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Satchel Paige: Another Man For All Seasons

More than just a great ball player, he was an entrepreneur of his own talents who believed nothing was inevitable.
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On June 6, 1982, the old, abandoned Catholic Youth Organization ballpark in Kansas City, Mo., was renamed Satchel Paige Stadium. The great black pitcher seated in a wheelchair was at the rededication ceremony. Two days later, death finally caught up with the man who once had said "Don't look back, something may be gaining on you." Officially, he was 75, but his real age might have been 77 or even 81.

Now Paige's good friends in Kansas City are raising money to make the stadium an appropriately beautiful and useful memorial. They are going to get not one, but four modest contributions from me. n* Each will be in the name of one of my grandsons. It won't be because their grandfather (a conventional Brooklyn Dodgers nut raised within 20 minutes' roller-skating time of Ebbetts Field) wants them to become pitchers. It will be because, like all grandfathers, he wants his grandsons to grow up to be good men--good at whatever they want to do, but above all, men with courage and heart and humor. Men at least something like Satchel Paige.

n* To join me, send contributions to Satchel Paige Stadium Fund, P.O. Box 6080, Kansas City, MO 64110.

If you think of him only as a great pitcher, you don't know much about Paige. This uneducated grandson of slaves was a dirt-road and sidewalk-style Renaissance man. And he was a brilliant entrepreneur whose business was marketing his own talent in a tough, tough time for athletes of color.

"You always got to be thinking to make money. My invention wasn't a smart-looking thing, but it upped my income." That is Leroy Robert Paige, explaining late in life how he came to be called "Satchel" at the age of seven. He was, he explains, hustling baggage for nickels and dimes in the Mobile, Ala., railroad station. His "invention," a rig of ropes, en abled him to sling and carry more satchels than he could with just his hands and shoulders. Rival youngsters teased that he looked like a walking satchel tree," and the lifelong nickname was born.

Paige would have to hustle his entire life. All through his years of greatest strength and skill, blacks were barred from the major leagues by a "gentlemen's agreement" going back to the beginnings of organized baseball in the 1860s (see "Get That Nigger Off the field.!" by Art Rust Jr., and Only the Ball Was White, by Robert Peterson).

There were, however, black ball clubs and black leagues in Paige's youth. And he played in them for years, becoming the greatest drawing card they had. Chasing more income, he frequently jumped clubs and eventually traveled more than 1 million miles, barnstorming the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. The thing that made him money, according to former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, was "charisma, same as Babe Ruth and Dizzy Dean."

Paige was also an inspired promoter. His special appearances were always preceded by a flood of posters, which modestly promised, "Satchel Paige, World's Greatest Pitcher, Guaranteed to Strike Out the First Nine Men." And he did it probably 98 out of 100 times. His manner of handling sportswriters was masterful bringing him and the teams for which he played an abundance of free advertising.

While the packaging was important, as with all good enterprises the product-Paige's pitching -- was superb. How he was able to pitch 2,500 games (winning 2,000) in the black leagues is hard to imagine. His fast ball (Long Tom), his bee ball, his hummer, and his "hesitation" pitch, when mixed with his great instinct and judgment, made his perfomances unforgettable.

The routines he invented dazzled fans. Two of his bits became legendary. In the first, he would ostentatiously point to one of his infielders and, with his next pitch, get the batter to ground out to that man. He would do it a second time with the next batter and another infielder. Then, with a sweeping gesture, he would point to himself and fireball the next batter down with three strikes.

On other occasions, he would flamboyantly stop the game and wave his outfielders to the sidelines. Then, disdainfully, he would retire the next three batters who faced him, not allowing one to hit a ball out of the infield.

For each of his appearances, Paige was generally paid $500 to $2,000. Over a 20-year period, he may have averaged about $35,000 annually, which in the years before World War II was pretty good money. But he usually spent it as fast as made it, and with a large family to support -- he married in 1942 -- he was never on Easy Street. Paige's last assignment 1968, was as a coach with the Atlanta Braves; he took it to fill out the minimum time he needed to qualify for a $7,000-a-year major-league pension.

During his peak years, Paige did go head to head with the cream of the crop of the white major leagues. Between seasons, pickup teams from the majors would play against similar teams from the black leagues. Both Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller thought Paige was as fast and accurate as any hurler they had ever known. His "pitching was a legend among major-league hitters," says his plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Yes, he made it into the major leagues 1948) and into the Hall of Fame (1971), although he wasn't the first black ball player to make it into either one. It is no knock to Jackie Robinson to point out that there were millions who thought Paige should have received the honor. But when, after World War II, the color barrier was finally broken, Branch Rickey,then president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, carefully handpicked the young Jackie Robinson to do it. Robinson, after all, was urban, middle class, well educated, and a veteran. Paige was none of these. He probably felt about it the way anyone would. It had to hurt to hear for all those years "if only you were white" and then to hear "if only you were younger." When Bill Veeck called him up to join the Cleveland Indians, he was already well past his prime. During his seven years in the majors he drew great crowds and performed great feats, but he could not, in the time he had left, make a second great record. But in 1965, when he was approaching 60, he pitched a full inningand, almost as a matter of course, retired three batters in a row.

Those unimpressed by baseball exploits can still relish Paige as a folk humorist. He told hundreds of yarns and stretchers that have in them echoes of Paul Bunyan and John Henry. For example, here is how Paige responded when he was asked to relate his greatest performance as a relief pitcher. His best effort at relief, he said, happened before he came to the majors. His team was one run ahead in the ninth inning, when the opposition loaded the bases. With a 3 and 2 count on the next batter, the manager called on Satchel.

"Well I had a ball with me in the dugout," he recalled, "and I just dropped it in my pocket. Then I got the game ball from the pitcher I was relieving. When I went back to the rosin bag I had me two of them then. I just threw those two balls at the same time, one to first and one to third. I picked off both runners, and my motion was so good the batter fanned. That was three outs."

Maybe because of his brand of humor, Paige was not tagged, as was Jackie Robinson, with the label of "uppity crusader." The difference between them, though, was really a matter of style. Both suffered greatly from the bigotry they had to endure. Both were bitter because, despite their own considerable achievements, the mass of black people still had such a long, hard road to go.

The day after Satchel Paige died, the front page of The kansas City Times carried an interview with John "Buck" O'Neil, one of his friends and a former manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, an all-black ball team. "Like many brilliant black ball players," the Times reported "Mr. Paige realized that the fight for equality was never over. 'We're so far behind,' O'Neil said, 'we can't ever stop paying dues."

That is the kind of thinking I hope my grandsons will come to understand. And there are a couple of other ideas I hope they learn from the life and times Satchel Paige and some of his contemporaries. For decades, for example, Americans were told that major-league segregation was "forever" and inevitable. Then a couple of gutsy entrepreneurs named Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck, pursuing, it is true, primarily business goals, blew the wall down. Maybe these two weren't sufficient, but they were necessary.

Entrepreneurs like them and like Paige have two polar opposites: bureaucrats who dream of safety first and "inevitablists" who always tell us what we can't possibly do. In the same year that Jackie Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers, President Harry S Truman turned his back on political advisers who warned him not to take up the fight for civil riglits. They told him that if he supported the end of segregation and backed other tough measures recommended by his Committee on Civil Rights, he would "inevitably" split his party and lose any chance of reelection.

But in 1948, the year Satchel Paige joined the Cleveland Indians, Harry Truman proved the inevitablists wrong by getting reelected. Not more than 10 or 12 miles separate the final resting places of these two men -- two first-class "can do" men in the "show me" state.

What lives like Paige's and Truman's prove is that nothing is inevitable. Today, for example, some think it is inevitable that we gyrate between inflation and unemployment. Some think it is inevitable that, in the wrong end of the so-called Kondratieff cycle, our technology slides. Some people think labor-force changes mean it is inevitable that minimal unemployment climbs up to 6 1/2% or 7 1/2%. Put your money on them if you like. My money is on the "can do" men and women -- entrepreneurs who will prove the invitablists wrong again.

Last updated: Dec 1, 1982




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