Sizzling Satchel Paige

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Satchel would be coveted by white teams throughout his career in blackball. He had first heard the tease “if only you were white” back home in Mobile and would hear it repeatedly for another 20 years in Jim Crow America. Named after a white actor in blackface playing a cowering plantation slave in an 1820s minstrel show, Jim Crow refers to the amalgam of Southern statutes that legalized separation of the races everywhere from public bathrooms to hospitals, boarding houses, and even parks. It also is shorthand for a racist way of life. By either definition Jim Crow was there with Satchel in Mobile, capital of the old Confederacy and a city where many white residents still were fighting battles from a war they lost two generations before. Jim Crow is even more central to the saga of the Negro Leagues, where Satchel played most of his career. The era of black baseball ran from 1887, when the first professional league crafted its color line, through the path-breaking signing of Jackie Robinson in 1945—60 years that mirror the rise and fall of legally sanctioned segregation in America.

Satchel Paige started hacking away at Jim Crow long before the world heard of Jackie Robinson. Satchel never was a modern militant, waging war over every slight, but he brought a spotlight to the Negro Leagues. He pushed to be paid a wage commensurate with his drawing power, in the process raising the wages of his teammates. His salary in his best years at least equaled the President’s, which is how he could afford 40 tailor-made suits, 30 pairs of custom-made shoes with pearls in the toes, underwear festooned with flowers, and a personal valet. He proved that black fans would fill ballparks, even when those parks had concrete seats and makeshift walls, and that white fans, too, would turn out to see black superstars. Satchel pitched so brilliantly, especially when his teams were beating the best of the white big leaguers two of every three times they played them, that fans, sportswriters, and big league owners could not help but notice.

July 1948

Satchel’s July 3rd telegram to Bill Veeck, who owned the Cleveland Indians, was point-blank: “Is it time for me to come?” The pitcher had swallowed his pride when Jackie Robinson broke through baseball’s color bar by suiting up with the Brooklyn Dodgers at the start of that 1947 season. He was kicked in the gut again three months later, when the Indians integrated the American League by hiring Larry Doby. Veeck had claimed for years that Satchel was the greatest Negro Leaguer of all, born to break barriers. Now, a day after the Doby signing and two decades after Satchel’s professional debut in Chattanooga, the aging hurler simply had to ask. Veeck’s reply was a cruel twist on the old tease: “All things in due time.”

It was not that Veeck doubted the veracity of the Satchel legend. Paige’s 13-inning, 1–0 triumph over Dizzy Dean in California in 1934 remained Veeck’s benchmark for pitching perfection. The Indians’ owner embraced the whole package that was Satchel, from carousing to storytelling to filling whatever room he was in. Veeck had only two questions when he took over in Cleveland in the mid-1940s: Did the flamethrower have enough fire left to help the Indians? If so, when was the time right?

Abe Saperstein, who owned the Harlem Globetrotters and had helped find bookings for Satchel for years, assured his friend Veeck that the pitcher still could work his magic. That left timing. Veeck almost signed Paige instead of Doby in the summer of 1947, but concerns lingered that Satchel’s age and roguish reputation would give baseball’s old guard the opportunity to charge that his interest in black players was purely promotional. Now it was the summer of ’48, and Cleveland was gripped in history’s tightest pennant race with Ted Williams’s Red Sox, Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees, and Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. The Indians had the mighty bats they needed to end the team’s 28-year championship drought, the longest in the league. Bob Lemon was a star on the mound; Gene Bearden’s meteoric rise had fueled dreams of a title; and Bob Feller was great some nights, although not as often as before. What was missing was one more pitcher who could start, relieve, and carry the young staff through the dog days of summer. So a year after Satchel sent his plaintive telegram, Veeck again contacted Saperstein. The old guard be damned. It was time to try the ancient pitcher out.

Satchel arrived in Cleveland the morning of July 6, 1948, for an audition as clandestine as Jackie Robinson’s. Bill Veeck was there, along with player-manager Lou Boudreau. “Bill called me at home and asked, ‘How’d you like to get a little extra batting practice?’” Boudreau recalled in his memoirs. “I wasn’t much under .400 at the time and I was surprised that the boss thought I needed more batting practice.”

When he got to the field, he asked, “Where’s the kid?” and Veeck pointed to Satchel, who was sitting in the opposing dugout. Boudreau kept looking, convinced it was a ruse.

The tryout was next. As soon as Boudreau stepped to the plate, Satchel reached back with his patented corkscrew windup and blistered in a pitch that the player-manager hit foul. Then Satchel did it again and again, with overhands, sidearms, and underhands, all ending in foul balls, weak grounders, and infield pop-ups. Boudreau might have been vying with Ted Williams for the batting title, but “against Paige, he batted .000,” recalled Veeck. “Satch threw 20 pitches. Nineteen of them were strikes. Lou swung 19 times, and he had nothing that looked like a base hit. After a final pop fly, he dropped his bat, came over to us, and said, ‘Don’t let him get away, Bill. We can use him.’”