Saturday, February 10, 2018

Breaking Down the Doors to the Hall of Fame—Satchel Page—Part I

Note:  One of those posts in which my enthusiasm for the subject broke the limits of an acceptable blog post.  Thus today part I of a two day series.
On February 9, 1971 Satchel Paige became the first player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in the old Negro Leagues.  It was a belated honor for both the legendary pitcher and Black baseball in the Jim Crow era.
Paige, who was both coy and vague about his exact age, undoubtedly had the longest career ever in professional baseball from 1926 with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League to his last pro game on June 21, 1966, for the Peninsula Grays of the Carolina League.  In between he was the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball history at the age of 42 in 1948 with the Cleveland Indians.
Ever the philosopher, Paige, asked to sum up the triumphs and the struggles of his long career, replied simply and memorably “Don’t look back, they may be gaining on you.”
It took Indians owner Bill Veek to personally go down to Mobile, Alabama and dig in the records of the County Health Department to obtain Paige’s birth certificate and determine that he was born on July 7, 1906.  Paige had previously claimed birthdates ranging from 1900 to 1908 both because he was unsure himself and later to make himself seem a bit younger to owners that might be shy about signing an over-age pitcher.  His mother, years after the fact, added to the confusion by entering the wrong year in his family Bible.
Satchel was born Leroy Robert Page to John Page, a gardener, and his wife Lula, a maid Page in Mobile, Alabama.   He said his is life-long nickname Satchel came from toting luggage around the train station as a boy, a “job” he began around age 10.  A childhood chum recalled it differently—that it came when he was arrested for stealing a bag when he was 13. 
There were other arrests for theft and chronic truancy and the boy, like many others like him, ended up committed to the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs.  He was there for nearly 5 years during which time he got a rudimentary education and performed manual labor.  But he also joined the school baseball team where coach Edward Byrd taught Page to kick his front foot high and to swing his arm around so it looked like his hand was in the batter's face when he released the ball.  Based on good behavior and Byrd’s hope for a baseball career for his protégée, Satchel was released six month early in 1923.
Paige's famous high-kick wind up delivered a blazing fast ball that intimidated batters for decades.
By this time following his father’s death, the family inserted the “i” in their name to make the name Paige sound, “more high toned.” 
Paige kicked around with various semi-pro Negro teams in the Mobile area over the next two years, sometimes juggling schedules to play for two or more teams as the same time.  In a game for the Down the Bay Boys, a team barely above the sand lot level, Paige found himself in a jam in the 9th inning of 1-0 game when his outfielders loaded the bases on three consecutive bases.  Disgusted, he told the fielders to sit down in the outfield.  He then proceeded to strike out the side and win the game.  As a barnstormer with Negro teams later in the decade he would repeat the accomplishment in front of astounded and delighted audiences.
Such pitching prowess naturally led to real, if low level, professional ball.  In 1926 Paige was signed to the Chattanooga White Sox by player/manager Alex Herman, an old acquaintance from the Mobile slums.  It was quite generous for a Black minor league team—$250   a month with Satchel getting $50 in cash and the rest sent home to his mother.  Lulu, who told Herman that her boy was a minor, even got a $200 signing bonus for herself for signing the contract to allow her son to play. 
Paige was immediately recognized as something extraordinary on the mound.  In the middle of his next season his contract was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons of the major Negro National League.  Over the next two and a half season Paige would become the recognized strike out king of the Negro leagues racking up games with 17 Ks besting the Major League record of 16 held by Noodles Hahn and Rube Waddell and then only six days later fanning 18—the record Bob Feller set in 1938 for Cleveland. 
But Paige did not always have complete control of his blazing fastball.  His wildness stuck fear in the hearts of opposing players.  He once set off a riot requiring police intervention when he hit an opposing player in the hand.  In the 1929 season Paige struck out 176 but finished with only a 10-9 record due to poor offensive support from his team.
The young pitcher was already a superstar.  Barons owner R. T. Jackson took advantage of Paige’s popularity by sometimes renting his services to other teams for a day or so to boost their attendance for a flat fee of $100 split between Jackson and Satchel.
After the ’29 season at home, Paige went to Cuba to play for the Santa Clara Leopards in the Winter League.  This time he pocketed the $100 a day himself.  Despite the big money Paige chaffed under the team’s strict no drinking and carousing policy—he both enjoyed a taste and considered himself a ladies man.  He also could not adjust to the language barrier or the food.  He got in dust ups on and off the field, mostly fueled by misunderstanding of language and local custom.  Then he got in some sort of trouble over a girl.  To hear him tell it later in his memoirs he just came to a young lady’s home to court her but her father interpreted it as a proposal and came to the stadium with armed and with her brothers to enforce a wedding.  Almost no one believes this.  The Leopards manager saw it differently—that Paige had charges brought against him for an incident involving “a young lady from the provincial mulatto bourgeoisie.”  Either way, Paige fled Cuba.

Styling--Paige in Harlem in 1941.  His taste for high living, late nights, ladies, and liquor repeatedly got the star pitcher in to jams and clashes with ownership.
Back in the states the struggling Jackson rented Paige out more and more frequently and for longer stretches.  In 1930 he spent stretches with the Baltimore Black Sox of the Negro American League and Chicago American Giants in addition to Birmingham.
The Depression was cutting revenues for all teams in the Negro leagues and threatening their very existence.  In ’31 the Birmingham team temporarily disbanded.  Most other teams could not afford his services.  But Negro baseball impresario Tom Wilson moved his Nashville Elite Giants to Cleveland as the Cleveland Cubs.  It was Paige’s first experience working in the same city as a White Major League franchise.  The Cub’s rundown stadium was literally in the shadow of the Indians’ ballpark and he resented the disparity. 
By June he skipped to the Crawford Colored Giants, an independent club owned by Pittsburgh gangster Gus Greenlee. The team survived by playing all comers and barnstorming.  He took home a fat $250 a month.  Later that year he jumped at the chance to play for Tom Wilson’s Philadelphia Giants (which had nothing do with the City of Brotherly Love), of the California Winter League.  There he played against white all-star teams striking out the likes of Big Leaguer Babe Hermann.  Paige would return to California for winter ball over the next eight years.
The 1932 Crawfords are considered one of the greatest teams in baseball history Black or White, the equal of the '29 New York Yankees.  Paige, top row third from left.
Starting in 1932 Greenlee began snatching up top talent from struggling Negro teams eventually assembling what was surely the greatest team of Black athletes in baseball history and which some historians believe ranks the New York Yankees of the Murder’s Row.  Joining Paige on the Crawfords were four other players who would eventually make it to the Hall of Fame including the legendary Josh Gibson.  Mid-season the short lived Negro East-West League collapsed and Greenlee was able to sign even more stars including Cool Papa Bell to play in his brand new Greenlee Stadium, the only Black owned big league ball park in the country.
Paige was at the height of his career. He finished the ’32 season with a record of 10–4, allowing 3.19 runs per game and striking out 92 in 132 2/3 innings.  He also pitched the first no-hitter in Negro ball history that June.
Paige was no longer bound a personal service contract and did not have an exclusive contract with the Crawfords.  His experience in Black baseball had made “belonging” to a team an alien concept.  He considered himself a hired gun and was paid by the game by Greenlee.
Greenlee organized a new Negro National League in the ’33 season and his Crawfords gave up their status as an independent.  Now with a pennant at stake, Paige astounded the owner and infuriated fans in August when he accepted a better deal and a late model used car to jump to the Bismarcks, a North Dakota semi-pro team, for one month.  For the first time Paige played on an integrated squad and helped the team win against local rivals.
Paige casually rejoined the Crawfords in September and led the team to a championship.  Angry fans, however, refused to elect him to the NNL All Star squad.
In 1934 Paige had his best season with a 12-2 record in NNL games, allowing 2.16 runs per game, 144 strikeouts, and giving up only 26 walks. He threw a second no-hitter on Independence Day.  Fans forgave him and he was elected to the East-West All-Star Game which he entered as a reliever down one run and left with a victory.
There were also other opportunities that season.  Paige participated in the annual Denver Post tournament for independent and high level semi-pro teams.  It was the first year Black teams had been included in the tournament.  Satchel pitched for the Colored House of David, a complement to the famous barnstorming team of bearded White sect member from Michigan.  The old war horse Grover Cleveland Alexander was the manager.  Paige started three games in five days, the first two shutouts and the last a 2-1 victory over the mighty Kansas City Monarchs earning 44 strike outs in the three games.  It was the first time he had pitched before a large contingent of the white press.  They were dazzled by what they witnessed.
In September the Crawfords faced the Philadelphia Stars in a special four game charity match at New York’s Yankee Stadium.  Paige faced 21 year old phenom who had gone 21-3 in league play.  The game went into extra innings with both starters still on the mound until it was called on account of darkness with a 1-1 tie.  The game has been called the greatest in Negro ball history. 
Later that fall Paige faced off against the dominant pitcher of the National League that year, the legendary Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals who had chalked up 30 wins that year and two more in the World Series.  It was a barnstorming exhibition.  Dean pitched for a team of semi-pro all stars.  Paige won the contest 4-1.  

The freindly rivalry of Paige and Dizzy Dean in exhibition games and barstorming tours was legendary and surprising since Dean was a Mississipi born Good Ol' Boy..
The two met again later that year in California Winter Ball play and this time Dean fronted a talented team of pro from the Major and high minor leagues.  This time Paige won in 13 innings with a 1-0 score.  Bill Veek, Jr., then scouting for his father and the Chicago Cubs, witnessed the game and called it “the greatest pitcher’s duel I ever saw.”  As he later became a team owner, he would remember Satchel Paige.
Dean and Paige settled into a friendly rivalry that continued with barnstorming matchups over the next ten years, a relationship all the more interesting because Dean was a Gold Ol’ Boy Mississippian.  Later as a sports writer for the Chicago Tribune Dean wrote that Paige was “"the pitcher with the greatest stuff I ever saw.”
Despite Paige stellar year, in 1935 Greenlee refused his request for a raise.  Paige just shrugged and went back to the Bismarcks for the same fat paycheck and another car.  The team was adding more Negro league stars in similar situations.  After going 29-2 in the teams short summer season, they were invited to a new tournament in Wichita, Kansas that paid the players an upfront $1,000 and had a winner’s purse of $7,000.  The Bismarcks swept the tournament in 7 games with Paige starting 4 of them and coming in as relief in another.  He racked up 60 strike outs—a professional baseball record that stands to this day.
Paige and the other players, however, were banned by the Negro National League from returning to their original teams for the balance of the regular season as punishment for jumping their contracts.  Paige simply signed a day to day contract with the independent Kansas City Monarchs for the rest of the year.
After the regular California Winter League season a San Francisco promoter paid Paige to assemble a special Negro team to compete as the Satchel Paige All-Stars in a one day February exhibition against Bay Area white stars from the Major Leagues and the high minors.  The team included young Joe DiMaggio in his last appearance before joining the Yankees.  Paige fanned DiMaggio three times.  At his last at bat, Joe lined one to Paige on the mound who deflected it letting DiMaggio reach base with a single.  The Yankee scout at the game wired New York, “DiMaggio everything we’d hoped he’d be: Hit Satch one for four.”  The slugger later said Paige was the best pitcher he ever hit against.
In 1936 Greenlee agreed to Paige’s demands and signed him for $600 a month, by far the highest salary in the NNL.  Satchel responded with another stellar year.  He then joined a NNL All-Star squad to compete in the Denver Post Tournament.  Paige pitched in three of the seven games it took the team to sweep the tournament and claim the $5,000 prize.  He then led the same team on a barnstorming tour paired with a team of White Big Leaguers led by Rogers Hornsby. 
The following spring Paige was approached by agents of Dominican Republic Dictator Rafael Trujillo to recruit a team of Negro all-stars to play for his personal team, the Ciudad Trujillo Dragones and given $30,000 to attract top talent.  Paige looted his Crawford team of its best players including Cool Papa Bell and also signed Josh Gibson who was then playing for the Homestead Grays.  Once on the island they discovered that they were accompanied at all times by Trujillo’s armed men, supposedly for their protection.  But Paige began to fear that he and his team mates could be harmed if the disappointed the dangerous strongman.  Paige, however, managed to lead the league with an 8-2 record.
Everyone involved was glad to get back to the U.S., but all of the players were banned from the NNL for the jump.  Paige kept them together as a barnstorming team first as the Trujillo All Stars to take advantage of the considerable attention they had received in the Negro press.  Soon, however they were playing as the Paige All Stars. 
In 1938 neither Greenlee nor any other team could meet Paige’s salary demands.  So, despite his earlier unhappy experience, he returned to play in Mexican League.  Mexican promoters were hoping Paige would lure more stars and elevate the League to Major League status.  Enraged, Greenlee declared Paige was banned for life from the NNL. 

Most years Paige played winter ball in Latin America--Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Venevuela, and Puerto Ricon in 1939 where he is shown with his catcher William Perkins.
Paige had played winter ball in Venezuela where he injured his shoulder.  Reporting to Mexico, he tried to play through the pain, only aggravating the injury.  A doctor told him he would never play again and Paige came back to the States after participating in only two games.
In 1939, his shoulder still bothering him, Paige could not get a job until J.L. Wilkinson of the Monarchs offered him a modest contract to front a barnstorming team once again named the Paige All Stars, but without the stars.  Paige would pitch when he felt able and play first base otherwise.  Taking it easy and with the expert help of a trainer, Paige’s shoulder began to recover.  By mid-summer his fastball returned with the old pop.  Still limiting his innings pitched, by late in the season his team was beating regular Negro League teams.  Paige had developed a change up to supplement his fast ball and still impressed the likes of Buck Henry.
That winter he played in the Puerto Rican League and tore through it.  He beat a good team fronted by Henry 23-0.  That winter he sailed to a 19–3 record, a 1.93 ERA, and 208 strikeouts in 205 innings—records that still stand in Puerto Rico.
Tomorrow—The War Years, The Bigs, and The Hall

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