“I was just as good as the white boys. I ain’t going in the back door of the Hall of Fame.”
Throughout the month of February, The Junkball Daily will be celebrating historical African-American baseball players/pioneers who played in Major League Baseball. Today, we will talk about the first African-American to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame- Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige.
Paige broke into MLB at age 42 with the Cleveland Indians on July 9th, 1948; the oldest player to ever debut in the majors. Paige played for six MLB seasons before he returned to pitched one inning for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965
Paige’s road to baseball fame was an interesting one. He was arrested for shoplifting at 13 and was sent to the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Lawbreakers. That would prove to be a fateful event in his life.
A coach watching a pickup game at the school saw him pitch and took him under his wing. The signature high leg kick? Credit that coach, Moses Davis, for teaching the form to Paige.
You could say, in a facetious way, that getting arrested was the best thing that happened to Paige.
Paige was used more as a reliever during his stint in MLB and put up some decent numbers for a player his age. When asked, Paige claimed to not know how old he really was. Excuses were given such as a goat eating the bible that held his birth certificate, or my favorite, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”
Now that you’ve recovered from the existential crisis due to that last quote, here’s a glance at Paige’s career in the MLB.
During Paige’s better days, he surmount the Negro Leagues, where he pitched a total of 1298.2 innings. In just over half of his starts, Paige pitched 89 compete games, held an 0.95 WHIP, had about eight strikeouts per game, and threw 27 shutouts. Paige finished with a record of 100-50.
In the Negro Leagues, a new facet of Paige’s game came in the form of ‘trash talk’. He got away with it most of the time because he could back it up. There is a story about Paige intentionally loading the bases to face a batter he had a rivalry with, Josh Gibson. Gibson was given the location of each pitch Paige would throw, from Paige himself. It didn’t matter. Gibson was struck out on three pitches.
Paige was certainly a character but loved the game and could throw one hell of a fastball. You could think of Paige in the same way as Mariano Rivera; both dominated the game with essentially one pitch. Rivera broke it up from time to time, but Paige would mow hitters down strictly with his fastball. Oh, he’d give them names like The Midnight Creeper, The Wobbly Ball and the Whipsy-Dipsy-Do, but they were all fastballs for the most part.
A red-letter day for all African-American athletes occurred on April 15th 1947; Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY to play baseball. For more than 50 years, MLB had been racially segregated. The floodgates would soon open, and some of the best players the game had (or have) ever seen graced professional baseball fields.
Paige claimed he was always hurt by the fact that he wasn’t the first player picked to break the color barrier. Notwithstanding his spite, he thought Branch Rickey‘s idea to start Robinson in the minor leagues a novel one. It was Rickey’s suggestion to allow the white players to ‘get used to’ an African-American playing baseball.
He stated in his autobiography “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever“:
Signing Jackie like they did still hurt me deep down. I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time. I’d been the one who’d opened up the major league parks to colored teams. I’d been the one who the white boys wanted to go barnstorming against.” Paige, and all other black players, knew that quibbling about the choice of the first black player in the major leagues would do nothing productive, so, despite his inner feelings, Paige said of Robinson, “He’s the greatest colored player I’ve ever seen.
As Paige’s pitching career came to a close, he spent three years with the Phillies AAA farm team. Paige popped up a few more times, finally throwing his last pitch for the Cincinnati Reds single A team. After just one game in 1966, he would officially retire from baseball. Paige was enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame in 1971; the first African-American to do so.
Paige succumbed to a heart attack in his home after a power failure in 1982; the details are not known. He was 75.
Paige, along with several other players, laid the groundwork and gave hope to future generations of African-American baseball players.
You can read more about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum here.