“100 Greatest Baseball Players;” Baseball Hall of Fame; Homestead Grays; Major League Baseball; Negro League Baseball; Pittsburgh Crawfords
In approximately 1906, Leroy “Satchel” Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama. He became a great pitcher in the Negro Leagues, and pitched many exhibition games until 1948, when he played in the Major Leagues. Although his time was short in the Major Leagues, Paige was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1971. Paige pitched until he was around 60-years-old and is thought of as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Unfortunately, he was in his 40s when he finally got his chance to play in the Major Leagues. He died on June, 8, 1962, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Sometime between 1901 and 1911 in Mobile, Alabama, Leroy “Satchel” Paige was born. From this time until the time of his death in 1962, folklore and legend surrounded his life, but the one thing that is certain is that he was one of the greatest pitchers ever to walk the earth. Paige was the seventh of John and Lula Paige’s 12 children. The family lived in an old four-room house at 754 South Franklin Street. At a young age, Leroy got the nickname “Satchel” when he was working for the Louisville and Nashville train station carrying passengers’ bags for money. The more bags he carried, the more money he earned. He ended up carrying so many bags that he looked like a walking satchel bag, which sparked the name “Satchel” and gave birth to a legend. Paige claimed to have started playing baseball at W.H. Council Grade School when he was only eight years old. At the age of about 12, trouble for truancy and shoplifting sent him to the Industrial School for Negro Children, where he supposedly developed his pitching skills. As soon as he was released from the school, he joined the semi-pro Mobile Tigers, for whom his older brother Wilson was already playing. In 1926, when he claimed to be 17-years-old, Paige was signed to the Southern Negro League’s Chattanooga Black Lookouts by Alex Herman. In order to obtain the rights to the skinny pitcher from the Mobile slums, Herman had to give Paige’s $50 per month salary to Lula Paige and promise to return him at the end of the year. Herman returned the pitcher as promised and convinced Lula to let Satchel play for him with a healthy raise of $250 per month, of which $200 went to Lula.
In 1927, after only a few games with the Lookouts, Paige joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League, which he described as the “majors.” Only two years later, Paige set the Negro League single season strikeout record with 184 and the at-the-time record of 17 strikeouts in one game. Paige became a big success and R. T. Jackson, the owner of the Barons, rented him out around the league to the highest bidder. Paige moved around the league for a few years, keeping his eyes on the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which were, in Paige’s words, “the cream of the league.” His chance finally came in 1932 when he was signed to the “Little Crawfords,” the junior team to the varsity club. After only three games, Paige was moved up and played on the legendary Pittsburgh Crawfords alongside hitting great Josh Gibson.
On October 26, 1933, Paige married his longtime sweetheart Janet Howard. The reception to the wedding was paid for by Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Crawfords. Paige earned most of his fame during his time with Crawfords, and in the winter he played in Puerto Rico on the Negro all-star team. In Paige’s memoir, Pitchin’ Man: Satchel Paige’s Own Story, Paige says that he once had a conversation with Gibson in Puerto Rico where Gibson told Paige that someday he was going to “knock him and the ball out of the park” with the bases loaded. When Gibson was later sold to the Homestead Grays, Paige purposely walked two consecutive batters after one got a hit in order to load the bases for Gibson. Gibson then watched the first two strikes and struck out on Paige’s curve ball, after which Gibson shook Paige’s hand. Whether the story is true or not, Gibson, who was known as the “Black Babe Ruth,” believed that Paige was one of the greatest pitchers he had ever faced.
Paige bounced around the Negro Leagues for a few more years and then played in places such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Paige’s time was running out in baseball and, although he believed that his arm would never tire, his “stomach” didn’t have much left. In 1940, he rejoined the Negro Leagues when J.L. Wilkinson of the Kansas City Monarchs signed him to only pitch a couple innings a game in order to squeeze some value out of the supposedly used up pitcher. In 1943, Paige’s wife Janet tracked him down and forced him to sign divorce papers at Wrigley Field, but Paige would later marry Lahoma Brown in 1947. With his best years behind him, Paige became the highest paid athlete in the world because many of the best Major League players had to leave to fight in WWII.
In 1947, baseball became integrated and Jackie Robinson was chosen to be the first black player in the Major Leagues. Paige believed he had done more to help the cause of blacks playing in the major leagues and thought that he should have been chosen as the first to play. He realized, however, that it was for the better that Robinson was chosen because Robinson first had to play in the minors and Paige felt that playing in the minors first would have been a “disgrace.” Paige finally had his chance to play in the Major Leagues on July 7, 1948, when Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians were desperate for pitchers in the 1948 pennant race. Paige signed his first major league contract for $40,000 for just three months. Paige pitched as if he was in his twenties and helped the Indians to win the pennant. Paige was then released a year later when Veeck sold the team to pay for his divorce. Paige barnstormed for a few years in the Negro Leagues and was then signed with the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) in 1951 when Veeck obtained an 80 percent interest in the team. Paige was then released once again when Veeck sold the team. Paige once again went back to barnstorming and later did baseball shows with the globetrotters. Veeck came to Paige’s rescue in 1956 when he signed Paige to his single A farm team: the Miami Marlins. At the end of the season, Paige appeared in the United Artists’ film The Wonderful Country, in which he played a Union sergeant. For the next decade Paige played sporadically around the league.
By this point, age had finally caught up to seemingly immortal Paige, but in 1965, he was invited to play once again in the Majors for the Kansas City Athletics (now the Oakland Athletics) by owner Charles O. Finley. Paige was to pitch only one game against the Boston Red Sox. He was allowed to pitch in three innings, in which Paige gave up no runs, allowed one hit, and struck one man out. Paige then pitched two innings for the Peninsula Patriots of Hampton, Virginia, in 1966 at the age of around 60-years-old. He would never again return to the mound to play for an organized professional team.
Paige later ran for Missouri State assembly in 1968 with the support of the local Democratic Club, but lost by a landslide. In 1966, Paige was depicted in the made-for-television movie Soul of The Game and then in the 1981 made-for-television movie Don’t Look Back, for which he was paid $10,000 for his story and technical advice. In 1971, Paige became the first African American to be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Negro Wing.” Soon after, upheaval began to brew in the media because people believed that Negro’s deserved to be in the actual Hall of Fame and should not be segregated into a separate wing. Because of a noble decision by Bowie Kuhn, the then-Commissioner of baseball, all the players that were inducted into the Negro Wing were given plaques and inducted into the “regular” hall of fame. Paige’s plaque read:
Paige was one of the greatest stars to play in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Thrilled millions of people and won hundreds of games. Struck out 21 major leaguers in an exhibition game. Helped pitch Cleveland Indians to the 1948 pennant in his first big league year at the age 42. His pitching was a legend among major league hitters.
After being elected to the Hall of Fame, Paige only had these words to say: “There were many Satchels.”
In 1981, Paige was made vice president of the Triple-A Springfield Redbirds and later that year he attended a reunion of Negro Players in Ashland, Kentucky. In 1982, Leroy “Satchel” Paige died of a heart attack at his home in Kansas City about a month before his birthday. He was then buried on Paige Island in the Forest Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in Kansas City.
In 1999, Satchel Paige ranked Number 19 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Joe DiMaggio once said that Paige was “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced,” which means a lot coming from the Yankee hitting great. Paige was always ambiguous about his age, most likely because he did not want it to affect how people thought of him as a pitcher. He was going to pitch until he could no longer lift his arm, and it was not going to be up to anybody but himself when that time would be. He once said that “age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.” The only regret Satchel Paige ever had after his time in baseball was not that he did not get a chance to play in the major leagues during his prime, but instead that he never got a chance to pitch against the man they called “Babe.”
- Pitchin’ Man: Satchel Paige’s Own Story. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1948.
- Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962.
- The Wonderful Country. Dir. Robert Parish. United Artists, 1959.
- Fox, William P. Satchel Paige’s America. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2005.
- Ribowsky, Mark. Don’t Look Back. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
- Sterry, David, and Arielle Eckstut. Satchel Sez. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
One of baseball's greatest pitchers of all time, Leroy ?Satchel? Paige garnered most of his fame with the Pittsburgh Crawfords.