A Remembrance on the Birthday of Satchel Paige
ED GORDON, host:
We kicked off July celebrating the birth of America, and no sport is quite as American as baseball. Commentator Robin Washington has this salute to a baseball legend of mythic proportions: Mr. Satchel Paige.
Mr. ROBIN WASHINGTON (Editorial Page Editor, Duluth News Tribune): Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of baseball pitching great Satchel Paige. Or maybe it isn't.
Though a birth certificate for July 7th, 1906 was discovered under his given name, that's Leroy P-A-G-E - P-A-I-G-E came later - Paige himself was never sure of the date. In his 1961 autobiography, Paige said notes in his mother's Bible suggested he was born two years earlier.
Nonetheless, Paige celebrated his more or less official birth date, but made it a running gag his entire life. It wasn't the only record that was sketchy about him. The most significant statistics of his career, how many games he played in, how many he won, and how many batters he struck out, are also only guesses.
Like all black players of his era, Paige was banned from Major League Baseball when he began playing for Negro teams in 1924. A natural, the lanky 6'3" right hander turned his blistering fastball into a meal ticket and followed it to whatever team would pay him the most. He even walked away from teams, including the Negro League powerhouse Pittsburgh Crawfords and barnstormed from Bismarck, North Dakota to a squad bought and paid for by the dictator of the Dominican Republic. They had to play at gunpoint from the army.
Paige was most famous though for his dozens of games pitting black and white all-stars against each other. He never pitched to Babe Ruth, the only man in baseball who made more money than Paige, or attracted more fans than he did, but he squared off against every other top player: from Dizzy Dean, who he beat six games to four, to a young Joe DiMaggio, who reportedly earned his spot on the Yankees by getting a hit off Paige.
And those stories about Paige loading the bases on purpose and calling his outfielders in before striking out the next three batters are true.
By the 1940s, Paige had settled down, more or less, with the perennial Negro League champion Kansas City Monarchs. But it was another Monarch, an army veteran named Jackie Robinson, who would get the call to break Major League Baseball's color bar. Though Paige was noted for his over the top humor by fans black and white, he couldn't conceal his jealousy, and brooded for two years. Finally, he was called up to the Cleveland Indians in 1948, when he was 42, or 44, and pitched a six and one record to help take the team to the World Series.
The rest of his days in the majors weren't as spectacular, and he went back to barnstorming before capping his career with a three-inning shutout for the Kansas City Athletics at age 60, or 62. By then he counted playing in more than 2,500 games over 42 years, winning most of them.
In 1934, he claimed to have won 104 out of 105 games. But it was his legend more than documented fact that placed him in Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1971, 11 years before he died.
Paige's record may not always be a mystery. The information explosion has unearthed thousands of lost documents, such as box scores of obscure games in small town sandlots, and the internet has connected researchers who previously wouldn't have known about each other's work. Purists can also use the computer programs to adjust the scores for the quality of opponents he faced. But however the numbers come out, no other pitcher comes close. Not in 100 years.
GORDON: Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune, in Duluth, Minnesota.
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