Satchel Paige pitches for his life

There are a million stories on Satchel Paige, more than can ever fit into one short bio on the man. I told a few of them in Paige’s Grave Story, but there’s one great one here that I had to leave out for the sake of brevity. So I’ll present it here, in Paige’s own words, about the time that he pitched like his life was on the line — because it possibly was.

To set it up: Paige had gone to the Dominican Republic in 1937 to pitch for a team that represented President Rafael Trujillo — and “president” is a very generous term to describe a man who gained and maintained his power through murder and terror. The Trujillos had a 15-game series against a team called the Estrellas de Oriente, which was run by one of Trujillo’s chief political rivals. The Trujillos featured Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Silvio Garcia, Sam Bankhead and Petrucho Cepeda (Orlando’s father). See this MLB blog post with some more background information.

The following is Paige’s own account, as presented in the Chicago Daily News in 1943 and retold in papers nationwide. Any syntax or grammatical errors are a part of the original text:

“You see President Trujillo who runs the whole show in San Domingo, wants a team so good it will win the championship, which is a feather in his cap. He’s got troops of soldiers around him all the time.

I don’t have a picture of Paige in his Trujillos uniform, but I do have this lovely bobblehead of his Trujillos uni.

“Just to show you, the president he gave an order that none of the American players could be sold any whisky. And we wasn’t. The guy that done it would have been shot, I guess. We was kept in a hotel and had to be in bed early.

“It was almost like we was in jail. But we was being paid good money. We was President Trujillo’s ball club and we got to win that championship because if we don’t win maybe the people won’t respect him again. It’s that important.

“That’s why the manager of the team, Dr. Aybar, says there was only one piece of advice he would give us. We better win. He don’t know nothing about baseball himself but he does know what the winning of the championship game meant to President Trujillo.

“We was down there to play 15 games and when we come to the championship game we had win seven and lose seven and in some of them we played like we never seen a baseball before. That’s because of the strain we was under.

“Some of them guys the president had watching us sent shivers up and down your spine. They was that tough looking. They packed guns and long knives I know that they could use ‘em. We didn’t want to give them a chance.

“I think that’s what the manager meant when he said we better win if we know what’s good for us. When he said that he looked at them guys carrying them guns. If you think it ain’t tough to field a grounder in a situation like that.

“It was tough enough, anyway, because the diamond was in a place that looked something like a bull ring only there ain’t bull fights down there. And when we came to that championship game with Estrellas de Oriente there must have been about 7,000 people in the stands.

“And all of them had guns, too, and we wondered what would happen if one of them umpires made a decision they didn’t like and they started shooting. Boy my mouth was dry that day!

“You see this Estrellas de Oriente team was sponsored by the fellow who was President Trujillo’s political rival, only the president was in power and he had the army and so the fans that come see the game from Estrellas de Oriente didn’t dast say too much. You know how it is, they was outnumbered.

“But if we lost that game then the Estrellas de Oriente team is champion and that’s a political blow to President Trujillo and maybe when there is an election again the votes go against him. We find that out. ‘Satchel, old boy,’ I say to myself, ‘if you ever pitched, it’s now.’

“But it ain’t no cakewalk because that Estrellas de Oriente team is tough because, you see, that loaded up with important stars, too. We got a flock of colored Americans on our team but they got as many on theirs. And how them babies could hit that ball! I don’t think I ever throwed harder but I wouldn’t say I was relaxed. That was one day Paige was not free and easy.

Source: Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1949.

“In all my baseball experience I don’t ever remember pitching when I knowed the umpires would give me all the close ones, and you would think that would have made it easy, but the harder we tried the tougher that other team played and here it was the seventh inning and we’re a run behind.

“All we could hear from them fans was warnings about we better win. The more they yelled the harder I threw and I bet I never had a better fast ball only I never see any better hitters than them guys. But in the seventh inning we score two runs and then I manage to shut them out the last two frames and we win, 6 to 5.

“No sooner was the game over than we was hustled back to our hotel and the next morning when we got up there was a United States ship in the harbor. Sister ship to the one which was blowed up at Pearl Harbor. There was a plane waiting for us, too, and was we glad to get on board.

“I read in newspapers that Dr. Aybar, our manager, says ‘Baseball in Trujillo City is not commercial. Money makes no difference. Baseball is spiritual in every respect, as indulged in by Latin races.’

“I am saving the clipping of that paper because I am thinking if he is right and baseball is spiritual as it is played there ol’ Satchel could be a spirit right now if we didn’t win that big game.”

Rafael Trujillo was either president of the Dominican Republic or the real power behind whoever was acting as president from 1930 until he was assassinated on May 30, 1961.

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