Satch and the Black Pels?

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It’s a long-held tale, one spun originally in 1962 by the ultimate baseball legend/showman/huckster in his autobiography, “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever,” and one, so far, relegated to a mere footnote in that man’s glorious and often self-inflated history.

But it’s also one that, ever since I started researching the Negro Leagues scene in New Orleans many years go, has held a certain, almost inexplicable fascination for me.

We all know that Satchel Paige’s first season in fully professional baseball was 1926, when he initially took the hill for the Chattanooga Lookouts. It’s also generally accepted and largely proven that Paige’s first professional mound duty took place, of all locales, in New Orleans, when he hurled for ’Nooga against the host Black Pelicans, a game he won, 4-1, on May 21, 1926.

But then there’s the thing that has always gotten under my skin: the belief that after Satch pitched against the Black Pelicans, he then competed, ever so briefly, for them, when he temporarily bailed on Lookouts owner Alex Herman and laced up the spikes for the Pels for a glorious run of … one week.

Where did this tale have its origins? Why, apparently with Satch himself, naturally. He uncorked the gem in “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever,” his dictated memoirs. In the yarn, Paige said he was drawn to the NOLA diamond not by bucks but by … a car. That’s right: a set of wheels. A ride. The first vehicle he reportedly ever owned. But let’s let the man himself tell it, via his autobiography, beginning on page 30-something:

“Near the end of the season, I jumped the Black Lookouts for a few days and hopped over to New Orleans. But this time it wasn’t money that got me to jump.

“The real reason was that they offered me an old jalopy. The eighty-five dollars they gave me for a month of pitching wasn’t anything. I was up to almost two hundred a month with the Black Lookouts by then.

“That jalopy was something else. It was my first. But the money ran out pretty quick and I hopped out of New Orleans. Those guys still probably are waiting for me to pitch that last week of ball.”

Hardy har har, Leroy. He then added, with his trademark arrogance: “It didn’t worry me.”

Now you see why I’m not exactly a huge fan of Satchel Paige. His disloyalty to anyone or anything but his own greed and his supreme conceitedness just seem to rub me the wrong way. To me he’s something just short of, well, let’s be honest here, a jerk.

But I digress. Noted historian and writer Larry Tye, in his biography, “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” penned:

“It was his first set of wheels and the beginning of his love affair with motorcars. He was back with the White Sox a week later but the restlessness would never go away. Already he was a celebrity. He had the means to move to greener grass, and the grass almost always looked greener to him someplace else.”

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Chattanooga Lookouts owner Alex Herman

But here’s the rub (and there’s always a rub, isn’t there?): I’ve come across no proof that it actually happened.

Well, yes, there’s proof that Satch pitched against the Black Pels. But I’ve uncovered nothing showing decisively that he ever pitched for the Crescent City squad. Just lots of stories, memories, vague recollections.

The mainstream daily newspapers of the day don’t include any such coverage, and unfortunately, the African-American paper, the Louisiana Weekly, was still in its nascence and barely provided any sports coverage in 1926, including none that I could find of the Black Pelicans.

Here’s what I did find, via the May 22, 1926, Times-Picayune:

“The inability of Fred Caulfield’s Black Pelicans to hit the ball and their unfortunate knack of producing ill-timed errors gave that Black Lookouts a 4 to 1 victory over the local negro nine in the opening of [the] Colored Southern League at Heinemann Park yesterday.

“Willis, on the hill for the Black Pels, gave up but three hits, but he and his mates mixed errors with a lone blow and the visiting nine won the contest with a big second inning splurge.

“A lanky hurler named Satchell worked for the Black Lookouts. He kept six hits well scattered and fanned six men while his teammates were making the six Pelican bobbles work to their advantage.”

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According to the box score, Satch also cracked one of the Lookouts’ three hits. So if this was indeed Paige’s proffesional debut, he did all right. However, he tells a slightly different story in “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever”:

“Alex let me get the feel of Chattanooga before pitching me. My first game out with the Black Lookouts was against New Orleans, who had a guy called Diamond throwing for them.

“It don’t make much difference who throws when Ol’ Satch’s in there. We won, one to nothing. I gave up two hits.”

Again, such modesty.

The “Diamond” he mentions was most likely local NOLA product Robert Pipkins, nicknamed “Black Diamond.”

Even at such a tender age, though, Satchel displayed his legendary endurance: the very next day, May 22, he took the hill again for the Lookouts. But it didn’t go nearly as well this time around — Paige got shelled, and the Black Pels romped, 8-0. Said the Times-Picayune: “Fred Caulfield’s team showed a disposition to hit the ball hard and this coupled with tight hurling of Powe gave them the contest.”

It doesn’t appear as though Satchel pitched again in New Orleans in 1926, at least not for any Chattanooga team.

But tales of Paige taking the mound against the Pelicans at various other times were handed down from generation to generation of black baseball figures in N’Awlins. In a May 15, 1983, article in the Times-Picayune, reporter Marty Mulé, wrote that “[T]he Black Pelicans, in fact, were the first professional lineup to be mowed down by the legendary Paige.”

Mulé quoted Walter Wright, one of New Orleans blackball’s most important figures, who said the Black Lookouts manager told the Pel’s helmsman, Herman Roth (himself a towering personality from the Big Easy), “We gonna beat ya this time, Herman.” This was allegedly in the summer of 1926.

Wright reported to Mulé that the Black Pelicans had been tearing through the Negro Southern Association membership with merciless zeal, leaving Roth to wonder why the Lookouts were so confident now. Mulé penned:

“‘That lo-o-o-ng boy out there,’ said the Chattanooga manager, pointing out to the field. Roth saw for the first time a gangly, loose-limbed pitcher warming up. ‘Baby-faced Satch,’ recalls Roth, now 87, ‘he had such a baby face. And doggone if he didn’t beat us 1-0. he had nothing but a fastball then, but it looked like an aspirin tablet.’ He hastens to add that Edward Benjamin outpitched Paige and beat Chattanooga 1-0 the next time they saw Satchel, in New Orleans.”

Then, in 1994, T-P writer Ted Lewis, an early chronicler of Louisiana’s black baseball tradition, authored a lengthy, detailed recounting of the city’s Negro Leagues history, filled with the recollections of living blackball vets.

“Satchel Paige, the most famous of the Negro Leaguers, played briefly with the Black Pelicans early in his career in 1926 …,” Lewis wrote.

“‘Satchel was gone, and I was left in Chattanooga,’ said Lawrence ‘Fats’ Nelson of New Orleans, who had been signed by the [Chattanooga] White Sox earlier that year after catching for Paige in an exhibition game. ‘He was just getting started, but he already had that hard, straight fastball and a good curve.

“‘He also had his hesitation pitch that would slack up a little when it was coming at you and then take off again. He was usually putting a little something on it.'”

It should be noted that it appears as if the names of the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Chattanooga White Sox were often confused with each other, perhaps used interchangeably or maybe because they were two distinct teams.

While Satchel Paige probably didn’t climb the hill in the Big Easy again in 1926, he did occasionally return to the city as his career, and life, went on. For example, he pitched once or twice in the North-South All-Star game, an annual affair created and perpetuated for at least a decade by New Orleans promoter and black baseball impresario Allen Page.

And in 1977, five years before his death, Satchel came back to NOLA for the Old Timers Baseball Club‘s 21st annual old-timers’ game. The club was a local New Orleans organization created and helmed by Walter Wright with the purpose of keeping the memory of the Negro Leagues alive. Leading up to the June 19 contest, Wright issued a press release trumpeting the impending arrival of the fabulous Hall of Famer:

“Just one more time is what Satchel Paige is saying as he prepares to pitch in the 21st annual Old Timer’s Baseball game which will be played in the superdome [sic] prior to the Pelicans-Denver game on Father’s Day. …

“Plans are being made for ‘Satch’ to see mound duty for either the North or the Southside in the annual game that is designed to pay tribute to those stars of yesteryear who really paid their dues toward making the game what it is today. …

“‘Satch’ will be surrounded by some former team mates who saw action with him in the Negro American and National Leagues as well as some who opposed him in the old Southern League when he was a member of the Chattanooga White Sox or the Birmingham Black Barons.”

A few days after Paige died on June 8, 1982, Mulé wrote an essay in the T-P about the pitching great, and he quoted another New Orleanian, Milfred Laurent, who crossed paths with Satch on an occasion or two:

“He could do just about anything he wanted with a baseball. That hesitation pitch was something else again! He would cock his leg, unwind, throw the leg down, and his arm would come across, and he’d still have the ball in his hand! Once I saw him throw the pitch, and the batter committed himself before the ball left Satch’s hand. The umpire said the swing was legal, and Satch had a strikeout before he even threw the ball.”

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One thought on “Satch and the Black Pels?

  1. Pingback: A man named Fred | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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