Friday, June 12, 2009

Satchel Paige

I just heard a great interview with Larry Tye, author of a new biography of the great Satchel Paige called Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Who was Satchel Paige?

The most famous player in Negro league history, Paige was its preeminent showman in addition to perhaps its best pitcher. Locked out of major league ball until he was well past his prime, he pitched against white players often enough during winter barnstorming trips that Dizzy Dean, Joe DiMaggio, and Charlie Gehringer, among others, called Paige the best pitcher they ever saw.

For much of his career, he was the biggest gate attraction in the league. Huge crowds would gather to watch whether he fulfilled his promise to strike out the side on nine pitches, and he usually came through. His income was good—probably as high as $40,000 per year—which was more than almost every major league, but Paige's income required him to work year-round.

When Cleveland owner Bill Veeck finally brought Paige to the majors in 1948, the pitcher was 42 years old, the oldest rookie in major league history. Still, he could fill the seats. His first three starts drew over 200,000 fans to set night-game attendance records in Cleveland and Chicago. His major league stats seem undistinguished—28–31, 3.29 ERA—until you remember his age, which Veeck tried to say was higher than it was. To generate publicity, Veeck claimed his “team of detectives” had determined Paige was born in 1899 when in fact Paige always knew he was born in 1906.

In another publicity stunt, the Kansas City Athletics hired Paige to pitch a game in 1965; the 59-year-old tossed three shutout innings, allowing only one hit.

By the time he was finished, Paige estimated that he and his overpowering fastball (known variously as his “bee ball,” “trouble ball,” and “Long Tom”) had seen action in more than 2,500 games, winning 2,000 of them, against Negro league and semipro teams; other estimates include 100 no-hitters, 22 strikeouts in one game, and as many as 153 games pitched in one calendar year. Take those estimates with an appropriately sized grain of salt.

Aside from his dominance on the mound, Paige’s unique brand of wit and charm has entered American folklore. In his much-quoted article titled “How to Stay Young,” Paige offered these suggestions: “Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

But Paige was no clown. When the Hall of Fame decided to honor a number of stars with a special wing for Negro leaguers in 1972, Paige observed, “The only change is that baseball has turned Paige from a second-class citizen to a second-class immortal.” Paige’s criticism encouraged the Hall of Fame instead to put the Negro leaguers in the same wing as everybody else—a decision that, in retrospect, seems like a no-brainer.

Whether you buy Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legendor Paige's own autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, you owe it to yourself as a baseball fan to learn more about Satchel Paige.


Stephen said...

In my early teens I read Paige's "Maybe I"ll Pitch Forever." It was a great read, sadly I gave the book away. I wish I still had it. Paige is/was the Walter Johnson of the leagues he pitched in. He is the standard to which all others are compared. His selection to the Hall was long overdue. Delayed because the Hall originally was designed to honor MLB players and executives only.

David H. Martinez said...

You can still buy Paige's book here: