By Ryan Mayer
“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” -Satchel Paige
February is a month in which we celebrate prominent figures in African American history here in the United States. That celebration reaches across industries from politics, to pop culture, to here in the sports world. We’ll take the time this month to remember many heroes in various ways, but today there’s one particular player to bring attention to: Leroy “Satchel” Paige.
On this day in 1971, Paige was selected as the first Negro Leagues baseball player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. When examining the history of Negro League baseball in America, there is perhaps no more prominent name that continues to present itself than that of Paige. When discussing Paige’s career, it’s a far more nuanced conversation than many others in baseball history.
America’s pastime, of the four major sports, relies most heavily upon its history and statistical records. From Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak to Cy Young’s 511 wins, baseball players and analysts alike worship at the alter of the almighty stat. Viewed through that prism, Paige seems relatively unspectacular. A quick glance at his Baseball-Reference page shows a 28-31 record in the majors with a 3.29 ERA. However, a further look shows a career that spanned 26 years at the highest levels of the sport, 21 of those coming in the Negro Leagues before baseball was integrated.
A look at the Negro Leagues’ numbers starts to paint a better picture of the dominance Paige engendered. In 18 seasons, he compiled a 100-50 career record with a 3.22 ERA in 1,298 and 2/3 IP with a 4.8K/BB ratio. Yet, even that doesn’t tell the full story.
“We will never know for sure because he was kept out of Major League Baseball for all of his years that we would consider his prime, but I would say given the people that he played against, given the records that he compiled, it is at least arguable (and baseball’s all about arguments anyway) that he was the greatest pitcher ever,” said Larry Tye, author of Satchel: The Life And Times Of An American Legend by phone. “Given how he performed at an age where most Major League pitchers would be watching from the bleachers, the idea that he could come in and perform at all and help the first team he played with in Cleveland win a World Series is extraordinary.”
That’s one huge point to consider when discussing the legacy of Paige as a ballplayer. He entered the Major Leagues with Lou Boudreau’s Cleveland Indians in 1948 at the age of 41. His last game in the majors? 1965, when he made an appearance for the Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox throwing three innings of relief ball and allowing just one hit. At the ripe old age of 58.
In baseball, as in all sports, we try to draw comparisons between players. As Mr. Tye so eloquently stated, the sport is “all about arguments anyway.” So, in that vein, who does Paige compare to? When talking about some of the greatest pitchers to ever toe the rubber, who does he stack up with?
“The person that comes immediately to mind for me is Bob Feller,” said Dr. Lawrence Hogan author of Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball by phone. “Feller was so dominant a pitcher for a good period of time, he lost time because of the second World War, but as the statistics record him as of course he’s in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As is Satchel. Satchel was amongst the first ones to go into the Hall of Fame from out of the stock of players that were Negro League players.”
Feller’s career overlapped a large portion of Paige’s as he broke into the majors in 1936 at the age of 17 and pitched his final game in 1956 at the age of 37. In addition, the two barnstormed together in the off-season, with Paige leading a team of all-black, Negro League All-Stars against Feller’s all-white major league All-Stars. Due to that familiarity, Feller was one of many who had high praise for Paige’s abilities.
“Bob Feller seldom had an especially generous word to say about people who might have been considered as good as him,” said Tye. “The kinds of things that he told me in an interview that I expected to last 10 minutes and went on for 2 hours; The things that he told me made me think, that if Bob Feller thinks he might have been the greatest ever, who am I to disagree with him?”
Needless to say, when Bob Feller, a man some would argue deserves that title “Greatest Pitcher Ever” in his own right, says a man deserves that title, he probably deserves it. This legendary status among his peers is a large part of why Paige was the first of the Negro Leaguers to get the call to the Hall.
“The highest honor that one can get is going into the Baseball Hall of Fame if you’re a player and that happens, you stand out as a special person,” said Dr. Hogan. “The fact that he went in first amongst a cadre of players who were very, very good players, relatively well known in the context of African American baseball, that position of being the first to go in says a lot.”
If nothing else, Paige’s durability and longevity were and are worthy of admiration.
“What we can say definitively is that Satchel Paige pitched at the highest level of baseball for longer than any pitcher had ever done before, any pitcher ever did after and than any pitcher is ever likely to do in the history of baseball,” said Tye.
45 years ago today, the man known as Satchel got the call to join the elite of the National Pastime. From those who knew him, and those who played against him, it’s clear that he should be remembered and considered as one of the greatest of all-time.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.