There are many legends in the history of Major League Baseball, but there will only be one Satchel Paige. His longevity in the game of baseball forever sets him apart from the rest.
Born on July 7, 1906 in a section of Mobile, Alabama known as Down the Bay. Leroy Robert Page was the son of John and Lula Page. The spelling of his last name came in the mid-1920s before the start of his baseball career. The name change came around the time of Paige’s father’s death and is often seen as a new start for the family.
His nickname, according to him originated from childhood work where he would tote bags at the train station. He once said he was not making enough money at a dime a bag, so he used a pole and rope to to build a contraption that allowed him to cart up to four bags at once. A kid yelled, “You look like a walking satchel tree.” Another story goes that Paige earned the nickname after he was caught trying to steal a bag.
Satchel’s mother, Lula, often said that her son would rather play baseball than eat. It was always baseball, baseball.”
On July 24, 1918, a mere 17 days after Paige’s 12th birthday, he was sentenced to six years – or until his 18th birthday at the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers in Mount Meigs, Alabama. It’s often believed he was sent off to reform school because of shoplifting. New research has shown that it was due to rock throwing battles that Paige and his friends often engaged in.
The person who taught Paige to pitch while in reform school was the Reverend Moses Davis. He was also a trustee of the school and devoted long hours coaching the boys in baseball.
Paige was released from the institution in December 1923, seven months before his 18th birthday. He often summed up his years of incarceration as, “I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch.”
Paige went on to play for several semi-professional teams in Mobile. He began playing for the Mobile Tigers where his brother Wilson was already pitching.
He went on to pitch for another semi-pro team named the “Down the Bay Boys.” He recalled an incident in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game when his teammates made three consecutive errors. With the bases loaded, Paige stomped around the mound and kicked up dirt. The fans began to boo him so he called his outfielders and had them sit down in the infield. He went on to strike out the final batter, allowing his team to win the game.
In 1926, Alex Herman, the player and manager of the Chattanooga White Sox of the minor Negro Southern League took notice to Paige. Herman discovered Paige and offered to play him $250 per month – Paige would collect $50 with the rest going to his mother Lula. Herman also agreed to pay Lula Paige a $200 advance and she agreed to the contract.
In April 1926, he recorded nine strikeouts over six innings against the Atlanta Black Crackers. Halfway through the 1927 season, his contact was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons of the major Negro National League. His contract was for $450 per month according to his first memoir, but in his second memoir, he said it was for $275.
In his first big game in late June 1927, against the St. Louis Stars, Paige incited a brawl when his fastball hit the hand of St. Louis catcher Mitchell Murray. Murray charged the mound and Paige sprinted to the dugout. Murray went on to fling his bat and struck Paige above the hip.
He finished the 1927 season with a 7-1 record with 69 strikeouts, 26 walks and 891⁄3 innings. The next two seasons, Paige went 12-5 and 10-9 with a record of 176 strikeouts in 1929.
Several sources credit his 1929 strikeout total as the all-time single-season record for the Negro Leagues.
On April 29, 1929, he recorded 17 strikeouts in a game against the Cuban Stars – this exceeded what was the current major league record of 16 held by Noodles Hahn and Rube Waddell. Six days later, he struck out 18 of the Nashville Elite Giants.
Paige was offered $100 per game to play winter ball for the Santa Clara team in the Cuban League. Paige was often homesick but still went 6-5 in Cuba.
He left Cuba abruptly before the end of the season with several stories told about the circumstances. He told one version in which the mayor of a small hamlet asked him, in Spanish, if he had intentionally lost a particular game. Paige did not understand what the man had said, nodding and smiling, thinking the man was fawning over him. He would then have to flee from the furious mayor.
Another version, also told by Paige, says that when he called on an attractive local girl at her home, she and her family interpreted his attentions as an official engagement and sent police to enforce it.
The third version was told by the general manager of the Santa Clara Leopards. He said that Paige left Cuba in haste after legal charges were brought against him regarding an amorous incident with “a young lady from the provincial mulatto bourgeoisie.”
In the spring of 1930, Paige was leased to the Baltimore Black Sox, who had won the 1929 American Negro League championship led by their third baseman Jud “Boojum” Wilson. Paige, as a Southerner, was an outsider on the Black Sox. His teammates considered him a hick. Not to mention, he was the team’s number two pitcher behind Lamon Yokely and Paige did not like being overshadowed.
In the mid-summer, Paige returned to Birmingham, where he pitched well the rest of the summer. He went 7-4 during the summer. In September, he was leased to the Chicago American Giants of the NNL for a home-and-home series with the Houston Black Buffaloes of the Texas-Oklahoma League.
He won one and lost one in the series and then returned to Birmingham.
By spring of 1931, the Depression began to take its toll on the Negro Leagues, and the Black Barons temporarily disbanded. Paige played for the Cleveland Cubs and often looked over at the Cleveland Indians’ stadium. “I’d look over at the Cleveland Indians’ stadium. All season long it burned me, playing there in the shadow of that stadium.”
In June 1931, Paige was offered $250 a month by the Crawford Color Giants. On August 6, Satchel made his debut against their hometown rivals, the Homestead Grays. He held the Grays scoreless in five innings of relief work with six strikeouts and no walks.
By September, Paige joined a Negro all-star team organization by Tom Wilson, called the Philadelphia Giants, to play in the California Winter League. Paige went on to his win his first California game 8-1. He allowed five hits and struck out 11. He finished with a 6-0 record and 70 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched.
In 1932, Paige went 10-4, allowed 3.19 runs per game and struck out 92 batters in 1322⁄3 innings pitched. His first Negro league no-hitter came in July.
At the time, the Crawfords had five future Hall of Famers playing for them – many historians credit the 1930s Crawfords as the greatest team in Negro League history. The team included: Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Ted Page, Judy Johnson, Boojum Wilson, Leroy Matlock, and Rap Dixon.
The 1934 season is considered one of Paige’s best in his career. He went 14-2 while allowing 2.16 runs per game. He recored 144 strikeouts and gave up only 26 walks.
On July 4, 1934, he threw his second no-hitter while pitching against the Homestead Grays. Paige struck out 17 and gave up a walk to Buck Leonard. An error in the fourth inning prevented it from being a perfect game.
In the same season, The Denver Post conducted an annual baseball tournament, also known as the “Little World Series,” and for the first time, it was open to black players. Paige was leased to the Colored House of David, a prominent barnstorming team of white men who represented a religious commune and wore beards. Their manager was none other than Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Paige pitched shutouts in his first two starts. He struck out 14 and 18 in those starts. The final championship game was his third start in five days and he faced the Kansas City Monarchs. He faced Chet Brewer with a crowd of 11,120. He won the pitchers’ duel 2-1, struck out 12 Monarchs for a tournament total of 44 strikeouts.
The 1934 tournament was his first major exposure in front of the white press. He received his first East-West All Star Game selection the same year.
While playing for the East, he came in during the sixth inning and proceeded to strike out Alec Radcliffe and retire Turkey Stearnes and Mule Suttles. His team scored one run in the top of the eighth and Paige held his opponent scoreless for the rest of the game.
It wasn’t easy for Paige in 1934. He had to compete with Slim Jones of the Philadelphia Stars. During a September four-team charity benefit doubleheader played at Yankee Stadium, the two battled it out.
Paige drove all night from Pittsburgh and parked near the stadium, falling asleep in the car. A batboy found him and woke him just in time for his scheduled start.
The game is sometimes described as the greatest game in Negro League history. Paige and Jones went to a 1-1 tie that was called because of darkness. A rematch was scheduled and Paige defeated Jones and the Stars in a 3-1 victory.
By the late 1940 season, Paige was promoted to the Monarchs. He made his debut on September 12 against the American Giants. He pitched a five-inning darkness-shortened complete game. The Monarchs won 9-3 with Paige striking out 10.
He took the role as the ace pitcher while Hilton Smith dropped to number two and sometimes was relegated to relieve Paige.
On August 1, 1941, Paige made his second appearance in the East-West All-Star Game. He entered the game at the start of the eighth inning with his team leading 8-1. He only gave up one hit to the NNL’s new starting catcher, Roy Campanella.
By 1942, the Monarchs had won the Negro American League pennant again. For the first time since 1927, the champions of the two leagues Kansas and the Homestead Gray met in the World Series. Paige started the first game in Washington and went on to pitch five shutout innings. The Monarchs scored their first run in the top of the sixth. They went on to win 8-0.
The Monarchs went on to sweep the series. Paige pitched in all four official games in the Series. He went 16 innings, struck out 18 and gave up eight hits and six runs.
When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, Paige realized that it was best that he was not the first black player in Major League Baseball. With Robinson starting in the minors, Paige would have probably seen this an insult to his pitching abilities.
On July 7, 1948, the Cleveland Indians were in a pennant race and in desperate need of pitching. The owner of the team Bill Veeck brought in Paige in to try out with Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau. On his 42nd birthday, Paige signed his first major league contract for $40,000 for the three months remaining in the season. He became the first black pitcher in the American League.
On July 9, 1948, he became the oldest man ever to debut in MLB at the age of 42 years old. With the Indians down by three runs, Boudreau sent Paige in to pitch. Paige did not know the signs and did not want to confuse his catcher so he pitched with extreme caution. He went on to earn his first MLB win on July 15, 1948 at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.
On August 3, 1948, Boudreau started Paige against the Washington Senators in Cleveland with 72,562 fans in the crowd. He went on to get the win that night. He would go on to make one appearance in the 1948 World Series.
He ended his first season in Major League Baseball with a 6-1 record, an ERA of 2.48 with 43 strikeouts, 22 walks, 61 base hits allowed and two shutouts in 722⁄3 innings pitched.
The 1949 season was not ideal for Paige. He ended the season with a 4-7 record and was 1-3 in his starts with a 3.04 ERA. The Indians would go ahead and give Paige an unconditional release.
In 1950, he went on to sign with the Philadelphia Stars in the Eastern Division of the NAL for $800 per game. When Veeck bought an 80% interest in the St. Louis Browns, he signed Paige.
His first game back in the majors came on July 18, 1951 against the Washington Senators. He pitched six innings shutout baseball until the seventh inning when he gave up three runs. His final line of the 1951 season was a 3-4 record and a 4.79 ERA.
In 1952, Rogers Hornsby took over as manager for the Browns. Hornsby was less hesitant to use Paige than Boudreau. Veeck went on to fire Hornsby and replaced by Marty Marion.
Paige had worked in 25 games by July 4, 1952. He made the American League All-Star team as the first black pitcher on an AL All-Star team. Despite his team losing 90 games, he finished with a record of 12-10 and a ERA of 3.07.
Despite having a down year in 1953, Paige made the 1953 All-Star team. He walked Duke Snider and Enos Slaughter lined a hit to center. Paige ended his year with a 3-9 record and a 3.55 ERA. He was released once again.
Paige returned to barnstorming with Abe Saperstein. The two formed a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters before Paige joined the real Globetrotters. He would often pitch the basketball to Goose Tatum, who would bat the ball with his arms, run around bases and slide into home safely. Paige never actually played on the team. He quickly grew tired of the travel.
By this time, his wife had birthed his fourth child and first son, Robert Leroy.
On August 14, 1955, Paige signed with the Greensboro Patriots of the Carolina League. He was scheduled to pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies farm team but the farm director for the Phillies wired George Trautman, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.
Trautman ruled the signing was invalid, but the Greensboro quickly reminded him that the Carolina League had approved the contract. Unfortunately, Trautman ruled that Paige could only be used in exhibition games. Eventually, the game was canceled due to Hurricane Diane.
Veeck would once again return to Paige’s life. He took control of the Phillies’ triple-A farm team, the Miami Marlins and signed Paige for a contract of $15,000. Marlins manager Don Osborn did not want Paige and Veeck made a deal with him – he could line up his best nine hitters against Paige. Paige retired all nine and Osborn finally agreed to make him a roster player.
In his first game as a Marlin, he pitched a complete-game as a four-hit shutout. Osborn taught Paige how to properly throw a curveball which only increased the pitcher’s arsenal. He finished the season 11-4 with an ERA of 1.86. He only allowed 28 walks and struck out 79.
The Marlins finished in sixth place in 1957, despite Paige having a 10-8 record with 76 strikeouts and a 2.42 ERA.
During the 1958 season, Paige was often fined due to missing curfews or workouts under the new manager Kerby Farrell. He finished the season 10-10 and did not return to Miami the next year.
By 1961, Paige was 55-years-old and signed with the Triple-A Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. He pitched 25 innings, struck out 19 and gave up eight earned runs. During his stint with the Beavers, he failed to record a single decision.
In 1965, Charles O. Finley, the owner of the Kansas City Athletics, signed Paige for one game. Finley invited several Negro league veterans including Cool Papa Bell to be introduced before the game against the Boston Red Sox. Paige started the game and by the fourth inning, he walked off to a standing ovation from the small crowd of 9,289. Fans lit matches and cigarette lights while singing, “The Old Gray Mare.”
Paige would pitch his last game for organized baseball in 1966. He appeared with the Globetrotters in Chicago and played with the Indianapolis Clowns for $1,000 a month in 1967.
In 1968, Paige took the position as deputy sheriff in Jackson County, Missouri. The purpose was to set up Paige with political credentials. He would soon run for a Missouri state assembly seat with the support of the local Democratic club against incumbent Rep. Leon Jordan. Jordan defeated Paige by a margin of 1,870 votes to 382.
The same year, the owner of the Atlanta Braves signed Paige to a contract through the 1969 season as a pitching coach/pitcher. It has been said that this was done so Paige could gain service time to receive a major league pension. He did most of his coaching from his living room in Kansas City. Paige did pitch in one pre-season game in April 1969 and struck out Don Drysdale.
On February 9, 1971, it was announced that Paige would be the first member of the Negro win of the Hall of Fame. Many in the press saw the suggestion of a “Negro wing” as separate-but-equal and denounced the idea. By the time Paige’s induction came around, there was no separate wing at all.
During the late 1970s, he finally began to slow down with traveling and only made occasional personal appearances at most minor league stadiums.
Paige would die of a heart attack after his home had a power failure on June 8, 1982. He was buried on Paige Island in the Forest Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in Kansas City.
He went on to be inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals in 2001.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)