Sizzling Satchel Paige

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Cleveland signed Satchel to a contract the next day—July 7, 1948—on the pitcher’s forty-second birthday. He was old enough that he could have fathered several of his teammates. He thus became the most geriatric rookie in the history of baseball, a record that still stands. His signing also made him the first African American pitcher in the American League. But would this be a final burst of glory or a tragic last act?

His numbers silenced the skeptics. In his first half-season in the majors, Satchel’s earned run average was a measly 2.47, second best in the American League. His performance so impressed the nation’s baseball writers that 12 voted for Satchel as Rookie of the Year, enough to place him fourth. (Should he have won, he joked, he would have declined because “I wasn’t sure what year the gentlemen had in mind.”) His 6–1 record was neither a joke nor an afterthought; it was the highest winning percentage on the Indians’ roster and a key factor in the team’s capturing the pennant—by a single game—over the Red Sox.

September 1965

Insurance magnate Charles O. Finley was the one owner in baseball with as much whimsy and even more cash than Bill Veeck. The new owner of the Kansas City Athletics designated a live mule to be the team’s mascot, named him Charley O., and paraded him into the press room. Finley pledged to keep the club in Kansas City, then tried to shop it to Dallas, Atlanta, Louisville, and Oakland, its eventual home.

As the 1965 season wound down in Kansas City, Finley startled the baseball world by signing Satchel and announcing that the aging pitcher would start against the Red Sox on September 25, “Satchel Paige Appreciation Night.” “I thought they were kidding,” Satchel told reporters. For Paige—who had broken into black baseball 40 years before—it was another chance to prove himself. For Finley it was a bold-as-brass stunt to inflate attendance. His team had drawn barely 500,000 fans all season and was in last place, 37 games out of contention.

Finley himself choreographed the big night. Satchel sat in a rocking chair next to the A’s bullpen as a white-uniformed nurse rubbed liniment into his right arm and his personal water boy stood by. Among the 9,289 fans at Municipal Stadium were Satchel’s six children; his wife, Lahoma, was home, ready to deliver the seventh and last. In its story that morning, the Los Angeles Times captured the tenor of Satchel’s return: “A gimmick, yes. A joke, no.”

Satchel needed just 28 tosses to force nine outs. He struck out one and walked none over three innings. Batters popped up his pitches and tapped meek grounders. The only base hit was a double by Carl Yastrzemski, an All-Star player who led the league in doubles and had seen his father hit against Satchel a generation earlier in a semipro game on Long Island. Ed Charles, Satchel’s teammate on the A’s, recalled that, after a 12-year absence from the majors, the veteran fireballer “proceeded to go out on the mound and shove the ball right up their you know what.”

The plan was to send a reliever in to start the fourth, but Satchel came out for a few practice pitches so he could leave to a standing ovation, doffing his hat as he slowly walked off the field. In the locker room he had stripped to his long underwear when someone burst in to say, “Satch, they want you back on the field.” Minutes later he returned to the darkened ballpark as fans flicked matches and lighters in his honor. “The old gray mare,” an appreciative audience sang, “she ain’t what she used to be.” His appearance with the A’s—at the age of 59 years, two months, and eight days—set a major league record that never will be broken. He was two years older than the runner-up and 33 more than his catcher that evening. He seemed as ancient as baseball itself. Six years later the lords of hardball would pay Satchel his greatest honor, enshrining him in the Hall of Fame based solely on his record in the old Negro Leagues. As one veteran Negro Leaguer put it, Jackie Robinson may have opened the door to the new racial reality in baseball, but it was Satchel who had inserted the key.

He laid the groundwork for Jackie in the way A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. DuBois, and other early Civil Rights leaders did for Martin Luther King Jr. Satchel was as much a poster boy for black baseball as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was for black music, Joe Louis for black boxing, and Paul Robeson for the black stage—and much as those three became symbols of their art rather than just their race, so Satchel Paige was known not as a great black pitcher, but a great pitcher.