The night Satchel helicoptered to the mound

And turned around a young pitcher's career

August 11th, 2020
Art by Tom Forget

Tom Qualters was nervous.

The 21-year-old sat in the Miami Stadium bullpen on a warm April night in 1956, part of the newly transplanted Minor League Miami Marlins.

He'd put up a 4.90 ERA during 23 innings with the Carolina League's Reidsville Phillies the season before and, two years before that, had gotten his first bit of big league action with Philadelphia. He pitched one-third of an inning and gave up six runs -- good for a 162.00 ERA.

Qualters needed to do well to get called back up to the big club. Miami was a surfing and nightlife town and had never seen a Triple-A team before. There was pressure for the entire team to succeed. Bill Veeck was also the new owner, so you knew there might be moveable outfield walls or aliens or some extra hijinks to get people in the seats.

Would he pitch in that game? Qualters thought to himself. And if he did, how would he do?

And then, the young pitcher's thoughts were interrupted: A helicopter hovered into the ballpark and landed on the infield.

"I think most of us were sitting down in the bullpen just before the game started," Qualters, 85, tells MLB.com over the phone from his home in Pennsylvania. "And then this helicopter comes in and drops off Satchel Paige. We all looked at each other like, 'What the hell is going on here?'"

Yes, Veeck was already up to his old antics with his new team. He'd signed Paige as his big splashy move and, as far as Qualters knew, told nobody on the team about it -- let alone that he'd be arriving via helicopter. Satchel was 50 at that point, or more accurately, 50-ish. He'd pitched all over the Western Hemisphere -- dominating for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, becoming the first Black pitcher to appear in the World Series for the Indians in 1948 and wowing crowds with his "whipsy-dipsy-do" pitches and other baseball parlor tricks.

But he very nearly almost didn't make it to Miami's mound. Here's more from the book "Satchel," by Larry Tye.

Veeck arranged a secretive and breathtaking first act: having Satchel climb out of a bubble-top helicopter flown onto the field on opening night. The prank almost backfired. "We lost contact with the tower and we missed our cues," recalled Marlins business manager Joe Ryan. "We were running out of fuel." Satchel had had his fill of flying years before when the Monarchs bought him a plane. "I was so scared," he said of his landing in Miami, "that pilot and me was like husband and wife until we landed."

The chopper apparently "kicked up so much dust from the infield, it blew all over everybody in the box seats."

"They had some problems there, yeah," Qualters recalls.

Eventually, though, everything settled down and Satchel walked out to take a seat in a big armchair near the bullpen.

The other Marlins relievers were amazed to be in the presence of such a legend, but also a little worried.

"We were thinking, 'Holy Hell, now we just lost our jobs,'" Qualters laughs.

But it ended up actually being the total opposite: Paige helped young pitchers like Qualters become better at his job. The elder statesman, the pitching wizard Qualters' father had taken young Tom to watch as a child, was now, amazingly, his teammate. And he would end up being the best one he'd ever have.

"Right away, he befriended me and he treated me like I was the best guy in the world," Qualters says. "Never met anybody better."

Qualters says Paige fell right into place after landing in Miami, but a great example of Paige's mentorship came during a big game later that season.

"I was very young at the time and I got to the point where I would talk to Satch a lot," Qualters says. "I'm down there warming up and I'm not feeling like I should. Satch was sitting there in the bullpen. I said to Satch, 'I don't know if I can do this.' This was the first time I had really pitched to good hitters. Satch said, 'They can beat you, but they can't eat you.'"

Qualters repeated the phrase all night in his head, helping him beat his anxieties and get through the game.

"He kinda gave me a boost," Qualters recalls. "He told me what to do and how not to be afraid. I was so young and we had a lot of older players -- I was scared to death. But thank god for Satch. He told me about a lot of things. As a result, I became probably his -- he was my best friend."

Qualters went on to post a very respectable 3.38 ERA and 5-5 record over 80 innings. He also got what he wanted: a call-up to the Phillies the following year.

He pitched again for the Phillies and, after a trade, the White Sox in 1958. He then pitched a few more seasons in the Minors before leaving baseball in 1962, bringing his lifetime Major League ERA down to a much more reasonable 5.64.

50-ish-year-old Satchel Paige went 11-4 with a 1.86 ERA that season for Miami. He'd pitch three seasons with the Marlins, another in Portland in 1961 and then made one more appearance in the Majors with the Kansas City A's in 1965. At that time, he was probably -- at least -- 60-ish. He gave up one hit over three scoreless innings.

Paige's accomplishments and gimmicks on the field are well documented, but as Qualters can attest, the Hall of Famer's leadership in his later years is what stood out most.

"I'll never forget him," Qualters says. "And to this day, in my mind, there's never been anybody better than Leroy 'Satchel' Paige."