Cooperstown Confidential: Satchel Paige and Jamie Moyer

Jamie Moyer made unusual history this week by becoming the oldest major league pitcher to win a game. It is a remarkable feat for a 49-year-old pitcher, an accomplishment that is testament to Moyer’s athleticism, desire, and persistence. After missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, Moyer agreed to take a non-guaranteed contract with the Rockies and successfully fought his way onto Colorado’s Opening Day roster. On Tuesday night against the Padres, he allowed no earned runs over seven innings to register the history-making victory

Yet, Moyer is not the oldest man to pitch in a major league game. That honor continues to be held by the seemingly immortal Satchel Paige. Back in 1965, Paige made an appearance on the mound at the tender age of 59 years, two months, and eight days. The circumstances of his situation, however, were far different than those of Moyer.

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During the summer of 1965, Paige and his pregnant wife, Lahoma, wrote letters to each of the 20 major league teams, asking for a job as a pitcher or as a pitching coach or as a minor league manager. Only one team responded to Paige’s letter of inquiry: the Kansas City Athletics. The A’s, by no coincidence, were owned and operated by Charlie Finley, a man who never met a trend that he didn’t want to buck. Finley liked to do the unconventional, even the unthinkable. If other owners and general managers didn’t like an idea, then Charles Oscar Finley was likely to love it. And he simply adored the idea of having a legend like Satchel Paige pitching for his lowly team.

With his A’s doomed to finish last in the American League and with team attendance nearly nonexistent at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, Finley seized upon the opportunity to sign Paige in an unparalleled publicity stunt. It certainly didn’t hurt matters that Paige had a strong connection to the city, having pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs during his Negro Leagues career. Just two days after staging “Bert Campaneris Appreciation Night,” a promotion in which his shortstop played all nine positions in a nine-inning game, Finley announced the signing of Paige to a contract for the balance of the season.

Finley also knew that he would be helping Paige in his effort to achieve the service time needed to collect a major league pension. Paige was just 158 days short of the five years he needed to qualify. By signing Paige to pitch—and then keeping him on as a pitching coach beyond his celebrated return to the mound—Finley would be doing a good deed for an aging legend.

According to Finley’s plan, Paige would start one of Kansas City’s late-season games at Municipal Stadium. Objective observers had their doubts about Paige’s ability to pitch in the American League. After all, Paige had not pitched in Organized Ball since 1961. Some scouts who had watched Paige throw over the summer questioned his ability to pitch anything more than a few innings. They felt he had little chance of completing a game. Some of the Athletics players joked among themselves about acquiring additional insurance for the four infielders scheduled to start the game pitched by Paige. It was hardly a rousing round of approval from his new teammates.

Finley didn’t care. He held enough confidence in Paige that he offered him a contract paying him $250 a month. He announced that “Satchel Paige Appreciation Night” would take place on the night of Sept. 25 in Kansas City. Without consulting his manager, Haywood Sullivan, Finley declared that Paige would start that night’s game against the Boston Red Sox.

In a move choreographed by Finley, Paige began the night by sitting in a rocking chair just outside of the Athletics’ bullpen, a beautiful nurse at his side rubbing liniment on his arm. To the right of Paige and the nurse, a man wearing an Athletics cap and jacket held a cold pitcher of water.

Finley masterfully orchestrated the theatrical production of the pregame show, but he would have no control over the quality of Paige’s pitching. No matter, Paige would take care of that. After taking only 10 warm-up tosses, Paige went to work. In the top of the first, he retired Jim Gosger on a pop-up to first baseman Santiago Rosario. Dalton Jones then bounced a grounder to first, which was booted for an error, but Jones was quickly erased when he tried to advance to second on a passed ball. With two outs, Paige ran the count to 3-and-0 against Carl Yastrzemski. He then threw a get-me-over fastball, which Yaz smashed on a bounce into the left field stands, good for a ground-rule double.

Facing his first and only real jam of the night, Paige now dealt with Tony Conigliaro, whom he retired on a harmless fly ball to left field.

The match-up against “Tony C.” must have provided Paige with special satisfaction. Before the game, Conigliaro had boasted to his teammates about getting a hit against that “old so-and-so.” Instead, Conigliaro became one of Paige’s easiest outs of the night.

In the second inning, Paige handled the Red Sox with ease. He retired Lee Thomas on a foul pop to third baseman Wayne Causey. Felix Mantilla followed with a ground ball to Campaneris at shortstop. And then Eddie Bressoud flied out to Mike Hershberger in right.

The third inning proved just as easy. Mike Ryan popped up to Campaneris. Paige struck out his pitching counterpart, Bill Monbouquette. It was then back to the top of the order, with Gosger grounding out to Campy. Three innings complete, one hit, no walk, one strikeout, and most importantly, no runs. Paige and the A’s led the Red Sox, 1-0.

It took Paige only 28 pitches to dispose of the Red Sox. After throwing 14 pitches in the first inning, he settled down to retire the Red Sox on six pitches and eight in the third. Paige mixed and matched his three best pitches: a fastball, a curve, and his famed hesitation pitch, in which he came to a complete stop in his motion before finishing the delivery.

Under Finley’s original plan, Paige was to pitch the three innings and then give way to the Athletics’ bullpen. But Paige was too much of a showman for that. He came out for the top of the fourth inning and began throwing warm-up pitches, as if he were continuing his start. After a few tosses, Paige tipped his cap and began a slow walk off the mound with Sullivan, his 34-year-old manager. The modest crowd of 9,289 (which was actually better than Kansas City’s average draw of about 6,500 fans per game) treated him to a standing ovation.

As Paige stripped down to his underwear in the Athletics’ clubhouse, someone burst in the door to tell him to return to the field. A few minutes later, he walked back onto the field, where the ballpark lights had been turned off. The fans, who lit matches and held lighters in the otherwise darkened ballpark, serenaded him with lyrics from three songs, “Old Rocking Chair,” “I Am Growing Old,” and “The Old Gray Mare.”

The darkening of the park and the serenading of Paige by match light delayed the game for several minutes, likely annoying the Red Sox. Yet, the theatrics represented a master stroke by Finley, capping one of his best promotions ever. No one seemed to care that the Athletics ended up losing the game, 5-2; all anybody could talk about was Paige’s performance.

His counterpart on the mound, Monbouquette, came away thoroughly impressed. “He was throwing 86 to 88 miles per hour with excellent control and location,” Monbo told Paige’s biographer, Larry Tye. One of Paige’s teammates, veteran third baseman Ed Charles, offered praise that was blunter and slightly less sanitized. “He proceeded to go out on the mound,” Charles poetically informed Tye, “and shove the ball right up their you-know-what.”

The Red Sox’ hitters did not tank their effort against Paige. Appearing to do their best, they managed mostly pop-ups and weak ground balls. After the game, Yastrzemski showed his respect for Paige by wrapping him up in a bear hug.

Finley was just impressed. As the game continued, he visited Paige in the clubhouse, where he congratulated him for being “a credit to the game.” Paige expressed his appreciation to the owner. “I want to thank you for bringing me here,” said Paige, who noted that most of his teammates had questioned his legitimacy as a 59-year-old pitcher. “Everybody doubted me on the ballclub,” Paige told Joe McGuff of The Sporting News. “They’ll have more confidence in me now. Before they only took my word for it… Now I’ll stay in shape because they know what I can do.”

Paige’s words made it clear that he expected to pitch for the A’s the following spring. For his part, Finley said he wanted to use Paige as a public relations spokesman over the winter and then have him report to spring training as a pitching coach. As a coach, Paige could continue to accrue service time toward his pension. Finley did not comment directly on Paige’s plan to continue pitching, but the door seemed open as far as the owner was concerned.

Unfortunately, Paige was already under contract to Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters. Paige pitched for Saperstein’s barnstorming baseball team. Under terms of the contract, Saperstein could block Paige from working fulltime for a major league team. As a result, Finley was forced to withdraw the offer that would have made “Ol’ Satch” a pitching coach.

Paige never again worked for the A’s or Finley, but rumors did persist that a reunion might take place. In February of 1974, with the A’s now transplanted to Oakland, Finley was searching for a new manager to replace Dick Williams, who had resigned after the 1973 World Series. Finley reportedly considered a number of candidates, including former Rangers managers Ted Williams and Whitey Herzog and ex-Brewers skipper Dave Bristol. The other names on Finley’s list all belonged to former or current major league stars who happened to be black: Frank Robinson, Maury Wills, and Satchel Paige.

The inclusion of Paige in the Oakland managerial rumor mill raised some of the most interesting possibilities. Paige had long wanted to become a manager, or at the very least, a pitching coach, for a big league team. He also wanted to become the first black man to manage in the major leagues. By pitching the one game for Finley’s Kansas City A’s in 1965, Paige at least had some connection to the organization, unlike all of the other rumored candidates.

Paige, however, had rarely been mentioned as a possible major league manager. To put it bluntly, he did not fit the managerial profile. As a player, he was a flamboyant showman who often jumped from team to team and abhorred basic conditioning regimens that included such unpleasant exercises as running. While Paige was a great competitor and a determined, resilient athlete who had pitched into his 60s, he seemed to lack the disciplinary skills required to manage professional athletes.

None of the rumored African-American candidates received the nod from Finley. Paige and the others were bypassed in favor of Alvin Dark, who had previously managed the Indians and Giants. Ironically, Dark had been criticized for being a racist, based on his less-than-pleasant relationships with the Giants’ Latino ballplayers in the early 1960s.

Paige never did manage in the major leagues. Though he would pitch for a spell in the Reds’ farm system, Paige would never make it back to the big leagues as a pitcher, either. The Braves eventually offered Paige a job as a pitching coach/trainer/goodwill ambassador, allowing him to garner enough service time for his pension to kick in.

I have no idea if Moyer, like the legendary Paige, harbors any desire to manage in the major leagues. I also tend to doubt that he wants to pitch until he’s 59, the age at which Paige appeared. But it really doesn’t matter. Moyer, like Paige, has already broken a remarkable barrier.

They have shown that the game is not just for the young. The middle aged can play it, too—and play it well.

References & Resources
Satchel, by Larry Tye
The Sporting News

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Comments

  1. Cliff Blau said...

    The minimum salary in MLB in 1965 was probably $5,000.  How did Finley get away with signing Paige for $250 a month?  Also, Yaz’s hit was a double under the playing rules, it had nothing to do with the ground rules in KC.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    Cliff, according to the source I used (it was either The Sporting News or Larry Tye’s book, I’ll have to double check), Paige’s payment was $250 per month.

    In regards to the other point, it is commonplace to refer to doubles that bounce over the wall as “ground-rule doubles.” I don’t recall hearing such a double referred to as a “rule book double” or a “playing rules double.”

  3. jmac66 said...

    you write: “Paige and the others were bypassed in favor of Alvin Dark, who had previously managed the Indians and Giants.”

    not to be nitpickey—but he managed the Indians AFTER he managed KC. And then, of course he went back to the A’s in Oakland

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    Well, I misinterpreted the salary information from Larry Tye’s book. What he had actually written was that once Paige qualified for the major league pension, he would receive $250 a month. Tye didn’t actually specify what Paige was making in his short pitching stint for the A’s.

    Good job, Cliff.

  5. Spencerk said...

    I have a fond memory of attending a game in 1965 at Fenway Park.  The Athletic’s Satchel Paige walked out to the bullpen, where they had a rocking chair for him (He didn’t pitch that day).

    I was 9 at the time and my dad told my brother and I, that’s the great Satchel Paige.

    I enjoyed reading this article.

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