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Satchel Paige could have been best ever
He was a showman. He was a quotesmith. He was, despite his lack of social finish and his backwater upbringing, an impossibly quick thinker. He was a pitcher.
And so Satchel Paige pitched. He pitched for more than four decades. He pitched year-round. He pitched in cornfields. He pitched in the snow. He pitched in foreign countries. He once fled the police in Cuba because a local girl thought he promised to marry her. And then he kept pitching.
He pitched against the best, and he pitched against the worst. He pitched in front of thousands upon thousands, and he pitched in front of no one.
He took more care in naming his pitches than most take in naming their children. He threw his "bee ball," his "jump ball," his "trouble ball." Later in his career, when Paige relied more on artifice than muscle, he threw his "nothing ball," his "whipsy-dipsy-do," his "bat-dodger."
"I ain’t never had a job," he said. "I just always played baseball."
This space, of course, is woefully insufficient to capture the breadth of Paige’s greatness, but we can take a brief walking tour …
• In 1929, at the age of 23, Paige set what is believed to be the single-season Negro Leagues record for strikeouts. During that season, he whiffed 18 batters in one game and 16 in another. The years later, he threw his first Negro League no-hitter.
• He was perhaps at his finest in 1934. That season, Paige went 14-2 with a 2.16 ERA and spun a 17-strikeout no-hitter against the powerful Homestead Grays. In September of that year, he matched up against Slim Jones in a charity exhibition at Yankee Stadium. It turned out to be one of the greatest pitching duels of all-time. Paige had driven all night from Pittsburgh and fallen asleep in his car outside the ballpark. A bat boy found him and woke him up moments before game time. ("I never rush myself," Paige once said. "See, they can’t start the game without me.") In front of an overflowing crowd, Paige and Jones pitched to a 1-1 tie that had to be called because of darkness. In the rematch, Paige prevailed, 3-1.
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• Some months later, Paige faced Dizzy Dean and a lineup of major leaguers in an exhibition in California. In what Bill Veeck called the "greatest pitchers’ battle" he’d ever witnessed, Paige nipped Dean’s squad, 1-0 in 13 innings. When Dean was older, he would say that Paige had "the greatest stuff I ever saw."
• After an exhibition in which Paige largely shutdown a team of white All-Stars, no lesser hitter than Joe DiMaggio said he was the greatest pitcher he’d ever opposed.
• In 1936, Paige held a major-league lineup helmed by Rogers Hornsby to no runs and one hit over three innings. Paige’s counterpart for those three innings was a 17-year-old right-hander named Bob Feller.
• In 1938, Satch suffered a shoulder injury so severe that one doctor told him he would never again pitch. Thankfully, the good doctor underestimated Paige’s resolve, recuperative powers, and willingness to reinvent himself with the full complement of arm angles and offerings. After that injury, Paige was a different pitcher. But he was still a great pitcher.
• Not long after the beginning of World War II, Paige became the first black player to appear in Chicago’s Wrigley Field. On that day, he again defeated Dizzy Dean’s All-Stars by a score of 3-1. A week later, they met again in Washington, D.C., and again Paige triumphed, this time by the score of 8-1.
• In the 1942 Colored World Series, Paige appeared in all four games, as his Kansas City Monarchs swept the mighty Homestead Grays.
• In 1946, Bob Feller recruited Paige to go on a sprawling Barnstorming tour. Feller’s white All-Stars would face Paige’s black All-Stars in games all across the country. Despite a markedly inferior cast playing behind him, Paige held his own against Feller and bested him on multiple occasions.
It wasn’t until 1948, when he was 42 years age, that Paige was finally given the chance to pitch in Major League Baseball. What he achieved in the coming years might have been the most amazing of his many bestowals.
Toiling for Bill Veeck’s Indians that season, Paige crafted a 2.48 ERA in 72.2 innings and tossed a pair of three-hit shutouts down the stretch, and he did so despite the fact that AL president Will Harridge, on thoroughly dubious grounds, banned Paige’s signature "hesitation pitch."
Cleveland, of course, went on to win the World Series. Paige returned to the Indians in 1949, worked 83.0 innings (mostly in relief), and put up an ERA of 3.04.
Paige was out of the majors for the 1950 season, and he struggled as a St. Louis Brown in 1951. In '52, however, threw a pair of shutouts, notched a 3.07 ERA, and won 12 games — all at the age of 45. He turned in another strong season in 1953 but was released over the winter.
For years after, Paige did what he did: pitch. He pitched in backwater leagues, for haphazard barnstorming tours, in exhibitions and even at the Triple-A level.
In 1965, A's owner Charlie Finley, as much the showman as Paige, signed Satch with the idea of having him appear in a single game. Paige obliged, and on Sept. 25 he held the Red Sox to one hit and no runs over three innings of work. He was 58 years old. He once asked: "How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?"
Paige ended his major-league career with an ERA of 3.29, a figure that, on a park-adjusted basis, was 25% better than the league average. And he pitched each and every one of those innings at an age when almost every other pitcher is retired. Or worse.
If his times had been more enlightened, then how good could Paige have been?
He’s already one of the best ever, but allowing Paige to pitch his entire career in an integrated major leagues would’ve provided us with hard evidence.
The testimonies of his peers — especially those peers not inclined to toward easy praise — say he was one of the best. His early performances, however scattered and informal, against white major leaguers say he was one of the best. And his excellence once he was so belatedly given his chance also provide strong testimony.
So while we know Satchel Paige was one of the greatest ever to kick a toe into the mound, we’ll never quite know whether he was the greatest.
But we do know this: He was something, wasn’t he?
”Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.”
— Satchel Paige
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