Was Satchel Paige the greatest pitcher in history?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy. And the other day I was on Atlanta's public transit system and I noticed this guy was wearing a jacket and it's for the Negro leagues, the baseball teams. And what specifically caught my attention was the logo and it said, "For the brothers who played, but didn't get paid." And we're gonna be talking about that today.

Katie Lambert: I miss so much by not writing Marta. This is the second installment in our series on Black history month. And today we're going to be talking about Satchel Paige. And when you think of the Negro leagues and the integration of baseball, you're probably thinking of Jackie Robinson or at least Sarah and I were. He was the first to break a 60 year color line and he went on to be a star, but he was not that huge star when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He was young and he was chosen for his promise, but also for his ability to withstand the inevitable racial slurs.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. He was a safe public face for the integration of baseball. The big start of the Negro leagues at the time was Satchel Paige. And he had been working in these subtle ways to integrate baseball decades before Robinson was ever signed. And he played with and against some of the most talented players in baseball, white and black. He entertained people across the country. And he eventually earned one of the highest salaries in baseball, but because of this unspoken segregation of the major leagues, he doesn't become a big-leaguer until he's 42 years old, which makes him the oldest rookie in history.

Katie Lambert: So let's get started on this career. Because his prime seasons were spent before baseball was integrated, we don't have a bunch of fantastic stats to throw at you or at least -

Sarah Dowdy: Saber metrics.

Katie Lambert: We don't have the saber metrics, but a few to get us started. He was reputed to have pitched 2,500 games during his career. He won 2,000 of them so think about that for a second. And he pitched 55 no hitters by his own estimate which is pretty impressive.

Sarah Dowdy: Just insane; absolutely insane. So consequently, some people call him the best pitcher in history.

Katie Lambert: And a bunch of our details we'd like to say come from a fresh air interview with author Larry Tye who wrote a book called Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend if you'd like to pick it up.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so we're gonna start at the beginning. Satchel was born July 7, 1906 in Mobile, Alabama as Leroy Robert Page.

Katie Lambert: And his family changed their name to Paige with an "I" in the middle from Page with no "I" because he said it made them sound more high toned.

Sarah Dowdy: His mom thought it looked too much like a page in a book, I think. So he's the seventh of 12 kids and because his father isn't really a major presence in their life, the children learn early on that they're gonna be poor and they have to earn what they can. And just one thing though that he does appreciate from his father: he gets his approval to be a baseball player even as a kid instead of a landscaper. This is something that his mom never approves of.

Katie Lambert: No. She said that she thought baseball was sinnin', always playin' and never workin'.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, too bad. So by the age of nine, Satchel's working at a railway station and he's toting bags or satchels specifically. So he develops a system of pulleys and ropes so he can carry multiple bags and make more money. And his friends tell him that, "You look like a walking Satchel tree." So that's how he gets his nickname.

Katie Lambert: And this is one of my favorite quotes from Sarah's outline. She says, "Young Satchel has a knack for hurling things, and not just baseballs." But it's true: he could throw a rock or a brick and take down a chicken or a squirrel at tremendous speeds.

Sarah Dowdy: And he can also hit kids. He fights with rival gangs of kids and he would psyche out his opponents by throwing what he later called the hesitation pitch. Basically, he'd lift his arm and start to pitch and his opponent would duck and after they had ducked and they couldn't move, he'd nail them with a rock or whatever he was throwing.

Katie Lambert: But in his youth Satchel turned to petty crime and was sent to reform school, the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law Breakers. And the school was set up along the Booker T. model of Negro self-help. So they work hard and they also do athletics which is a lot like Babe Ruth. Sarah was telling me earlier that he also went to reform school and that's where he learned how to play.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And this ends up being a good thing for Satchel. He has a coach who recognizes his ability. And he leaves the school with not only athletic prowess, but discipline and baseball skills. And by 1924, he presents himself to Candy Jim Taylor who manages the Mobile Tigers and they're a semi-pro black team. He gets the job by sending him ten fastballs and that's it; he's won him over.

Katie Lambert: Also how I got my job here at How Stuff Works. [Inaudible] story. He joined the Negro leagues in 1926 for the Chattanooga Black Lookouts and he pitched for a bunch of teams in both the Negro Southern Association and the Negro National League: the Birmingham Black Barons, the Baltimore Black Socks, The Cleveland Cubs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, the New York Black Yankees and the Memphis Red Sox.

Sarah Dowdy: His career really kinda takes off with the Crawfords, but we're gonna talk a little bit about what the Negro leagues are all about because I don't think we knew very much about them before this.

Katie Lambert: No, I definitely didn't.

Sarah Dowdy: So there are actually professional black ballplayers as far back as the 19th century, but Rube Foster is the guy who really brings a functioning Negro league together in the 1920s and he actually dreams of having this black major league that would play the best of the white big league clubs and they'd come together in a multiracial world series at the end of the year; black versus white.

Katie Lambert: And there was some major financial instability in the leagues, but by WWII Negro baseball was a $2 million a year industry. Journeyman players are making about $400 a month, but someone who's a star like Satchel Paige could get $1000 a month, but there's a little more to it than that.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, the black players are playing a lot of games, like up to 150 games in a season. And they're working all year pretty much, most of them. They're having to go out and barnstorm, which is something that we're gonna talk about later. But another thing we should mention is that they're not always going up against other Negro league teams. You think today a major league baseball player plays other major league teams, right? But the majority of these guys' games are actually against white or non-league teams. So they're playing outside of their own league.

Katie Lambert: And Negro league baseball games were a huge part of the social life of black Americans at the time. People would dress up and the biggest games were on Sunday afternoon, so a lot of people would just go after church according to Tye, the man we mentioned earlier who wrote the book on Satchel Paige. Ministers would even let out church early so you could go.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And Satchel becomes the star attraction of these big Sunday match-ups. He's always in them. He's always the featured draw. And he's a real showman too in addition to being a great baseball player. And that's part of the job for a Negro league player. You have to be showy enough to attract a white audience as well as a black audience and to disarm them enough so that they're willing to watch you.

Katie Lambert: And he was good at it. One of his little tricks he'd like to do: before the game he'd set up some teeny tiny object like a matchbook on the home plate and then he'd proceed to throw pitches right over the plate.

Sarah Dowdy: Like ridiculously fast pitches.

Katie Lambert: So the fans would go completely crazy and the opponents would think, "What did I get myself into?"

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, you can just imagine sitting there watching this guy warm up basically. And he also shuffles his 6'3" frame out to the mound. He knows that the game can't start without him, so he takes his time and really milks it for everything it's worth. He's funny, but he also is kind of elegant and he never crosses a line to degrading himself.

Katie Lambert: He did have a crazy wind up. Sometimes he did a single, a double or a triple windmill before he threw. And he did this high kick when he slingshots the ball forward. There are a bunch of pictures of him where he's -

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, if you do a Google image search for Satchel Paige, you're probably gonna find this picture of him with his foot about up to his face.

Katie Lambert: Up to his face, yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: And he names his pitches too. He calls them bloopers, loopers and droopers. He's got a barber pitch. He has a nightmare pitch, which he says he dreamt up in a nightmare. He has the long Tom and the little Tom. It's funny though, his catchers say that they're all really the same pitch; it's he's got a fast pitch and he has a really fast pitch. And then later, he eventually gets a curve ball.

Katie Lambert: And there were of course no radar guns but people think he pitched at about 100 to 105 miles per hour.

Sarah Dowdy: So back to the barnstorming we mentioned earlier: he pitched in these big Sunday match-ups, but during the week he did barnstorming which was basically playing in any small town that would pay him. He traveled as many as 30,000 miles a year. And sometimes he's going up against semi-pro teams, white, black; whatever. Sometimes they're just country boys who have pooled together their money and they wanna play against a great baseball player. IN the winter he goes to the Dominican Republic and to the Mexican leagues to play.

Katie Lambert: And someone as good as Satchel could even work out special deals where, say he pitched one inning or three innings for a team either black or white as a quest star.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, but the crazy thing here is Satchel pitched every day and pitchers don't do that. And we were thinking about today, you'll see a pitcher after he's done a few innings with ice on his shoulder in the locker room and then he goes on rest for a while, but this guy's out there pitching every single day, and he just gets better and better.

Katie Lambert: But the barnstorming can be a little scary, especially in the Jim Crow South because you never know what's going to happen. So Satchel did have some conditions for when he was barnstorming. There was no game unless he had somewhere to sleep and eat afterward, which fair enough. It's basically like, "We're not going to play baseball with you and then risk getting driven out of town after this."

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. I liked - Tye actually called him a quiet racial pioneer for this; just putting down his foot to a certain extent. One thing he would also do, and sometimes this was just to show his own team or audience how good he really was, but often times it happened after a racial slur, but he would dismiss his fielders like in the middle of a game with loaded bases he would dismiss his fielders. And sometimes he'd just bring in the outfield so if you hit a ball into the outfield, you'd have an automatic homerun. And they'd just sit around pretending to play poker with the infielders. Sometimes he'd bring in all of his fielders, send them all off and he'd do this against big league people too; not just second rate opponents who he was trying to even the playing field a little. This was against legitimate competitors.

Katie Lambert: I think he proved his point.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: But all of this barnstorming: part of it was exposing white audiences to black players, and maybe perhaps making some of them a little more open minded about the idea of an integrated league.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, this is definitely paving the way for the ultimate integration of baseball.

Katie Lambert: He played in a lot of places where there were practically no black people at all, like in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. He actually walks out on a contract to go play on this white semi-pro team in Bismarck and it's integrated baseball a decade before it's integrated in the majors. And it's almost a test too, like what does an integrated baseball field look like? And it looks good. Satchel becomes a big star in Bismarck after a few games. He's not ultimately welcome there, but it ends up working out really well for him. He takes the team all the way to a regional tournament.

Katie Lambert: As Satchel's reputation grows, he starts collaborating with some white major leaguers who are also barnstorming. He teams up with Dizzy Dean for a while because they both know that they'll make money from people who want to see the greatest of the great face off, but also from people who just want to see a race battle.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And this of course changes opinions with some white players too. If you play with someone and you get to know them, you might come to respect them a little more and this happens with Dizzy. He actually says stuff like, "If Satchel and I teamed up together, we'd clench the pennant by the fourth of July and we could go fishing until the World Series." So this is a guy who comes to respect someone who he didn't ultimately.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, a converted good 'ol boy. And these matches prove that Satchel is just as good as anybody else. He struck out Rogers Hornsby five times in one game. In a 1934 game that went into 13 innings with Dizzy Dean, he got a 1-0 victory.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, pretty amazing stuff. He makes a lot of money too, Satchel does. By 1940, he's making $40,000 a year. And according to Tye, that's four times what the Yankees were making, which I thoroughly approve of.

Katie Lambert: Oh yes.

Sarah Dowdy: It's exactly what DiMaggio was making and it's twice what Ted Williams was making. And he lives it up too. He's got a closet just for his shoes; four for his suits. He's got all these cars, 15 shotguns and cameras. He's living the good life here.

Katie Lambert: But he has to work year round and pitch every single night and he doesn't get a winter break. So after barnstorming with these great white players, he sees them go off to the big leagues, but he can't. So Sarah and I were saying earlier how hard would it be to watch someone like DiMaggio go off to great fame and you're still stuck where you are?

Sarah Dowdy: Well, you know you're just as good as them and you should be playing with them. That would be so frustrating.

Katie Lambert: But the segregation of baseball is coming to an end. By the war, managers of white teams are starting to consider bringing in black players. Some of it is just a show. The Red Sox hold these ridiculous, kind of fake tryouts in 1945. And we do love the Red Sox, but this is not a good period of history for them. But some managers really are serious about it.

Sarah Dowdy: But in 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers' president/general manager, Branch Rickey, has put into motion this secret plan to sign an African American player and he of course finds and signs Jackie Robinson on October 23, 1945 who at the time was a first-year short stop for the Kansas City Monarchs. It's a black team obviously. Robinson spends the '46 season in the minors before he's promoted to the Dodgers in 1947. So the question here is why wasn't it Satchel who was the huge star who broke the color barrier?

Katie Lambert: Well, there are a few reasons. To start, he was old or on the older side for a starting baseball player and the year that Rickey is hunting for this person, he wasn't having a great year. He was also expensive. He never would have conceded to starting in the minors like Jackie did. And he's really unpredictable. He says these crazy things and puts on these shows and he's a bit too much of a loose cannon for the people who want someone who will be very correct in front of all the cameras.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so Satchel gives a real PC answer when Robinson starts and he says, "They couldn't have picked a better man than Jackie," but later he does show a little injury from this decision and he says that he should have been signed first. He was the one who was seriously integrating baseball even back in the 1930s and said that it killed something inside of him not being picked.

Katie Lambert: And Jackie Robinson wasn't very sympathetic to his plight. In his mind, Satchel was from a different era. He was unpredictable, he lived to excess. He just wasn't the kind of man that Jackie Robinson wanted to be.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And I actually think this is one of the sadder aspects of this story and one of the sadder sides of segregated baseball is that you should have these two men on the same side. You imagine if they played today it would be a situation where Jackie Robinson coming up would admire someone like Satchel Paige and hope to play with him some day, but instead, you just have these guys who are irreparably different from each other.

Katie Lambert: Satchel does end up in the big leagues though. He signed to the Cleveland Indians in 1948 by Bill Veeck when he's 42, but he's introduced pretty slowly and carefully since he is old and people are skeptical about him.

Sarah Dowdy: People think Veeck might be just pulling a publicity stunt.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. He's used as relief six times before he starts, but when he does start, the team beats the Washington Senators five to three, which he follows up with two shut outs.

Sarah Dowdy: And he helps the Indians get to the pennant and they win the series that year. And Satchel has the second best ERA in the American League and he gets 12 votes for rookie of the year, which I love that. How could you not vote for him as rookie of the year?

Katie Lambert: One for each month.

Sarah Dowdy: A year later though, Bill Veeck loses his controlling interest in the Indians and Satchel's let go, but he joins up again with Veeck later when he buys the St. Louis Browns, who today are the Baltimore Orioles. And he's a relief pitcher through 1953 and a pretty good one. He makes it onto the Major League All Star team in '52 and '53. And after '53 he's released and goes on to play in the minors again, barnstorms, even appears with the Harlem Globetrotters as a guest.

Katie Lambert: But he comes back briefly in 1965 for one game with the Kansas City Athletics and he really hams it up. He's got a rocking chair in the bullpen.

Sarah Dowdy: The nurse is attending to him.

Katie Lambert: Just in case, but he pitches three scoreless innings, which makes him the oldest person to pitch in the majors at 59.

Sarah Dowdy: So I think this is classic Satchel here: kind of hamming it up, but ultimately -

Katie Lambert: He has the goods to back it all up.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, he can back it all up. At then end, he calls this game the end of his 100-year career in baseball, which I also think is funny.

Katie Lambert: So later, he's brought in briefly as a pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves in 1969, but the owner of the Braves was giving him a favor actually. He needed one more year to qualify for his pension. So he didn't really do much as the pitching coach.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, yeah and the owner also wanted to drum up a little support for the Braves. They'd just moved to Atlanta and Satchel's a big name obviously. Satchel's inducted into the hall of fame in 1971 and this makes him the first player to make the hall based on his Negro league record. And there was some dispute over this because Satchel's got a good Major League Baseball record, but it's not very long and it's not the kind of thing that's gonna get you in the hall of fame. It's obviously his previous experience that would qualify him as a great baseball player. But the hall initially says, "Okay, we'll induct him into the league, but we're gonna put him in a different hall, a different place."

Katie Lambert: No.

Sarah Dowdy: And there is just this huge outcry over it. People do not want a segregated hall of fame after decades of segregated baseball.

Katie Lambert: No, and when he is inducted into -

Sarah Dowdy: In the same quarter as everyone else.

Katie Lambert: - the real hall of fame, he said it was the proudest moment of his life.

Sarah Dowdy: His real dream though was to become a manager after his playing days were over here. And he even says in his hall of fame speech that he's ready; he's ready to manage. And he probably would have been pretty good. He had an amazing memory for batting stats. He - when he was a player, when he was shown pictures of unidentified players just chest down, no faces shown, he could recognize most of them just from their b atting stats.

Katie Lambert: But no one takes him up on this whole manager thing and so instead, he goes on to other things. He's got seven kids in middle age with his second wife. So he's got a family to support and he tries some other jobs. He runs for public office and is briefly a deputy sheriff, but again, he knows that pitching is what he's good at; it's what he's meant to do.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah and he just works for anyone who will hire him. He's still barnstorming and this is where it gets a little sadder. You have this increasingly elderly guy who's out there barnstorming, always on the road, but he did give some famous advice on how to stay young. And most of it is just sort of funny like, "Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood." Katie and I have actually been posting these on our Twitter page this week.

Katie Lambert: Yes, if you'd like to find us, we're at Missed in History. There are a whole bunch of them, but that was something he didn't even adhere to himself.

Sarah Dowdy: No. He would actually cook catfish on a Coleman stove in his room and when he was finally in the Major League, his roommate couldn't stand being in the room with him because of these weird smells and scary cooking apparatuses he had.

Katie Lambert: I think we've all had that experience in the dorms. At least I did, but he's most famous for his final tip, which was "Don't look back; somebody might be gaining on you."

Sarah Dowdy: And Satchel Paige dies June 8, 1982 of heart trouble and emphysema, but we should wrap up the major leagues too because that's what starts this whole story. And integration is obviously the beginning of the end because black fans start to focus on black players who are playing in the major leagues and the young talented players like Willie Mayes and Hank Aaron sign onto Major League teams. So it's essentially over by 1948, but not officially over until 1960.

Katie Lambert: Although, the Indianapolis Clowns with whom Aaron made his debut, continued barnstorming through 1973.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: So that brings us to the question that we started this off with: was Satchel Paige the greatest pitcher in history?

Sarah Dowdy: And we have one person who definitely thinks so and that's Joe DiMaggio and he said that, "Satchel was the best I've ever faced and the fastest." So I think we're gonna close it out with Joe's quote there.

Katie Lambert: But if you have an opinion you'd like to send us, please e-mail us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com. And if you'd like to learn a little bit more about baseball statistics and all that goodness, search for how saber metrics works at www.howstuffworks.com.

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