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June 9, 2013

Loran Smith: Paige played big, talked even bigger

Saturday marked 31 years since the death of Satchel Paige, the legendary pitcher who played baseball in both the Negro Leagues and the majors. As the calendar moved closer to the anniversary, I was moved to review old files about this marvelous talent with a contradictory memory and a hopping fastball that baffled all hitters. Many of those batters were major leaguers, with whom Paige was not allowed to play until he was 42.

In the early 1980s, an introduction to a successful minor league owner led me to Springfield, Ill., one chilly April day to spend an afternoon with Paige. The Springfield Redbirds, owned by A. Ray Smith, a genial Oklahoman, were about to begin their season; Paige had been hired as a special advisor.

Smith loved having him in the clubhouse. He could justify keeping Paige on the payroll to amuse young players with sage advice, and it certainly didn’t hurt the gate to have the pitching great hanging around.

On the day Paige and I talked — my tape recording, when transcribed, filled 21 double-spaced pages — Pagie was in a good mood, but he had reached the point where his bones ached and he had serious stomach problems. Nonetheless, he was as colorful as his reputed image.

He spoke with a seasoned softness and his vernacular was charming and delightful. He made a lot of sense, owing to his worldly exposure. He had grown up in Mobile, Ala., but had seen every corner of the country and been introduced to people of all walks of life. He was not formally educated, but when it came to life and its mutabilities, he was an expert. He had been around, and his street sense was honed and wizened. His conversation was laced with the dialect of his native tongue from the segregated times that shaped his early life.

I have never enjoyed a conversation more than the one with Paige on that day in the town where Abraham Lincoln rests in peace. Paige spoke insightfully. He invoked philosophy as he talked, using his familiar aphorisms for which he was famous. One of them about staying away from fried foods — “they angry up the blood” — had become a problem in his late years. His stomach was “always acting up.”

The memorable vignettes of his life remain enticing to those who appreciate baseball lore. One example is Paige telling his infielders to sit down and then routinely striking out the side. Legend has it he did that quite often. Then there is pitching nine-inning games four or five days a week. Or playing for Bismarck, N.D., when his team won the National Baseball Congress tournament in seven straight games. Paige won four of them and pitched in relief in a fifth game. He struck out 60 batters.  

Paige was given to embellishment, but he was so popular that a lot of people, including his teammates, were happy to endorse any myths. Josh Gibson, the legendary slugger from Buena Vista, struck out with the bases loaded in the sixth inning against Paige in the Negro World Series in 1942. In his autobiography, Paige — who enjoyed being the showman — said the strikeout came in the ninth.

Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians at the time, signed Paige to a big league contract in 1948, making him the first black pitcher in the American League. The Indians won the World Series and Paige pitched briefly in one inning.

In 2010, Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski argued that Paige threw harder than anybody in history, basing his argument on the opinion of big leaguers who saw and/or played against him in his prime. Joe DiMaggio said Satchel was the best he ever faced. Bob Feller admitted he was the best he ever saw. Dizzy Dean commented that Paige’s fastball made his own look like a changeup.

In our conversation, Paige spoke modestly but believed he could have beaten the best if he had been given the opportunity. What he enjoyed reminiscing about most was the second game he started in the majors, a shutout against the White Sox in Chicago. (Veeck brought Satchel to Cleveland to work in relief, but manager Lou Boudreau used him as a starter.) The paid attendance that day was 52,013, but fans stormed the gates and overwhelmed the ticket takers to overflow Comiskey Park.

“They were saying I wasn’t gonna hold up (for nine innings),” Paige recalled. “I could hear it in Chicago’s dugout, ‘He’s too old.’ So ’round the fifth or sixth inning, it was the same. I shut ’em out. Goodness alive. ... I didn’t have no clothes on at all when I got to the dugout. (Fans) had tore my clothes off. They was coming from all parts (of the stadium). Jumped over the box seats and just ripping my clothes and my hat. They took my hat, my glove. I had to get everything new to start again.”

Not long after our interview, I was in Kansas City and went by to see him. Less than a month from his 76th birthday, Paige was too sickly to talk. His wife met me at the door and said, “He’s got no more energy left.” She was right. He died a few weeks later.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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