Tribe Turned a Historic Paige in History on this Date

“Life begins at 40 in the big league.  Or somewhere thereabouts.”  –Satchel Paige

They say “better late than never”, but for Hall of Fame pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige, that term took on a whole new meaning in 1948.

On July 7, the Cleveland Indians’ Bill Veeck turned a lot of heads as he signed the former Negro League star in the midst of a pennant race.  Paige instantly became the first black pitcher in Major League history and just the second black player in Tribe history behind his new teammate Larry Doby.  The question was never about the man’s talent, but more about how much gas “Ol’ Satchelfoot” had left in the tank.

“Age is a question of mind over matter,” Paige said.  “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

For the lanky right hander, age really didn’t matter.  Just after signing on with his first Major League ballclub, Paige quoted his age as “about 40 pretty soon.”  Historians and family members best estimate Paige as being born on July 7, 1906, which would have made the pitcher sign with Cleveland on his 42nd birthday.

As legendary Plain Dealer columnist Gordon Cobbledick asked in an article on July 8, the jury was out on whether Paige could be a solid contributor for the 43-26 Indians who sat in first place under player/manager Lou Boudreau.

“Fifteen years ago, maybe 10 years ago, the signing of Paige would have been joyous news for the followers of any major league ball club—if it had been possible 10 or 15 years ago to ignore the color line and employ a Negro in the white leagues,” Cobbledick wrote.  “Today it serves only to raise a question: Did Veeck do it as a publicity gag or does he really think the guy can help the Indians?”

As it turned out, Paige had enough left in the tank after all.

On July 9, just two days after signing, Paige made his Major League debut in front of 34,780 Indians fans at Cleveland Stadium.  Although the Tribe dropped the game to the lowly St. Louis Browns, fans got a real treat when Paige shuffled out of the bullpen to relieve starter Bob Lemon for the top of the fifth inning.  Satch was greeted by the fans with rousing cheers as flashbulbs flashed all around him.

He worked two innings of relief that day at the Stadium, allowing a leadoff single in each frame that he threw.  Both Browns’ baserunners would be stranded, however, leaving the “40 something” year old rookie with a scoreless two innings in his first Major League contest.  He did not walk a batter and struck out Whitey Platt in the process.  Ironically, Paige was lifted after two innings by a pinch hitting Doby.  Despite his team losing the ballgame, Paige’s debut after a 20+ year career in the Negro Leagues had to be considered a success.

Not everyone in the national media agreed with Veeck’s bold move, however.  The Sporting News blasted the Indians owner for the move, again calling the acquisition a publicity stunt.

“The Sporting News believes that Veeck has gone too far in his quest for publicity, and that he has done his league’s position absolutely no good insofar as public reaction is concerned.  To bring in a pitching ‘rookie’ of Paige’s age casts reflections on the entire scheme of operation in the major leagues.

“To sign a hurler at Paige’s age is to demean the standards of baseball in the big circuits. Further complicating the situation is the suspicion that if Satchel were white, he would not have drawn a second thought from Veeck.”

As he did almost everything in his life, Paige responded leisurely.

“More than a million had paid to see the team before I joined up,” Paige said.  “Fact is, he was sure of over two million through advance orders before he signed me…He didn’t need me as no gate attraction. He needed me to help win the pennant.”

Paige did just that—and then some.

The Indians fought off the Philadelphia A’s, New York Yankees and the rest of the American League by the end of September and eliminated the Boston Red Sox in a one-game playoff after the regular season had ended.  Cleveland’s first pennant in 28 years set the stage for a World Series against the Boston Braves, where the Indians triumphed in six games.  Paige proved to me much more than just a publicity stunt, as the old man provided the boost the Indians pitching staff needed by posting a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA and 43 strikeouts compared to just 22 walks.

The following season was not quite as successful for Paige or the Indians, as the Tribe slumped to third place in the American League and Satch produced a 4-7 record with a 3.04 ERA.  He was released by the Indians after the season.

Two years later, Veeck once again signed Paige, this time as the owner of the St. Louis Browns.  Paige would pitch mostly out of the bullpen from 1951-53 with St. Louis, making two All-Star games in the process.  After “retiring” after the ’53 season, Paige remarkably went on to pitch in a Major League game 12 years later as a member of the Kansas City Athletics.  The estimated 58 year old pitcher worked three scoreless innings against Carl Yastrzemski and his Red Sox, as Paige even recorded one last strikeout of Sox pitcher Bill Monbouquette.

Paige became the first Negro League player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971 and passed away in 1982.  The man who was nicknamed Satchel as a young boy for obtaining a job carrying bags (satchels) at a railroad station pitched regularly in either the Negro or Major Leagues for 27 years.  Incredibly, Paige had over a 39 year gap between his first professional game and his last.

While Paige had long-before made a name for himself as arguably the greatest pitcher of all-time—no matter the skin color— in the Negro Leagues, the rest of the world finally got a chance to see “Ol’ Satchelfoot” on a Major League stage on July 9, 1948.  The Indians were the first team to take a chance on the veteran star, and the collected reward was one for the ages.  After all, it was better late than never.

“Ain’t no man can avoid being born average,” Paige said, “but there ain’t no man got to be common.”

Photo: George Brace/Associated Press

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