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Sizzling Satchel Paige
The pitcher with the unhittable fireball deserves as much credit for breaking baseball’s color barrier as Jackie Robinson
Spring 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 1
Leroy “Satchel” Paige, arguably the greatest pitcher ever to throw a baseball, was as green as a big league infield that April day in 1926 when he joined his first professional team, the all-black Chattanooga White Sox. Everything he owned—a couple of shirts, an extra pair of socks, underwear wrapped in an old pair of pants—still fit into a brown paper sack, the same as it had eight years earlier, when he was sentenced to the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers. That was a good thing, because Satchel still could not afford a suitcase. He rented a room in a flophouse at the royal rate of two dollars a week. No sooner did he collect his first five dollars than he headed to the pool hall where a pair of sharks let him win a few games, then ran the table when the betting began. “I always figured I was pretty good at nine-ball and eight-ball,” Satchel told an interviewer decades afterward, “but those sleepy-eyed Chattanooga sharpies played me like the biggest fish in the Tennessee River.”
He looked like a rube on the diamond, too. His new uniform hung limply over his six-foot-three-inch, 140-pound frame. Street shoes with spikes nailed to the bottom had to suffice until the team could come up with regulation cleats large enough to fit his “satchel-sized” 11 feet. The one pitch he knew was an overhand fireball, so his catchers could dispense with signs; hitters knew it would be all heaters all the time. They quickly learned that while Paige was fast, he also was wild. Worst of all, he was swaggering. He resisted offers of coaching and crowed to his receivers, “Hold the mitt where you want it. The ball will come to you.”
What saved him was a willingness to work hard and a mentor as hardboiled as Alex Herman, a former semipro player. Lesson one was location, location, location: getting the ball over the plate every time. The key to control like that was practice. Herman lined up empty soda pop bottles behind home plate; Satchel worked at knocking them down, mornings before other players got to the field and evenings after they left. Herman knew there was something magical about this rookie righthander. His talent traced back to his hometown streets of Mobile, Alabama, where he fired rocks with enough power and precision to bring down a bird or a rival gang member. He learned to play at reform school and could pitch hard and sure enough to drive 10-penny nails into a plank set up behind home plate. The coach saw, too, that unless his raw gifts were refined, Satchel would stand little chance in a Jim Crow America where baseball, like every institution that mattered, was split into white and black worlds. “It got,” Satchel recalled, “so I could nip frosting off a cake with my fast ball.”
Over the course of his career, Satchel’s numbers would become more impressive than any pitcher’s before or since. He won 2,000 games, which is four times more than the legendary Cy Young and five times as many as Warren Spahn or Roger Clemens. He set records for no-hitters (55), strikeouts in a game (22), and games played in a single season (153). Even more enviable is his longevity: he started playing professionally when Babe Ruth was on the eve of his 60-home-run season in 1926, and still was pitching when Yankee Stadium, the “House that Ruth Built,” was entering its fifth decade in 1965.
Herman also kept careful watch over his new talent off the field, regularly inviting him to dinner in Chattanooga and seeing that he was in bed by 9:30. On the road it was easier. Everyone ate together on the bus (generally crackers with bologna or peanut butter), then used the bus’s ragged seat cushions as mattresses and suitcases as pillows. While such accommodations meant waking up with stiff backs and mouthfuls of dust, they eliminated any chance of hell-raising. When the gate was high enough to let the White Sox check into a hotel, young women would follow the aspiring ace back from the field and leave him scented notes. Herman made sure that they got no further than the front desk.
While Herman believed he was molding his protégé into a man as well as a pitcher, the truth was that, with each paycheck, Leroy Satchel Paige became a bit more difficult to tutor or temper. He went back to the Chattanooga pool hall and won back his five dollars, plus interest. He got acquainted with local moonshiners. When his next payday came around, his closet suddenly filled with slacks and jackets, the first he had ever owned that were neither moth-eaten nor hand-me-down. He bought a steak dinner and a shotgun. He got a bottle, went looking for a gal, and did not come home for two long days.
Pitching still was the main thing—and what kept Satchel in the money and Herman’s good graces. He fine-tuned a pitch so fast that batters said it looked as small as a pea and catchers complained it set their mitts on fire. His first game, against New Orleans, had been a two-hitter. Two days later he gave up just three hits and struck out 14 batters. Chattanooga—not much of a ball club in 1925—won the first-half championship without losing a single game after Satchel arrived in 1926. His reputation spread fast, at least within the confines of that riverfront city and the Negro Southern League.