Note: Much of the information here comes from Wikipedia.
Say “April 15th” to most Americans, and they’ll reflexively answer, “Tax Day.” But name the same date to baseball people or civil rights activists, and they’re just as likely to respond, “Jackie Robinson Day.” On April 15, 1945, he became the first black man to play in a Major League Baseball game.
In fields and stadia throughout the country, commemorations of this day grow ever more elaborate as years go by. I shudder to imagine the commercialism that’s minimal now but will surely follow. Most baseball players revere Robinson, and they’ll show it today by wearing his number, 42, which has been otherwise retired with the exception of Mariano Rivera, the last of a dozen players who were allowed to continue to wear the number when it was retired in 1997.
But there’s much more to the history of race within the game than this one man. The story of The Negro Leagues becomes more well-known in tandem with Jackie’s, and there’s so much to that story, it’ll take decades before all the tales are exhausted. So gather ‘round, chillun, I’ve a tale for you, about a player who some say outshone Jackie Robinson: Mr. Satchel Paige.
I first heard of Satchel several years ago on a visit to the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas, Mo. (This, by the way, is a great place, where full-size statues of the players stand around in one of the rooms). But it wasn’t until I saw Soul of the Game that I really got into his story; I admit this might be due simply to Delroy Lindo’s performance. In the movie, as in life, Paige and Josh Gibson vie with one another to be the first Afro-American major leaguer, only to see rookie Jackie Robinson be chosen. Considering that Paige was boisterous, outspoken, and drawn to trouble, while Robinson was more subdued and led a “normal” life, it’s obvious why Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, thought the latter would make a better case for integrating baseball. It’s doubtful that Paige could have “turned the other cheek,” while fans hurled rotten food and racial epithets at him, the way Robinson did.
His full name was Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige, and, as with most stories about him, there are several of how he got his nickname. It had to do with working, as a kid, at the train station toting people’s bags. He built a contraption to carry several bags at once, and a friend supposedly told him he looked like a “walking satchel tree.” But another boyhood friend says he gave Paige the nickname when he was caught trying to steal a bag.
Stealing a bag sounds plausible: just before his twelfth birthday, Paige was arrested for shoplifting, not for the first time, and was committed to an Alabama reform school until he was eighteen. Like Babe Ruth, who learned baseball at an orphanage, Paige did his time developing his pitching skills.
Paige played for a whole bunch of teams in The Negro Leagues. He was so awesome that fans came to games expressly to watch him pitch. But it wasn’t just the pitching they loved: it was also his entertaining antics. For instance, in the ninth inning of a 1–0 ballgame, his teammates made three consecutive errors, loading the bases for the other team with two outs. Paige stomped furiously around the mound until fans started booing him. He then called in the outfielders and made them sit down in the infield while he struck out the final batter and won the game.
It wasn’t only on the mound that Paige earned his legendary rep; his personal life was also full of drama. He was married twice and had seven children—which obviously didn’t keep him safe at home. When his team played in Cuba, he got into trouble over “a young lady from the provincial mulatto bourgeoisie.” Apparently the girl’s family had let him date her, believing they were engaged; when they learned otherwise, they sent the cops to enforce the engagement, while Paige fled the country. Of course, this is only one version of the Cuba story.
Paige lusted to play in the majors. In the early ‘30s he played in the same city as a white major league team, where he could see their stadium. He wrote that it ate away at him to play “in its shadow.” But though he couldn’t play in the majors yet, he did get to go up against them when, for nine consecutive years, he played in a winter league in California where elite black and white baseball players competed. He allegedly struck out Babe Ruth four times.
During World War II, Paige frequently pitched in exhibitions to sell war bonds and raise money for war-related charities. With many of the major league’s best players away in the service, Paige was the highest paid athlete in the world, at $40,000 a year.
In 1945 Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, who was Paige’s teammate, to the Dodgers. Paige may have been jealous, but he realized it was better that he himself not be first. For one thing, he would have been too insulted to start, as Robinson did, in the minors. More important, Robinson was told that, so as not to jeopardize the chances of other blacks once the barrier was broken, he was not to retaliate, no matter what white people did. Robinson agreed to never publicly lose his temper–and he didn’t. In Paige’s autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, he wrote, “Signing Jackie like they did still hurt me deep down. I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time. I’d been the one who’d opened up the major league parks to colored teams. I’d been the one who the white boys wanted to go barnstorming against.” But despite his feelings, Paige publicly said Robinson was “the greatest colored player I’ve ever seen.”
In 1948, on his 42nd birthday, Paige finally signed his first major league contract, for $40,000 for the three months left in the season. He was the first African-American pitcher in the American League and the seventh black big leaguer overall.
Satchel Paige continued to live large post-baseball. He appeared in a movie, The Wonderful Country, starring Robert Mitchum and Julie London, as a Union army cavalry sergeant of a segregated black unit. He was paid $10,000, and the movie became the pride of his life. In 1968 he was named deputy sheriff of Kansas City, a charade enacted to give him political credentials so he could run for state assembly—but he never gave a speech, and lost. In 1969, he was signed as pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves, mainly so he could get a major league pension.
He was famous for his quotes; here are a few samples:
I never rush myself. See, they can’t start the game without me.
Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.
I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I would toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.
And, while Satchel Paige was not the first African-American player to integrate baseball, he was the first to integrate baseball’s Hall of Fame, in 1971.
He died in 1982, of a heart attack.
Baseball Trivia: I asked this on JR Day a couple of years ago, but it gives me so much pleasure, I’m repeating it.
Q: Who was the last team in baseball to integrate?
A: The Boston Red Sox!