Referring to Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio once said, “The best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced,” according to baseball-almanac.com.
Paige, who hailed from the then baseball hotbed of Mobile, Alabama, certainly could lay claim to being the most durable and quotable pitcher of all-time. There were many aphorisms and maxims attributed to the long and lanky right-hander. His most famous quote is probably, “Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.” He asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” He also said, “Don’t look back, you never know what may be gaining on you.”
Longevity on the mound. Paige probably pitched more innings than anyone in history. During his travels around North America, Central America and the Caribbean, he is thought to have won over 1,000 games. Among the teams he pitched for were the Birmingham Black Barons, Cleveland Cubs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, Bismarck Churchills, Cuidad Truijillo (in the Dominican Republic), Chicago American Giants, Memphis Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Portland Beavers, Kansas City Athletics and St. Louis Browns. When finally allowed in the majors, Satchel starred as a relief pitcher, helping the Cleveland Indians to the pennant in 1948 by going 6-1. He was the best relief pitcher in baseball in 1952, at age 46, and he was still pitching at age 59 in 1965 when he signed for one game and tossed three innings of shutout ball for the Kansas City A’s.
How old? There was always much speculation as to exactly when Paige was born, and he certainly wasn’t telling. But over the years most people have come to believe July 7, 1906, was most likely his date of birth. He passed away in 1982 at age 75.
How he came to be called “Satchel.” No one knows for sure how he got his nickname. Some say one of his boyhood friends said he looked like a walking satchel tree and the nickname stuck. Others say it was in reference to his stealing satchels from the local train station when he was a boy. Satchel in his autobiography and interviews offered his own versions of how he acquired the sobriquet. One explanation he provided was that he hung around the Mobile Bears’ ballpark and collected beat-up balls and broken bats. When he brought the defective equipment to the schoolyard in a bag, people started calling him Satchel. Paige was known to spell Satchel with one l or two, and he spelled his given first name Leroy or LeRoy at various times. Paige developed his pitching skills while in reform school.
Most dominant years. From 1930-37, the tall, gangling Paige was at the peak of his powers, logging thousands of innings for whatever teams would pay his going rate. His popularity helped keep the Negro Leagues afloat during the lean years of the Great Depression. The teams he hurled for included an integrated team in Bismarck, North Dakota, where Paige pitched more than 60 games in three months, won 30 of 32 decisions and averaged over 15 strikeouts per game, according to “Black Baseball: A History of African-Americans & the National Pastime.” In 1934 he pitched 30 games in 30 days, on his way to pitching 100 or more games a year for 17 years, as stated in “Great Baseball Pitchers.”
Dizzy Dean and exhibition series. While in his prime, Dizzy Dean led a team of Major League all-stars in an exhibition series against Negro League players. The final game of the series featured a 13-inning pitcher’s duel between Dean and Paige, with Satchel prevailing, 1-0. “You’re a better pitcher than I ever hope to be,” Dean told Paige afterwards, according to “Great Baseball Pitchers.” “My fastball looks like a change of pace alongside yours.”
Dead arm. Then in 1938 Satchel’s arm went limp as a wet noodle. There was nothing like Tommy John surgery back then, or scarcely anything else to help a pitcher with a lame arm. He rested his arm by reducing his innings and velocity, and also by taking turns playing first base. Then, amazingly, in 1939 his arm recovered.
Pinpoint control. At his best Paige had the best control ever seen in baseball. “He (baseball owner Bill Veeck) asked me to throw at a cigarette as a plate and I threw four out of five over it,” Paige said, as quoted in baseball-almanac.com. He rarely walked batters. Sometimes in exhibitions he would intentionally throw three balls to a hitter and then strike him out on three consecutive pitches.
Assortment of pitches, windups and deliveries. Over his lengthy career, Paige resorted to a wide variety of pitches, windups and deliveries. He relied on a fastball but also had a slow curve, screwball, slider, sinker and knuckler. He also had a slow blooper pitch that went into a high arc before dropping over the plate, and a hesitation pitch that American League President Will Harridge ruled illegal in 1948. He had different fastballs he labeled bee balls, hummers, hurry-up balls and jump balls. “I use my single windup, my double windup, my triple windup, my hesitation windup, my no windup. I also use my step-‘n’-pitch-it, my submariner, my sidearmer,” he said. Many of those windups would be illegal in Major League Baseball but were fine for exhibition and Negro League games.
Baseball Hall of Fame. During his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966, Ted Williams said, “I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance,“ according to baseballroundtable.com. Williams’ courageous words awakened a lot of people to the idea that top Negro League players were Hall of Fame caliber players. Jackie Robinson was the first African American and first player with Negro League experience voted into the Hall of Fame. But in 1971, Paige became the first player voted in who spent more seasons in the Negro Leagues than in Major League Baseball. He paved the way for dozens more Negro League players to be recognized by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown even if they had no Major League experience.
What might have been? Paige played baseball in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela. Sadly his own country didn’t allow him to play in the Major Leagues until 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. Had Paige spent his entire career from 1926-53 in MLB, he may have rewritten the record book and the Cy Young Award for pitching excellence might need to be named in Paige’s honor. Or maybe he would have found the Major Leagues too confining over the long haul for his ebullient personality. As it was he pitched in the majors from age 42 to 46 and compiled a very respectable 3.29 career ERA. He was the oldest player to ever debut in the Major Leagues. Even at his advanced age, he made two All-Star Game appearances. There should be a Satchel Paige Award created and given annually to the MLB pitcher who logs the most innings during the regular season. Paige certainly worked his share of frames.
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“Black Baseball: A History of African-Americans & the National Pastime,” Kyle McNary, PRC Publishing Ltd., 2003
“Great Baseball Pitchers,” Jim Brosnan, Random House