When we think of the best pitchers of all-time, it’s usually the same names that come up, from Cy Young to Sandy Koufax to Nolan Ryan to Pedro Martinez to modern-day pitchers like Clayton Kershaw. But far too often, a name that gets left off that list is Satchel Paige, a pitcher whose story and contributions to baseball are frequently forgotten and overlooked. But if you believe people who saw him pitch, he may have been the best to step on a mound.
The biggest reason Paige is often forgotten is that he didn’t make his big league debut until he was 42. It wasn’t until 1948, after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, that Paige made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians. In five big league seasons, all while in his 40s, Paige won a World Series and was named to two All-Star games, including one at the age of 47. But much of Paige’s life and career before that are largely unknown, despite his reputation as the best player in the history of the Negro Leagues.
For starters, he was born Leroy Robert Page. It was only after his father’s death that his family changed its surname to Paige to represent a fresh start and because it sounded more “high-tone.” As for the name Satchel, there are a few stories that have floated around over the years, but most of them include him getting caught stealing the kind of bag that bears his nickname.
Not so coincidentally, it was theft that helped make him a great pitcher. At age 13, Paige was sent to reform school after he got caught shoplifting. But during his time there, he had a mentor who taught him to pitch. During those years, Paige grew to be a scrawny 6’ and 140 pounds, giving him long limbs that proved perfect for pitching. He created a crazy windup in which he waived his arms and legs all over the place. By the end, his hand appeared in the batter’s face right when he released the ball.
“You might say I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch.”
By age 20, Paige’s ability on the mound took him to the Negro Leagues. He spent the next quarter-century pitching all over the U.S., in places as obscure as North Dakota, as well as all over the world, in countries like Cuba, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.
During that time, Paige developed an incredible reputation and set some unbelievable records, albeit unofficial ones. Due to his popularity, brought about not just by his talent but also his cocky and outgoing personality, Paige would pitch on almost daily basis. He would only pitch three or four innings at a time, allowing him to come back and pitch the following day. With the records in those days unreliable, Paige took it upon himself to keep his own records, claiming to have pitched 2,500 games. His personal records also show that he made as many as 29 starts in one month, tossed 50 no-hitters, and at one point threw 62 consecutive scoreless innings.
Those who saw Paige in his young days say he may have been the hardest thrower in baseball history. He threw almost all fastballs, although he still gave his pitches different names, such as Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, and Trouble Ball. When an arm injury caused him to lose velocity on his fastball, Paige adjusted, developing a changeup and a “hesitation pitch” to throw off the timing of hitters. When all was said and done, Paige was also throwing a knuckleball, screwball, and even an eephus pitch, which is what allowed him to pitch well into his 40s.
“If Satch and I were pitching on the same team, we’d clinch the pennant by the fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time.”
But his role in baseball history is far bigger than oddly named pitches or unconfirmed records that sound impossible. For years, Paige’s reputation for dominating the Negro Leagues attracted both white fans and white sports writers to games, something few thought possible. Around 1945, some of the attention Paige garnered with the Kansas City Monarchs ricocheted to his teammate at the time, Jackie Robinson. That became the first step in Robinson being able to break the color barrier two years later.
Of course, for years, Paige wanted to be the one to break the color barrier. He had dominated the Negro Leagues for so long that he was a living legend. He had proven that players in the Negro Leagues could measure up to players in the big leagues. It seemed only right that Paige would become the first African American to play in the majors.
“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.”
Alas, it was not meant to be. Ultimately, Paige knew Robinson was the right choice to break the color barrier, and history shows that Robinson did indeed have the mental makeup to take on such a burden. The only caveat is that Robinson’s number is retired league wide and Jackie Robinson Day is celebrated every year. Meanwhile, the story of Satchel Paige remains far more obscure, not receiving the attention it deserves.