Sorry for a little lag there between posts — I’ve been getting back in the groove after returning to NOLA from my little jaunt north. I have a couple more posts stemming from the Malloy conference — one on Tweed Webb later in the week, and this one today based on the interview I had with Robert Paige at the conference.
PITTSBURGH — In 1948, around about the time fabled Indians owner Bill Veeck signed legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige to the latter’s first Major League contract, Veeck personally hauled Satchel with him to Paige’s hometown of Mobile, Ala., quite a trip for the pair.
Veeck’s mission? To solve, once and for all, how old Paige actually was. Because ever since Paige began his paid baseball career in 1924 with his hometown Mobile Tigers, and as his legend as a hurler supreme grew into almost mythical proportions, Paige frequently provided reporters and other members of the public with a birthdate range of almost a decade, anywhere from 1900 to 1908.
Paige did that, actually, largely because he didn’t know himself. In fact, that chronological slipperiness was part and parcel of the mythology surrounding the tall, lanky man whom many believe was the greatest pitcher of all time, regardless of race or era.
When they got to Mobile, Veeck rounded up the rest of Satchel’s family and personally accompanied them to the local health department to pull Satchel’s birth certificate and unlock the mystery of Paige’s birthdate.
The answer: July 7, 1906.
That made Leroy “Satchel” Paige just over 42 years old when he first took a Major League mound during that ’48 championship season for the Tribe. And it heaped massive pressure on the shoulders of a middle-aged man with proving the naysayers wrong and justifying Veeck’s seemingly madcap decision to sign a 42-year-old rookie pitcher whose arm had probably tossed thousands of games by then.
“The expectations to go out and perform had to be massive,” said Satchel’s eldest son, Robert Paige, last week as he was attending the Society for American Baseball Research’s 18th annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues conference, held this year in Pittsburgh. “I can only imagine.”
“The whole world is looking at you,” Robert continued. “You’re a 42-year-old rookie, and you’re expected to go out and compete with these teenagers and prove that you’re still capable and able.”
But, according to the son, his father — just like during his entire, 20-plus career in the Negro Leagues — never had any doubt in his abilities or his famous arm.
“There wasn’t a thought [about failure],” Robert Paige said. “There was nothing he knew more. He knew he could pitch. And when you know what you can do, you do it.”
Oh, Satchel did it all right. Over the last half of the 1948 season, Paige went 6-1 with an incredible 2.48 ERA with two shutouts and 43 strikeouts. Many historians believe Paige played a crucial role in the Indians’ World Series triumph that year, which remains the team’s last title.
Paige had repaid Veeck’s faith in him, and the experience bonded the two exquisite showmen for life. The pair was so close that when Veeck purchased a majority share of the St. Louis Browns in 1951, he once again inked Paige to a Major League contract.
As a result of that lifelong friendship, while Robert Paige and his siblings heard their father frequently talk about the man who took a chance on him.
Robert Paige’s comments came while he was waiting in the lavish lobby of the Wyndham Grand Downtown in Pittsburgh to travel to PNC Park with other Malloy Negro Leagues conference attendees to watch a Pirates-Dodgers game.
Paige was the conference’s special guest, and it was a rare occurrence for the 62-year-old Paige, who for many years has been reclusive, private and reluctant to open up about his knowledge of the life and legacy of his famous father.
Robert and his sisters had long since placed their guard up against the type of money-hungry, attention seeking journalists, memorabilia dealers and other self-centered parties who had tried to gain the family’s trust, only to exploit and take advantage of them for personal gain.
But recently, thanks to the encouragement of Negro Leagues researchers and historians, Paige has slowly come out of his shell. However, he is still very careful about his public appearances and speaking engagements, as he told the audience at last week’s Malloy conference in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t do this,” he said. “This is not me.”
But as he spoke, Robert Paige gradually opened up and regaled the crowd with stories from his childhood, recounting the challenges, trials and joys of growing up — going hunting for rabbits with his dad and Hall of Fame third baseman Judy Johnson; playing in the backyard with another Hall of Famer, Warren Spahn, who loved his mother’s cooking; having breakfast with Negro League greats like Cool Papa Bell, Double Duty Radcliffe and Goose Tatum; being known simply as “Satch Jr.” into his adolescence; not fully understanding how important his father was until Robert’s sister showed him an entry about their father in an encyclopedia.
Or, as Robert revealed in an interview that evening, hearing about how high a regard in which his father held Bill Veeck, the man who rolled the dice on a 42-year-old pitcher, a gambled that paid off in World Series rings for owner and hurler.
“Our father spoke nothing but praise about Mr. Veeck,” Robert said last week.