Hurler Satchel Paige: pitching wonder who never looked back
He was black; he was an original; and his throwing arm was like a piece of braided rawhide.Skip to next paragraph
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Leroy Robert (Satchel) Paige, the legendary pitcher who passed on recently in Kansas City, didn't walk just to a different drummer but to a whole different orchestra.
His simple philosophy (''Don't look back 'cause somethin' might be gaining on you'') and his hesitation pitch (which often caused hitters to swing either too soon or too late) were two of the things that made him famous.
Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, who often pitched against Paige after the regular season was over in the days when major leaguers barnstormed against Negro stars to earn extra money, frequently expressed his respect for Satchel.
Dean, in what must have been a struggle for him to admit, once said that ''Paige is the best pitcher I ever seen and I've been lookin' in the mirror for a long time.''
Although Satchel had to be at least 40 years old and considerably past his prime when he followed Jackie Robinson into the major leagues in 1948 with the Cleveland Indians, he was never embarrassed.
Cleveland's decision to give the oldtimer a chance wasn't just a sentimental gesture either - as he pointed out to me at a Boston Baseball Writers' banquet several years ago.
''Before Cleveland showed me any money, they sent me down to the bullpen to see if I could still throw with power,'' the 6 ft. 3 in. Paige recalled. ''I can still remember catcher Jim Hegan reaching over and grabbing a towel off a bench and starting to wipe off the plate so somebody could call balls and strikes.
''Well, I set him straight right away,'' Satch continued. ''I just told him there weren't no need of doing anything like that. Instead I gave him this gum wrapper and told him to lay it the long way on home plate. After I split that wrapper down the middle a few times with my fastball they decided I still had my control.''
Paige, who sort of remembered starting his career with the Mobile (Alabama) Tigers in 1924 at age 16, claimed he invented his famous and controversial hesitation pitch that same year.
''At first nobody knew nothin' about it because I didn't throw it that often, '' Satchel explained. ''I restricted it to times when I knew the hitter was waiting for my fastball and I wanted to upset his timing. Ain't nobody ever got a good piece of wood on that pitch yet.
'' 'Course later on when I got older, I had to use the hesitation pitch a lot more to survive,'' he added. ''Well, the papers got a hold of it and started writing about it and a lot of hitters complained about it. But I never really stopped my delivery completely, the way they said I did. I just slowed the thing up a little and let nature have its way.''
Paige won six and lost one with the world champion 1948 Indians - mostly in relief. Few will forget, however, the late season start he made against the Chicago White Sox before 78,342 at Cleveland's vast Municipal Stadium. Even though his fastball had lost much of its velocity, Paige was still great at changing speeds and he shut out the White Sox 1-0. Later, back in relief, he retired the only two Boston batters to face him in the World Series.
Actually Satchel had more trouble with Cleveland Manager Lou Boudreau's many house rules than he had with the hitters. Having been so independent for so many years as a barnstormer who established his own timetable, he simply decided too many things on his own to suit Boudreau.
For example, there was the dismal day when Paige didn't show up at the ballpark without bothering to tell anyone, a decision Boudreau found unacceptable even though the game was later postponed because of rain.
''Who told you the game would be called off?'' he was asked the next day.
''Mah, feet,'' answered Satch with perfect logic. ''They always tells me when it's going to rain!''
Satchel pitched for Cleveland again in 1949, then spent three years with the old St. Louis Browns, where he had enough left as late as 1952 to win 12 games and save 10 others. All-told he pitched in 179 big league games, even coming out of retirement after 12 years to pitch a final three-inning scoreless stint for the old Kansas City A's in 1965. During the 1968 and '69 seasons, he served as an honorary coach with Atlanta, for whom he once pitched an exhibition.
Depending upon which story you want to believe, Paige either got his nickname from his size 15 baseball shoes or from the days when he managed to juggle six suitcases at a time as a redcap at the Mobile railroad station.
The fact that Paige's original induction into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1971 was limited to a special section reserved for stars of the old Negro Leagues never bothered him. But the public outcry became so great that he was later given equal billing with Ruth, Cobb, DiMaggio, etc.
Although Satchel often told reporters what he thought they wanted to hear and usually changed his age from one interview to the next, the truth is that he may have never known how old he really was. His best explanation was that the family goat got into the house one day and ate his mother's Bible - the same one in which she had carefully placed his birth certificate!