Satchel

Satchel Paige, 1953.

Satchel Paige, 1953.

Satchel Paige must have been born old. Either that, or what he saw early in his life blessed him with the wisdom of age, and it shone in his eyes. He was forced by the color of his skin to watch organized baseball from the outside until he was at least forty-two years old (the oldest rookie ever). His homespun philosophy (“Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.” “Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.”) has therefore become a larger aspect of his legend than his pitching feats, recorded sparsely in dozens of years of Negro League and barnstorming play.

Satchel claimed to have pitched between 130 and 160 games a year for all that time (his custom was to start a game, pitch a couple of innings, then give way to a collaborator like Hilton Smith). He had great stories of his prowess and his range of pitches. “I got bloopers, loopers and droopers. I got a jump ball, a be ball, a screw ball, a wobbly ball, a whipsy-dipsy-do, a hurry-up ball, a nothin’ ball and a bat dodger.” His best, though, was the “be ball,” named “ ’Cause it ‘be’ right where I want it.” One Paige story is that he walked the bases full in a World Series game just so he could end the contest by striking out Josh Gibson, a former teammate and the Negro Leagues’ greatest slugger. His pinpoint control was the secret to his long-lived success and huge income, which according to legend was greater than that of any white player except Ruth.

Paige with Pittsburgh Crawfords, 1933.

Paige with Pittsburgh Crawfords, 1933.

But happy as he was to be the king of black baseball, Paige was distressed when the Dodgers made Jackie Robinson the first of his race to reach the modern major leagues. “I’d been the guy who started all that big talk about letting us in the big time. I’d been the one the white boys wanted to barnstorm against.” His first complete game in the majors, in 1948, was in front of 51,000 fans at Comiskey Park. In August of that year he threw his second complete game, this time for 78,000 appreciative hometown fans in Cleveland. He even got to pitch two thirds of an inning in the World Series that year.

Integration pioneer Bill Veeck (the story is told that the owners kept him from buying the Phillies in the 1940s because he planned to sign a lot of Negro Leaguers) brought Paige with him from Cleveland to the St. Louis Browns in 1951, and he averaged more than forty appearances a season there for three years. (It’s delightful to contemplate that juvenile Palmer Cox brownie adorning the sleeve of this superannuated Brown.) He returned to a big-league mound in 1965, at age fifty-nine or so, to throw three scoreless innings for the Kansas City A’s against the Red Sox; only one man, Carl Yastrzemski, got a hit off him.

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