A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
How Good Was Satchel Paige?
NEW YORK, NY —The question is: How good was he? You probably know some Satchel Paige stories, like the one about how he would guarantee to strike out the first nine players he faced (or your money back), or the one about how he would sometimes send all his fielders off the field, just to prove a point.
You probably have heard some of the incomprehensible numbers, like the claim that he won 104 of 105 games in 1934 or that he struck out more than 10,000 hitters in his time.
You may even know that Joe DiMaggio called him the best pitcher he ever faced, and Dizzy Dean said Satchel Paige was the only man alive who could throw harder than Dean himself.
Still, the question remains: How good was Satchel Paige?
This comes up again because coming soon, to a Hy-Vee store near you, Satchel Paige bobblehead dolls will go on sale. Seems as though everybody has grown pretty tired of the whole bobblehead craze, but this is different. Satchel Paige was born to have a bobblehead doll. He was one of the original showmen in sports, a master of promotion, a guy whose very presence would draw millions of people to ballparks all over America.
Even when he was at least 42 years old, long after he lost what everyone of his era describes as one of the great fastballs in baseball history, more than 72,000 showed up to Cleveland Municipal Stadium to see his first start. More than 78,000 were there the next time he started. “I never threw an illegal pitch,” Paige famously said. “The trouble is, once in a while I would toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.”
Jackie Robinson, of course, broke the color barrier. Larry Doby broke the barrier in the American League. But it was Satchel Paige who broke a different kind of barrier. He was the first beloved black player in major-league baseball. He was a phenomenon. You probably knew that.
What you might not know is just how good he was.
To figure out just how good Satchel Paige was, we’re going to look at his major-league career. Understand, this was long after his prime. It’s hard to make a judgment about a man long after he was young. If the only time you saw Steve Carlton was when he was getting swatted around in Minnesota at age 42, you would think he had never been any good at all.
Still, if you take away the war years, there are only three pitchers who — at age 42 or older — managed a season in the major leagues with a 2.50 ERA or less. One was the incomparable Cy Young, although it should be noted that was during the dead-ball era and the entire league ERA was less than 2.50.
Another was Hoyt Wilhelm, whose remarkable knuckleball kept knuckling until he was 47 years old.
And the third was Satchel Paige. This was 55 years ago. It’s funny, having gone through the Annika Sorenstam firestorm a couple of weeks ago, to look back on what people thought in 1948 of an ancient Satchel Paige joining the Cleveland Indians. Most called it a publicity stunt. They said he had no business being there.
The Sporting News, the bible of baseball, essentially said that it was reverse racism and that no 42-year-old white man would have been given the chance to be a rookie in the major leagues.
It took Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck to point out that had Paige been white, he would have been in the major leagues 25 years earlier.
Paige would become the first black pitcher to start a major-league game, and in the discussion of civil rights and sports, that achievement has, sadly, become overlooked. Robinson broke many barriers. But there were others. Many people didn’t think black men could pitch.
Maybe, they conceded after watching Robinson and Doby, black men could hit. Maybe they could run. But pitching, that took intelligence, savvy, verve — traits that, in 1948, people rarely attached to blacks.
With pressure attacking him from all sides, Paige threw two shutouts in only seven starts. The league hit .225 against him. He went 6-1, picked up a save and was even chosen rookie of the year by The Sporting News itself (it was an odd choice considering that another Cleveland rookie, Gene Bearden, won 20 games that year)
In 1952, Paige was still the only black pitcher in the American League. He pitched for the utterly dreadful St. Louis Browns, but even at the reported age of 45 (Veeck thought he was at least 51 at the time), Paige won 12 games and saved 10 more, which means he played a role in one-third of the Browns’ victories. Only Phil Niekro, another ageless knuckleball pitcher, made that kind of impact at that age.
In all, Paige won 28 games and saved 32 more in his five big-league seasons. Batters hit .240 against him. He threw shutouts in 16 percent of his starts, almost the same percentage as Walter Johnson.
His lifetime ERA of 3.29 was almost a full run less than the league average.
“Now,” his friend and former teammate Buck O’Neil says, “imagine this: He did all of that after he got old.”
How good was Satchel Paige? Bill James, who lives in Lawrence and wrote the brilliant New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, says he deserves to rank with Cy Young, Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson in the argument of the greatest who ever lived.
I think that’s right. Satchel Paige doesn’t have much presence in Kansas City, his longtime hometown. There is a wonderful school named for him. And there’s a baseball field with his name that is lovingly cared for along Swope Parkway. There’s a statue of him in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
But there is no parkway, no public statue, no day in his honor.
He’s the greatest athlete to ever call Kansas City home, and that’s not downplaying the greatness of George Brett or Len Dawson or Otis Taylor. Baltimore has John Unitas. New York has Babe Ruth.
Louisville has Muhammad Ali.
Kansas City has Satchel Paige.
So, pick up a Satch bobblehead doll. Learn about him at the Negro Leagues Museum (which now has a fascinating new piece, a baseball autographed by Hall of Famer and fierce pioneer Jackie Robinson and Hall of Famer and famed racist Ty Cobb. It’s hard to imagine one signing the ball with the other on it already).
And, if you can get tickets, check out the Royals when they wear uniforms that Satchel Paige wore when they play the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday, June 29. (Yes, this year, the Royals will wear Negro Leagues uniforms, provided by the Negro Leagues Museum.
And let me mention that the museum, which is always fighting costs, could use a sponsor to help pay for those uniforms.)
“I wish you could have seen Satch when he was young,” O’Neil says. “He was something else. He was like Roger Clemens, only he had even better control. He was like Greg Maddux, only he threw harder. He was like nobody you ever saw.”
I do wish we could have seen Satchel Paige when he was young.
He must have been something. He was plenty good when he was old.