This February is not only Black History Month, but also the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, which were born on Feb. 13, 1920. To help celebrate this centennial, MLB.com will be looking back at some Negro Leagues legends throughout the month.
Negro Leagues history is filled with incredible stars who, because of the cruel discrimination of their time, never got to shine as bright as they should have.
The great Satchel Paige certainly fits that description, but his golden right arm and outsized personality helped him break past the Negro Leagues’ boundaries and into the national consciousness -- perhaps more than any other African-American ballplayer before Jackie Robinson. Black or white, there was a time when nearly every American baseball fan knew of the name Satchel Paige.
We might never know how many games Paige won, though some speculate the total was well into four digits. We’ll never know how hard he threw, though many who saw Paige say no one -- not even Walter Johnson or Bob Feller -- threw harder. We might not even know Paige’s actual birthdate. But the fuzzy details that surround the lanky right-hander from Mobile, Ala., only served to enhance his legend. Paige’s staggering talent, both as a pitcher and a storyteller, made him a folk hero for the 20th century.
Here are some key points that we do know about Paige, the first primary Negro Leagues star to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.
• Leroy Paige’s famous nickname reportedly came from a moment of ingenuity. As a child, Paige worked as a porter at a Mobile train station to help support his family. Realizing he could make more money carrying multiple bags at a time, Paige constructed a pole-and-rope contraption that enabled him to carry up to four bags at a time. Paige’s co-workers said the contraption made him look “like a walking satchel tree,” and according to Paige, a moniker was born.
• Paige received his first pitching lessons while serving out a five-year sentence in a juvenile reform school in Alabama. His coaches at the school realized that Paige’s stringbean figure gave him an ideal frame to generate power off a mound. He also developed his famous windup.
“My coach showed me how to kick up my foot so it looked like I’d blacked out the sky,” Paige would later write. “And he showed me how to swing my arm around so it looked like I let go of the ball when my hand was right in the batter’s face.”
Added Paige, “I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch.”
• Paige’s Negro Leagues career began in the late 1920s. After his star rose with the Birmingham Black Barons, Baltimore Black Sox, Cleveland Cubs and Homestead Grays, Paige made his biggest Negro Leagues contributions with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Kansas City Monarchs. He teamed up with four other Hall of Famers (Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson and Cool Papa Bell) on the Crawfords, and Paige later recovered from a dead arm to help the Monarchs capture four Negro American League pennants from 1940, '41, '42 and ’46.
• Official Negro Leagues statistics are unfortunately incomplete (and exhibition/barnstorming contests even less so), but Paige kept his own tallies as he began dominating the competition. While they are impossible to verify (and Paige was known for being his own greatest spokesman from time to time), his estimated numbers are mind-boggling: More than 2,500 games pitched and roughly 2,000 victories, 250 or so shutouts, a personal-best of 22 strikeouts in a game, 50 no-hitters, a 21-game winning streak, a 62-inning scoreless streak, a day in which he notched three separate victories and a year in which he appeared in more than 150 games.
• Again, it’s impossible to follow up on any of Paige’s own record keeping. But two factors have helped his incredible numbers -- true or false -- pass on from generation to generation. First, he might have been the hardest-working pitcher in history, pitching not only in the Negro Leagues, but accepting barnstorming offers far and wide -- from small-town sandlots to Major League exhibitions, and for teams ranging from Bismark, N.D., to Canada to the Caribbean -- across more than 40 years. If there was a paycheck and a big crowd, Paige was often willing to take the ball.
Second, Paige’s talent was described as second to none. Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck said Paige threw four of his five pitches directly over a cigarette when he auditioned for the Cleveland Indians. Joe DiMaggio called Paige the “best and fastest” pitcher he ever faced.
“Bob Feller seldom had an especially generous word to say about people who might have been considered as good as him,” said biographer Larry Tye. “The kinds of things that he told me in an interview that I expected to last 10 minutes and went on for two hours; the things that he told me made me think that if Bob Feller thinks [Paige] might have been the greatest ever, who am I to disagree with him?”
• Those aren’t the only tall tales attached to Paige. Many say that he would bring in his fielders and tell them to sit down before he struck out the side. And perhaps his most famous performance came in Game 2 of the 1942 Negro Leagues World Series, when according to legend, Paige walked the bases loaded in order to set up a showdown with Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues’ greatest slugger -- and struck him out on three straight fastballs.
Of course, with Paige involved, there was plenty of trash talk behind that heat.
“[Paige] said, ‘Now, Josh, I’m not gonna throw any smoke at your yoke; I’m gonna throw a pea at your knees,” Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil later recalled. “And boom! Strike three, he threw that ball about knee high. About 100 mph. Josh didn’t move the bat. The ballgame was over.”
• Paige was one of America’s most famous ballplayers, but he didn’t get his first Major League chance until 1948 -- one year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Paige signed with Veeck’s Indians on July 7, his 42nd birthday, and went 6-1 down the stretch to help Cleveland claim the American League pennant. Paige became the first African-American to pitch in the World Series, coming out of the bullpen in Game 5, and the Tribe won the championship in six games. Cleveland hasn’t won a World Series title since.
• Paige later followed Veeck to the St. Louis Browns, earning All-Star Game selections in both 1952 and '53 -- at the ages of 45 and 46 years old. He then went back to barnstorming, appearing with the famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball team in the late '50s and early '60s. At age 49, Paige signed with the Phillies’ Triple-A club in Miami and put together three straight seasons with 10 wins and a sub-3.00 ERA.
The hurler got one more crack at glory on Sept. 25, 1965, when at the ripe young age of 59, Paige started a game for the Kansas City Athletics and pitched three scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox. Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski was the only Red Sox player to get a hit off Paige, who relaxed in a rocking chair when the A’s were at the plate.
• Ted Williams’ induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 25, 1966, was famous not only for the celebration of the hitting savant, but also for Williams’ advocation for the Hall to elect Negro League players.
“I hope that some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way could be added,” said Williams, “as a symbol of the great Negro [Leagues] players that are not here only because they were not given the chance.”
Williams got his wish five years later, when Paige was elected to the Hall.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.