July 7 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige.
Leroy Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama, and as a teenager worked at the railroad station. Leroy’s long arms were able to maneuver and hold several satchels at a time and folks started calling him by what he carried.
Young Satchel’s pitching feats attracted many, and everyone knew he was good enough for the major leagues. But the color of his skin restricted him to playing ball only with and against blacks in the old Negro Leagues. Satchel became a superstar and spent decades honing his craft without appearing in a major league game.
After playing in the Negro Leagues, Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and in 1947 became the first black in the major leagues. Robinson’s first season happened to be the final season in the career of the great Jewish slugger and future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg,
The Detroit Tigers had sold Greenberg to Pittsburgh and he was playing first base for the Pirates when Robinson made his first appearance in the Steel City. Greenberg heard his new teammates – many of whom never finished high school – taunt Robinson, a college graduate (UCLA), with every racial epithet they could think of.
Robinson singled and scampered to first base. Greenberg told him that he was a better man and better ballplayer than most in the league. Greenberg offered to take Robinson to dinner that night. Robinson politely declined. “It would put you on the spot,” Robinson said. “I don’t want to do that to you.” Their first conversation led to a long friendship and many dinners.
Greenberg became an executive and minority owner with Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians the following year. The team signed the then 42-year-old Satchel Paige to his first major league contract. The Indians – who had already signed another African American, Larry Doby – were the only American League team with black players.
Greenberg became director of minor league operations for the Indians in 1949 and signed several more black players for the organization. The following year Veeck sold his interest in the team and Greenberg became general manager with a large slice of ownership. Greenberg soon had four black players on the major league roster while most clubs in the league still had none.
Even though it took longer than he wanted, Greenberg eventually instituted a policy of all prayers on the Cleveland club staying in the same hotel on the road. If a hotel barred blacks, Greenberg ordered his traveling secretary, Spud Goldstein, to make sure the white players didn’t check in. The Indians would take their business elsewhere.
I was lucky enough to meet Paige and Greenberg and hear their stories. I saw Paige pitch in my pre-bar mitzvah days in 1953. He was 47 and by then a member of the St. Louis Browns (they would relocate and become the Baltimore Orioles the following year). It was a September night game and the Tigers and Browns, both woeful, were battling it out to stay out of last place.
Twenty-six years later, as editor and publisher of a national monthly baseball publication, I attended baseball’s annual winter meetings. The get-together of executives, managers, reporters and others had on its agenda Hall of Fame acceptance for deserving stars of the old Negro Leagues.
On hand that first week in December in Orlando were once-young stars of the Negro Leagues who went on to long careers in the major thanks to Jackie Robinson, who’d died several years earlier.
Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Larry Doby, and Monte Irvin were gathered around and in front of the seated figure of Satchel Paige. The latter’s long legs dangled straight out from the cushioned lobby chair while he told stories at a slow easy pace. Laughter kept interrupting the 73-year-old Paige as he maintained the same position in his chair and the same expression on his face.
I soaked up the scene and was determined to find out more about the man they called Satchel. Many thought the slow-moving legend was a Stepin Fetchit character, but in fact Paige had a smart mind and handled matters well. He was quite a businessman and put together numerous exhibition games around the country pitting Negro Leaguers against stars of the major leagues. Paige loved to show off his talents by having his players behind him lay down on the field and take a nap while he proceeded to strike out a batter.