Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,024

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,024


This is the grave of Satchel Paige.

Born in 1906 in Mobile, Alabama, Leroy Paige grew up in the Black working class of the early twentieth South. His parents did basically all they could–his father was a gardener for white families and his mother was a domestic worker for white families. There are various stories about how he came to be known as Satchel. Paige was a story teller with little interest in the truth. For example, he would prevaricate on his date of birth depending on the situation. It took Bill Veeck actually investigating and traveling to Mobile to find it in order to actually nail this down.

In any case, Paige was caught up in the grotesquely racist criminal injustice system from the time he was a boy. This system was dedicated to incarcerating Black kids and making them labor for free. After all, this was totally allowed under the 13th Amendment so the South went whole hog into it. At the age of 11, Paige was placed in one of these “reform schools” because he skipped school a lot and shoplifted. A mere six year sentence for this!

Luckily for Paige, there was a minister named Moses Davis who was a trustee of this “school.” It was run by Black Alabamans, under the system of white criminal injustice. So at least they could make it not as openly a prison as it actually was. He actually did want to provide the boys a way out and so he taught them baseball. Let’s just say that Paige picked up how to pitch pretty well. Paige ended up serving five years of that sentence. He later stated, “I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch. At least I started my real learning on the Mount. They were not wasted years at all. It made a real man out of me.”

Paige’s brother was already pitching for a semipro team in Mobile, so he joined up with him. Well, it didn’t take long to get noticed. In 1926, the Chattanooga White Sox, a team in the Negro Southern League, signed Paige for $250 a month. That’s almost $4,000 today so this was real money. Part of the deal though was that he would only get $50 and the other $200 would go to his parents. Probably not a bad idea. He played in Chattanooga and then Birmingham over the next few years. A massive strikeout artist, he took off like a rocket. The owner of the Birmingham Barons would rent out Paige to various teams and they would split the money.

The Negro Leagues were a mess through the Great Depression. Many teams folded, at least temporarily. There just wasn’t a lot of money out there to spend on baseball. This meant that even a talent as amazing as Paige traveled all over the place looking for a place that would spend on his services. He even ended up playing on teams in North Dakota, of all damn places, which was also his first experience playing white players. But some of these teams would be among the best in Negro League history, such as the 1932 Crawford Colored Giants, which also included Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston, among other greats. Then they signed Cool Papa Bell. So yeah, this was an all-star team.

Paige had a reputation that annoyed his fellow players. He was the top draw in the Negro Leagues. He also knew this. So he showed up when he wanted, set his own schedule, and would walk away from one contract for a better one, which was how he ended up in North Dakota. He, like other Negro League all-stars, also played a lot of exhibition games against white players who were in the Major Leagues. So in 1934, which many consider the best year of Paige’s long career, he faced Dizzy Dean, who had just won 30 games, in a bunch of exhibition games. Paige outperformed Dean too. They became something of friends, or at least whatever that could mean among two southern boys of different races in this time. In any case, they routinely barnstormed in teams against each other for the next decade and respected each other’s game. By 1936, Paige was making $600 a month, easily the highest salary in the Negro Leagues.

Paige kept going wherever would pay him. That meant leaving the Negro Leagues for the Dominican League in 1937 and the Mexican League in 1938. But in Mexico, he got hurt for the first time. Given the number of innings he pitched over the years, it’s amazing it took this long. People thought he was finished. He couldn’t find a job. But then J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, gave him a shot. But not with the Monarchs. He was seen as too washed up for that. Wilkinson had a barnstorming team called the Travelers. And they were called that for good reason. Somehow, he rehabbed his arm while still pitching. He was basically just throwing junk at first. But then the fastball came back. And then he was about as good as ever. He played in Puerto Rico in the 1939-40 Winter League season and was dominant. So he went back to Kansas City and played for the Monarchs from 1940-47. Between his salary and all the times he was rented out, he was making about $40,000 a year, which was around Joe DiMaggio’s salary. The barnstorming continued too. In 1946, Bob Feller wanted to make extra money so he created a white team, asked Paige to create a Negro League all-star team, and they flew–not drove, but flew–to games around the country.

Then Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers and the need for the Negro Leagues declined very quickly. Now, Satchel Paige was 42 years old with untold thousands (tens of thousands maybe) of innings on that arm. But Bill Veeck had always been a fan and signed Paige to a deal. He wasn’t dominant anymore. But he could still pitch, even as the major leagues declared his hesitation pitch illegal and said it would be a balk if he threw it. Pitching sometimes out of the bullpen, he went 6-1 with 2 shutouts. He wasn’t very good in 1949 and Veeck had to sell the team to pay for his divorce. So Paige got released at the end of the season. Paige barnstormed through 1950. But in 1951, Veeck had put his finances back together and bought the St. Louis Browns. He immediately brought Paige back. He wasn’t very good that year, with an ERA near 5, but then in 1952, went 12-10 with a 3.07 ERA on a very bad team. He wasn’t any good in 1953 and was released again. Paige went back to barnstorming. He ended up pitching for Miami’s minor league team (also owned by Veeck) for a few years. He kept it going well into his 50s. Then finally, as a stunt, Charlie Finley signed Paige to pitch in one game in 1965. Paige was 59 years old. He threw three innings and gave up one hit!

Now that the Major Leagues officially recognize Negro League statistics as official for career stats, Paige’s entire career saw 118 wins. But to say the least, those officially recognized games are a tiny percentage of what Paige actually played.

For most of the rest of life, Paige was on the margins of the game. He wrote an autobiography which was published in 1962 and sold well. He even starred in The Wonderful Country, with Robert Mitchum and Julie London. In 1966, Ted Williams was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. During his speech, Williams stated strongly that the Hall needed to start inducting Negro League players. Now, Paige was not yet eligible. In fact, he wouldn’t be eligible yet until 1971 because he still pitched minor league ball in 1966. Since there was the 5-year gap and because everyone knew that the first had to be Paige, it didn’t happen until 1971. Of course, Bowie Kuhn and the owners, being a bunch of morons and racists, initially wanted to create a Negro Wing of the Hall of Fame. That spawned all sorts of outrage over creating a segregated HOF. Kuhn figured this out before the owners did and convinced them that everyone would be part of the same Hall.

Paige spent his last years making occasional appearances and serving in various honorary positions within the game. In 1981, he got $10,000 so a TV movie company could make a biopic on him. That was Don’t Look Back, with Louis Gossett playing Paige. In 1996, Delroy Lindo would play him in another TV movie, Soul of the Game. He died in 1982, at the age of 75.

Satchel Paige is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the Negro Leagues in the Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Josh Gibson, inducted in 1972, is in Pittsburgh and Buck Leonard, also inducted in 1972, is in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Linkedin
This div height required for enabling the sticky sidebar
Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views :