A dollop of backfire for Satch

Maybe it’s my obsessive-compulsive disorder. Maybe I’m just fascinated by the arcane, taken in by minutia, gripped by Cliff Clavin fever.

But for whatever reason, little details in baseball history clasp onto my mind and drive me to investigate them to the fullest extent of my abilities, resources and patience.

So when I came across — and I don’t remember how or when or where — the fact that Satchel Paige, ever the hardball mercenary, took the mound for a team called the El Paso Mexicans in the famed California Winter League, an integrated loop outside of the confines of so-called “organized baseball,” in March 1935 for, it appears, a single game, my brain latched onto it.

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Apparently, as the CWL was nearing the completion of its season, Paige bailed on Tom Wilson’s powerhouse Philadelphia Royal Giants and climbed the hill for a Latino team called the El Paso Mexicans because, as author Mark Ribowski wrote, “the best ballplayer not in the major leagues manifestly believed that he was too big for blackball …”

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Tom Wilson, via NLBPA.com

Ribowski noted in his book, “Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball,” that the Elites were cruising toward another CWL title thanks to Satch’s still-growing hurling prowess.

Satch, however, didn’t seem to give a damn about that, because on March 7, 1935, left the Giants and pitched for the El Pasos. Such itinerancy has always grated on me when it comes to evaluating Paige’s legacy.

True, Satchel definitely wasn’t the only Negro Leagues player who jumped from team to team in a constant quest for a larger paycheck, and you really can’t blame them, given the often shaky, loosely structured and financially perilous state of blackball throughout its existence.

But Satch elevated team disloyalty to an art form, but in March 1935, it came back to bite him in the butt. His “former teammates,” the Royal Giants, trounced the supremely arrogant Paige and his one-off Latino backers, 7-2, in the first game of a doubleheader at Los Angeles’ White Sox Park.

According to an article in the March 9 Pittsburgh Courier by ace reporter and promotor James Newton, who said the Elites “gave Satchell [sic] paige a surprise party.” Newton added:

“Paige, who was pitching for the El Paso Mexicans club, started in great shape by striking out three batters in the first inning and the first man to face him in the second inning, then the fireworks started.”

Satchel was pounded for 12 hits despite fanning 11 batters. The Giants’ Jim Willis, according to the March 9 Chicago Defender, “turned in a superb pitching performance giving only five hits and fanning ten batters” without giving up a single walk. The Giants were led at the plate by — no surprise here — Hall of Famers Mule Suttles, Turkey Stearnes and Cool Papa Bell.

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Mule Suttles, via The Baseball Guru

Making the outcome of the contest all the more ironic — is that the right word? — Paige’s ball-tossing duplicity was hyped in the media weeks before the contest actually took place. Stated a Feb. 22 report in the LA Times: “Making his final appearance of the winter season, Satchel Paige, lanky colored pitching star, will hurl for the El Paso diamond nine against the Royal Colored Giants Sunday at White Sox Park in the opening tilt of a double-header program.”

D’oh! Sorry, Satch. Hubris does have a way of humiliating even those on the loftiest of perches.

This is also not designed to cast dispersions on the El Paso Mexicans. If I was J.L. Wilkinson — or Gus Greenlee or Cum Posey or Ed Bolden or, heck, just about any team owner/manager, not excluding even reluctant heads of white teams — and I could afford to bring arguably the greatest pitcher in the history of the game, you think I wouldn’t?

You bet your fanny I would.

The El Pasos were long-time members of the CWL and seasoned veterans of international baseball. They endured many drubbings and cellar-dwellings in the CWL with a battle-worn valiance and determination. Wrote William F. McNeil in his book, “The California Winter League: America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball League”:

“The Negro league teams at times appeared to be AAA quality, and may occasionally have been major league quality. At Other times, their roster was closer to a AA level. Some of the white teams, like Pirrone’s All-Stars, the White Kings, and Shell Oil, occasionally fielded teams of at [sic] AAA caliber or higher. But other teams like the Mexican All-Stars, El Paso, and some San Diego teams, were frequently low level minor league teams.”

The El Paso Mexicans existed at least as early as 1930, when the LA Times reported that the squad split a doubleheader with the All-Stars at White Sox Park. A February 1934 article in the Pittsburgh Courier stated the “El Paso Club is made up of some of the greatest Mexican players in the world.”

The LA Times reported a month later: “With Nick Salazar pitching, the El Paso Mexicans, champions of the southern republic, will play a double header against the Davis Perfection Bread nine at White Sox Park today.”

The confectionary went the extra mile for the event, too: “As a treat to the fans, 800 bags of doughnuts will be given to them as they enter the gates.”

In October 1938, the Mexicans played on the road against Santa Barbara, making the team’s competitive existence at least roughly a decade long.

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One thought on “A dollop of backfire for Satch

  1. Pingback: Off to Seattle — and an internal journey | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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