Mobile native Leroy "Satchel" Paige (ca. 1906-1982) was one of the finest pitchers in baseball and certainly the most durable. Early in his career, he played for the Birmingham Black Barons and would go on to pitch in more than 2,500 games (including 153 in one season), throw more than 100 no‑hitters, and play professional ball into his fifties. At least one biographer has said Paige dominated the Negro leagues as Babe Ruth had once dominated the major leagues. Most fans did not get to see him until the 1950s, when he was well past his prime, but that was enough to glimpse a great player. In 1956, at the age of 50, he was the top pitcher in the International League. In 1965, at the age of 59, he made a one‑game appearance for the Kansas City Athletics, pitching three innings of shutout ball against the Boston Red Sox.
Officially, Paige reported he was born on July 7, 1906, in Mobile, the seventh of 11 children to John Page and Lula Coleman. He was probably born earlier than that, with the date altered to make him more marketable on the baseball field. Leroy and other members of the family later changed the spelling of their last name. As a youngster, he had a part‑time job carrying luggage at the local train depot, a job that gave him his lifelong nickname. Baseball became his career after a run‑in with the law. In 1918, Paige received a five-year sentence in a juvenile detention center following a shoplifting charge. In his 1962 autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, Paige credited the facility with making him a professional ballplayer. Following his release, Satchel returned to Mobile and played in local semi-pro leagues. The Chattanooga Black Lookouts signed him in 1926 and sold his contract to the Birmingham Black Barons in 1928. He stayed under contract to the Barons through the 1930 season. Those two years were crucial in his development as both a player and a star attraction. Recalling his days in Alabama, he once said, "Birmingham showed me a new world of baseball."
Known for a wild streak early in his career, Paige had settled down by the time the August games got underway in 1928. On August 14, he struck out nine Kansas City Monarchs in under seven innings. He pitched shutouts—a 2-0 win and a 10-0 win—in the next two games with the Memphis Red Sox. On September 12, he pitched a complete-game, four-hit shutout in a 5-0 win over the Cuban Stars. On the last day of the season, he won both games of a doubleheader—one as a starter and the other as a reliever. In 1929, he set an unbroken league record of 164 strikeouts in a season. By 1930, he was a star and major draw in black baseball. Although still under contract to the Black Barons, new owner R. T. Jackson started renting Satchel out to other teams for some games. Jackson, Paige, and the local promoter split the proceeds.
Paige got his first exposure to major-league competition that same year while playing against the Babe Ruth All‑Stars. In one game, he struck out 22 of the major league players. From 1930 to 1931, he played for teams in Baltimore, Nashville, and Cleveland, averaging 20-plus wins a season and 15 strikeouts per game. His reputation began to grow when he joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1931 and won more than 100 games in three years. In 1933, he pitched in 41 games and won 31, with 16 shutouts. Toward the end of 1934, he moved to a club in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he pulled one of many stunts that made him famous. After yelling at his outfielders for their casual play, the three angry players refused to take the field in the following inning. He pitched without them and struck out the side. The following season, Paige's Bismarck team won the first National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita, Kansas. Paige was the tournament's most valuable player after pitching four games, including one contest in which he struck out a tournament‑record 17 batters.
Paige faced major-league competition again in 1935 when he toured against a team led by pitcher Jerome "Dizzy" Dean, beating him four out of six times. In 1936, Satchel returned to the Pittsburgh Crawfords but then switched to the Mexican League in 1937. The move backfired for Paige when he got sick and injured his arm, nearly ruining his career. Toward the end of the season, his arm strength returned, and by 1939, he was back to his original form. Behind his pitching, the Kansas City Monarchs won the 1939 Negro American League title and won the overall championship from 1940 to 1942. Paige settled in Kansas City and married long-time girlfriend Lahoma Brown there on October 12, 1947. The couple would have seven children.
When the major-league color barrier was finally broken by Satchel's teammate, Jackie Robinson, the pitcher was disappointed because he was not chosen as the first African American in the major leagues. Paige finally made it to the majors in 1948, signed by the Cleveland Indians on July 7, officially his 42nd birthday. Two days later, he made a relief appearance against the St. Louis Browns, pitching two scoreless innings, making him the first African American to pitch in the American League, the fifth to play the game, and the oldest rookie in the history of the majors. Paige made his first start on August 3 against the Washington Senators, a 5-3 victory. Cleveland went on to win its first pennant in 28 years, and Paige finished the season with a 6-1 record and two shutouts. His 2.47 earned run average (ERA) was second best in the league, and he became the first African American to pitch in the World Series, in game five against the Braves.
In the 1949 season, Paige posted only four wins against seven losses, but his 3.04 ERA was in the league's top ten. The 1950 season was a year of barnstorming, but he returned to the majors in 1951 with the St. Louis Browns. In 1952, he was the best reliever in baseball, with a 12-10 record, 10 saves, and a 3.07 ERA—all at the age of 46. But in 1953, Paige's record was a dismal 3‑9, and he was released. He spent the next few seasons barnstorming until joining the Miami Marlins of the International League in 1956. He pitched a shutout in his first game and finished the season with an 11-4 record and an ERA of 1.86. At the age of 50, he was the top pitcher in the league.
In 1957, Paige was 10-8 with a 2.42 ERA for Miami, walking only 11 batters in 40 games. In 1961, he signed with Portland in the Pacific Coast League; he was 55 years old and struck out 19 batters in 25 innings. On September 25, 1965, at the age of 59, he became the oldest player ever to pitch in a major league game when he threw three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox. Paige himself dismissed those who marveled at his success at an advanced age. In 1971, LeRoy "Satchel" Paige was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Negro League player so honored. He suffered from emphysema in his later years and died on June 8, 1982, at his home in Kansas City. He was buried in the city's Forest Hill Memorial Park Cemetery, in a special plot named Paige Island.
Although segregation kept Paige out of the major leagues in his prime, he never expressed any disappointment over how racism limited his career.
Paige's dignity probably contributed to his success and his fame. As he once said, "Not to be cheered by praise, not to be
grieved by blame, but to know thoroughly one's own virtues or powers are the characteristics of an excellent man."
Bamberger, Michael. "Man of a Century." Sports Illustrated 97 (July 15, 2002): 128‑32.
Cuhaj, Joe, and Tamra Carraway‑Hinckle. Baseball in Mobile. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2003.
Moore, James (Red). "Baseball's Oldest Rookie." Newsweek 134 (October 25, 1999): 50.
Paige, Leroy, and David Lipman. Maybe I'll Pitch Forever. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White: A History of the Legendary Black Players and All‑Black Professional Teams. New York: Gramercy, 1970.
Ribowsky, Mark. Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000.
Sterry, David. Satchel Sez: The Wit, Wisdom and World of Leroy 'Satchel' Paige. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published June 5, 2008
Last updated October 5, 2011