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The Amazing Satchel Paige

April 19, 2010

Baseball season is underway. The boys of summer have returned. Enthusiasts across the Southeast are surfing channels to find the Atlanta Braves on television. Very few fans remember that in 1969, Satchel Paige was a member of the Atlanta Braves.

No one is quite sure when Leroy Paige was born. His mother said, “I can’t rightly recall whether Leroy was first born or my fifteenth.”

She later confided to a sportswriter that her son was actually three years older than he thought he was. She said she wrote it down in her Bible.

Satchel said, “Seems like Mom’s Bible would know, but she ain’t never shown me the Bible.”

Major League Baseball records his date of birth as July 7, 1906, in Mobile, Alabama.

Paige got the nickname Satchel from Wilber Hines. The two friends would go down to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad station to earn money carrying luggage for the passengers. Hines gave him the nickname after Paige was caught trying to steal one of the bags.

At the age of twelve, Paige was sent to the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, for shoplifting and for truancy. There Edward Byrd taught the right-handed youngster how to pitch. He learned to kick his front foot high and to release the ball at the last possible instant. When Satchel was released from reform school, he joined the semi-pro Mobile Tigers where his brother Wilson was playing.

Over the next forty-five years Satchel Paige played for more than 250 different teams. “I ain’t ever had a job,” he said.  “I just always played baseball.”

He pitched year-round, often on back-to-back days. He was quick to move to any team that offered more money. He hurled exhibition games on his day off. He spent the winter months playing in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. He threw overhand and sidearm. He varied his windup and his speed. “The more I pitched, the stronger my arm would get,” he explained.  

Joe DiMaggio called him one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. He pitched against many of the great names in baseball. As an African-American player, he was not able to play for the all-white Major League teams until late in his career.

In July 1948, the Cleveland Indians were locked in a pennant race and in desperate need of pitching. Bill Veeck signed Paige to a three month contract for $40,000. Satchel became the first African-American pitcher in the American League.

Cleveland won the pennant and the World Series. Paige finished the season with a 6-1 record, a 2.48 earned run average, and two shutouts. Many thought that Paige should been awarded Rookie of the Year since it was his first year in Major League baseball. He declined. He had been pitching for twenty years. He was 42 years old.

The following year, Bill Veeck sold the Indians to pay for a divorce. Satchel was released by Cleveland, He returned to the Negro League. 

When Veeck bought an eighty percent interest in the St. Louis Browns, the first thing he did was sign Paige. In his first game back in the major leagues, Satchel pitched six innings of shutout baseball.  

Casey Stengel named him to the American League All-Star team both in 1952 and 1953. Once again Veeck had to sell his team and Paige was released. Satchel joined Abe Saperstein and his baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

In 1965, Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley signed Paige, then age 59, for one game. On September 25, against the Boston Red Sox, he pitched three scoreless innings giving up one hit, a Carl Yastrzemski double. Satchel said, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”

In 1966, Satchel Paige pitched his final baseball game for the minor league Peninsula Pilots. He was 60 years old. Johnny Bench was a young catcher on the team.

In 1969, Satchel Paige joined the Atlanta Braves as a pitching coach for 158 days, exactly the number needed for him to qualify for a pension with Major League Baseball. His uniform number was his age, 62.

In his1966 Hall of Fame induction speech, Ted Williams urged the inclusion of Negro Leaguers to The Hall of Fame. Satchel Paige was elected as the first Negro League player to be inducted.

Satchel Paige was known for his wit, wisdom, and sense of humor. His six rules on how to stay young are as much a part of the legend as is his pitching.

1. Avoid fried meats 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 light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.

5. Avoid running at all times.

6. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

            After I went to college my mother cleaned out my closet and gave the Tampa Nugget cigar box containing my baseball card collection to the Salvation Army. I had a 1953 Topps Card depicting a smiling Satchel Paige wearing a St. Louis cap.  The card is now valued at $500.

            “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average,” he said, “but there ain’t no man got to be common.”

            Satchel Paige was an uncommon man.  

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2010
 
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