In the “Good ol’ Days” when major league baseball did not permit blacks to play alongside whites because of the color of their skin, pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige and slugger Joshua “Josh” Gibson were the two biggest drawing cards in the Negro Leagues before the breaking of the color line by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
Leroy Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama on July 7, 1906, the seventh of eleven children. Growing up in Mobile, Paige fell in with the wrong kind of crowd and played a lot of hooky from school. He also received his nickname of “Satchel” at age seven while carrying luggage bags around the local railroad station. At 12, he was caught stealing a handful of toy rings and was sent to reform school for black boys at Mt. Meigs, Alabama. There, he got regular meals, a bed to sleep in, an education, and a chance to play baseball, which he excelled at, especially pitching.
Released from the school in 1923 after five years, the 17-year-old Paige went home to Mobile a 6-foot-three, 140-pound kid with size 13 feet. The next year, the right-hander joined the semi-pro Mobile Tigers. For the next two years, he also pitched for other semi-pro teams in the area, until the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League offered him $50 a month in 1926. Within a year, the “all-fastball” pitcher’s pay jumped to $200 a month, an excellent salary at the time.
In between playing for Chattanooga, he jumped ship--sometimes with permission, sometimes not--a couple times by playing for other teams such as the New Orleans Pelicans, before returning to Chattanooga. By the time he was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons in 1928 and given $275 a month, Paige’s reputation in the Negro Leagues began to grow substantially. So did his ego. By 1930, he was attracting crowds of 8,000 or more, a hefty attendance given the time and place. He also jumped again, this time to the Baltimore Black Sox for a few weeks, before heading back to Birmingham.
In 1931, the Black Barons sold Paige to the Nashville Elite Giants, who moved to Cleveland, but disbanded in mid-season. Gus Greenlee, a black Pennsylvania numbers king putting a barnstorming team together called the Pittsburgh Crawfords, offered Paige $250 a month and he took it. Over the next few years, the Crawfords became the best black team in history. Paige went one step further by saying they were: “The best team I ever saw, black or white.”
In 1932, the Crawfords won 99 games and lost 36, with Paige winning 23 and losing 7. When he wasn’t throwing for the Crawfords, Greenlee rented Paige out to semi-pro clubs where the pitcher could make a few hundred bucks dazzling crowds with such antics as striking out the occasional batter while his three outfielders sat on the bench. On the Pittsburgh roster were some of the best Negro Leaguers to ever play the game: Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who could pitch and catch, Ted Page, Jimmie Crutchfield, Herbert “Rap” Dixon, William “Judy” Johnson, Oscar Charleston, James “Cool Papa” Bell, and Josh Gibson, with the latter four all in today’s Baseball Hall of Fame.
With his showboating high kick, blazing fastball, and pin-point control, Paige hurled his way to a 31-4 record for the mighty 1934 Crawfords, who were now playing regularly in the Negro National League. Leased out by Greenlee, Paige also found time to pitch three games (he won all three) for the bearded House of David team as it took the well-publicized Denver Post tournament in August, 1934. There, he played before crowds of 10,000-plus. Under a two-year contract he had signed that spring with the Crawfords, the now-married Paige asked for more money from his parent club. Greenlee refused and Paige finished out the season for an integrated semi-pro team in Bismarck, North Dakota, owned by car dealer Neil Churchill. Paige’s contract: $400 a month and a used Chrysler off Churchill’s lot.
Greenlee, furious at Paige, used his power as league president to ban Paige for the 1935 season. So, he spent the entire year pitching for Bismarck, alongside some Negro League additions. The team went out and won the 1935 National Baseball semi-pro tournament in Wichita, Kansas. Throughout the 1930’s, Paige pitched many off-seasons in winter ball, mostly in California, as well as regular barnstorming tours against teams headed up by Dizzy Dean. In his prime, Paige pitched year round.
Paige returned to the Crawfords in 1936 for a $600 monthly contract, the highest in the league up to that time. In mid-season, he took time off to pitch for a Negro National League All-Star team that won the Denver Post tournament. In early 1937, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael L. Trujillo was being opposed for reelection in his country by an opponent who had imported a baseball team that was beating everybody on the island. Trujillo needed a better team to win the election and the first player he wanted was Paige. At spring training in New Orleans, Paige caved into the dictator’s agents who came to convince him to jump south. Paige took eight other Crawfords with him to the Dominican (leaving Greenlee furious again) where the team eventually won a round-robin tournament that kept Trujillo in office. Paige and the eight others came away with a reported $30,000 combined.
Returning to the Crawfords for 1938, Paige rejected a $450 monthly salary from Greenlee, who promptly sold him to the Newark Eagles. Paige refused to report and left to play for a team in Mexico City in the Mexican League. But, south of the border, he developed his first sore arm. By late summer, he could barely lift it. Back in the States, Paige was informed by a doctor that his pitching career was as good as over. He was only 32.
Due to Paige’s past habits for ignoring contracts, no one in Negro League ball wanted to hire the free wheeler for even a coaching job: that is, except Kansas City Monarchs owners J. L. Wilkinson and Tom Baird, who placed him on their B squad that toured the American Northwest and Western Canada under the name of Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, with Paige playing first base and lobbing pitches from the mound for an inning or two. Despite a shadow of his former self, Paige was still a drawing card.
Then, all of a sudden, by late-1938, Paige’s arm returned to him and the Monarchs called him up to the A squad where he was the team’s ace for the next ten years. By now, Paige was relying more on a mix of off-speed pitches and fastballs. Then, in mid-1948, the Cleveland Indians were making a run for the American League pennant and they needed some pitching insurance. The flamboyant owner Bill Veeck called on Paige, the master showman, who signed on his birthday. As a 42-year-old rookie, Paige drew 201,829 fans for his first three starts. Playing in 21 games down the stretch, he won 6 games to one loss and posted a 2.48 ERA in the Indians championship year.
His career winding down, Paige was released by Cleveland after the 1949 season, following Veeck’s selling of the club. Paige returned to barnstorming in 1950. However, Veeck, the new St. Louis Browns owner, brought Paige back in 1951, where he became an effective relief specialist incorporating a screwball and a knuckleball to his arsenal, only to be let go once again after Veeck sold the Browns in 1953. Then in 1956, Veeck did it once more. As part owner of the Miami Marlins of the AAA International League, he hired Paige to pitch, which he did until 1958 for $15,000 a year plus a percentage of the gate. After that, Paige was in and out of barnstorming and pro ball. In 1961, he made a year-ending appearance with Portland Beavers of the AAA Pacific Coast League for 25 innings (striking out 19, while posting a 2.88 ERA); then a three-inning stint in 1965 at age 59 in a regular season game with the Kansas City Athletics where he went through the Boston Red Sox batting order, giving up only one hit: a double to Carl Yastrzemski.
His last organized professional game was June 21, 1966 for the Peninsula Grays of the Class A Carolina League, a two-inning affair. In 1967, he toured with the barnstorming Indianapolis Clowns for $1000 a month, plus bonuses for appearances in major league parks. The next year, Bill Veeck came to Paige’s rescue a fourth time, when he discovered that his old friend was a month shy of the minimum five years in the majors to receive an MLB pension. So, Veeck convinced writer Jimmy Breslin, who had connections with the Atlanta Braves, to ask a staff member on the team to do the right thing and hire Paige and place him on the active roster as a coach. They agreed and Paige received his pension.
In 1971, Satchel Paige was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame: the first of the black stars elected by the Negro League Committee. For years, some players, coaches, managers and historians had been calling Paige the best pitcher ever, black or white. In his career, according to Paige himself, he threw over 2,500 games for at least 200 teams. He died of heart failure June 8, 1982 at his home in Kansas City, Missouri.
How good was Paige? If the color line was non-existent in his prime, he probably would’ve won 300 games, mixed in with some MVP and Cy Young Awards. He was selected number 19 on the 1999 Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. The best pitcher ever? That’s debatable, considering some of the iconic pitchers over the years, including four hurlers in the above Sporting News 100 who had beat him out: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Alexander, and Cy Young.
If not the best, let’s agree that Paige put on the best show.
Two weeks from today—Josh Gibson