Profile: Satchel Paige (1906-1982)

Satchel Paige, byname of Leroy Robert Paige was an American professional baseball pitcher whose prowess became legendary during his many years in the Negro leagues; he finally was allowed to enter the major leagues in 1948 after the unwritten rule against black players was abolished. A right-handed, flexible “beanpole” standing more than 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 meters) tall, Paige had considerable pitching speed, but he also developed a comprehensive mastery of slow-breaking pitches and varied deliveries. He is rated as one of the greatest players in the history of baseball.

Paige, who received his distinctive nickname as a young railroad porter, honed his baseball skills while in reform school. He entered the Negro leagues playing for the Chattanooga Black Lookouts in 1926. He was a pitcher for various teams in the Negro Southern Association and the Negro National League. Wearing a false red beard, he also played for the House of David team (a team fielded by a communal Christian religious sect that forbade its male members to shave or cut their hair). A true “iron man,” he pitched in the Dominican Republic and Mexican leagues during the northern winter. As a barnstormer, he would travel as many as 30,000 miles (48,000 km) a year while pitching for any team willing to meet his price. He is reputed to have pitched a total of 2,500 games during his nearly 30-year career, winning 2,000 of them.

Paige was a colorful and larger-than-life figure in the Negro leagues, prone to stunts such as sending the infield players into the dugout while he pitched or deliberately loading the bases before pitching to Josh Gibson, a hitter of great renown. His showmanship and popularity caused white baseball fans to take greater notice of the players in the Negro leagues, which perhaps hastened the integration of baseball. Despite the color bar, Paige faced the best major league players in exhibition games before 1948. He once struck out Rogers Hornsby, probably the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history, five times in one game. In Hollywood in 1934 Paige scored a spectacular 1–0 victory in 13 innings over Dizzy Dean, who won 30 games for the St. Louis Cardinals that year.

In his later years, Paige derived much amusement from the controversy about his age; his birth date is sometimes placed as early as December 18, 1899. He was surely well past his prime in 1948 when team owner Bill Veeck signed him for the Cleveland Indians; whatever his exact age, he was the oldest rookie ever to play in the major leagues. He helped to spark that team to American League pennant and World Series victories that year. When Veeck purchased the St. Louis Browns, Paige joined that team, and he was its most effective relief pitcher from 1951 through 1953. He also pitched three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, which made him the oldest to pitch in the major leagues.

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