A Paige out of history: Satchel's return in '65

February 7th, 2022

This feature is reprinted from the January-February 2022 issue of Baseball Digest

The stories must have been apocryphal. Had to be, right? Hammering nails with a fastball? Heaving a ball 400 feet on the fly? Sending his fielders back to the dugout and then striking out the side on nine pitches?

Or were they?

When Leroy “Satchel” Paige joined the Kansas City Athletics in September 1965 at age 59, he regaled his new, young teammates with stories, like the one about his legendary control. Throwing strikes over a matchbook? C’mon.

“Rene Lachemann used to love it,” said A’s outfielder Tommie Reynolds. “Lach was catching him, and he’d put down a gum wrapper and Satch would throw it over that gum wrapper. He’d throw a breaking ball over it. Wherever he put it, Satchel threw the ball right over it.”

Confirmed.

“He was something,” Lachemann said. “I’d catch him on the side a lot. I’d fool around with him a lot and I’d say, ‘I heard you threw strikes over a gum wrapper.’ He said, ‘Put one down,’ and sure as spit, he threw it right there to it.”

No one was quite sure what to make of it when Charles O. Finley signed Paige, the legendary Negro Leagues star, on Sept. 10, 1965. Paige had last pitched in the Majors in 1953 -- 12 years earlier -- and he was two months past his 59th birthday, though Satch liked to tell people a goat ate the Bible that had his birth certificate tucked in it.

It was a publicity stunt, to be sure. But it produced one of the most remarkable feats and magical nights in baseball history: Sept. 25, 1965, the night Satchel Paige faced the Red Sox and mowed down Major League hitters for three innings.

“I didn’t give a damn if I made an out,” said Jim Gosger, 79, who played center field and went 0-for-2 against Paige. “You were facing someone of his stature who’d been around so long, and he was a gentleman. An absolute gentleman. It’s something you just never forget.”

As hard to believe as the tallest of Satch’s tall tales, the ageless Paige pitched three scoreless innings in a Major League regular-season game, allowing only one hit.

“Unheard of,” said Lee Thomas, who played first base for Boston. “That doesn’t happen.”

The 10th-place A’s were on their way to losing 103 games, and dying at the turnstiles, Finley tried any gimmick he could dream up to draw a few fans. Manager Haywood Sullivan refused to comment on Paige’s signing, other than to confirm Finley’s directive that he was to start two weeks later, on the 25th. The Kansas City Star reached Bill Veeck, the man who had signed 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to bat in a Major League game, and he prophetically stated, “I’m hopeful Leroy will be used as he should be used, as a pitcher. He’ll get the hitters out by throwing something up there, the rosin bag, his old arm or something.”

Not allowed by baseball’s racial barrier to play in the Major Leagues during his prime, Paige finally made his big league debut for Veeck at age 42 in 1948, and he was no stunt. He went 6-1 for the American League-champion Indians and pitched in the World Series. Later, with Veeck’s St. Louis Browns, he was an All-Star at ages 45 and 46. Then he pitched a few more years in the Minors.

In 1965, Paige needed money. He had not pitched long enough to qualify for the MLB pension and his wife, LaHoma, was expecting their eighth child. They had written to 20 teams asking for a job in the game. Meanwhile, Paige signed with promoter Abe Saperstein, the Harlem Globetrotters owner who had been a Negro Leagues investor, to make personal appearances. In June, Paige threw batting practice before a benefit exhibition game between the Cardinals and Tigers at Busch Stadium. After one batter reached the wall, Paige stopped throwing batting practice fastballs and began using his assortment of offspeed pitches and offbeat deliveries, and none of the Major League hitters could get the ball out of the infield.

On Sept. 8, Finley had his young shortstop, Bert Campaneris, play every position, and it drew 21,000 fans to Municipal Stadium, where the A’s were barely drawing 1,000 fans for home games that late in such a lost season. Two days later, he signed Paige, who lived in Kansas City and agreed to pitch three innings for $3,500.

“I’ll need three or four days to get really sharpened up,” Paige told reporters.

When the A’s got to the ballpark, there was Paige in the bullpen.

“Mr. Finley signed him, gave him a rocking chair to sit in the bullpen long enough for him to qualify for the pension,” said Billy Bryan, 82, who caught Paige’s historic start. “He’d have old car shows and stuff at the ballpark to draw fans, so he told Satchel he wanted him to start a game to put on a show for the fans. Everybody on the team got to be friends with him because he was with us every day. We all thought it’d be good for the team, give us a little publicity, too.”

Paige was long and skinny as a rail, just as he’d been in his prime, when Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Carl Yastrzemski’s father faced him in exhibition games. The A’s green and gold flannels draped loosely from his arms and legs.

“He liked to talk and tell stories,” Bryan said. “He never called anybody by name. If he was talking to the catcher he’d say ‘Hey, Catch, Hey, Catch,’ or to another pitcher, ‘Hey, Pitch.’”

Paige struck up a friendship with Lachemann, a 20-year-old rookie, who’d sit next to him on the bus and loved Paige’s stories about Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and all the others, not to mention his “blooper,” or “eephus” pitch.

“He’d throw batting practice, and I said, ‘Throw me the eephus pitch,’ and I hit the eephus pitch out of the ballpark,” said Lachemann, 76. “I said, ‘Hey, Satch, throw me another one,’ and he started to throw the eephus pitch and then threw a fastball and just blew my bat up, hit me right by the knuckles and broke the bat into pieces. He said, ‘How ’bout that eephus pitch, Lach?’ He was a real treat.”

The idea was for Paige to be a sort of coach and cheerleader for that month, and it would count toward the service time he needed to qualify for the $125-per-month pension. He’d joke with players about his age, repeat his famous 10 rules to live by, and other Satch-isms.

“Sure, I enjoyed it,” Reynolds, 80, said. “I used to go out to the bullpen, which I didn’t often do because I was a [position] player, but I didn’t mind going to the bullpen when Satch was there. I heard a lot of stories, he kept it lively.

“He’d tell us, ‘If you see a bear, don’t help me, help the bear.’ After the game, he wouldn’t take a shower because, he said, ‘water rusts iron.’

“Just being around Satch, it was like being with history.”

On Sept. 23, only 690 fans came out to see the A’s play the Washington Senators. The next night, 2,304 came to see Jim Hunter, who Finley had signed out of high school, gave the name “Catfish” and rushed directly to the Major Leagues. He pitched a two-hit shutout to beat Boston; he was 40 years younger than the next night’s starter.

On the 25th -- billed as “Satchel Paige Appreciation Night” -- 9,289 fans turned out. A group of old Negro Leagues stars, including Bell and Buck O’Neil, gathered to play a couple of innings as Paige, older than most of them, warmed up to pitch the main event.

“It was never brought up to us or our ballclub until we got to the ballpark that he was going to pitch,” Gosger said. “And they had a hell of a crowd there.”

Paige took his place in the bullpen down the right-field line, sitting in his big rocking chair, a nurse rubbing liniment into his right arm as Finley played the age thing to the hilt. But Paige told Lachemann that when he was on the mound, it would be all business. “That’s where I earn my money,” he said.

“The thing we were afraid of the night he went out to pitch,” Reynolds recalled, “was somebody would hit one back over the middle, because he couldn’t move out the way of it.”

Pitching -- at the highest level -- requires acting, throwing one pitch while pretending to throw another, acting as if your arm doesn’t hurt when it does, putting up a good front when your confidence is shaken. Paige did some acting job that night. He acted like he was young and his fastball still popped.

“Oh, he was confident,” Reynolds said.

“He had class,” Gosger said. “The way he walked out to the mound, it was something to see.”

Umpire Bill Valentine took his place behind the plate. Bryan crouched down; they had two signs, one finger for a fastball, one for a change. Sometimes Paige would nod yes to the fastball and throw a change anyway. And he had a lot of variations on both.

“We had no idea what they would look for,” Bryan said, “whether they would look for something more than he had.”

Gosger, a dead fastball hitter, stepped in to lead off the game. Paige threw strike one. Gosger hit the third pitch, popping out to first base. The next batter, Dalton Jones, reached on an error. He ran for second when a pitch got past Bryan, and then tried for third, where Bryan threw him out. Paige fell behind Carl Yastrzemski, 3-0, then Yaz lined a high fastball, one of the few Paige threw that night, off the left-field wall for a double.

In 1950, Yaz had been the bat boy as his father, Carl Sr., faced Paige in a barnstorming event in Riverhead on New York’s Long Island.

“He had the same nice, easy motion against my dad that he had when he pitched against me,” Yaz told the Kansas City Star 50 years later. “Very easy, deliberate, then boom.”

Up next came Tony Conigliaro, 20, who was on his way to becoming the youngest player to lead the AL in homers. Paige unfurled the great weapon he had left -- the hesitation pitch -- and Tony C flied out to right field.

“At that age, he didn’t throw real hard,” Bryan said, “but he could still get the ball from the mound to the plate, and be fairly accurate. He threw strikes. One of his main pitches was what he called his hesitation pitch. He’d come in with a lot of motion, then stop, then follow through with a changeup.”

And it wreaked havoc with the timing of professional hitters seeing it for the first time.

“[The hitters] just didn’t want to embarrass themselves,” said Thomas, 85, who led off the second inning for Boston. “I knew he had a hesitation pitch, and everybody was talking about it. He threw it to me, second pitch, and I popped it up to short. The ball started coming and it was like a big changeup.”

Paige was rolling now. He retired every batter after Yastrzemski, striking out his pitching counterpart, Bill Monbouquette.

How hard did he throw at 59?

Gosger estimates 85 to 90 miles per hour, with nearly every pitch down at the knees.

“I couldn’t imagine how hard he must have thrown when he was young,” Gosger said. Thomas guessed 75 mph or so. Lachemann thinks mid-80s. Reynolds laughs at those estimates.

“They didn’t measure the miles per hour,” Reynolds said. “But Satchel had great control. He didn’t throw all that hard, but he could put the ball where he wanted to. He could pinpoint it.”

Bryan: “I don’t remember anybody else hitting the ball very hard, other than the ball Yaz hit. They were all kind of anxious and out in front.”

Lachemann: “It wasn’t like the Red Sox were giving in to him. They were a good hitting club, and this was a Major League game, and we were both fighting to stay out of the cellar. These guys today that throw 95 to 100 and have no command of anything, so they throw it over the plate and it gets hit out. If they could have watched him throw, inside, outside, wherever he wanted, up and down, he’d go ahead and hit that spot.”

With two outs in the third, Gosger stepped in a second time and again saw a fastball, grounding out to shortstop. Seven in a row.

“And as I was running back to get my glove, he grabbed my arm,” Gosger said. “And I was thinking, ‘Uh-oh, what’s going on now?’ He looked at me and he said, ‘Good luck, young man,’ and that’s something I’ll never forget. One of the highlights of my career, to be the last man to face him.”

Paige signed up for three innings, and pitched three innings, using 28 pitches. He came to the mound for the fourth with a 1-0 lead, but before he threw a pitch, Sullivan came out to remove him and they walked back to the dugout together. Paige doffed his hat and took a bow.

“Oh, man, it was great,” Reynolds said. “Everybody stood up and gave him an ovation. He was very calm. He was a humble person, and it was outstanding to see that. He had his family around him, had about eight kids, and his wife, I think, was pregnant at the time.”

After the game, which the Red Sox rallied to win 5-2 behind homers from Thomas and Conigliaro, Paige came out for a curtain call. The lights were dimmed, matches and cigarette lighters were lit as the crowd sang “The Old Gray Mare” -- more of Finley’s schmaltz.

Paige’s performance was so good, it was pondered in the press whether Finley should go ahead and sign him for 1966. He still needed another month or so to get his pension. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, columnist Bob Broeg floated an idea. “A three-inning starter,” he wrote. “Why not let the regular starter take over in the fourth rather than wilt in the seventh anyway?”

Imagine, Satchel Paige might have become baseball’s first “opener.”

The excitement faded. Paige, under contract with Saperstein, did not pitch again and the A’s released him in October.

“He could throw the ball, but he couldn’t move around,” Reynolds said. “If guys wanted to beat him, they could have embarrassed him by bunting or something like that. A ground ball to the right side of the infield, he couldn’t get over to cover first base, anything like that.”

Reynolds remembered someone trying to bunt that night, and the crowd booing, but the newspapers of the day did not mention it.

In 1968, the Braves signed Paige and had him on the roster to help him get the pension, and when rules changed in 1969, he eventually began to collect $250 per month. In 1971 came Paige’s long-overdue induction into the Hall of Fame, with “Kansas City (AL) 1965” among the teams listed on his plaque.

“Holding us to one hit, for God sakes,” Gosger said. “We had a pretty good hitting club. Jeez, for his age to be able to do that, that’s an accomplishment. It’s not only a tribute to baseball, but a tribute to Satchel Paige that at his age, he could still throw the ball that well.”