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Negro Leagues: Satchel Paige

Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, and this month they are looking at the Negro Leagues. Check out the series introduction or last week’s piece about Cool Papa Bell.

This week we honor for Satchel Paige in an article by Rob Ruck from The African American National Biography.

(7 July 1906-8 June 1982), Negro League baseball pitcher and Hall of Famer, was born Leroy Robert Paige in Mobile, Alabama, the son of John Paige, a gardener, and Lulu (maiden name unknown), a washerwoman. Paige acquired his nickname as a youth after rigging a sling for toting satchels for travelers from the Mobile train station.

He joined his first organized team, at the W. H. Council School, at age ten and soon developed a reputation as one of Mobile’s best schoolboy players. But he also gained notoriety with the truant officer for frequently playing hooky and getting into gang fights. When he was twelve, Paige was committed to the Industrial School for Negro Children at Mount Meigs, Alabama, after he stole a handful of toy rings from a store. Paige later reflected that the five and a half years he spent at Mount Meigs “did something for me-they made a man out of me … and gave me a chance to polish up my baseball game.”

The slender, six-foot, three-and-one-half inch Paige joined the semipro Mobile Tigers for the 1924 season. By his own account, he won thirty games and lost only one that year. Two years later, the peripatetic Paige jumped to the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League. Sold to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League in 1927, he moved on to the Nashville Elite Giants of the Negro Southern League in 1931. The team left Nashville for Cleveland that year, but the Depression hurt attendance, and the club folded before season’s end.

That left Paige a free agent, of which he took advantage by selling his services to Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords. Greenlee, who ran the numbers in Pittsburgh’s Hill District from his Crawford Grill, had taken on a black sandlot club the year before and was intent on remaking them into the top black club in the country.

Greenlee recruited some of the best players in the nation, including future Hall of Famers Josh, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston. He built Greenlee Field, the finest black-owned stadium in the country, for the Crawfords to play in, and he resurrected the Negro National League, which had collapsed in 1931. With Gibson and Paige, the Crawfords had not only black baseball’s best battery, but its two most marketable and highly paid players. Paige, who had filled out to 180 pounds, pitched for the Crawfords and also hired himself out on a freelance basis to semipro teams through the 1933 season. (It was not uncommon for a black pro club to add a semipro player, usually a pitcher, when playing an unusually heavy schedule of games. Negro League players also sold their services on an ad hoc basis.) After a contract dispute with Greenlee, Paige left the Crawfords for a white semipro club in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1935, returning for the 1936 season.

He did not stay for long. During spring training in New Orleans the following year, he was seduced by a lucrative offer to pitch for Ciudad Trujillo, a club in Santo Domingo associated with Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. Paige said in his autobiography that he was offered thirty thousand dollars for his services and for recruiting eight other players, with the division of the money up to him. Gibson, Bell, and a half-dozen other Crawfords joined him, decimating the Crawfords but winning the island championship for Ciudad Trujillo.

Branded an outlaw by the Negro National League, Paige barnstormed with the Trujillo All-Stars on his return to the United States. Barnstorming meant traveling from town to town, usually living on buses, playing against teams of white major leaguers or local semipros, and splitting the proceeds at the gate. Greenlee then sold Paige’s contract to the Newark Eagles, but he refused to report. Instead, he pitched in the Mexican League during the 1938 season, until a sore arm caused him to return to the United States.
Paige’s career seemed over, and most black teams declined to bid for his services. Finally, Kansas City Monarchs’ owner J. L. Wilkinson signed him to play for the Monarchs’ second team, which barnstormed through the Northwest and Canada. Still a draw at the gate, Paige was advertised to pitch every game. Relying more on guile than his once-famous fastball, he would pitch for three innings before retiring to the bench. But as the summer wore on, his arm came back, and he reported to spring training with the Monarchs’ regular club for the 1940 season.

For the next nine seasons, with Paige as their ace, the Monarchs challenged the Homestead Grays as black baseball’s best team. A regular at the Negro League East-West All-Star game, Paige was known for his “bee ball” (you could hear it but not see it), pinpoint accuracy, and hesitation pitch. During the 1942 Negro League world series, he won three of the Monarchs’ four victories over the Grays.

In 1948, Paige made his long-awaited debut in the major leagues. Cleveland Indians’ owner Bill Veeck signed him during the 1948 pennant drive, and the forty-two-year-old “rookie” responded with six victories and only one defeat. Some 201,000 fans attended his first three starts, as the Indians set night game attendance records at home and in Chicago. Paige pitched for the Indians through the 1949 season, but he lost his spot on the roster after Veeck sold the team. His record that year was 4-7, with a 3.04 ERA and five saves. Paige returned to the long bus rides through the night that characterized independent baseball, pitching for the Philadelphia Stars and for remnants of the Kansas City Monarchs.

He returned to the majors in 1951, reunited with Veeck, by then the owner of the St. Louis Browns. Paige won twelve games in 1952 for the hapless Browns and was selected to the American League All-Star team. After the 1953 season, Paige once again returned to barnstorming, but he was soon back in the minors, with stays at Miami in the International League (1956-1958) and Portland of the Pacific Coast League (1961). His last major league appearance came with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965. The Athletics’ owner, Charles O. Finley, who signed Paige to help him qualify for a major league pension, put a rocking chair in the bullpen for the fifty-nine-year-old pitcher, who hurled three shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox. He is thought to be the oldest player to appear in a major league game.

Paige ended his career in 1967, riding the bus with black baseball’s last team, the Indianapolis Clowns. He coached for the Atlanta Braves the following season. His major league statistics of 28 wins, 31 losses, 476 innings pitched, and a 3.29 ERA were only a belated addition to the numbers he put up during five decades on the mound.

Negro League and independent baseball records are incomplete, but, by his own account, Paige threw an estimated 55 no-hitters and won more than 2,000 of the 2,500 games in which he pitched. Many of the games were against semipro opposition. “I had that suit on every day, pretty near 365 days out of the year,” he said. Paige told his biographer that he reckoned he had pitched before about ten million fans. Given his constant travels and ability to pitch virtually every day, it is likely that more fans personally witnessed Paige play than any other ballplayer.

Paige is perhaps most popularly remembered for the all-star aggregations of Negro Leaguers he led in exhibition games against teams of major league stars during the 1930s and 1940s. In these encounters, which sometimes matched Paige versus Dizzy Dean or another Hall of Fame pitching opponent, the Negro Leaguers more than held their own. His feats in such games became part of baseball mythology. Many a fan recounts a story about a game in which Paige intentionally walked the bases loaded with major leaguers, told his fielders to sit down, and then struck out the side.
Paige married Janet Howard in 1934, but they divorced in 1943. He later married Lahoma Brown in 1974 and had six children with her.

Paige, who toured with the Harlem Globetrotters and appeared in a motion picture, The Wonderful Country, which starred Robert Mitchum, offered six rules as his guide to longevity:

  1. Avoid fried meals, which angry up the blood.
  2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
  3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
  4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social rumble ain’t restful.
  5. Avoid running at all times.
  6. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

Satchel Paige embodied life in baseball’s Negro Leagues. Black baseball’s best-known performer, the lanky right-hander barnstormed his way across the United States, Canada, and into the Caribbean basin in a career that spanned half a century. By combining showmanship and incredible durability with magnificent talent, Paige became one of baseball’s most enduring legends. In 1971, he was the first Negro League player elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. “To tell you the truth,” Paige said in 1981, “all over Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, South America, everywhere I played, I had bouquets on my shoulder … I just could pitch. The Master just give me an arm. … You couldn’t hardly beat me.” He died in Kansas City, Missouri.

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