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Satchel Paige - Played In The Negro Leagues

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The Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, provided Paige with the education he'd been lacking and gave him his first true introduction to baseball. Initially a first basemen, he soon became the starting pitcher. That same Willie Hines—the one who'd witnessed Satchel's dead-on accuracy when he'd thrown rocks and bricks back in Mobile—told the coach Satchel could pitch better than any guy they had up there. Though Paige wasn't a refined pitcher by any means, the Mount Meigs coach, Edward Byrd, worked with Satchel and helped turn him into one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever known. He taught Satchel the beginnings of moves that became characteristic of Paige's style: the high front foot kick, "so it looked like I blocked out the sky," and the release of the ball at the last possible moment. He taught him to study not only the batter's eyes, but also his knees, "like a bullfighter. A bullfighter can tell what a bull is going to do by watching its knees."

When he was released from the Mount Meigs School, Paige returned to Mobile unsure of what to do next. Seeking the next chapter in his life, wandering the streets for answers, he came across some black men playing baseball. In 1923, the popularity of baseball was beginning to rise in the South. Satchel Paige soon began playing with the local team, but word of his talents as a pitcher spread, and in 1926 he signed with the Chattanooga, Tennessee Black Lookouts.

Paige's mother wasn't happy that her son would probably be playing baseball on Sundays, but was pleased that baseball had finally given him a ticket to get out of Mobile. Paige would end up staying with the Black Lookouts through the 1927 season, touring a South he'd never seen, and concentrating on sharpening his talents and expanding his pitching repertoire.

Paige's fastball had always been—and would continue to be—his principal pitch. Yet as he matured he developed an arsenal of pitches. Almost as famous as his fastball would be his "hesitation pitch," a delayed pitch in which the hurler strides forward, holds back a second, then lets go of the ball at the very last moment. On the mound Paige's reputation preceded him and some batters were so unnerved by his appearance that they would swing their bats before he even released the ball.

"I got bloopers, loopers, and droopers," Paige would say, describing his many pitches. "I got a jump-ball, a be-ball, a screw ball, a wobbly ball, a whipsy-dipsy-do, a hurry-up, a nothin' ball and a bat dodger." This "be-ball," he explained, "is a be-ball 'cause it 'be' right where I want it, high and inside. It wiggles like a worm." He would also, in typical Paige fashion, assert at other times that this was a "bee" ball because of the buzzing noise it made as it rocketed past batters.

As when he toted luggage, Paige soon saw that being successful in baseball—especially in the Southern Negro Leagues, which were considered inferior to the majors—took more than just being a great ballplayer. The emptiness and poverty of growing up in Mobile turned Paige into an opportunist. The boy who carried luggage from the train platform was now a man standing on the mound. Yet he still wanted the most attention, and so, in addition to being a phenomenal ballplayer, Satchel became an entertainer, a spectacle who drew the fans to the ballparks.

Satchel Paige

Although he was all seriousness when he took hold of the ball, Satchel gave the audience what they came for, and they almost always left with stories to tell. Paige might signal to the outfielders to leave the field early, or at the very least, tell them to sit down because he planned to strike out the side. Or he might announce beforehand that he would fan the first nine batters—and then do it!

Satchel Paige packed 'em in. In fact, in his first three starts in the major leagues, in 1948, he drew over 200,000 fans and set nighttime attendance records in Chicago and Cleveland.

Paige was always open to discussions with other teams who were willing to pay him more, and he participated in exhibition games to bring in more cash. This itinerant nature is one of the reasons it is so difficult to pin down statistics on him during his years in the Negro leagues, and why often some of the statistics can't be found. Paige moved often from team to team, as well as being "loaned" out to other clubs from his parent club, always going where the money was. It has been estimated that towards the end of his life, he'd pitched in well over 2500 games, winning about 2000 of them-with 300 shutouts and 55 no-hitters.

After leaving the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, he signed with the Alabama Birmingham Black Barons, in 1927, for $275 a month. He then began to bounce around the country "globetrotting" to demonstrate his talents. In 1928 he played for the Nashville Elite Giants and spent the off-season touring with a group of barnstormers—something he would continue to do throughout his career in the Negro and semi-pro leagues. During these exhibitions, he played against the white ballplayers he wasn't allowed to join in the majors.

Babe Ruth headed up one of the exhibition teams Paige would play on, though he never pitched against Ruth. Whenever Satchel was on the mound, the Babe was always conveniently riding the bench. Paige was able to fan the best hitters in the majors, and in one particular game, on the west coast during those barnstorming days, he struck out 22 major leaguers, which would have been a big league record.

In early 1931 he joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords for $750 a month, a great salary at that time, and he stuck with this ball club during six regular seasons. In 1934, he married Janet Howard, a waitress who worked in a restaurant he frequented, and she moved with him out west, where he spent a season earning top dollar with an all-white team in Bismarck, North Dakota. At one point during this time, he set a never-to-be-duplicated record of pitching 29 games in a single month.

After a year in North Dakota, however, Paige returned to the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Life out west was difficult, and he couldn't find housing for him and his wife—in fact, they were forced to live in an abandoned railroad freight car. In his autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, he says he was a wandering man, "but Janet was against all that wandering. She wanted a man who ran a store or something and came home every night, a guy who'd never leave her and if he had to go somewhere he'd be the kind to take her with him. I wasn't that kind at all back in those days," Paige wrote. He didn't want to be tied down, and with a reputation for carousing, drinking, staying out late and free spending, Janet and Satchel wouldn't see much of each other in the nine years they were married.

When he returned to the Crawfords, however, Paige discovered that he had been banned from the Negro Leagues for breaking his contract with the Pittsburgh ball club. The ban would last only a year, and in 1937 Paige headed to the Dominican Republic to play with the Trujillo Stars for a salary of $30,000, equivalent to the best the major leagues were offering at the time. In spite of the money, however, Paige found himself with financial problems. He spent too much on his wife, on clothes and cars, and on shotguns and fishing. Things seemed to be steadily declining, and in 1938, while playing in the Mexican Leagues, Paige suffered a career-threatening injury to his shoulder while pitching in Mexico City.

Unsure about what to do, he sought coaching jobs with teams around the Negro Leagues, but his lackluster reputation as a rabble-rouser preceded him. Ralph Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, decided to buy out the remainder of Paige's contract and invited him to travel with the Monarchs B-team throughout the northwest and Canada. In 1939, with his shoulder better, he joined the Monarchs A-team as their ace pitcher, leading them to the Negro League World Series—and the series titles—in 1939, 1940, and 1941.

For Paige, there never really was an off season. Back then, as is still common today, pitchers would throw every four to five days, then rest at the season's end. Throughout his career, Paige would continue on the exhibition circuit, playing year-round to earn extra money, barnstorming in small towns, and facing many great major-leaguers before they were famous (men such such as Dizzy Dean and Joe DiMaggio).

Satchel Paige - In The Big Leagues [next] [back] Satchel Paige - Awards And Accomplishments

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about 8 years ago

Is there any contemporaneous evidence, say a newspaper article, that indicates Babe Ruth always sat against Paige? I find that hard to believe. Not long ago, statheads found a trove of boxscores for games in which Ruth appeared against Negro League teams in exhibitions. Ruth pummeled Negro League pitchers, actually hit for a much higher average and for more power against them than he did against white major leaguers. I think his OPS was over 1.100 against the Negro Leaguers. In Paige's biography, he doesn't indicate that he ever faced a team with Ruth on it. In the Ken Burns documentary, Buck O'Neill claims that after Babe retired from the majors, Ruth faced Paige in a single at-bat in an barnstorming game. The result? According the O'Neill, a friend and teammate of Paige, Ruth hit a 500-foot home run.