From humble beginnings in on July 7, 1906 in Mobile, Alabama was born a troublesome boy. Leroy Robert Page was the son John and Lula who lived in the “Down the Bay” area of the Gulf city. John was a gardener, and by some accounts a drunk, and as a result. Lula and her children actually would go on to change their surname’s spelling to “Paige” after John’s death, partly to signal a fresh beginning, as well as to appear more refined. Nevertheless, the fact remained that this was the Deep South still under the bootheel of Jim Crow laws, and the Paige family remained poor and black. Leroy spent his teenage years in reform school after he was caught shoplifting for not the first time. From 13-17, Leroy received his state-mandated education in his state-reform school, but his greatest learning came outdoors with a ball and a glove. Leroy’s great love was baseball, and he would do anything to play it. Skip dinner? No problem, let’s play ball. Don’t have a ball or a bat? No big deal, we’ll use this stick and a bottle cap. All that mattered was that he got to get in the game. After his reform school stint in Mount Meigs he did just that by playing with the semi-pro Mobile Tigers. It was there that Leroy started to make a name for himself, but not with his birthname; instead he was better known by the nickname he had earned as a kid carrying bags at the train station: Satchel.
Satchel Paige may be the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. His official statistics are certainly impressive, especially considering how long he played baseball, but those numbers do not represent the monster on the mound he truly was. Satchel Paige first made his Major League Baseball debut with the Cleveland Indians on this date in 1948 as a freshly 42 year old. He had enough success to be in strange contention for the “Rookie of the Year” award, but was undoubtedly happier to go on to win the World Series in his opening MLB season (which is still the most recent championship for the Indians). Of course, one year earlier Jackie Robinson had become the first black player in the MLB modern era, yet both he and Satchel had played previously in the Negro Leagues, including on the same team, the Kansas City Monarchs. Paige was older, and had more season in the Negro Leagues under his belt, and he was hurt that he was not chosen to be the first player to break the color barrier. However, Paige would go on to declare that Robinson was the greatest black player he had ever seen.
While Robinson made more of an impact in Major League Baseball and had exceptional success after his historic integration, Paige had equally amazing success previously in the Negro Leagues, as well as in traveling Barnstormer leagues both prior to and following his MLB career. Just before the 1947 integration season, famed pitcher Bob Feller put on leagues that traveled by plane to different cities across the country to play baseball with a mix of past and current MLB stars, as well as Negro League all-stars. Feller captained one team, and Paige captained the other and the two pitchers almost always started each game day after day. This seems so absurd compared to today’s baseball; I cannot imagine that daily pitching by the best in the game in a new location each day would go over well with managers and owners, nor would having their top players galavanting about in the off-season. Yet, that is just what Feller and Paige did, and each matched up against some of the best their leagues had to offer. And I mean, the BEST. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that some of these stars were the best in the game at the time because they were some to the best of all time. Players like Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Vernon, and Bob Lemon. Before and after his MLB years, Paige played in similar travel leagues and faced the likes of Cool Papa Bell, Carl Yastrzemski, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio called Paige the best pitcher he ever faced.
Satchel Paige played his final game of baseball on June 21, 1966, and went on to serve a variety of mostly honorary positions in a few baseball organizations after his playing days. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.
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