Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige prepared to head out to the pitcher’s mound for another inning. Before stepping out of the dugout, he turned to his teammates, told his catcher to go behind the plate and the rest of them to stay on the bench. Paige then went to the mound and proceeded to strike out the next 3 batters and prove he didn’t need his fielders.
This wasn’t a one time thing. This was something Satchel Paige did many times during exhibition games against local teams as his various Negro League teams toured the country. Paige was a man who had every myth imaginable spread about his abilities throwing a baseball. More times than not, many of those myths proved to be true. In Game 2 of the 1942 Negro League World Series, he was put into a dual against fellow-legend Josh Gibson, the most feared hitter in the Negro Leagues. Paige would stand tall on the mound and retire Gibson on three pitches for a strikeout.
Satchel Paige began his baseball career playing for the semi-professional Mobile Tigers, his hometown team from Alabama at the age of 18. He quickly caught the eye of a professional team in the Negro Southern League, the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, where he quickly became a fan favorite for his talent. Once he began playing for Chattanooga, teams in the majors of the Negro Leagues took notice of a kid who was known for his outstanding control of his pitches while maintaining a cocky and enthusiastic charisma that fans loved.
Paige got his start in the Negro Leagues in 1927 for the Birmingham Black Barons. He pitched 7 games that year allowing just 18 runs in 49 innings with a 1.318 WHIP and 23 walks to 63 strikeouts. Impressive, but nothing to scoff at.
The following year is when Paige took off. While Negro League stats were poorly kept, and often regarded to be missing some number of games, Paige is credited with 14 official starts. In those 14 games, Paige pitched 126 innings allowing just 2.96 runs per nine innings pitched (RA9) – earned runs were not counted in the Negro Leagues. Paige mowed down hitters one after the other as he accrued 108 strikeouts while allowing only 103 hits and 20 walks (WHIP of 0.976).
Paige would remain in the Negro Leagues for 16 more seasons, playing for the Chicago American Giants, Baltimore Black Sox, Cleveland Cubs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, New York Black Yankees, and Homestead Grays. He did spend 3 years (1937-1939) playing in leagues that have no stats available in Mexico, Cuba, and an Independent team in Kansas City that put a noticeable and significant gap in his numbers. Through his 18 Negro League seasons, Paige officially recorded 1828 innings to go along with a 146-64 record (.695 winning percentage), a 3.10 RA9, 130 complete games, 1620 strikeouts, and 1684 walks and hits combined. He nearly struck out as many players as he allowed on base. And even more impressive was that Paige kept a career WHIP at just 0.921 through his time in the Negro Leagues and throwing just 18 wild pitches.
In 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the MLB, Satchel Paige made the transition as well, signing with the Cleveland Indians. By 1948, to say Paige was a “veteran” by now would be an understatement, as he had 18 years of professional experience in the Negro Leagues and was a fresh, 41 years of age. He would go on to play 2 seasons for the Indians before taking a year off then signing with the St. Louis Browns in 1951.
Through his first five seasons in the MLB, Paige pitched 473 innings (mostly in relief) with a 3.30 ERA. He was still dominant, even after becoming the oldest rookie in major league history. He tallied another 288 strikeouts to his career total and limited opposing players to a 1.279 WHIP. He was named an All-Star in 1952 and 1953 with the Browns and even finished 17th in the MVP voting in 1952. He kept an ERA+ of 124 (meaning he was 24% better than the average major league pitcher through those years) and held a respectable 3.28 FIP. His performance in those short 473 innings resulted in him accumulating 10.1 bWAR in those five years without a single season being negative – remarkably unusual for a relief pitcher.
He continued playing baseball off and on in AAA through the rest of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 1960’s when he was called upon one last time for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965. Paige was 58 years old when he played his final game in the major leagues. The Athletics were playing a late season game that didn’t matter (the team finished 59-103 in 1965) against the Boston Red Sox – another team in the cellar for that season.
Paige took the mound for his final major league game as the starter. In the first inning, Paige retired Jim Gosger by a popup before Dalton Jones reached by error. The Red Sox 25-year-old left fielder Carl Yastrzemski stepped to the plate and ripped a double, following Jones getting thrown out stealing a base. Paige kept his focus and retired Tony Conigliaro to end the inning. Paige retired the next five batters straight before inducing a groundout from Gosger for the last out of his major league career.
Paige would play one more game a professional for the Peninsula Grays of the Single-A Carolina League in 1966 before retiring from baseball. At the time of that game, he was 37 years older than the average player in the Carolina League.
Paige is a legend, even to this day. Through 29 professional seasons, he posted a 3.18 RA9, 151 complete games, 2103 strikeouts, and a career WHIP of just 1.002. Through those 29 years, he allowed just 20 more hits than he had strikeouts, just 555 walks, 57 total home runs, and threw an unbelievable 26 wild pitches. He never blew anybody away with his velocity, but he knew how to throw a baseball to the exact spot where you couldn’t hit it.
Despite his astounding career accomplishments and numbers, he is often neglected when considering the greatest pitchers of all time. There are so few men to have ever played the game that were as dominant as Satchel Paige, and even fewer who had the confidence and charisma to entertain and become beloved by their fans. So few players in baseball history have as many stories and myths told about their abilities on a baseball diamond. Satchel Paige was certainly the greatest pitcher the Negro Leagues ever saw, and it’s quite possible he may have been the greatest pitcher baseball has ever seen.
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