Paige Proves Truth Can Be Inconvenient

By Joe Posnanski
Updated: July 2, 2006

KANSAS CITY — They’re celebrating Satchel Paige’s 100th birthday this week. If you’re a stickler for truth, then you should know that Satch almost certainly would not have turned 100 years old this week. His celebrated birthday of July 7 is probably borrowed or stolen from his old teammate Double Duty Radcliffe, who also claimed to be born on that day.

Paige’s birth year of 1906 has been argued about more than national health care.

Then again, if you’re a stickler for truth, you probably don’t want to read further. Satchel Paige had little to do with truth. Satch, more than any American athlete, was about myth, shadows, fog and the yellow juice, which we’ll get to in a bit. It’s like Satch always said: “My mother always told me if you tell a lie, rehearse it. If it don’t sound good to you, it won’t sound good to no one else.” Then again, he might not have said that. With Satchel Paige, nothing is certain.

He won 2,000 baseball games in his pitching career, or he did not. He had 300 shutouts or fewer, threw 50 no-hitters or fewer, and he may or may not have picked off two runners on the same play using two different baseballs. He named his pitches — Bee Ball, Long Tom, Bat Dodger, Trouble Ball, Two Hump, a dozen others — and batters swore there was not a lick of difference between any of them. They all flew fast and straight. And they all went exactly where Satchel Paige wanted to throw them.

He said many wise and funny things, such as, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” My favorite Paige quote: “Dance like no one’s watching.” Of course, it’s quite likely he never said that.

We do know that Paige made the major leagues as an old man and drew more than 200,000 people to his first three starts. The largest crowd ever to see a minor-league baseball game (57,000 strong in Miami) came to see Satchel Paige pitch at age 50.

We know Joe DiMaggio called Paige the best he ever faced. Dizzy Dean said Paige threw the fastest pitches he ever saw. Bob Feller called him the greatest pitcher ever. That stuff is documented. But what makes Satchel Paige an American original — the thing that places him in that bigger-than-sports stratosphere with Babe Ruth, Mighty Casey, Bronko Nagurski, Jim Thorpe and Roy Hobbs — is the undocumented stuff.

Like this: In 1937, Satch was approached by a man with a suitcase and — in at least one version of the tale — a gun. There was $30,000 in the case; the man wanted Paige and eight men of his choosing to come to the Dominican Republic and play baseball for brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo. Satch never turned down a paycheck in his life. He brought a star-studded group, including the great catcher Josh Gibson.

That team made it to the Dominican championship game. The night before the big game all the players were put in a Dominican jail to prevent them from carousing. That got Satch’s attention. In the moments before the first pitch, the manager gave the team this inspirational pregame message: “You better win.” “What do you mean by that?” Satch asked.

The manager shook his head. “You better win,” he said again.

Armed soldiers lined the field. Satch’s team trailed by a run late, but somehow Satch singled (he was famous for being a terrible hitter), and Negro Leagues great Sam Bankhead hit a home run. Those last two innings, Satch said he threw the baseball harder than ever. He struck out five of the last six, won, and got the heck out.

True story? Some say no. It’s like everything else with Satchel Paige. It’s all what you want to believe.

When you travel America with Buck O’Neil, there’s one guarantee: Somebody will claim to have hit against Satchel in a game or exhibition somewhere. Often, they will remember hitting a home run. Buck says: “The world is filled with people who hit homers off Satchel Paige — and the number grows every year.” Satch traveled to virtually every town in America to play ball. Signs were posted: “Satchel Paige, world’s greatest pitcher, guaranteed to strike out the first nine men.” He said: “Nobody ever asked for their money back.” He talked when he pitched. He went through double and triple windups. He would stop in the middle of his delivery — the hesitation pitch. Satch would, when the mood struck him, bring in his outfielders and have his infielders sit down. In the most pressure-filled moments — bases loaded, for instance — he would announce in a large voice that his stomach was angered up. The old trainer Jewbaby Floyd would walk slowly to the mound, hand Satch a cup of bicarbonate of soda, which Paige would drink very slowly. He would then unleash a burp that could be heard throughout the stadium.

Then, inevitably, he would strike out the next man.

“He was bigger than life,” said one of his old teammates, the late Byron Johnson. “You should have been there. When people came out to the ballpark, they just wanted to touch Satchel’s arm to see if he was real.” Everything about him was shrouded. For instance, there are a half dozen origins for the name Satchel — the most colorful being that he used to carry people’s satchels at the train station in Mobile, Ala., where he grew up. Once, he tried to run off with a man’s satchel; the man chased him down and cuffed him in the head. And a friend, unable to stop laughing, named him Satchel.

There are a half dozen theories concerning how he started pitching, the most colorful being that he used to throw stones at birds or, in one version, white kids who called him names when he was young. It’s more likely he learned how to pitch at the Industrial School for Negro Children, a reform school where he was sent after stealing toys.

In 1926, he joined the Chattanooga Black Lookouts for 50 bucks a game. He was a phenomenon pretty soon after. He had one amazing fastball. Everyone agrees on that. He threw it hard, and he had startling control — he used to warm up by throwing fastballs over a stick of chewing gum.

How hard did he throw? Negro Leagues star Biz Mackey said Paige’s fastball could turn steak into hamburger. Dizzy Dean said Satchel’s fastball made his own look like a change-up. When asked recently if he threw harder than Satch, Bob Feller — never one to lightly give praise — grudgingly said: “We threw about the same speed. On the radar gun, I might have been a bit faster. But Satch had that amazing control.” “Once when I was young, I watched him pitch, and I couldn’t see the ball,” said a former teammate, the late Connie Johnson. “I was sitting in one of the high seats at the stadium. So I came down, but even from the front row I couldn’t see the ball.” We’ll never know for sure how many games Paige won. Satch claimed to win 104 games in 1934, for instance. The Hall of Fame-commissioned book Shades of Glory, which counts only “official” Negro Leagues games, credits him with a slightly less-impressive 14-2 record in 16 starts that year. The truth?

“With Satchel,” Buck O’Neil says, “the truth’s got nothing to do with it.” Satchel Paige blew out his arm in Mexico. That was 1938. The injury was caused by: A. Curveballs that Satch tried to break off in the high altitude.

B. The food, which Paige said “burned up my insides.” C. Something else.

He could not lift his arm above his shoulder. His arm was, in the unforgettable and baffling simile of a Kansas City Call reporter, “as dead as a new bride’s biscuits.” Doctors told Satch he would never pitch again. When he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs (owner J.L. Wilkinson said, “You could use a break”), there was even a brief and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to make him a first baseman.

Satch pitched for a barnstorming team that was at first called “The Baby Monarchs,” but soon, for obvious reasons, became “The Satchel Paige Traveling All-Stars.” The All-Stars were mostly has-beens, but nobody noticed them. People came to see Satch. Opposing batters were paid to swing and miss. Satch called it the worst time in his life.

Then, something happened. Remember Jewbaby Floyd, the trainer? Well, Jewbaby used to brew up these tonics to heal Monarchs players. He showered Satch’s arm with boiling water, ice, all kinds of potions. The potion everyone remembers was the yellow juice, which was, as you might imagine, bright yellow. It smelled so bad that, Buck O’Neil said, mosquitoes would not attack.

Every day, Jewbaby would rub that yellow juice into Satch’s arm. Then one day, in Chicago, Satchel Paige told his manager: “Turn ’em loose.” He could throw his fastball again. Satch pitched for another 25 years.

“I think his arm probably just needed some rest,” Byron Johnson said. “But, hey, I’m not going to say the yellow juice didn’t work. I smelled that stuff.” What was the yellow juice? Some truths are better left unknown.

They’re celebrating Satchel’s 100th birthday this week, and with that many baseball historians will want to rank him. Put him in perspective. Author Bill James, in his “New Historical Baseball Abstract,” listed Paige as the second best pitcher ever, behind Walter Johnson. Others, afraid to delve into that murky Negro Leagues world without reliable statistics, leave Paige off their lists entirely.

My own feeling is that Satchel Paige defies comparisons. Nobody in the history of American sports could have done what he did. He was one of a handful of athletes who became larger than life. But unlike Ruth, Chamberlain or Unitas, Paige did it in a time and place when black players were not permitted to play in the major leagues and were treated as second-class citizens. For Satchel Paige to become a legend in that environment, well, let’s just say it doesn’t really matter if he won 104 or 14 games that season.

America did see Satch’s greatness, if only briefly, when he joined the Cleveland Indians. He went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA in 1948. He was 42, at least. He left behind a lasting imprint on the imagination. People can only wonder how good he had been when he was young and still threw his best fastballs.

“I tell everybody the same thing,” Buck said. “I always tell them: I wish you could have seen him pitch. It’s one of the thrills of my life.” A few years ago, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum handed out a questionnaire to every living Negro Leagues player they could find. They asked players basic questions — age, position, etc. — and then this: What was your greatest thrill in the Negro Leagues?

Most wrote about a home run they hit or a shutout they pitched. A handful of old men when thinking back to the sunshine and diamonds of their youth, thought hard and wrote: “My greatest thrill was being struck out by Satchel Paige.” And that’s the truth.