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Mudville: May 30, 2024 2:40 pm PDT

The House That Satch Pitched

Since its opening 100 years ago, Yankee Stadium’s ghosts of immortals have mysteriously reappeared, as Derek Jeter would have us believe.

Perhaps it’s an apt time to recall when baseball’s truest free spirit appeared in living flesh, commanding singular attention on the hallowed grounds.

On May 11, 1941, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, baseball’s biggest gate attraction this side of Babe Ruth, wore the pinstripes of the Yankees – the New York Black Yankees – in one of the most-hyped Negro League appearances in history.

Even in the segregated era, Paige was the most fascinating figure in baseball. The fast-talking fastballing wonder would pitch over five decades in the Negro Leagues, hurling more than 2,600 games – four times more than Nolan Ryan – in a career that began in the 1920s and stretched into the 1960s.

Paige’s age was never verifiable. Born in a shotgun shack, he got his nickname from lugging suitcases as a kid at a Mobile, Ala. train station and learned to pitch in reform school. He was a 6-foot-3, 170-pound stringbean and shameless self-promoter. And a legendary showman known for his windmill windups, witticisms and pet names for his vast collection of pitches, such as the “bee ball” “because it always be where I want it to be.”

Few knew where Paige would be next. He jumped from team to team, barnstorming in hundreds of cities and towns across North, Central and South America, and drifting in and out of the official Negro Leagues. That’s where he starred for Black baseball’s two greatest teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Kansas City Monarchs.

But one day during the fabled 1941 baseball season, dominated by the record-breaking exploits of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Satchel Paige owned baseball’s spotlight – as scripted by two Broadway playwrights.

Banned by the Negro National League in 1938 for contract-jumping and sidelined with a lingering sore arm in the Mexican League, Paige was in danger of wandering into oblivion. He needed a high-wattage comeback. Black baseball needed its hottest draw back.

J.L. Wilkinson, the resourceful owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, who had often rented Paige for exhibition games and recently signed him to a two-year deal, sought a splashy return for his celebrated pitcher. Wilkinson enlisted the help of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the legendary craftsmen of American theater (their pre-war hit play “The Man Who Came to Dinner” was enthralling New York audiences and soon made into a movie). Their advice to Wilkinson?  Put Satchel on the biggest stage in sports – Yankee Stadium.

NEW YORK - 1941. Satchel Paige, pitcher for the New York Black Yankees, warms up before a game in Yankee Stadium, New York, in 1941. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

For the opener of the 1941 Negro National League season, Wilkinson loaned Paige to the New York Black Yankees for one game as part of a four-team doubleheader at the Stadium.

Negro League teams often rented out major-league stadiums, especially in New York City, where Black baseball fans abounded.  In the Jim Crow era, the Yankees weren’t exactly color blind; they saw green. From 1930-48 they rented Yankee Stadium to Negro League teams 225 times, most of any team in the majors.

While Paige would pitch about 20 times in Yankee Stadium over the years, nothing approached the fanfare of 1941 Opening Day.

America’s ringer was well-known to white audiences in the 1930s via his interracial barnstorming against teams led by Dizzy Dean, and later Bob Feller; “Best pitcher I ever saw,” DiMaggio told reporters after an exhibition game.

Besides his folk hero status in the Negro Leagues, Paige may have been the most famous Black man in the country, Joe Louis and Louis Armstrong notwithstanding. He was also one of its highest-paid athletes, making about $40,000 annually, always on the hunt for the best paycheck.

For the Black Yankees that day, he received a $500 appearance fee. And his heavily publicized appearance drew 20,000 fans, the largest opening day crowd in Negro Leagues history – and highest attendance of all but one of nine major-league games that day.  The eventual world champion Yankees would average 12,368 fans at home that season.

(Original Caption) Famed pitcher Satchel Paige (right) shares pointers with New York Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford prior to the start of a New York-Chicago game in Yankee Stadium. Paige leads a group of Negro League All-Stars playing in the stadium for an exhibition game. New York, August 17, 1961.

Prior to throwing out the first pitch Mayor Fioriello LaGuardia mugged for photos with Paige, who warmed up in front of Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (later played by Ronald Reagan in the movie “The Winning Team.”)

Paige pitched a complete game 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia Stars. For the Black Yankees, who were formed in 1932 and formerly known as the Harlem Stars (and alternately the Black Bombers), it was one of the most unforgettable days of their existence. They were mostly a peripatetic outfit whose predominant home in the 1930s and ‘40s was 10,000-seat Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, NJ.

The true impact of Satchel’s Stadium star turn was largely felt three weeks later. During his visit to New York, he was photographed for a three-page pictorial in Life magazine, the nation’s most popular periodical. In the 1940s, Life was the social media of its era, its impact on American culture was undeniable, and Paige’s colorful persona was introduced to an unprecedented mass audience.

As Paige’s biographer Mark Ribowsky wrote, “The issue that hit the nation’s newsstands the week of June 2, 1941 carried in big, evocative black-and-white glossies what Satch had probably seen in Technicolor in his dreams for years. Here was Satchel Paige, the onetime urchin from Mobile, spread across three pages and posed for eternity as the sharpest, coolest hepcat in Harlem.”

NEW YORK - APRIL 1941: Pitcher Satchel Paige warms up for his debut with the Negro League New York Black Yankees on opening day at Yankee Stadium in May 1941 in The Bronx, New York. (Photo by Sam Shaw/© Shaw Family Archives/Getty Images)

Paige may have been ready for his close-up, but major-league owners still weren’t ready to integrate. It would take social change driven by World War II to finally break baseball’s color line. When Life’s glowing Paige profile was published, Branch Rickey was running the St. Louis Cardinals, and Jackie Robinson just withdrew from UCLA to play semi-pro football.

At the time, Bill Veeck, who wanted to stock a major-league team with Black stars like Paige, was rebuffed by other owners. When Veeck did take over the Cleveland Indians years later, he signed Paige in 1948 at the ripe age of 42, or thereabouts, helping change the face of baseball forever. Paige and Larry Doby, who preceded him a year earlier in Cleveland, became the first African-American players to win a World Series.

To this day, those Life photos of Paige in Yankee Stadium, playing on a racially segregated team, remain the most iconic ever taken of him. Particularly one in his Black Yankees uniform, kicking skyward in his exaggerated windup.

That image recently inspired creation of a Satchel Paige bobblehead as a New York Black Yankee, which will be offered as  a special promotion at the Yankees-Tampa Rays game this  May 11. Exactly 72 years since he appeared in living flesh, commanding singular attention on the hallowed grounds.

Dave Kaplan was a reporter and editor for the Associated Press and New York Daily News before becoming the founding director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, on the campus of Montclair State University, in 1998. He is currently helping establish a museum at historic Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, NJ.

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