Indians All-Time Team: Satchel Paige
By Ronnie Tellalian
Last week I introduced Mike Hargrove as the Manager for the All-Time Indians Team. Since the bullpen has been the best part of the Cleveland Indians teams over the last few years, I figured that was a good place to begin as I delve into the roster. The relief pitcher as a big name specialist didn’t come about until the 1980’s. Before then, it was common for starting pitchers to throw 10 or more complete games in a season. This made relief pitching fairly sparse, and big name, dominating relievers few and far between. In today’s game, 10 complete games would lead the league. Bullpens and relief pitchers have become more and more integral in the 21st Century. Looking back over history, it wasn’t easy to find relievers that had the impact of modern hurlers. There was one name that stood out, and he, in my mind, more than earned his place as one of the three middle relievers on the Indians All-Time Team.
Middle Relief: Satchel Paige
Sometimes in sports, a name or figure or idea can supersede the game and shine a light on an era or culture. Before 1947, baseball was strictly segregated. Players like Satchel Paige were not permitted to play in the Major Leagues and instead played in the Negro Leagues. This is one of the great injustices in Major League Baseball.
A major transgression was the robbing of possibility. Possibility is the gateway to opportunity and that opportunity was taken away from black players by the men that ran pre-WWII baseball. We will never know what might have been with players like Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neil, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Oscar Charleston, and many others. We’ll never know what their careers may have been, or what the landscape of the MLB would have looked like with them in it.
I chose Paige for this team not just because of what he did on the field, but because of what his presence in the game meant, and what it meant for him to finally break into a dominantly white game.
Paige spent 22 years mowing down the competition in the Negro Leagues. He compiled countless feats in that time. He reportedly threw 64 consecutive scoreless innings; he also allegedly won 21 straight games. In 1933, he amassed a record of 31-4. He was widely regarded as the greatest pitcher in Negro League history. For all he accomplished, he had one goal that stood out over all the others. That goal was to pitch in the Major Leagues.
At that time, the Negro League teams would travel the country, playing any games they could. Often times, they would engage MLB teams in exhibitions. Those games left lasting impressions on many MLB players. Yankee great Joe DiMaggio said Paige threw harder than any other pitcher he faced.
In 1946, in one such series of exhibitions, Bob Feller compiled a team of MLB All-Stars to face a team of Negro League All-Stars lead by Satchel Paige. The two teams played 31 games against each other in 28 days across 17 states. The 39-year old Paige pitched 42 innings against the MLB All-Stars with a 3.86 ERA, including a five inning shutout in Yankee Stadium before a crowd of over 27,000. The Negro League legend did not need the exposure, but he proved that his aging arm could still dominate the best the game had to offer.
Finally a Major League team would give Paige a chance and that team was the Cleveland Indians. They signed the 41 year old right-hander midway through the 1948 season and they made him the oldest rookie in MLB history. At that time, the Indians were owned by an outspoken, forward thinking man named Bill Veeck.
Veeck was an extremely progressive businessman. In 1942, five years before Jackie Robinson would make his debut, Veeck attempted to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies with the intention to break the color barrier. He was thwarted by the National League, but he didn’t give up there. Four months after Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers, Veeck, now the owner of the Indians, signed Larry Doby, the first black player in American League history. He would sign Paige almost exactly one year later.
In his first season, Paige pitched to a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA in 21 games. He gave up only two home runs in 72.2 innings pitched. The next season, he pitched 31 games, making five starts with a 3.04 ERA. He only pitched two seasons in Cleveland, with an overall record of 10-8 a 2.77 ERA and six saves in 52 games.
Paige finished his MLB career with 28 wins and a 3.29 ERA. He pitched in 179 games, making 26 starts. He threw his last game in 1965 at the age of 60. On that day, he threw three shutout innings for the Kansas City Athletics, striking out one and giving up only one hit. He was inducted into the Hall Of Fame by the Negro League Veterans Committee in 1971.
Satchel Paige and the other Negro League players that helped to break the barrier gave us possibility. Challenged assumptions and rewrote the rules of the game to open up new possibilities. Nothing had a more positive impact on Major League Baseball than the breaking of the color barrier and that impact is Paige’s legacy.