“Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.” — Satchel Paige
The editor of the Sporting News, “the Bible of Baseball,” labeled the signing of the 42-year-old Satchel Paige a publicity stunt. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck wasn’t averse to a gimmick to put butts in his ballpark.
But 75 years ago, in the summer of 1948, Veeck had an American League pennant on his mind, so the P.T. Barnum flair in him had to step aside and let the reality of such a challenge sway the choices he made.
Veeck made a significant one on July 7, 1948, when he signed Paige to a major league contract.
Two days later, Paige made his debut.
“Somehow you sense of all the things Bill Veeck has done in the way of entertaining the public, this was the best,” Harold Sauerbrei of The Plain Dealer wrote after Paige’s first outing. “At the same time, it probably will strengthen the ballclub.”
Sauerbrei proved prophetic.
In signing Paige, Veeck was getting the most celebrated figure in the history of “Black baseball.” Barred from the bigs because of his skin color, Paige had barnstormed the United States and Latin America for more than two decades, dazzling fans and baffling hitters with moves he named “be ball,” “wobbly ball,” “whipsy-dipsy-do ball” and “nothin’ ball.”
He also had a high-octane fastball to overpower hitters.
“The fabulous Satchel was to the Negro Leagues what Babe Ruth was, and is today, to baseball,” wrote Al Pritzker, sports editor of the Monrovia News-Post, in 1948. “A wrong has been partially corrected …”
The wrong, of course, was this, said Pritzker, reflecting the sentiments of a handful of journalists in mainstream media and most journalists in the Black press: “Here was a man who was probably the finest pitcher of his time, and his time was long. But he had no chance to prove it in the majors.”
Pritzker wondered as many white sportswriters did about what Paige had left. With so many innings behind him, did he have quality innings ahead of him?
Remember, he came to the majors with other questions to answer. Sportswriters such as Wendell Smith, one of the prominent journalists in the Black press, asked whether the ageless Paige had the discipline to make it in the bigs.
Paige often faced those questions and about his ability to play a team sport. He told Walter Johns, a sportswriter for The Evening Independent in Massillon, Ohio, in 1948:
“I’m not hard to get along with and I don’t eat 12 hot dogs before I pitch. I don’t know how they picked up such stories. If I was hard to get along with, how would I ever get a chance to pitch for Cleveland? I don’t even eat hot dogs.”
Paige being Paige, added this last line for Johns: “In fact, I don’t like hamburgers either.”
How many hot dogs he did or did not eat mattered little to Veeck. He counted on Paige to help the Indians win a pennant with his arm, at an age most ballplayers weren’t good enough for the minor leagues.
Two days after Veeck signed him, Paige showed his major league bona fides.
In front of 34,780 fans in Municipal Stadium, he relieved right-hander Bob Lemon in the fifth inning and shut out the St. Louis Browns for two innings, offering a glimpse to all what they had missed during his two-plus decades in segregated baseball.
No doubt, Paige had lost a bit of the giddyup on his fastball. What he hadn’t lost was the flair for the dramatic, how to seize the spotlight, and his pinpoint control. His outing became etched in The Tribe folklore.
Flashbulbs popped; the ballpark erupted in cheers as Paige, a man 42 or older — he turned his age into a guessing game — took a leisurely stroll from the bullpen to the center of the diamond.
“This wasn’t exactly a new experience for Old Satchel because he had faced major leaguers on countless occasions,” Sauerbrei wrote. ‘But this was the first time he pitched to a big league club in a championship game — and it made no difference to Old Satchel.”
Paige was as calm as an ocean with no waves. How could he not be? He spent his life on mounds in ballparks across the baseball landscape where he proved he was as good as a pitcher gets.
“He walks like an amiable camel, is remindful of Stepin Fetchit, so languid and loose are his movements,” sportswriter Harry Grayson wrote in the Shamokin News-Dispatch in Pennsylvania.
In the 1948 season, the brightest star of “Black baseball” might not have been as good as he once was, but he was still good — really good.
His debut made Paige the seventh — and oldest — Negro Leaguer to wear a major league uniform. He was the second to play for Veeck, who had signed Larry Doby in 1947.
None of the others had Paige’s résumé. Still, many outside the Negro Leagues had started to question the quality of his work.
“How much help he can give the Indians now is problematical,” The New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley wrote the day before Paige’s debut. “The speed has gone from his arm but the cunning still remains. … The Satch of a decade or two ago might have been able to assure the Tribe of a pennant. But he’s been in the twilight of his career for so long that there’s just no telling.”
Although Paige was ancient for a “rookie,” Veeck knew his right arm had plenty left in it. Veeck needed a reliable arm to shore up his bullpen and thought Paige could provide it.
“His wiry arms and stilt-like legs were aerodynamically perfect to propel a ball from mound to plate,” nonfiction writer Larry Tye wrote. “They gave him motion. Momentum. Strength. And he had the ideal launching pads: hands so huge they made a baseball look like a golf ball, with wrists that snapped with the fury and flash of a catapult.”
In his debut, Paige proved he was still Paige.
“Old Satchel put most of his wares on display in those two innings,” Sauerbrei wrote. “Satchel now is in the big leagues after all those years and there is only one thing left — Satchel in a World Series.”
Paige, the first Negro Leaguer elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, went on to complete the unfinished business that Sauerbrei wrote about. He and Doby helped The Tribe win the 1948 World Series, the team’s first since 1920. It also was their last.
Paige went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA. Yet even had he not contributed to the title, even if Paige had never made it to the big leagues, he would be remembered for pioneering a trail for Black ballplayers who came after him.
As sports editor Dan D’Addona wrote in 2020 for The Holland Sentinel: “Paige was a pivotal figure in the integration of baseball. He helped create the buzz about Black players and Black teams. Thousands and thousands of fans all over the country watched him beat all-white teams, some led by Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean.
“And his legend grew.”