Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige honed his pitching talents in reform school. Denied entry to the Major Leagues, he began his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues in 1926 and became its most famous showman. Paige finally broke through to the Majors as a 42-year-old rookie and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.
Satchel Paige was born Leroy Robert Page circa July 7, 1906, in Mobile, Alabama. He was the seventh of 12 children born to father John, a gardener, and mother Lula, a washerwoman. It was Lula who added the “i” to their surname not long before Paige was to start his illustrious career; he maintained that she changed it to sound “high-tone.”
According to Paige, his mother sent him to earn money carrying luggage for businessmen at the train station, but he was frustrated with the pittance it paid. So he rigged a pole to carry several bags at once to make the job pay better, and his co-workers purportedly told him, “You look like a walking satchel tree”; hence his unique nickname.
A run-in with the law, through petty theft and truancy, got Paige “enrolled” in reform school at age 12. But his stay at the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, may have been a blessing in disguise. His baseball talent, coupled with big hands and feet on his long, lanky frame—he would grow to 6’4″—were recognized by coach Edward Byrd as assets that could be developed.
Byrd taught Paige to pull back, kick his foot high in the air, and, as he came down, bring his arm from way behind and thrust his hand forward as he released the ball, giving it maximum power as it hurtled forward. Paige later said, “You might say I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch.”
With African American players barred from the Major Leagues, Paige began his professional career in 1926 in the Negro Southern League. His record with the Birmingham Black Barons did not go unnoticed and he moved quickly through the ranks of the Negro National League teams, becoming a popular draw among audiences.
Paige played for teams all over the country, from California to Maryland to North Dakota and even in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Between contracts, Paige built quite a following through barnstorming tours, which consisted of exhibition games against other professionals and regional talent that provided extra money. In one such game, he was hired to front a team called the “Satchel Paige All-Stars” and ended up pitching to New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, who called him “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”
Paige also once opposed St. Louis Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean in a series of exhibition games, winning four of them. Afterward, Dean noted, “If Satch and I were pitching on the same team, we’d clinch the pennant by the fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time.”
One downside to all this travel and team-jumping was a lack of statistics since even in official Negro League games, there could be a dearth of statisticians or record-keepers. According to some accounts, Paige compiled 31 wins against just four losses in 1933 and also accumulated streaks of 64 consecutive scoreless innings and 21 straight victories. Paige insisted that he kept his own records and reported pitching in more than 2,500 games and winning 2,000 or so, as well as playing for 250 teams and throwing 250 shutouts, staggering numbers when compared to those of Major League pitchers.
In 1948, Paige’s dream came true. With the big league color barrier broken by Jackie Robinson and the Cleveland Indians in need of extra pitching, owner Bill Veeck gave the veteran Negro League star a tryout. Veeck reportedly laid a cigarette on the ground and told Paige to think of it as a home plate; the hurler then threw five fastballs, all but one sailing directly over the cigarette.
On July 7, 1948, his 42nd birthday, Paige became the oldest player to debut in the Major Leagues, as well as the first Negro League pitcher in the American League. Drawing huge crowds when he pitched, Paige went 6-1 with an outstanding 2.48 ERA in half of a season, helping the Indians win the World Series. He pitched one more season with Cleveland, then played for three years with the St. Louis Browns.
Despite his age, Paige continued to tour regularly for hefty appearance fees. At age 59 on September 25, 1965, he became the oldest player in Major League history, marking the occasion by throwing three scoreless innings and allowing just one hit for the Kansas City Athletics. He finished his big league career with a 28-31 record, 32 saves, and a 3.29 ERA.
One of baseball’s most famous players of any color, Paige lived the sort of life in which myth became difficult to separate from reality. According to the stories, he was once served divorce papers by a wife as he walked out to the mound at Wrigley Field, and another time pitched for Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo’s team to decide the outcome of an election. Still, the accounts of his unparalleled talents were likely true; Paige was renowned for his hard fastballs and his signature “hesitation” pitch, but he could do anything with the ball that he wanted.
Paige wrote a couple of autobiographies, including Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever: A Great Baseball Player Tells the Hilarious Story Behind the Legend, in which he secretly lamented not being the first Black player in the Major Leagues instead of Robinson, but he bore it with equanimity.
Despite his incredible longevity, Paige rarely addressed the issue of his age, often quoting Mark Twain: “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
The legendary pitcher died of a heart attack in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 8, 1982, less than a month before his 76th birthday.