Looking back at Satchel Paige

Back when the Hardball Times was still in its infancy, Steve Treder wrote a wonderful article about the wide-ranging baseball career of Bobo Newsom, a man who pitched nearly 6,000 innings of professional baseball over 25 years.

Impressive, true, but I wonder how a similar article about the legendary Satchel Paige would go? Satchel Paige not only pitched a lot—from local professional ball to traveling squads to the Dominican Republic to the Negro Leagues and finally to the majors—but he was an extraordinary hurler, possessing a combination of speed and control very rarely seen, with an outsized personality to match. Paige’s story is one of the archetypal stories of 20th century baseball. What an article that would be.

Not just an article, as it turns out, but a book. Larry Tye has written that book, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a baseball fan’s must-read.

Who would you say have been the “biggest” personalities in the history of the game? I’m thinking of players or managers who, through a rare combination of extraordinary skill and outgoing public persona, have stood above the crowd of major league ballplayers in a nearly mythic sense. Grand personalities have always been central to our appreciation of the sport, though they are harder to find in this post-Ball Four world.

Regardless of who you’d put on your list (Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel, Dizzy Dean, etc. ) Paige would have to be there, right near the top. Yet you don’t hear a lot about him these days. Our intense use of statistics to look back at baseball history has pretty much ignored Paige. We tend to use only clearly delineated major league stats, and Paige didn’t make it to the majors until he was 42. The major leagues prohibited him from playing until he was past his prime.

So you won’t find many Win Shares for Paige (in case you’re wondering, he accrued 42 Win Shares in his brief career, 28 Win Shares Above Bench. He was a .600 player—not bad for a guy in his 40s). You won’t find many Wins Above Replacement, WARP, VORP or any of those other accursed newfangled metrics. These don’t capture the essence of Paige, because he wasn’t there when he should have been.

Tye has listed what statistics there are in the back of his book.
{exp:list_maker}Paige was 103-61 in the Negro Leagues and struck out 1,231 batters while walking 253. His career spanned 20 years starting in the late 1920s, primarily with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Kansas City Monarchs.
He was 35-2 in the mid 1930s for Bismarck, a place virtually free of Jim Crow.
56-7 in the California Winter League.
23-11 in the Latin leagues. The Dominican Republic was the scene of some hair-raising political shenanigans that led to his team being quickly hustled off the island.
And 28-31 in the major leagues, where he finally made it in 1948 and pitched in 1965, when he was 59 years old. 59. His ERA+ in the majors, when he was in his 40s and 50s, was 124.{/exp:list_maker}To truly get a sense of how good Paige was, you have to listen to the stories. The payoff of Tye’s book is that he has researched these stories fairly diligently. As a reader you may not be convinced that everything in the book is “true”—Tye has a tendency to fall into hyperbole of his own—but it’s probably a good general reflection of reality. Although they’re still stories, they impress.

Consider two stories, courtesy of Whitey Herzog, which illustrate Paige’s arm strength and extraordinary control. First, Herzog once won a distance-throwing contest in the minor leagues by hurling a ball 380 feet. Satchel told him “I can throw farther than that” and hurled it 400 feet the next night. Almost from the outfield wall to the backstop.

Herzog also used to playfully try to throw a ball through a hole in the outfield fence in their minor league park. The hole was just big enough to accommodate a baseball, and Herzog wasn’t able to do it. Paige bet Herzog that he could do it in three tries, from 60 feet, 6 inches away. He did it on his second try.

Here’s the kicker: Herzog was 26. Paige was over 50.

Satchel Paige is central to a clear understanding of the baseball scene from 1930 to 1950. Between 1934 to 1945, Paige and Dizzy Dean engaged in a series of traveling exhibitions that were landmark events. The first time he faced Dean’s squad (which was actually Cleveland’s top minor league team), Paige was so pumped up that he retired every batter he faced before his manager pulled him after the sixth inning. Thirteen of the 18 outs were strikeouts. A later matchup between the two was a game that Bill Veeck called “the greatest pitchers’ battle I have ever seen.”

Dean and Paige were the perfect competitive pairing. As Tye says, “Each preferred his nickname to his real one, and his own rules to his team’s, league’s or society’s. … Their fractured aphorisms were so alike it seemed that Satchel and Dizzy were writing each other’s lines, or perhaps stealing them.”

Paige’s exhibitions against Dean, and later Bob Feller, as well as countless tournaments and exhibitions throughout the country, helped to establish Negro League players as legitimate and worthy of major league status. And Paige’s outgoing personality was just as crucial to attracting crowds and catching the attention of black baseball fans and, yes, white ones too. Buck O’Neil said, “I always say that Satchel Paige wasn’t just one franchise, he was a whole lot of franchises.”

Dean gave an example of what a competitive showman Paige was.

We was barnstorming at Dayton, Ohio, and playin’ at Ducks Park when I popped a blue darter over first and got myself three bases outta it. The fans were yelling their head off for me when ol’ Satch walks over and says to me, ‘I hope all your friends brought plenty to eat, Diz, because if they wait for you to score, they’re gonna be here past dark. You ain’t goin’ no further.’ Then he fanned the next three.

Showman, yes, but it ain’t bragging if you can do it.

There’s also the legendary telegraph that a scout sent to his bosses in the Bronx: DIMAGGIO IS ALL WE HOPED HE’D BE. HIT SATCH ONE FOR FOUR. Tye claims that DiMaggio repeatedly called Paige the best pitcher he ever faced.

So, yes, the legends, vetted as much as possible by Tye, are all there. But the other strength of Tye’s book is how well he tells the story behind the legend. The story of Jim Crow, segregated baseball and what it took for a black ball player to succeed in those days.

Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama, where he was the seventh of 12 children (one of whom died at birth). Tye tells of Paige’s early years at the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers in Mount Meigs, Alabama (Paige was sent there for stealing from a five-and-dime store when he was 12) and how Edward Byrd, the baseball coach, took Paige under his wing. Byrd saw the talent in the wayward young young man and helped him develop his game and his unique pitching style, with the left leg held high in the air.

It was interesting to me how closely Paige’s formative years paralleled Babe Ruth’s time at St. Mary’s Industrial School and his relationship with Brother Matthias. Perhaps this is how legends are born.

Anyway, Paige returned home but soon after followed his dream (and the money) by leaving Mobile and pitching professionally. The obstacles were many, of course, set by Jim Crow laws, segregated baseball and the general discrimination of the times. Even in towns relatively free of Jim Crow, like Bismarck, discrimination still lived. Paige’s entire life was one of fighting against the odds set by those troubled attitudes and times.

Paige pitched and pitched and pitched. He earned his income by pitching, and he was willing to pitch for anyone who would pay him. In another fit of hyperbole, Tye says “No player barnstormed as wide or far, for as long, as Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige.” Actually, this might not be hyperbole. He was a true baseball nomad, going wherever he could make a buck and making Bobo Newsom seem like a homebody. Cause Paige also liked his money. He liked to buy fine things and he liked his women, marrying several of them, and Tye has the scoop on his confusing marital records.

Then there was the final date of destiny, when Paige was signed by Bill Veeck’s Indians only after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had broken the color barrier. There was a generational gap between them, typical of many black relationships at the time. Robinson and Doby were serious young men and Paige was perceived as a comic, more of a clown than someone to be taken seriously. The distinction was especially acute between Doby and Paige because they were on the same team.

Tye chronicles it all very well and compellingly. He also spends a lot of time on something that I never knew about: the year that Paige’s arm totally gave out in 1939 and Paige saw his livelihood vanish. Just as mysteriously, it returned to form after about a year.

As I said, Tye slips into his own hyperbole at times (claiming, for instance, that Satchel was “the most celebrated sobriquet in sports.” Did he ever hear of “Babe?”), which undermines the perceived authenticity of his book. That’s a real shame, because Paige deserves an uncontested place at the top of the baseball’s true pitching legends. Tye’s book puts him there, but doesn’t quite close the case because you’re not sure at the end that the author kept his perspective on his subject. That’s a quibble, probably a small one, but it bothered me nevertheless.

Satchel Paige’s six rules for staying young

For some reason, these are in the footnotes instead of the main text, probably because Paige didn’t originally write them himself (you’ll have to read the book to get that scoop). Still, Satchel Paige’s six rules for staying young were one of the first things I learned as a young baseball fan, and they’re worth remembering.

1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood;
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts;
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move;
4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.

References & Resources
Satchel’s Wikipedia page.
The Satchel Paige website.
Satchel’s New York Times obituary, by Joe Durso
YouTube outtake from Ken Burns’ Baseball about Satchel
Video interview with Larry Tye.

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Comments

  1. Dave Studeman said...

    Yup, perspective is good. I can’t compare Paige to the other Negro League hurlers, and I know some people make the argument you make.  Tye acknowledges as much too.

    Also, good question about Feller and Grove.  Of course, I might ask how they would have performed if they had had to contend with Jim Crow, hatred and discrimination and never-ending travel to make ends meet.

    The comparison to Niekro doesn’t work for me.  Niekro never had the peak that Paige did (of course, that’s my opinion).  What’s more, the knuckler put much less strain on his arm.

  2. Matt S. said...

    Bill,

    Comparing Paige to Niekro is ridiculous. Niekro pitched in the major leagues throughout his 30’s and really hit his stride in his 40’s. Most importantly though, he threw a 70mph knuckleball almost exclusively. It is useless to compare a power pitcher to a knuckler. Paige was ML ROOKIE at age 42, so he did not have years and years of experience against the hitters he was facing like a Randy Johnson or Jamie Moyer does.

    The negro leauge aces you mention are not vastly superior pitchers either. They may have better winning percentages, but that is hardly proof that they were really better.

    We will never have peripheral stats or accurate gamelog records to go by to make such fine distictions as to who was the best ever negro league pitcher. We are left with the accounts of players and fans to try to understand this era and Paige comes up in every account as among the best. It is likely that had segregation not existed Paige would be up their with Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and other white pitchers in the listing of the greatest ever.

  3. Mike Lamone said...

    Just think of the number of wins Paige would have if he entered the major leagues at 21. If I were building my field of dreams team Paige would be one of my five starters.

  4. johonny said...

    Just think how many wins Paige might of had if he pitch in the major leagues… of course he could have hurt his arm at age 21 and never been heard of again.  The thing about history is it only happens once.  We have no idea how many wins he might have gotten if he was allowed to pitch in the majors because everything would have been different.  Paige is who Paige is and his career was what his career was.

  5. Bill Rubinstein said...

    I don’y want to take anything away from Paige, but it seems to me that you, and many others, are being too uncritical in looking at his career. Paige’s 103-61 record in the Negro Leagues was bettered by other great Negro League pitchers, such as the little-known Ray Brown (105-44, .705%) and Hilton Smith (72-28, .720), both of whom are also in the Hall of Fame. Paige’s record of 28-31 in the Majors from the age of 42 might be compared with that of Phil Niekro, who, from age 42 on, was 83-78, with seven shutouts and
    around 800 strikeouts. No one says that Niekro was some kind of super human freak for doing this, and, although he is in the HofF, he has been largely forgotten even now. Paige’s record against minor league and amateur teams is impressive, but how do you think Lefty Grove or Bob Feller would have done against this level of competition? Again, I am not knocking Paige, only trying to put him into perspective.

  6. DT said...

    I have not read the book yet, but have studied the career of paige.  Some have said he might have had 500 wins and 300 shutouts in his career. And the one-off stories about sitting down his fielders, throwing balls through impossible holes, etc are amazing.  These stats and stories, although maybe exaggerated, do not happen to guys like phil niekro.  they happen to the small percentage of truly amazing talents.  And satchel pitched 3 innings in the majors against the redsox at age 58, and only let up one hit (to carl yazstremski).
    He was clearly, even without playing against whitey and without having anything resembling a complete set of statistics, one of the best pitchers ever.

  7. Dave Studeman said...

    Great comments.  Adding some of my own in response to Bill’s:

    The rocking chair was a publicity stunt devised by Bill Veeck to promote Paige’s age.  I believe he also did the same thing when he was with the Braves.  It may have been exploitative—many publicity stunts are—but I’m not sure how it was racist.

    Going with the Gibson comparison, you can effectively argue that Gibson was one of the 20 greatest major league pitchers of all time.  Add in Paige’s extraordinary longevity, and you’ve got a case that Paige would have been in the top ten.

    Niekro was great in his 40’s, but he was a knuckleballer. That’s a whole different story. Tye doesn’t claim that Paige was the best pitcher over 40 ever.  Just that he was the oldest ever.

    Finally, I can’t help but add this perspective: the worst legacy of baseball segregation isn’t in the comparative records.  It’s what happened to those men denied the chance to compete on a level playing field with the rest of the country’s citizens.

  8. Andrew J. Misura said...

    I think no matter what, its important to note, that what he should be celebrated for is doing everything he did in SPITE of discrimination and racism.  He was recognized as the top pitcher in baseball and there were plans for him to join I believe the Phillies earlier on, but Commissioner Landis had the owner removed or something.  He was the highest paid professional player and I think that stats or no stats, he’s one of the greatest ever because he was a living legend in his time and still is a legend today.  If anything, it was his barnstorming against white teams that validated black players that opened the door for Jackie Robinson.

  9. Brent said...

    While it’s generally never a good idea to judge a pitcher mostly on his W-L record, for Satchel Paige ther are a couple of circumstances that make it especially misleading.  First, his opponents usually scheduled their best pitcher to pitch against him.  A very high proportion of his starts were against the best pitchers in black baseball. Second, by the 1940s, he was following an unusual work pattern in which he would start a lot of games but only pitch for 3 or 4 innings before being replaced by a relief pitcher.  He was used in this way to take advantage of his marquee value by advertising him as the starting pitcher for as many games as possible. This work pattern helped him pitch more games, but hurt his W-L record.

    Bill R mentioned the comparison with Hilton Smith, which is interesting because Paige and Smith were teammates on the Monarchs during 1941-46, so we can directly compare their statistics in a similar context. (These data come from Shades of Glory by Lawrence D. Hogan.)

    Paige: 1.58 ERA, 3.34 TRA, 7.7 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 7.0 H/9.

    Smith: 1.25 ERA, 3.33 TRA, 4.5 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 7.3 H/9.

    You can see that Paige and Smith were quite similar. Both pitchers had exceptional control, with a slight edge to Smith. Paige had a significantly better strikeout rate and a slightly better H/9 rate.  The results, as measured by ERA and total run average, are pretty similar.

    But their W-L records don’t reflect this similarity.  Smith’s record was 34-14, while Paige was only 25-23.  Of course, Smith finished some of the games that Paige started and didn’t pitch long enough to earn a win.

    Of course, the biggest difference betweem them is that Smith’s career lasted 16 years while Paige’s lasted almost twice that long.  We can’t statistically prove that Paige was the greatest pitcher in Negro League history, but we also can’t prove that he wasn’t.

  10. Bill Rubinstein said...

    Part of Paige’s renown is that he was an “ageless wonder” who performed in the Majors until he was an old man. I understand that he used to sit in the dugout in a rocking chair. Personally, this seems more than a little racist and exploitative, and obviously wouldn’t happen now. My point re. Phil Niekro is that he was much, much more of an “ageless wonder” than Paige, producing marks like 17-4 and 16-8 after the age of forty-two, but gets almost no credit for this, and is on his way to being forgotten except by baseball historians. Of course, Paige is legendary precisely becaus he was not allowed to play in the Majors in his prime, so we will never know how badly he would have done, only how great he was. Similarly, for many, Josh Gibson will always hit 75 home runs a year. Probably the worst legacy of baseball segregation is precisely that we will never know how badly the black players of the day would have done. If Ty Cobb had been barred from playing, I suppose many would say that he would have hit .600 in the Majors. We know this isn’t true. I suppose- this is only a guess- Paige would probably have won 250-325 games in a full career, somewhere between Grove and Hubbell. He was also something like Bob Gibson in the 1960s in many respects. Gibson was an outstanding pitcher but not necessarily the best of his time, or the best in the NL at that time. My guess is that Paige with a full Major League career would have been roughly the same- but who knows?

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