In 1948, Indians owner Bill Veeck made headlines with his signing of Satchel Paige. The ageless wonder was most known for his achievements in the Negro Leagues, but he was famous on at least two continents with regular barnstorming tours and playing winter ball in South and Central America.
He was so well-traveled that his stint with the Indians wasn’t even his first time in Cleveland.
Most baseball fans associate Paige’s Negro League career with the Kansas City Monarchs. A few, with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. And most history-minded Cleveland sports fans think of the Buckeyes as Cleveland’s Negro League installment. But for one year, 1931, Paige pitched for the Cleveland Cubs, a short-lived Negro League team that played primarily at Kinsman Hardware Field – not far from the Indians’ home at the time, League Park.
In 1929, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression loomed over the United States. It even affected baseball teams, who after a wild decade of expansion in the 1920s, were suddenly teetering on the brink of insolvency. It was difficult for major and minor league teams, and even more pronounced for Negro League teams, which also had to recover from the death of Rube Foster in 1930. Foster, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, owned and managed the Chicago American Giants and, in 1920, set up the first Negro National League. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1926, and his death four years later spelled doom for that incarnation of the league.
But Paige had a different recollection of the Depression, saying, “For me, 1929 was the year my stock just started going up and up.” Paige had broken in with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1927 and played for them for parts of the next four seasons. Although he was a young (as far as we know), raw pitcher, he showed signs of greatness even then, striking out 17 batters in 1929 – one more than what was then the major league record – and then striking out 18 less than a week later! Paige was already a popular enough draw that he was rented out to other teams (for a cut of the gate, of course).
In 1931, the Black Barons disbanded temporarily, and Paige found himself looking for a job. The Nashville Elite Giants were planning a move to Cleveland that season, and Paige latched on to them. The Elite Giants were a relatively new team, joining the Negro National League a year earlier. Owner Tom Wilson renamed the team the Cubs and felt he could succeed where other Negro League teams had failed in Cleveland.
But the Depression got worse, and not even Paige – who by then was already one of the top draws in baseball – could stem the tide. The Cubs drew poorly at Kinsman Hardware Field, at the corner of East 79th Street and Kinsman Road, and facing a sea of red ink, Wilson returned the team to Nashville as the Elite Giants. By then, Paige had gotten a better offer.
At the time, Gus Greenlee was the richest black man in Pittsburgh, with money coming from sources reputable (he owned several businesses in the city’s Hill District, including the famous Crawford Grill) and less so (he also ran numbers and sold bootleg whiskey). Greenlee bought a semi-pro baseball team, as well as a plot of land at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Chauncey Street, where he built a stadium for his team to play. Greenlee, who organized another incarnation of the Negro National League, was willing to spend money, and Paige was only too happy to get paid, joining fellow future Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Judy Johnson with the newly-christened Pittsburgh Crawfords. In fact, Paige pitched the first opener at the new stadium, Greenlee Field, in 1932, with Cleveland in the rear-view mirror.
But he’d come back. Not at Kinsman Hardware Field. Not even at League Park. But at enormous Municipal Stadium, drawing thousands of fans.
Photo: George Strock/The Sporting News