With apologies to the chronically underrated Smokey Joe Williams, the consensus of baseball historians makes Leroy “Satchel” Paige the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues. He might have been the most eccentric, too, with a list of quirks and quotations that could fill stacks of notebooks.
As a youngster in Mobile, Ala., Leroy Paige often found himself in trouble. He fought frequently with other children and skipped school on more than a few occasions. While carrying bags for money at a local railroad station—that’s how he acquired the nickname “Satchel”—Paige once tried to steal a piece of luggage. Truancy and shoplifting landed Paige in the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Ala. He remained at the special school until the age of 17. During his time at the school, he learned how to use a distinctive pitching motion that featured an unusually high leg kick and a deceptive last-second release of the ball toward the batter.
Thankfully, Paige owned enough pitching talent to overcome his youthfully erratic behavior. Hooking up with a semipro baseball team, Paige showcased an explosive right arm that soon caught the eye of Negro Leagues talent scouts. Paige signed with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, who gave him a chance to pitch regularly—and often. Making a stirring impression with a riding fastball and precise control, Paige became a legend throughout the South almost immediately. As Larry Tye illustrates in his detailed book, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, Paige threw such a hard, heavy fastball that some of his catchers placed raw steaks in their mitts to soften the blow.
Paige did not last long with the Lookouts, but he added an important pitch to his repertoire with Chattanooga. He learned how to throw his famed hesitation pitch, which involved a complete stop at the top of an extremely high leg kick, another unique part of his dynamic and distinct pitching style. In 1931, Paige left the Lookouts, jumping the team for a higher monthly salary with the Birmingham Barons. Over his career, Paige would turn the process of jumping teams into an art form, using the Negro Leagues’ loose contractual restrictions to his advantage like no one else. Always on the prowl for the top bidder, Paige elevated his salary astronomically, making him far and away the highest paid player in black ball.
Controversy engulfed Paige in Birmingham. He clashed with manager Bill Gatewood, resisting his advice on pitching and his efforts to curb his wildness. Paige made matters worse in a June game against the St. Louis Stars. He beaned three consecutive Stars batters, triggering a nasty bench-clearing brawl. Given Paige’s usual pinpoint control, there was little doubt that he threw the beanballs intentionally.
Departing Birmingham for what he believed were richer pastures, Paige spent short stints with a couple of nondescript teams. He then made one of his best career (and life) moves, settling in with the famed Pittsburgh Crawfords. He pitched two no-hitters for the Crawfords, who were arguably the most talented Negro Leagues team of the era. More importantly, Paige married Janet Howard, a waitress at Pittsburgh’s renowned Crawford Grill.
Paige also became even more concerned about his salary. Now with a wife to support, Paige sought extra work in 1934. He signed with a semipro team in Bismarck, N.D. Upon arrival in Bismarck, Paige set out to show the locals that stories of his legendary control were not exaggerated. Paige placed a matchstick on a stick next to home plate. He then made 20 pitches toward home plate, hitting the tiny matchstick 13 times.
Paige’s schedule became even busier in 1934 when he signed to play for the Cuban House of David team, a barnstorming team consisting of white players. All members of the team wore beards; so did Paige, who donned a false beard instead of growing authentic facial hair. Paige’s look changed, but his fastball and trademark hesitation pitch remained nearly unhittable.
Those pitches stayed unhittable for the 1935 Crawfords, who assembled arguably the greatest team in Negro Leagues history. The ’35 Crawfords featured Paige and four other Hall of Famers: legendary catcher Josh Gibson, slick-fielding third baseman Judy Johnson, blazing center fielder Cool Papa Bell and power-packed right-fielder Oscar Charleston.
Unfortunately, the Crawfords could not keep the elite group together for long. That same year, Paige experienced a falling-out with Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee because of a bitter contract dispute. Bolting the Crawfords, Paige rejoined the semi-pro team he had played for in Bismarck. That turned out to be a short-lived proposition. When team officials realized that Paige had been sleeping with a number of white women in Nebraska, they ran him out of town.
With Paige banned from the Negro National League for one season because of his violation of his Crawfords contract, Paige sought refuge in the Negro American League. He signed with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs and played out the season with them before receiving an offer to headline his own team, the “Satchel Paige All-Stars.” It was a testament to Paige’s unique level of popularity that an all-star team featuring his name as the primary drawing card could exist on the barnstorming circuit.
As Paige continued to bounce from team to team, even returning to Pittsburgh at one point, he played a seemingly endless schedule of games. He pitched a Negro Leagues season during the summer and then barnstormed during the winter. As Tye points out in his book, it is “feasible” that Paige pitched for as many as 250 teams, as he often claimed that he did.
Along the way, Paige developed a rapport with newspaper and magazine writers, eventually becoming one of the most quotable players in professional baseball. He supplied reporters with a limitless supply of legendary stories and colorful quips. Some of his most famous quotations included the following gems:
“Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”
“I don’t generally like running. I believe in training by rising gently up and down from the bench.
“The only change is that baseball has turned Paige from a second class citizen to a second class immortal.”
Paige’s ability to turn a phrase only added to his legend. Another intriguing part of his story involved his birth certificate. Some reporters became obsessed with Paige’s real age, which became a constant source of debate as his career progressed into the 1940s and ’50s. Paige continually contradicted himself with regard to his age; sometimes his response to questions indicated that he was born in 1906, while other interviews traced his birthday to 1908, or even 1903. It wasn’t really Paige’s fault, since his mother didn’t seem to know his year of birth either; she provided conflicting information to sportswriters and to her son as well.
Whatever his true age, it was generally believed that Paige had surpassed his 40th birthday by the time he made his major league debut for the Cleveland Indians in 1948. (Five years later, his first baseball card, as seen above, was produced. Even Paige’s high level of fame couldn’t prevent the misspelling of his first name on the card.)
One industry that didn’t care about Paige’s age was Hollywood. After his major league career ended in 1957, Paige took advantage of his notoriety and appeared in the film “The Wonderful Country.” The 1959 film, which starred Robert Mitchum, featured Paige in a significant role as an Army sergeant in a segregated unit of black soldiers. At the time of the film’s release, few other motion pictures had portrayed African-American soldiers so prominently.
Paige’s birthdate again became a burning issue in 1965, when he returned to the major leagues after a smattering of appearances in the minor leagues. Brought back to the majors by another showman, the irrepressible Charlie Finley, Paige pitched in one game for the Kansas City A’s at the supposed age of 59. Between innings, he sat in a rocking chair in the bullpen and sipped coffee that was served to him by a “nurse.” When Paige left the game after pitching a remarkable stretch of three scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox, the public address announcer and the crowd at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium serenaded him with a rendition of “The Old Gray Mare.”
Paige continued to buck convention after his playing days. In 1971, he became the first man elected to the Hall of Fame based on his performance in the Negro Leagues. Several years ago, the Hall added another honor by erecting a bronze statue of Paige, which is located between the Hall’s museum and library. When I walk up the ramp from the Hall’s Plaque Gallery to the library, I usually look out the window and see that statue. It’s a good reminder of the greatest single character black baseball has ever produced.