It happens every spring the great game of baseball prepares us for the summer sports season. I am one who loves history and this game. In today’s Major League world, I see a vastly different star, and frankly no hero’s; honestly nothing close to those who paved the way for them. In my youth, there were hero’s like Murray Wills, Willie Mays, Josh Gibson, and many who played in the Negro League, which had the best baseball players of all-time. Although there were many greats, one stood heads and shoulders above the rest: the greatest man ever to play the game was the incomparable Satchel Paige.
Satchel Paige was born around July 7, 1906, in Mobile, Alabama at a time of extreme racial unrest. I say around because no one really knows for sure. Paige honed his pitching talents in a reform school and made his professional baseball debut in 1926, moving up through various teams in the Negro Southern League, amassing a reputation as an ace pitcher. He made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians in July 1948, at the age of 42, and he continued playing for nearly another 20 years.
A run-in with the law,for petty theft and truancy, got Satchel “enrolled” in reform school at age 12. But the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, may have been a blessing in disguise. His baseball talent, coupled with big hands and feet on his long, lanky frame were recognized by the coach there, Edward Byrd, as assets that could be developed.
Byrd taught Paige to pull back, then kick his foot high in the air and as he came down, bring his arm from way behind and thrust his hand forward as he released the ball giving the ball maximum power as it hurtled forward. Satchel later said, “You might say I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch.”
He played for teams all over the country, from California to Maryland to North Dakota and even outside the country—in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Mexico. In between contracts, he had quite a following through barnstorming tours, sort of orchestrated pick-up exhibition games that included a wide array of talent. In one such game, against white ball players he pitched to Joe DiMaggio, who called him “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”
Because Negro League records were sketchy, Paige insisted that he kept his own records and reported pitching in more than 2,500 games and winning 2,000 or so. He played for 250 teams and threw 250 shutouts – staggering statistics, and Paige was prone to some flamboyance, but experts believe much of it can be borne out. In July 1948, on his 42nd birthday, after 22 years in the Negro leagues, Paige became the oldest man ever to debut in the major leagues.
He even pitched part of an inning when they went to the World Series that year with the Cleveland Indians. Paige was the first Negro pitcher in the American League and the seventh Negro big leaguer overall. Paige pitched for two other major league teams, the St. Louis Browns and the Kansas City Athletics, with whom he ended his career on September 25, 1965, at the age of 59. All while, he continued exhibition games and even did a baseball “skit” with the legendary basketball team, the Harlem Globetrotters.
Paige died of a heart attack in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 8, 1982—less than a month before his 75th birthday. Paige was famous for his hard fastballs, and he also developed his signature “hesitation” pitch, but he could do anything with the ball that he wanted. He held a number of firsts, most notably the first black pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, which he was fortunate to be able to see. He was also the oldest rookie and working player in the game.
I find it interesting that Paige rarely addressed the issue of his age, often quoting Mark Twain: “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Maybe that’s why he was the great pitcher ever to play the game and lives in the heart of a kid who thought of him as his hero. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…