An Old Award Needs A New Name

By Gordon Edes
Updated: June 21, 2009

NEW YORK — It’s time to retire Cy Young. I’m all for tradition, but baseball has more important people to remember than a man who began his career in the horse-and-buggy age.

He’s had his name on the award for the game’s best pitcher for over half a century, plenty long to honor his place in the game. See ya, Cy.

Let’s rename the award after a man who won more games than Young, struck out more batters than Nolan Ryan, pitched in at least twice as many games as anyone else, and had a persona that rivaled Babe Ruth’s.

The name is Leroy “Satchel” Paige, and it deserves to be etched on a trophy that would guarantee he will not be forgotten.

Why bring this up now? For two reasons. On Saturday in Cincinnati, baseball staged its Civil Rights Game, an event created three years ago to draw attention to the game’s racial legacy, which pre-1947 meant players of color were excluded from wearing a big-league uniform.

Jackie Robinson changed all that when he integrated the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but as courageous as he was, the story of race and baseball should not begin and end with Robinson.

MLB has taken great strides in making sure Robinson is remembered, by retiring his No. 42 in all big league clubs, holding a day in his honor and naming the Rookie of the Year Award after him.

But just as the civil rights movement did not originate with Martin Luther King Jr., so too did others pave the way for Robinson’s historic debut. And at the top of that list is Satchel Paige, the great Negro Leaguer who may have done more than anyone else – when given the chance in barnstorming tours against white teams, winter ball in Latin America and in mixed games in California and North Dakota – to prove that the game suffered for not being colorblind.

“If Jackie Robinson was the father of equal opportunity in baseball, surely Satchel Paige was the grandfather,” writes Larry Tye, author of the new biography, “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend.”

Reading Tye’s exhaustively researched biography of Paige’s incomparable career, which over the arc of 40 years arguably made him the most famous African-American of his time, also served as impetus for my nominating Paige to supplant Young on such an important piece of baseball hardware.

Paige, as Tye notes, began his career when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and ended it when Lyndon Johnson was president.

“If Randy Johnson was a force of nature when he signed on with the 2009 Giants at age 45, and Nolan Ryan a medical marvel still pitching in the pros at 46, what are we to make of Satchel suiting up for three innings with the Kansas City A’s at 59?” Tye writes.

“His durability was more astounding considering that, for most of his career, he twirled nearly every day on unmanicured fields, without the doctors, trainers and other pampering enjoyed by Johnson, Ryan and other major league pitchers.”

Sure, Paige’s appearance for Charlie Finley’s A’s at 59 was a promotional stunt, Paige pitching in 1965 on what Finley billed as Satchel Paige Appreciation Night in Kansas City, which became the pitcher’s adopted home after starring many years for the Negro League Monarchs.

Yet Paige needed just 28 pitches to record nine outs and allowed just one hit. “He was throwing 86 to 88 mph with excellent control and location,” remembers Bill Monbouquette, the Red Sox pitcher who opposed Paige that night and was Paige’s final strikeout victim.

Paige had established his greatness long before Finley put a rocking chair in the A’s bullpen. Bill Veeck, the Cleveland Indians’ owner who signed Paige to a big league contract on July 7, 1948, the pitcher’s 42nd birthday, was witness to Paige’s 13-inning 1-0 win over Dizzy Dean in California 14 years earlier. That remained Veeck’s benchmark for pitching perfection, Tye wrote.

And as a larger than life character, whose sayings made it into “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” (“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”), Paige rivaled Ruth for his hold on the public imagination.

“He may have embellished 20 percent of what he did,” Tye said, “but 80 percent of the core is true. Why threaten that 80 percent by embellishing anything. Because Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, they had the press there to record everything they did and fan their legends. Satchel realized he had to do it himself.

“You can compare him to the Babe, everything from having gone to reform school, to their oversized appetites for food, women, attention. But the difference is Babe’s story played out on Broadway. Satchel was in Outer Mongolia.”

Had baseball moved more quickly, or if Paige had been younger and less free-spirited, he could have been the barrier-breaker, not Robinson. The pain of being passed over never left him.

“Satchel understood instinctively the moment that Jackie was promoted,” Tye said this week, “that history would remember only one name.”

Paige was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971, the first Negro Leaguer to be so honored, and his statue can be found in Cooperstown as well. But his greatness as a pitcher, and legacy as the man who may have done the most to facilitate Jackie Robinson’s great leap forward, deserve to be remembered in more than just a museum. It’s time to start handing out the Satchel Paige Trophy, awarded annually to the best pitchers in each league.

“Satchel would have loved it,” Tye said when I ran the idea past him. “What a poignant way to recognize not just his skills and durability, but his role in integrating America’s pastime.

“As an ancient Negro Leaguer said, ‘Jackie opened the door, but Satchel inserted the key.’ “