We’re only a few days away from Major League Baseball’s midsummer classic. As the teams break for the annual All-Star Game, the RedState Department of History honors the birth of a man whose place is secure on the list of the game’s greatest players, as well as among the most colorful.
On this date in 1906, Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama. His nickname came from a boyhood job carrying bags at the Mobile train station, but it was soon clear he had a unique talent for baseball.
His first recorded professional baseball appearance came in 1926 but the tragedy of Paige’s career is that nobody knows how many games he actually won.
By 1927, Paige was making his name with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League, and it could be fairly said he never looked back. Over the next twenty years, Paige pitched for a host of clubs around the United States and Latin America, winning at least 437 games in America, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The reason we say “at least” is that for some teams and in some places where Paige pitched, records were either not kept, incomplete or non-existent. At the height of his fame in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and 40s, Paige would be loaned to other teams to pitch due to his undoubted ability to draw crowds (and to pick up an extra paycheck). As such, he would often pitch three or four times a week — unheard of for a starting pitcher today.
During that time, Paige was a part of some of baseball’s greatest teams, including the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the mid-1930s which featured five future Baseball Hall of Famers including Paige.
Yet it wasn’t until Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947 that Paige finally got the chance to pitch in the major leagues. Signed by the Cleveland Indians, Paige went 6-1 and became the oldest man ever to debut in the major leagues at age 41. That fall, he became the first former Negro League pitcher to play in a World Series, and made the American League All-Star team in 1952 and 1953.
It took longer for Father Time to catch up with Paige than it did for most other players. He pitched in the major leagues until age 46 and after his release won thirty more games pitching for Miami in the International League over the next three years.
Yet Paige still wasn’t done with Major League Baseball. On September 25, 1965, the 58-year old pitcher worked three scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox, striking out one. You can listen to audio from the game here. His final appearance in a professional game came the next season.
Paige was known for an overwhelming fastball upon which he would change speeds, foregoing the use of a breaking pitch for long parts of his career. He would have a name for each of his various-speed fastballs. His best fastball was called “Midnight Rider”, with self-described variations including his Bat Dodger, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Long Tom, Short Tom, Wobbly Ball, Whips-Dipsy-Do, Hurry-up Ball, Nothing Ball and his Be-Ball (because Paige said it would “always be where I want it to be.” His Barber Pitch came when he wanted to move a batter back off the plate.
His most famous was his Hesitation Pitch, during which Paige would come to a full stop in his windup to deceive the batter and which, once he got to the big leagues, opposing managers would swear was a balk (and today, probably would be). Eventually, though, Paige threw all sorts of pitches to extend his career including an “eephus”, or a lob ball that was as slow as his blazing fastball was quick.
Along the way, Paige developed a carefully crafted reputation for wry humor. He gave reporters various accounts of his birth and even his birth year, leading to his famous quote, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?”
For his part, though, Paige never admitted to throwing an illegal pitch (he also pitched for a time when the spitball was legal in baseball). He added to his quote repertoire when asked about the legality of certain pitches he threw when he said, “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in awhile I toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.”
Yet Paige’s greatest contribution to baseball lore are his famous “Rules for Staying Young.” They contained six precepts, some of which are still quoted today:
1) Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
2) If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3) Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4) Go very lightly on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5) Avoid running at all times.
6) Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
When you add in Paige’s 28 major league victories, you get a total of at least 465 professional wins. Denton “Cy” Young holds baseball’s all-time record with 511, but the true number of Paige’s wins will never be known. He claimed one thousand wins in his career and fifty no-hit games, but of course, that can never be verified.
What we do know is this: Paige was undeniably one of the best players ever to play the Great American Game. Joe DiMaggio said Paige was the best pitcher he ever faced. 1930s star pitcher Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean said Paige had the best stuff he had ever seen, saying a pitching staff containing he and Paige would “clinch the pennant by July 4 and go fishing until World Series time.”
And for a story of how great Paige was even in his fifties, listen to this tale by the utterly incomparable broadcaster Vin Scully from 2015 (with a Dodger at-bat artfully woven in for good measure.)
Enjoy today’s open thread!