Satchel Paige, the best pitcher of all time,* is wonderfully remembered in “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick,” a biography of the legendary team owner and promoter by Paul Dickson.
(I’m sure there’s a great biography of Paige as well, but, for the moment, I’ve read the Veeck book, which was published in 2012).
According to Dickson’s book:
Eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball and the National League in 1947, Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, integrated the American League by signing outfielder, Larry Doby. The following season, acting on the advice of Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, he signed a 42-year-old rookie named Satchel.
Before they signed him, however, Paige was invited to a tryout in Cleveland. Veeck was there, as were two future Hall of Famers: slugger Hank Greenberg, best known for his years with the Detroit Tigers, and Indians player, Lou Boudreau.
Paige, always supremely confident in his abilities, warmed up by “jogging about halfway around the park, flipped two balls underhanded and declared himself ready.”
He then hands Boudreau a folded-up handkerchief and tells him to place it on various parts of the plate. That’s where Satchel is going to throw the ball.
“Seven or eight of those pitches were right over the handkerchief, and those that missed, didn’t miss by much.”
Boudreau, who hit .355 in 1948, steps in and struggles to connect on two pitches. One was barely a base hit, the other a grounder. Greenberg was prepared to hit as well, but he has seen enough.
“Just don’t let him get outta here unsigned alive,” he tells Veeck.
That was the start of a relationship between Veeck and Paige that would see the two of them work together in Cleveland, St. Louis (the Browns, not the Cardinals) and what was then the Triple-A Miami Marlins.
The Browns were never any good, including in 1952 when the team won only 64 games. But Paige, by then in his mid-40s, won 12 games that season with a 3.07 ERA.
The legend of Satchel gets even better. Paige, now 48, joins the Triple-A Miami Marlins in 1955 after Veeck and two friends buy Triple-A Syracuse and move the team to south Florida.
Miami manager Don Osborn is underwhelmed at the thought of Paige on his team, saying he expects to use him in exhibition play but not regular games. Veeck replies that his decision to sign Paige is not a stunt and tells Osborn to line up his nine best players.
Anyone who gets a clean hit off Paige will be paid $10, Veeck says.
“Paige retires all nine and Osborn adds him to the roster.”
He turned 49 that season, and when Paige celebrated his birthday he suggested he might pitch until he was 70. He almost did. In 1965, Paige, now 59, pitched three innings of scoreless baseball for the Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox.
*Was he the greatest pitcher of all time? His major league record was 28-31 with a 3.29 ERA, which might seem pedestrian to some, except that he accomplished those results in his 40s and 50s. His Negro League record was 103-61, with 1,231 strikeouts and just 253 bases on balls, according to the Society of American Baseball Research. And then there are the stats that Satchel kept himself.
According to SABR:
The Paige almanac had him pitching in more than 2,500 games and winning 2,000 or so. He professed to have labored for 250 teams and thrown 250 shutouts. His per-game strikeout record was 22, against major-league barnstormers, which would have been an all-time record for all of baseball. Other claims that would have set marks: 50 no-hitters, 29 starts in a month, 21 straight wins, 62 consecutive scoreless innings, 153 pitching appearances in a year, and three wins the same day.
I think Satch enjoyed the role of mythmaker. Or maybe it’s all true.