Eyewitnesses said that Satchel Paige, one of the best pitchers baseball will ever see, would tell his teammates to sit on the field, so confident that he’d strike out the batter on his own.
The right-handed ace’s showmanship was backed up by the remarkable athletic ability on display with his deadly accurate fastball. Over an estimated 2,600 innings pitched, Paige registered more than 200 wins and, impressively, more than 2,100 strikeouts. And those numbers are incomplete—many of his games, having been played in the Negro Leagues, going unrecorded.
“Satchel was pitching in a way if, just based on his performance as a pitcher, he would’ve ranked as one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest,” says Larry Tye, author of the 2009 biography Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend.
For 20 years after he more-or-less hung up his cleats, however, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where baseball greats from Babe Ruth to Walter Johnson were enshrined, didn’t have room for Paige or any other Negro Leaguers. Because it was a different league, segregated from the majors solely by race, the Hall hadn’t even considered its players eligible for induction. But in 1971, the Cooperstown, New York, institution finally began to recognize the accomplishments of players whose case for greatness rested on their performance in the Negro Leagues, starting with Paige.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Leroy Paige was born in 1906 and grew up with 11 siblings. Given the nickname “Satchel” for a contraption he made for carrying passengers’ bags at a local train station, he found his talent for baseball at a correctional school.
At 18, he joined the Mobile Tigers, a black semi-professional team. No stranger to barnstorming—the practice of teams traveling across the country to play exhibition matches—Paige debuted in the Negro Leagues in 1926 for the Chattanooga Black Lookouts. Among the teams he played for were the Birmingham Black Barons, the Baltimore Black Sox, the Pittsburgh Crawfords (surrounded by other legends, including Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell), and the Kansas City Monarchs. Paige won four Negro American League pennants with the Monarchs from 1940 to 1946.
Paige was far from the only phenom in the Negro Leagues. Gibson was a monumental power hitter; Oscar Charleston played a gritty, all-around game; and Bell was known for his beyond-human speed, just to name a few. But when it came to star quality, Paige possibly surpasses them all.
“He’s probably the biggest drawing card in the history of the Negro Leagues,” says Erik Strohl, vice president of exhibitions and collections at the Hall of Fame.
Legend surrounds Paige with stories of his remarkable feats, and some of it was even self-produced: He kept track of his own statistics and the numbers he would provide to others were astounding, if not sometimes inconsistent. While a lack of written accounts at many of his pitching performances has created issues of veracity, the confirmed information available still suggests that his accomplishments are befitting of his prestige.
“When you say that he is a legend and one of the greatest players of all time, it may seem like an exaggeration,” says Strohl, “and it's hard to quantify and qualify, but I think probably, undoubtedly that was true in terms of the length and swath of his career.”
“He had great speed, but tremendous control,” says historian Donald Spivey, author of the 2013 book If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige. “That was the key to his success,” he adds, which paired with Paige’s ability to identify batters’ weaknesses from their pitching stances.
Spivey says that Paige’s prestige was a boon even for his opponents, as crowds would flock to the games where he was pitching. “The man was a tremendous drawing card,” he notes. He earned a reputation for jumping from one team to the next, depending on who offered the most money.
“He got away with it because he was so reliable,” says Tye. “He gave you the ability to draw in fans.
Not unlike other talented Negro Leaguers of the era, Paige wanted an opportunity with the MLB. Midway through the 1948 season, he got his chance when he signed with the Cleveland Indians. He was certainly an atypical “rookie”, entering the league when he was 42 after more than 20 years of Negro League competition (Jackie Robinson, for comparison, joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 when he was 28.) Paige managed to make his time count: he won six games amid a tense battle for the American League pennant, and Cleveland went on to take both the pennant and the World Series victory.
Though his debut MLB season was successful, he spent just one more year with the Indians in 1949 before joining the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Following a three-year stint with St. Louis, Paige’s career in the MLB appeared over. However, he continued playing baseball in other leagues, and still found a way to make a brief one-game, three-inning appearance with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 at the age of 59, not giving up a single run.
Paige’s time in Major League Baseball was impressive for a player entering the league in their 40s, asserts Phil S. Dixon, author of multiple books about the Negro Leagues.
“He also helped those teams because people wanted to see Satchel Paige,” Dixon says. “Not only was he a decent pitcher, he was an amazing draw.”
The Negro Leagues were both the stage at which Paige dazzled audiences for years on end, and the mark of a barrier separating him and other black players from baseball’s biggest stage for years. That barrier would, for a time, be perpetuated by the Hall of Fame.
Despite the impact that the Negro Leagues had on baseball and American culture, by the 1960s, just two players associated with them had been recognized as Hall of Famers. Robinson was the first black player inducted, in 1962, and seven years later his former teammate Roy Campanella joined him. The two had achieved entry off the merits of their MLB careers, however, whereas icons like Paige and Gibson had either few or no seasons outside the Negro Leagues.
To those who played the game, their worthiness was not a matter of debate. On occasions when black squads faced off against their white contemporaries, they won at least as often as not, if not more. In 1934 Paige and star MLB pitcher Dizzy Dean had their barnstorming teams—one black, one white—face off against each other six times in exhibition play. Paige’s crew won four of those six meetings, including a tense 1-0 victory at Chicago’s Wrigley Field after 13 innings.
“Their role in the black community was one that said, ‘We can play as good as anybody,’” says Dixon. “‘And there's no reason for us not being in the major leagues, because not only can we play all of those guys, we can beat those guys.”
In the prime of Paige’s Negro League career, New York Yankees’ outfielder Joe DiMaggio once described Paige as the “best and fastest” pitcher he’d ever played against. Former Boston Red Sox star Ted Wiliams used part of his Hall of Fame speech in 1966 to mention the exclusion of Paige and other black players
“I hope that someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they were not given the chance,” Williams said to the crowd, a speech that Strohl notes occurred amid the civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, sportswriters supportive of the cause used their platforms to argue for Negro Leaguers’ presence in the Hall. Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the body responsible for selecting Hall members, also created a committee in 1969 to advocate for Negro League inductions.
MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn, elected in 1969, publicly welcomed to the idea of putting Negro League players in the Hall of Fame. In his 1987 autobiography Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner, Kuhn stated that he didn’t buy into the reasons against inducting Negro League players.
“I found unpersuasive and unimpressive the argument that the Hall of Fame would be ‘watered down’ if men who had not played in the majors were admitted,” Kuhn wrote, looking back at the time.
“Through no fault of their own,” he added, “the black players had been barred from the majors until 1947. Had they not been barred, there would have been great major-league players, and certainly Hall of Famers, among them.”
With Kuhn’s help, the Hall formed their Negro leagues committee in 1971, comprised of several men including Campanella and black sportswriters Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith. They were tasked with considering the merits of past players and executives for inclusion, and they announced Paige was their inaugural nominee in February.
Nevertheless, the Hall ran into controversy in how they planned to honor the Negro Leaguers: with a separate section, apart from the Major League inductees. Among the reasons cited were that some of the proposed inductees would not meet the minimum of ten MLB seasons competed in like other honorees. Instead of appearing like a tribute, the move was viewed by many as another form of segregation.
“Technically, you'd have to say he's not in the Hall of Fame,” said Kuhn at the time, according to the New York Times. “But I've often said the Hall of Fame isn't a building but a state of mind. The important thing is how the public views Satchel Paige, and I know how I view him.”
Backlash to the idea, from sportswriters and fans alike, was plentiful. Wells Trombly, writing for the Sporting News, declared, “Jim Crow still lives. … So they will be set aside in a separate wing. Just as they were when they played. It is an outright farce.”
New York Post sports columnist Milton Gross rejected Kuhn’s rosy interpretation, writing, “The Hall of Fame is not a state of mind. It is something semi-officially connected with organized baseball that is run by outdated rules which, as Jackie Robinson said the other day, ‘can be changed like laws are changed if they are unjust.’”
With the backdrop of backlash and an upcoming election, the Hall changed their mind in July of that year.
The pitcher himself stated that he was not worried where his tribute would be stored. “As far as I am concerned, I’m in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “I don’t know nothing about no Negro section. I’m proud to be in it. Wherever they put me is alright with me.”
Tye argues that it was still a painful experience for Paige. “Satchel had dealt with so much affront that I think he took it with quite a bit of class when they offered to let him into the segregated Hall,” he says. “But it clearly was devastating to him.”
A player whose name drew crowds and whose performances dazzled them, Paige was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in August 1971. A statue of Paige now adorns the Hall of Fame’s courtyard. It was installed in 2006, which is also the most recent year any Negro Leaguer has been inducted into the Hall.
He is portrayed with his left leg up in the air. His right hand nestles the baseball. Eyes closed, Satchel is preparing a pitch for eternity.
“I am the proudest man on the earth today, and my wife and sister and sister-in-law and my son all feel the same,” said Paige at the end of his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, reported the New York Times. “It's a wonderful day and one man who appreciates it is Leroy Satchel Paige.”