April 16, 2014


Sizzling Satchel Paige : The pitcher with the unhittable fireball deserves as much credit for breaking baseball's color barrier as Jackie Robinson (Larry Tye, Spring 2010, American Heritage)

Leroy "Satchel" Paige, arguably the greatest pitcher ever to throw a baseball, was as green as a big league infield that April day in 1926 when he joined his first professional team, the all-black Chattanooga White Sox. Everything he owned--a couple of shirts, an extra pair of socks, underwear wrapped in an old pair of pants--still fit into a brown paper sack, the same as it had eight years earlier, when he was sentenced to the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers. That was a good thing, because Satchel still could not afford a suitcase. He rented a room in a flophouse at the royal rate of two dollars a week. No sooner did he collect his first five dollars than he headed to the pool hall where a pair of sharks let him win a few games, then ran the table when the betting began. "I always figured I was pretty good at nine-ball and eight-ball," Satchel told an interviewer decades afterward, "but those sleepy-eyed Chattanooga sharpies played me like the biggest fish in the Tennessee River."

He looked like a rube on the diamond, too. His new uniform hung limply over his six-foot-three-inch, 140-pound frame. Street shoes with spikes nailed to the bottom had to suffice until the team could come up with regulation cleats large enough to fit his "satchel-sized" 11 feet. The one pitch he knew was an overhand fireball, so his catchers could dispense with signs; hitters knew it would be all heaters all the time. They quickly learned that while Paige was fast, he also was wild. Worst of all, he was swaggering. He resisted offers of coaching and crowed to his receivers, "Hold the mitt where you want it. The ball will come to you."

What saved him was a willingness to work hard and a mentor as hardboiled as Alex Herman, a former semipro player. Lesson one was location, location, location: getting the ball over the plate every time. The key to control like that was practice. Herman lined up empty soda pop bottles behind home plate; Satchel worked at knocking them down, mornings before other players got to the field and evenings after they left. Herman knew there was something magical about this rookie righthander. His talent traced back to his hometown streets of Mobile, Alabama, where he fired rocks with enough power and precision to bring down a bird or a rival gang member. He learned to play at reform school and could pitch hard and sure enough to drive 10-penny nails into a plank set up behind home plate. The coach saw, too, that unless his raw gifts were refined, Satchel would stand little chance in a Jim Crow America where baseball, like every institution that mattered, was split into white and black worlds. "It got," Satchel recalled, "so I could nip frosting off a cake with my fast ball." [...]

Satchel would be coveted by white teams throughout his career in blackball. He had first heard the tease "if only you were white" back home in Mobile and would hear it repeatedly for another 20 years in Jim Crow America. Named after a white actor in blackface playing a cowering plantation slave in an 1820s minstrel show, Jim Crow refers to the amalgam of Southern statutes that legalized separation of the races everywhere from public bathrooms to hospitals, boarding houses, and even parks. It also is shorthand for a racist way of life. By either definition Jim Crow was there with Satchel in Mobile, capital of the old Confederacy and a city where many white residents still were fighting battles from a war they lost two generations before. Jim Crow is even more central to the saga of the Negro Leagues, where Satchel played most of his career. The era of black baseball ran from 1887, when the first professional league crafted its color line, through the path-breaking signing of Jackie Robinson in 1945--60 years that mirror the rise and fall of legally sanctioned segregation in America.

Satchel Paige started hacking away at Jim Crow long before the world heard of Jackie Robinson. Satchel never was a modern militant, waging war over every slight, but he brought a spotlight to the Negro Leagues. He pushed to be paid a wage commensurate with his drawing power, in the process raising the wages of his teammates. His salary in his best years at least equaled the President's, which is how he could afford 40 tailor-made suits, 30 pairs of custom-made shoes with pearls in the toes, underwear festooned with flowers, and a personal valet. He proved that black fans would fill ballparks, even when those parks had concrete seats and makeshift walls, and that white fans, too, would turn out to see black superstars. Satchel pitched so brilliantly, especially when his teams were beating the best of the white big leaguers two of every three times they played them, that fans, sportswriters, and big league owners could not help but notice.

Satchel's July 3rd telegram to Bill Veeck, who owned the Cleveland Indians, was point-blank: "Is it time for me to come?" The pitcher had swallowed his pride when Jackie Robinson broke through baseball's color bar by suiting up with the Brooklyn Dodgers at the start of that 1947 season. He was kicked in the gut again three months later, when the Indians integrated the American League by hiring Larry Doby. Veeck had claimed for years that Satchel was the greatest Negro Leaguer of all, born to break barriers. Now, a day after the Doby signing and two decades after Satchel's professional debut in Chattanooga, the aging hurler simply had to ask. Veeck's reply was a cruel twist on the old tease: "All things in due time."
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Posted by at April 16, 2014 4:20 AM

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