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Mudville: July 22, 2024 11:12 pm PDT

Paige’s Turn

When Satchel Paige was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, it was a gloriously sunny day, August 9, 1971. When the pitcher stepped up to the podium to make a speech, he was (mostly) witty, charming and all smiles.

He opened his remarks with, “Since I’ve been here I’ve been called some very nice names,” he began, “and I can remember when some of the men (inducted) called me some bad, bad names when I used to pitch against them.”

Seven minutes later, he noted, “I am the proudest man on the Earth today, and my wife and sister and sister-in-law and my son all feel the same,” said Paige at the end of his remarks, reported the New York Times.

But the process of having Paige – the greatest pitcher in the Negro Leagues who made his debut in the majors at age 42 – be a part of the Hall of Fame was anything but witty, charming and all smiles.

When Ted Williams was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, his induction speech included this:

“I hope that someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way could be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they were not given the chance.” he said.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn established a committee to oversee the selection and induction of Negro League players in the Hall of Fame.

On February 9, 1971, the Office of the Commissioner sent out a release announcing Paige’s induction:

“Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, with the cooperation of Paul S. Kerr, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, is pleased to announce that Leroy “Satchel” Paige, ageless patriarch of the pitching mound, was selected today by a special committee to be honored in the National Baseball Museum at Cooperstown.”

Satchel Paige with Bowie Kuhn in 1971. (AP Photo)

“Paige thus becomes the first player to receive special recognition for outstanding achievements in the Negro baseball leagues.”

“The 64 year-old Paige, who dominated Negro baseball as Babe Ruth dominated the major leagues, was the unanimous choice of the ten-member committee, established to annually select one player from the Negro leagues for his exceptional achievements on the diamond and his overall contribution to baseball.”

“Paige will be honored at an induction ceremony in Cooperstown on August 9 by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who at the same time will induct the seven men recently voted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee. A bronze plaque listing his (Paige) achievements will be hung in the National Museum, as part of a new exhibit commemorating the contributions of the Negro Leagues to baseball.”

A key phrase in the final sentence of the release, “as part of a new exhibit,” did not tell the full story: his plaque would be in a separate wing, away from those already in the Hall.

“The only change is that baseball has turned Paige from a second-class citizen to a second-class immortal,” Paige told friends.

Jackie Robinson encouraged Paige to boycott the induction.

But in a decision akin to Happy Chandler’s support of Robinson breaking the color barrier, Kuhn announced in July that Paige’s entry in the hall would be enshrined with the other – i.e. white – inductees.

Denied entry to the major leagues, he pitched decades for several teams in the Negro Leagues and other clubs on his off days, and he traveled by himself in his Cadillac. He also pitched in Latin America and the Caribbean for winter ball. He was a “showman,” stopping play to entertain the fans or create situations to emphasize his prowess. In one game, with Josh Gibson, the great slugger, at the plate, Paige called for his teammates to leave the field. He then proceeded to strike out Gibson on three pitches.

In several exhibitions he faced white all-stars from the majors – and impressed them – including Joe DiMaggio, who said Paige was the fastest pitcher he faced. But he was the wrong color. It took two of baseball’s greatest showmen to showcase the game’s greatest pitcher at the beginning and end of the hurler’s career. Paige became the sixth black player to break baseball’s color line when Bill Veeck worked him out – secretly – and signed him. Charlie Finley, hoping to draw some fans to his struggling Kansas City A’s games, signed Paige, allegedly 59 years old, to pitch in September of 1965.

In between there are enough stories, legends, myths and tall tales to fill several Ken Burns documentaries.

No one was sure of his exact age: maybe not even Paige. Semi-officially, his birthday was July 8, 1906.

After WWII, integrating the majors gained momentum. As the greatest pitcher in the Negro Leagues, Paige thought he’d be the first to break the color barrier, a distinction he wanted. Branch Rickey had other ideas.

Rickey didn’t choose the best pitcher or hitter from the Negro Leagues: In Jackie Robinson he selected someone who was articulate, had been to college, had the self-control to withstand insults without showing his anger, and, possibly one of the most important reasons Rickey chose Robinson: he’d be acceptable to white people.

Satchel Paige, left, pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, talks with Bill Veeck, club president, before a game at Municipal Stadium in 1965. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

One of Paige’s greatest legends was that he liked to party, particularly with the ladies, even after he finally married at the age of 41, the same year Robinson broke the color barrier. It’s probable Rickey believed Paige’s colorful past would become fodder for people who wanted baseball to stay white.

Bill Veeck had wanted to be the first to integrate the game but was beaten to it by Rickey (who Veeck didn’t like and considered him a phony); he settled for second by signing Larry Doby.

Four more black players were picked by July of 1948, and Veeck, whose Cleveland Indians were fighting for a pennant, thought bringing in Paige would boost the bullpen and even bring in fans to Cleveland’s cavernous Municipal Stadium. He “secretly” brought Paige to Cleveland for a tryout in front of Indians’ Manager Lou Boudreau on July 6, 1948.

According to Larry Tye’s biography of Paige, Lou Boudreau, who was challenging Ted Williams for the batting title, stepped up to the plate to face Paige. He threw 20 pitches and while Boudreau made contact, everything he hit was fouled off or was grounded weakly. On the final pitch, the manager/player popped up. Paige was signed to a contract the next day, July 7, which happened to be his birthday. He said he was 42, and he became the oldest rookie to ever break into the majors. On July 9, Paige made his major league debut, relieving Bob Lemon in the fifth inning of a game the Indians were trailing 4-1. The first batter he faced singled. He retired the next three on six pitches. In the sixth, Paige issued a walk but no hits or runs.

CLEVELAND - 1949. Satchel Paige's book Pitchin' Man, featured an artist's rendering of the mound ace. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

A week later he earned his first win in relief, and a month after that Paige started his first game. He won 5-3 against Washington. He finished the year 6-1, but pitched only two-thirds of an inning in the World Series, which the Indians won against the Boston Braves.

Both Veeck and Paige left the Indians in 1950. Midway through the 1951 season, Veeck acquired the St. Louis Browns. The first personnel move he made was to sign Paige. The following year, Paige went 12-10, mostly as a reliever, with an ERA of 3.07. The Browns’ attendance that season doubled from the year before.

Paige was ineffective in 1953, going 3-9, but his ERA was a respectable 3.54. After the season, Veeck sold the team and the new owners had plans to move the franchise to Baltimore and start a youth movement, which obviously did not include Paige.

For 12 years, Paige pitched in semi-pro and minor league games. In 1965, Charles Finley, owner of the Kansas City Athletics, had the idea to sign Paige to pitch in one game. Finley, who had made a mule the team’s mascot, said the newest Athletic would start on Friday, September 25, against the Boston Red Sox. Less than 10,000 fans were on hand to see Paige toss three scoreless innings; the only hit he gave up was to Carl Yastrzemski. Paige was 59 years old that day. It’s fair to say that it’s highly unlikely anyone older will perform in the major leagues.

His second memoir was titled Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. He nearly did.

NOTE: The year after Paige’s induction, the Hall inducted Josh Gibson. Overall, 42 players, coaches and executives of the Negro Leagues are in Cooperstown. The last one was inducted in 2006, the year a statue of Paige in the Hall’s courtroom was unveiled.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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