of pitches and deliveries. Paige’s wit was a sharp as his control, his personality as big as the break on his curve. He took great pleasure in keeping people guessing… about everything.
From Baseball’s Funnymen: Twenty-Four Jokers, Screwballs, Pranksters and Storytellers © 2017 Lew Freedman by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com
“How would you like it if you were the world’s greatest tenor, but had to stand outside the opera house with an organ grinder selling pencils, while a guy who couldn’t come within two octaves of you stood on stage receiving curtain calls and showers of money?”
—Pulitzer Prize–winning sports columnist Jim Murray
That’s because for most of his lengthy and legendary career, Leroy “Satchel” Paige was banned from Major League Baseball because of his skin color. The sport’s unwritten rule kept African Americans on the sidelines until Paige was in his 40s.
But the unfairness of life did not prohibit Paige from gaining a national reputation and ultimately being squired into the Hall of Fame. He negotiated a treacherous path with supreme confidence, ironic commentary, and a wicked fastball, as well as guile and smarts, blazing a unique trail across a prejudiced country.
Humor, as well as a rubber arm, was part of the repertoire of the man born in Mobile, Alabama, maybe in 1906, maybe not. The mystery surrounding Paige, essentially classifying him as ageless, regarded when he was born and he fed the curiosity with jokes and offbeat tales.
What a journey it was for the Negro Leagues star, the barnstorming genius, the 42-year-old Cleveland Indians big- league rookie in 1948.
“There never was a man on earth who pitched as much as me,” Paige said of a career that with only one sore arm lasted from the 1920s to the 1960s. “But the more I pitched, the stronger my arm got.”
Never was there a man who concocted his own code of living in such vivid fashion. His teams may have traveled by bus, but Paige followed in a Cadillac. His teammates may have been bound by strict salary caps, but Paige was paid bonuses in advance, or with percentages of the house.
No one could believe how effectively Paige pitched for so long. He was a marvel and a miracle, but he fed adoring reporters his own propaganda when they were around to listen, after his prime years when he rode the back roads of America, in exile from the limelight.
Appropriately, Paige was involved in penning an autobiography called, “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.” He crafted six rules for staying young and staying happy that were essentially his Gettysburg Address, a speech that followed him to his grave.
- Don’t Look Back, Something Might Be Gaining on You;
- If Your Stomach Disputes You, Lie Down and Pacify It with Cool Thoughts;
- Go Very Light on the Vices, Such as Carrying on in Society, the Social Ramble Ain’t Restful;
- Avoid Fried Meats Which Angry up the Blood;
- Keep the Juices Flowing by Jangling Around Gently as you Move;
- Avoid Running at all Times.
Paige was gangly, kicked his foot in the air as he delivered, and had the type of control, exhibited more than once, that could direct a thrown ball over a gum wrapper on the corner of home plate, and mixed in strange blooper pitches that flummoxed batters. He frequently toyed with hitters. “I never threw an illegal pitch,” Paige said. “The trouble is, once in a while I tossed one that ain’t been seen by this generation.”
Paige was almost terminally laid back and he knew that his behavior sometimes irked managers, umpires or others in a hurry. His ace up his sleeve was being the starting pitcher. “I never rush myself,” he said. “See, they can’t start the game without me.”
Paige usually knew what he was saying and sometimes there was a specific purpose behind his comments. He mostly stayed clear of coming off as an angry man, but he could be sarcastic and plaintive, even while he was funny.
“Mother always told me, if you tell a lie always rehearse it,” Paige said. “If it don’t sound good to you, it won’t sound good to nobody else.”
Playing to appreciative audiences, Paige named many of his pitches with unorthodox monikers that baffled listeners as much as clarified things. He was able to throw pitches called hesitation, trouble ball, alley oop, wobbly ball, blooper, and midnight creeper, among others.
“Just take the ball and throw it where you want to,” Paige said. “Home plate don’t move.” For him that was easy, but for others the ball didn’t always elude the bat.
Statistics were not always kept in great detail in Negro Leagues games and certainly not in barnstorming games. Paige starred wherever he went. He was a huge drawing card on the highways and byways of America, in big cities and little towns. Decade after decade he rolled along, throwing bullets to make men with big sticks flail at his pitches. He estimated he pitched in 2,600 games, won 2,100 of them and threw 55 no- hitters. Or maybe it was 100, which Paige also claimed.
Tighter rein on his numbers occurred when at last baseball’s color barrier was shattered by Jackie Robinson and Paige was hired by the Cleveland Indians as a relief pitcher. As a rookie turning 42, he helped the club win its only world championship since 1920. Paige finished 6–1 with a 2.48 earned run average that year. Before he retired at 46, he was a two-time All-Star.
That was just a glimpse of what Paige was in his early years, when he so dominated most of the games he pitched that he jumped from team to team for the highest paycheck, usually without penalty. He was too valuable not to have in the league, and he was so valuable every team wanted him on its roster.
Before Major League Baseball was on television more often than soap operas, large segments of the country never saw the biggest stars play. After the end of the regular season, many of the underpaid stars put together touring teams. Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige linked up and barnstormed, pitching against one another regularly.
This was a proving ground for Paige, striking out big leaguers whom he believed he would never otherwise face. Later, Paige and Bob Feller, who became teammates on the Indians in 1948, worked out similar tours. “Paige was the best pitcher I ever saw,” Feller said. “He’s a better pitcher’n I ever hope to be,” Dean said
At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, Paige was deceptively long-limbed rather than sculpted. He possessed a mix of deliveries so the hitter didn’t know from what angle Paige’s next pitch would come at him.
In one of his most redoubtable moves, sometimes performed just for show, or sometimes pulled out of his trick bag because he felt insulted by an opposing team, Paige would wave his fielders to the bench and remain on the field with only his catcher. The bold statement was that he needed no help to pile up three outs against these weak challengers. Paige proposed to strike everyone out and not even permit them a pop-up or weak ground ball. Somehow he made that outrageous stunt work for him.
“Of course the stories about Satchel are legendary, and some of them are even true,” said Buck O’Neil, who teamed with Paige on the Kansas City Monarchs and was a lifelong friend. “For Satchel, making believers out of doubters was sweeter than winning any ballgame. It was as sweet as life itself.” Naturally, transforming those foolish beliefs usually meant that Paige won the game.
The numbers in the official record books will never show it, but Paige might have been the greatest of all, possibly better than Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Dean or Feller, but with the possible exception of Dean he could surely out-talk them.
O’Neil, who for more than two decades after Paige died became the keeper of the flame of his legacy, once said the odds were probably 1,000,000-to-1 that Paige would ever become as famous as he did. Part of the reason was growing up in poverty in Alabama at a time when discrimination ruled the state, the region, and the United States. Part of the reason was that he excelled in a sporting field where black men were not welcome.
Paige had a long-running rivalry with the powerful catcher Josh Gibson, the greatest hitter in the Negro Leagues, and they teased one another constantly about who would get the best of whom in a showdown. Leading 3–2 versus Gibson’s squad with a man on third base after tripling, and two out on strikeouts, Paige informed O’Neil of a stunt he had in mind. O’Neil called it “Crazy, even for Paige.” Paige walked the next two hitters on purpose to challenge Gibson with the bases loaded. He even told Gibson what was coming, fastballs, for the first two pitches, and still got an 0–2 count on him. He told Gibson he was going to get a third fastball, “a pea at your knee.” The ball came in knee- high for called strike three.
Paige threw so many thousand pitches in games later in life when he kept on truckin’ that he sometimes didn’t bother to throw a full complement of warm- up pitches. As his cited rules for living explained, he was not much for running to get a sweat going. He thought his effort would be better preserved for game action. “I pitch with my arm, not my feet,” he said.
Paige liked to travel in style, even when he did not have much money. While he did not haul in a big- league salary, big- league salaries in the 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s were not usually munificent. Paige cut private deals with owners and even made $40,000 in a year when other top players were earning under $10,000.
He was also very good at spending money. Paige loved fishing, and when he was out of town and caught fish, especially catfish, he wanted to fry it up. Sometimes he turned his hotel room into a kitchen, doing his own cooking. Not all of his roommates appreciated the smell.
No one, whether it was Mae West or any other secretive Hollywood actress, ever had more fun lying about his age, or at least avoiding admitting the accuracy of numbers thrown out at him, than Paige. For the longest time, wild guesses were attached to his name in newspapers. When Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Paige, he urged him to stick with the gag because it would be good publicity. Veeck even offered a $500 reward to anyone who could prove a different age for Paige than was being talked about. Paige said people were stopping him in the street looking for clues to determine his age. “Look all you want, ain’t no clews here,” Paige said. ‘Open your mouth,’ a boy said. No evidence there. Another fellow said, ‘Let me see your eyes.’ A couple of boys asked me, ‘Bend down. Let’s see your hair.’ Imagine, Satch ain’t got a gray hair.’ As they left I heard one of the boys remark, ‘Maybe that Satch was a Leap Year baby.’”
Paige reveled in the mystery. Eventually, the story got around that Paige’s birth certificate could be found in the family Bible in Alabama. In the mid–1970s, Paige was confronted by Pulitzer Prize– winning columnist Dave Anderson of the New York Times with this question: “If you were called into court and had to take an oath on your age, what would you tell the judge?” It was a game try.
The pitcher replied, “The goat ate the Bible with my birth certificate in it. My grandfather got up from the chair to talk to the lady next door and he forgot about the Bible and the goat ate the Bible with the birth certificate in it.” The exchange continued. “They couldn’t follow that goat around all the time.” The goat, Paige said, ate the Bible in 1926 or 1927, and he was ten or 12 at the time. “But you said you were 16 or 17 in ’26,” Anderson said. “I said I did which?” Paige answered.
Paige was wise enough to keep the ball low and away against most batters, and he was proud enough of his control to zip it past them high if a batter thought he had him figured out and leaned across the plate to swing at the outside throw. “Hah, that’s when I take that button off their shirt under their chin,” Paige said. “I got a basket full of buttons at home.” Once, a player retorted that Paige took the second button off his shirt. Paige replied, “My control is a little off. I was aiming at your top button.”
Paige, who threw three shutout innings for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, presumably at age 59, was peppered with age questions wherever he went in his later years. At that time Paige said he was at the end of his “100-year career in baseball.”16 Still, he signed on with the Atlanta Braves as a player-coach (he did not play) in 1968, and the reporters hoped they had him surrounded on the age issue. Paige was not easily trapped in conversation.
“They’ve done a lot of investigating,” Paige said, “and to tell the truth it’s got where it puzzles me myself. They couldn’t find my record in Mobile because the jail had moved and the judge had died. They did a lot of checking on my family and found I had some relatives 200 years old.”
So take that.
Actually, the Braves hired Paige as a courtesy to allow him to obtain the last 158 days he needed in the majors to qualify for a pension. It was a kindness granted by an organization that had once treated him cruelly.
There was a full intent to get Paige into a game on the mound, but it never occurred. When Paige announced his retirement, supposedly for good, a bit later, he said he was doing it to spare the younger generation the chagrin of being out- pitched by an old man. “I can still throw faster than most of ’em, but I don’t want to embarrass them,” Paige said. “It might have a bad effect on ’em.” Hank Aaron, who swatted 755 home runs and is one of baseball’s greats, teased Paige, saying, “I hear you didn’t even have a curve.” Paige fired back, “I didn’t need one.”
Even during his retirement press conference in 1969, there was no let-up about Paige’s age, and as usual he did not give an inch on the facts.
The Atlanta media guide listed his birth date as July of 1906 (which has come to be accepted as the real one). When Paige said he had been pitching for 52 years in a row, someone pointed out that meant he pitched his first game at age ten. “I was the best pitcher in my grade-school class,” Paige said.
He was the best pitcher anywhere, many may argue.
Periodically, after he attained legendary status, mainstream America discovered Satchel Paige. In 1941, at a time when African American players were still prohibited from playing in the majors because of the specious argument that they weren’t good enough, LIFE magazine published a profile of him.
In 1948, Paige moved into the majors, albeit too late to demonstrate his true gifts. In 1971, when Paige became the first Negro Leagues star to be chosen for the Baseball Hall of Fame, it was announced that he was going to be honored in an auxiliary wing. That plan didn’t last long, but it was out there long enough for Paige to say, “Baseball has turned me from a second- class citizen to a second- class immortal.”
Paige lived better than most of his contemporaries, but he liked to live in luxury and he spent more lavishly than they did as well. He could be aloof and looked out for No. 1 in his contract negotiations, but also made sure he had fun along the way. He insisted that the players of his early days had more fun than the players of the 1980s. “It was more fun playing in the Negro Leagues,” Paige said. “Today’s majors are too stiff. In the Negro Leagues we’d fish or go catch rattlesnakes before putting on the uniform. That’s fun.”
After being elected to the Hall of Fame, Paige was in more demand as a sports banquet speaker than ever, and he lit up rooms. In fact, he was so sought after that he might almost have admitted that age was catching up with him whether he looked back or not. “When I was a younger man,” Paige said in 1976, “I could go two or three months without sleeping. But now I need a little snooze time between cities.”
In his latter days, Paige, who outlived many of the stars of the Negro Leagues, such as Josh Gibson and others who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame, did talk about their capabilities at those dinners. One of his most famous lines was informing the world that “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast he could turn off the light and be in bed before the room darkened. There has probably never been a more descriptive way of talking about a player being a fast runner.
When Paige died in 1982, Bill Veeck, the man who gave him the big-league job he had long coveted, was effusive in his praise of the pitcher who had become a friend. “He would have broken every pitching record in the book,” Veeck said. “He was unlettered, but not unlearned. He was a remarkable man, a character you don’t find. I think ‘colorful’ is a trite term to define Satchel. Satchel was a showman, one of the very few in baseball.”