Grave Story: Satchel Paige (1906?-1982)

Here lies Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. Even though he was prevented from playing Major League Baseball until late in his career, his legend was large enough that he was one of the most famous (and well-paid) pitchers in baseball for decades. After more than 20 years of pitching in semipro and Negro Leagues teams, most notably the Kansas City Monarchs and Pittsburgh Crawfords, Paige made it to the majors. He played for the Cleveland Indians (1948-49), St. Louis Browns (1951-53) and Kansas City Athletics (1965).

For every Satchel Paige story, there exists at least two or three other variants. So if I write something here that’s different from what you’ve heard, there’s your explanation.

Leroy Paige was born in Mobile, Ala., on July 7, 1906 — maybe. He also claimed September 18 and 25 as his birthday, but let’s focus on the year for a moment. One of the legends surrounding Paige was that nobody was really certain of just how old he was when he was pitching. Certainly Paige, who had a pretty sharp business mind, contributed to the confusion in order to enhance the mystery. The simple fact, though, is that he really may not have known how old he was. The Paige family, like many families, kept their important family records in the family bible. And that happened to that family bible? It allegedly was eaten by the family goat when his grandfather left it outside one day.

“My birth certificate was in our bible, and the goat ate the bible with the birth certificate in it. That goat lived to be 27,” he said in a 1976 interview.

Paige’s impressive monument in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City includes his biography, the origins of his nickname and his famous rules for staying young.

The 1906 year seems to be the agreed-upon year as far as Major League Baseball and all the statistics sites go. However, if you ever ask Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., he’ll tell you that Paige could have been as much as a decade older than everyone thought he was. Bear that in mind for the rest of the story, because it means that he made his Cleveland debut when he was about 52 and pitched his last game with the A’s when he was pushing 70!

Paige came by the nickname “Satchel” at an early age. The story on his grave states, “He began work carrying suitcases at Mobile Union Station and devised a sling harness for hustling several bags at once. The other red caps said he looked like a ‘walking satchel tree.’ Thus Leroy became Satchel, and Satchel became a legend.”

Paige’s career started in 1920 (or so) in Chattanooga, with a team called variously the Black Lookouts, White Sox or Black Sox. A pitcher identified in the papers only as “Satchell” defeated the Nashville Elite Giants repeatedly in the summer of 1926. When those box scores were found decades later and used to question his age, Paige said that was a completely different pitcher, named Satchell, with two l’s. He started his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1927.

Normally, baseball sites are great for telling the statistics of a player’s career. With the Negro Leagues, everything falls short. Statistics for the official games weren’t kept as scrupulously as MLB games were. In addition to the official games, Negro Leagues teams played exhibition games whenever possible. Paige barnstormed across America, too, sometimes with a team like the Monarchs, sometimes with his own Satchel Paige All-Stars and sometimes with one of countless semipro teams. He also pitched in throughout North and South America. None of those games are counted in official statistics.

Paige’s rules for staying young were more like guidelines, really. He expressed a love of fried food throughout his life, and he occasionally partook in the social ramble.

According to Baseball Reference, Paige made 244 starts in the Negro Leagues (The Negro National League, Negro American League and various independent teams) and had a record of 146-64. Seamheads, an alternate database, puts Paige’s record at 115-62 in 274 games, 207 of which were starts. By Paige’s own estimation, though, he pitched in more than 3,000 games, with thousands of wins and hundreds of no-hitters to his credit. His obituary from the Associated Press noted that Paige went 31-4 in 42 games with the 1934 Pittsburgh Crawfords, including 21 straight wins and a string of 62 scoreless innings. Seamheads, however, lists his record at 13-3, while Baseball Reference has a 13-2 record, pitching for both the Crawfords and the House of David. You could make the argument that nobody on earth ever threw a baseball more often than Satchel Paige did.

Paige had one of the best fastballs of his era. “Maybe Lefty Grove has a faster ball than Satchel, but I’ll never believe it,” said one frustrated batter after picking up his fourth K of the day against Paige. But he had a wealth of other pitches as well, from the “bat dodger” to the “wobbly ball.” He also had great control, which he claimed to have learned from throwing baseballs at stuffed cats at carnivals. He said his control kept himself in cigars and his girlfriends in kewpie dolls.

Paige played in a California winter league in the 1930s, frequently facing current major leaguers. Source: Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1933.

The year 1930 is a typical Paige year: He started the season touring on the East Coast, joined the Detroit Stars in June and ended up with the Birmingham Black Barons by July. In his Birmingham debut on July 15, he struck out 12 of his former Detroit teammates in a 2-1 win. Later that month, he beat the Louisville Black Caps with his pitching (10 K’s), batting (2 hits and an RBI) and even his baserunning (he stole second when teammate T.C. McDuffie stole home and scored himself when the throw from catcher Poindexter Williams went into center field.) Somewhere in between, he also pitched for the Chicago American Giants.

By the mid-‘30s, Paige was one of baseball’s biggest stars and generated headlines wherever he went. “Satchel is like Dizzy Dean except he is faster,” wrote the New York Daily News. “His curve is like Carl Hubbell’s, only more so, and he had a slow ball that halts before the plate while Satch counts 10 in his booming basso profundo, according to those who have watched this brunette bowler at his chores.” Ugh. When reading about some of Paige’s early exploits, be prepared to wade through a pile of stereotypical and outright racist nonsense.

Paige was a part of some of the greatest-ever Negro Leagues teams. The 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords featured Paige and Double-Duty Radcliffe on its pitching staff and Oscar Charleston, Jimmie Crutchfield, Josh Gibson and Jud Wilson in the lineup. His teammates with the Kansas City Monarchs in the mid- to late-‘40s included Willard Brown, Buck O’Neil, Jackie Robinson, Hilton Smith, Elston Howard and Hank Thompson.

He got around plenty, too. In 1934, he pitched for the House of David in the Little World Series, a semipro tournament sponsored by The Denver Post. One of his best performances was a 2-1 win over the Kansas City Monarchs, where he struck out 12 and outdueled Chet Brewer. He would lead other teams to victory in the tournament, including the Ciudad Trujillo All-Stars of the Dominican Republic. That team had a five-man pitching staff of Paige, Leroy Matlock, Robert Griffith, Chet Brewer and Eddie Carter. Ray Doan, a promoter and the team’s business manager, said the pitching staff was better than any in the major leagues.

To get an idea of how good Paige was, you can take the word of some of the major leaguers who saw him or competed against him. While Paige was forbidden to play in Major League Baseball, he could play against them in exhibition games. Paige was able to face a couple generations’ worth of major-league All-Stars, and he came away victorious more often than not. Harry Heilman, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are just a few of the hitters who faced him, usually without any luck. He outpitched many of the game’s top pitchers, including the Dean brothers, Tommy Bridges, Schoolboy Rowe and others.

Pie Traynor called Paige “one of the greatest pitchers he ever faced and regrets that the bars of organized baseball keep him out of the big leagues.” Dizzy Dean said he would be worth $100,000 to any big-league club. Lefty Gomez said he was “the greatest pitcher I ever saw, or hope to see.” Mickey Cochrane, then managing the Tigers, said he’d have a 30-game winner if he could only find a way to paint Paige white. (He wasn’t the first manager to come to that conclusion. See Sammy Strang’s story.)

DiMaggio faced Paige in a winter game in California, when he was about to start his Yankees career. After getting a base hit, he reportedly said, “Now I know I’ll make good with the Yanks – I got a single off Satchel Paige!”

In terms of on-play success and attendance, Paige provided a boost to any team. Sometimes, those teams were hard-pressed to keep him, though. He frequently jumped his contracts to pitch elsewhere. He also operated on his own timeframe and schedule, which occasionally got him in trouble in the regimented ranks of the majors.

Paige made his Wrigley Field debut on May 23, 1942, when the Dizzy Dean All-Stars faced the Kansas City Monarchs. Dean, by then a Cardinals announcer, came out of retirement to pitch a few innings before giving way to Bob Feller. Cecil Travis and Zeke Bonura were a couple of the former major-leaguers who joined Dean and Feller. The Monarchs won the game 3-1.

About that time, 1942, baseball’s color line was starting to be questioned. Paige and Josh Gibson were right at the top of the list as far as potential major leaguers. Paige for his part proposed fielding an entire team of black ballplayers instead. “You might as well be honest about it,” he mused. “There would be plenty of problems, not only in the South, where the colored boys wouldn’t be able to stay and travel with the teams in spring training, but also in the North, where that couldn’t stay or eat with them in many places. All the nice sentiments in the world from both sides aren’t going to knock out Jim Crow.”

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Paige added that he would only be interested if he could be paid what he earned in 1941 — $37,500.

By October of 1945, it was announced that Jackie Robinson had signed with the Montreal Royals. Paige lauded his former Monarchs teammate, stating that he would have been in the majors already if the U.S. Army hadn’t taken him first. Robinson, according to Paige, asked the pitcher what he should do, and Paige told him to sign and go as far as he could.

“That means straight to the majors, because Robinson is the greatest colored player I have ever seen and is major league caliber,” Paige added.

By then, Paige had been pitching for more than 20 years. He was still effective, even with all the miles on his pitching arm. In fact, at the height of his barnstorming, his arm gave out entirely for several years, which limited his appearances to three innings or less. But it had regained enough life in the ‘40s that he continued to excel for the Monarchs, even if he was thought to be too old to crack the majors.

“Don’t let ‘em tell you I’m too old to pitch baseball,” he cautioned in 1946. “I’m not old – only 40 come September 25. And 40 – even 50 – isn’t old if your arms and legs are only 20.”

It finally happened. He wasn’t the first black player, or even the first on his own team, but Satchel Paige signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians in July 1948. It just so happened that The Indians were owned by one of the game’s great showmen, Bill Veeck. And it also happened that Cleveland’s top pitcher, Bob Feller, dueled Paige in countless exhibition games and vouched for him. He was signed in the thick of the 1948 pennant race, too.

“I’m starting my major league career with one thing in my favor, anyway,” he said. “I won’t be afraid of anybody I see in that batter’s box. I’ve been around too long for that.”

Veeck wrote in his memoir, Veeck as in Wreck, that Cleveland player-manager Lou Boudreau was suspicious about Paige’s worth until he stepped in the batter’s box to face him. Boudreau was hitting around .400 at the time. He took 20 pitches from Paige and didn’t get anything that would have been a hit. “Don’t let him get away, Will. We can use him,” he told Veeck.

Paige and Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck talk before his major-league debut. Source: Chicago Tribune, July 8, 1948.

Paige’s debut came on July 9, 1948. The first batter he faced, Chuck Stevens, singled to left, but he was stranded. He worked 2 scoreless innings as the Indians lost to the St. Louis Browns and starter Fred Sanford 5-3. He picked up a win in his next outing and provided solid relief through the rest of July. He moved briefly into the starting rotation in August and threw back-to-back shutouts of the White Sox on August 13 and 20. The latter was a 3-hitter.

The 1948 Indians won the AL pennant and World Series, and Paige made a big contribution. He appeared in 21 games, including 7 starts. He finished the season with a 6-1 record and 2.48 ERA, with 3 complete games, 2 shutouts and a save. In 72-2/3 innings, he famed 43 batters and had a WHIP of 1.142. He made one appearance in the World Series, retiring 2 batters in Game Five when Bob Feller tired in the 7th inning and two relievers couldn’t get anyone out.

Paige was effective in 1949 as well, with a 4-7 record, 3.04 ERA and 5 saves. He again made a few spot starts in his 31 appearances, and his one complete game was an 11-inning marathon against the White Sox. Still, the team released him in February of 1950. “We believe it advisable to release Paige in view of his questionable physical condition,” said general manager Hank Greenberg.

Paige and his questionable physical condition went right back to pitching around the country. There were rumors he would sign with a big league club at any time, but he didn’t return to the majors until July 1951, with the St. Louis Browns. Once again, he was reunited with Veeck, the team’s owner.

The return looked like a bad one at first. Paige was knocked around pretty badly in 1951, and it took a string of late-season scoreless outings to drop his ERA to 4.79. He also caused a controversy when he struck out Boston’s Charlie Maxwell with the bases loaded on his famous “hesitation pitch.” Paige started his wind-up, but then his body froze in mid-delivery – all except for his arm, which fired a fastball over the plate to stun Maxwell. Red Sox manager Steve O’Neill raised a huge fuss and demanded the umps call it a balk. That pitch was eventually banned.

Paige followed up that lousy season with two in which he was one of the best relievers in baseball – while in his mid-40s (or 50s). He went 12-10 with a 3.07 ERA in 1952, with 10 saves, and he led the AL with 35 games finished. He worked a career-high (for the MLB at least) 138 innings and had 91 strikeouts He also started 6 games and completed 3 of them, with 2 shutouts. One of those shutouts was a 1-0 win over Detroit that took 12 innings. Paige was named to the AL All-Star team and would have worked a couple innings if the game hadn’t been rained out after 5 innings.

Paige discusses pitching with some of his Kansas City A’s teammates, including Blue Moon Odom, Catfish Hunter, Dick Joyce and an unidentified fourth player. Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The ageless wonder continued his effectiveness in 1953, when Paige made the All-Star Team again. He won 3 games while losing 9, but he also saved 11 and had a 3.53 ERA. Veeck sold the team, and the new ownership moved the Browns to Baltimore in the offseason. They also decided that Paige didn’t fit in with their youth movement.

Once again, Paige went back to touring the country, spending time with the Harlem Globetrotters baseball team (yes, they expanded into other sports) and the Monarchs. He returned to professional ball with the Miami Marlins of the International League from 1956-58. It was another Veeck-owned team, and it still wasn’t a publicity stunt. Well, maybe it was, but the 50-year-old Paige (or 60?) could still pitch and won 31 games over those three seasons, with an ERA in the mid 2s.

Paige did a little bit of everything. He acted in a movie (“The Wonderful Country” with Robert Mitchum and Julie London). He did public speaking. He wrote his autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. He continued to pitch, even in the minors briefly for Portland in 1961.

It took another showman to bring him back to the major leagues. This time, it was Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City Athletics. He organized Satchel Paige Day for September 25, 1965, and he signed the hurler to be the starting pitcher. Paige was, he admitted, “a shade over 50,” but he was likely closer to 60 or even 70 at the time. He hadn’t pitched in the major leagues in 12 years, but then again, he never stopped pitching either. He was playing for a semipro team in Alaska when he got the call from Finley.

It was treated as a spectacle, with Paige seated in a wheelchair as a nurse checked his vitals. But once the game got underway, he got down to business. Paige had a shaky first inning. He got leadoff hitter Jim Gosger to pop out to first base. Then Dalton Jones reached on an error and was thrown out trying to advance to third base on a passed ball. Carl Yastrzemski hit a 2-out double and was stranded when Tony Conigliaro flew to left. After that, Paige settled down, retiring the side in the second and third innings on 6 pitches and 8 pitches, respectively. He showed off his full range of arm angles and even broke out a hesitation pitch – which drew no complaints. When he left after throwing his warmup pitches in the top of the 4th, he was leading 1-0. The Red Sox came back to win 5-3, but there’s no question that Paige did his job, however old he was.

For his 6 years in the majors, Paige had a 28-31 record and 3.29 ERA. He appeared in 179 games, including 26 starts. He had 7 complete games, 4 shutouts and 33 saves. He struck out 288 and walked 180.

At the end of his last stint in the majors, Paige found himself 158 days shy of a major league pension. That was fixed when Atlanta Braves president Bill Bartholomay signed him to a two-year contract in 1968, to act as a pitching coach and “advisor.” Paige had expressed his bitterness in the past about how he gave up his best years to barnstorming when he could have been pitching in the majors, but he was thrilled with the opportunity.

“They’ll never know how much I appreciate this. It’s a most wonderful thing they did and I will try to pay ‘em back both ways,” he said, referring to the prospects of coaching and pitching. He didn’t pitch, and he’s debatable how much coaching went on. But with the pension situation settled, the last step was for Paige to get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Satchel Paige’s monument, on Paige Island in Forest Hill Cemetery. Paige’s good friend and former teammate Buck O’Neil is also buried there.

That last hurdle took some doing, because the rules of the Hall did not take the Negro Leagues into account at the time. The Baseball Writers of America successfully lobbied for that rule change, but even the victory was not without controversy. Paige was inducted into the Hall in 1971, but it was announced that he and any future Negro Leagues stars would have their plaques in a separate – but equal – portion of the Hall, away from the MLB stars. The Hall directors and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn changed their mind a month before the induction ceremony. Whether they had a change of heart or feared a scene at the ceremony, they made the right choice. Paige and the Negro Leagues stars that came after him have their plaques displayed alongside the greats in MLB baseball history.

On June 5, 1982, Paige attended the re-dedication of the old stadium where he used to pitch with the Monarchs. He was confined to a wheelchair and using oxygen, but he still threw out the first pitch. It was his last public appearance. Satchel Paige died of a heart attack on June 8 in Kansas City. He was 75 years old, using 1906 as his birth year. Realistically, he could have been as old as 85. He is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, at a spot called Paige Island. He was originally given a very modest headstone that didn’t even attempt to guess the year of his birth. You can see it at the Negro Leagues Museum today. It was soon replaced by the massive monument that you can visit today.

Satchel Paige’s original gravestone, which is now on display at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

Bill Veeck had a few good Paige stories in his autobiography, but this is the best one. When Paige joined the Browns, the catcher was Clint Courtney, who was from Louisiana. He made it clear that he would not catch Paige under any circumstances.

After a while, Courtney began to warm Paige up before games. Then they would sit together in the dugout. Then Courtney asked to catch Paige in a game. Finally, Veeck walked into a restaurant one day and saw the two mean eating dinner together. When he sat down with them and asked about it, Courtney said, “My daddy is coming up when we get back to St. Louis. He’s going to see me sitting in the bullpen talking to this Paige and he’s gonna try to jump right over the fence and try to give me a whupping. But Satch and I have it figured out that we can whup him no matter what happens.”

If you’re up for one more Satchel Paige story, he’s one when he had to pitch like his life was on the line — because it probably was.

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