All Time Lists: 20 Greatest Players of the Negro Leagues

All Time Lists: 20 Greatest Players of the Negro Leagues
Cleveland Indians pitcher Satchel Paige.
(Photo Credit: Bowman Gum) Cleveland Indians pitcher Satchel Paige.

“Satchel” Paige, Pitcher

Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (July 7, 1906 – June 8, 1982) was one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball and also the best known and more revered star of the Negro Leagues. His longevity contributed to him being notable in both the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues. He was a notable character, and often attracted rumors or even made up stories about his own life.

Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama, and received his nickname at a young age toting bags from the Mobile train station. At the age of 11, he was sent to a reform school for throwing rocks at white children, and there came under to tutelage of Reverend Moses Davis, who taught Paige how to pitch a baseball. Paige would later recount that “I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch. At least I started my real learning on the Mount.” He learned more than that, as he would add to his statement in later years regarding his experience at Mount Meigs: “They were not wasted years at all. It made a real man out of me.”

After his release, he played for semi-pro teams in Mobile. During one notable game, Paige was pitching in the ninth inning, 1-0, with two outs, when his team caused three errors to load the bases. The fans started to boo Paige, so he got mad and told his outfielders to sit down in the infield. Then he proceeded to strike out the final batter.

Paige eas discovered by the semi-pro Chattanooga White Sox in 1926, and in April of that year record nine strikeouts in six innings against the Atlanta Black Crackers, of which he received praises in the local newspapers. Parr way through the 1927 season, he was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. He pitched a 7-1 record with 69 strikeouts in 89 innings in his first professional year.

Paige continued as a strikeout king for the Black Barons, including 176 strikeouts in the 1929 season. In April and May of that year, he pitched in two games with 16 and then an astounding 18 strikeouts, a record that wasn’t broken until Bob Feller pitched in the 1938 Major League season. Because of his box office draw, the owner of the team began to “rent” Paige to various other teams for winter ball and exhibition games.

Because of the Depression and Paige’s large salary, he had a few years of playing with various teams, eventually joining the Pittsburgh Crawford Colored Giants (later known more simply as the Crawford’s), an independent club owned by racketeer Gus Greenlee. In 1932 Gus Greenlee used his ill-gotten gains to buy Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Ted Radcliffe to assemble one of the finest teams in baseball history. Because of the Depression, Greenlee was also able to add Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and other stars to the team.

In 1933, Greenlee used his money to start the Negro National League, the longest, most successful league, which survived for 16 years until integration. His Crawford’s were the best in the league. However, Paige left briefly for a semi-pro team, but returned to help the Crawford’s to win their second-half championship. 1934 was perhaps the best year in his career, with a 14-2 record 2.16 ERA, 144 strikeouts and only 26 walks.  Although he was a star, the owner wouldn’t pay what he thought he was worth, and he jumped ship back to a semi-pro team and was banned from the Negro National League for several years.

In 1936, a California promoter hired Paige to front the “Satchel Paige All-Stars”, an exhibition team to be held on February 7, 1936, against an all-white team of San Francisco Bay area players. He opposed Ernie Lombardi, Cookie Lavagetto, and a young Joe Dimaggio. Although Paige only had a semi pro team to support him, Paige through 12 strikeouts and kept the game at 1-1 until the 12th inning. Dimaggio scored the winning run, because of bad plays by his team. After the game, a scout wired the Yankees that “Dimaggio everything we’d hoped he’d be. Hit Paige one for four.” Dimaggio himself later commented that Paige was “the best I’ve ever faced, and the fastest.”

In 1926, Greenlee finally relented and offered Paige a $600 per month contract, the highest in the league. Paige went 5-1, allowed 3.21 runs per game and strike out 47 players in 47 ½ games. He later led a team of All-Stars to win three games in a seven game tournament, including a 7-0 victory with 18 strikeouts to finish the tournament.

He played in the Dominican League in 1937 and the Mexican League in 1938, but he injured his arm in a game in Venezuela and thought he would never play again. He recovered but was unemployable because of the injury, finally accepting a contract in 1939 to play with a barnstorming team renamed to “Satchel Paige All-Stars.” He survived by throwing junk balls for an inning or two to appease the crowds, but his fast ball came back again later in the year. After a year in Puerto Rico, he was returned to the major league by the Kansas City Monarchs in late 1940.

He pitched for the Monarchs until 1947, and also drew large crowds when he was “rented out” for exhibition games. By the late 1940s, Paige was earning about $40,000 a year, four times the average in the Negro leagues and nearly matching Joe Dimaggio, the best paid Major League player at the same time. Paige continued to bring his team to the World Series, and also appeared in all of the All Star teams of that time.

Although Paige was interested in being the first black baseball player in the Majors, he decided that Jackie Robinson was a better choice, having risen through the Dodgers minor league program. Paige probably would have caused an outrage if he had been the first and immediately begin besting all the white players. After the fervor over Robinson settled, it was on July 7, 1948, that Bill Veech of the Cleveland Indians signed Paige to join that team, becoming the first black pitcher in the American League. He was also the oldest man to ever debut in the majors, at the age of 42.

After settling himself down, Paige went on to end the season with a 6-1 record, 2.48 ERA, 2 shutouts, 43 strikeouts, 22 walks and 61 base hits in 72 ½ innings. He earned the respect of the Cleveland fans, and would have been given the “Rookie of the Year” award, but Paige would have rejected it on principal anyway.

He didn’t play as well the following season, with a 4-7 record and a 3.04 Era. Over the winter, Bill Veech had to sell the team to settle a divorce, so he released Paige. Paige returned to playing semi pro and barnstorming games.

In 1951 Bill Veech bought an 80% interest in the new St. Louis Browns, and contracted Paige to come back to the Majors. Although Paige played in the 1952 and 1953 seasons with the Browns, and even put on the All-Star teams of those years, he had largely lost his fire and was on the way out. He continued for several more years on semi-pro teams, where he could pitch shorter, less regular games, until 1961.

Paige, at age 59, was honored on September 25, 1965 when Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley hired Paige to pitch in a game with a number of other retired Negro League stars like Cool Papa Bell introduced before the game. He only pitched the first four innings, and at the end of the 4th he lifted up what was a temporary pitching mound, received a standing ovation from the crowd, and the lights dimmed. Led by the PA announcer, the fans lit matches and cigarette lighters and sang “The Old Gray Mare.”: Thereafter he played in a few other exhibition games and also joined the Harlem Globetrotters as a crowd draw.

In 1971, there was virtually unanimous support that Paige should be the first black ballplayer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. After some eligibility issues, he was finally given that honor. He died of a heart attack at him home in Kansas City. He was honored to be called one of the best baseball players in history. A made-for-TV movie called Don’t Look Back was aired in 1981, based on his autobiography Maybe I’ll Play Forever, with Louis Gossett Jr. as Paige. A statue of Paige was unveiled in Cooper Park at Cooperstown, on 2006.

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