When 'locked and loaded,' no one beat Paige
Man said to have 55 no-hitters voted black baseball's best hurler
In the wake of the Year of the Pitcher and in a salute to Black History Month, MLB.com posed the following question to a panel of 19 of the most respected authorities on "black baseball," a term that includes the period before Rube Foster founded the Negro Leagues in 1920: Who were the top five black pitchers prior to the integration of the Major Leagues? Based on a compilation of their rankings, here is a profile of Satchel Paige, the panel's choice for No. 1:
The story sounds like the tallest of tales. But so much of what people hear about Satchel Paige seems to stretch truth to its breaking point. Yet by most accounts, Paige often performed the improbable.
As this tale goes, Paige was pitching for the Kansas City Monarchs. They were facing the Homestead Grays in the 1942 Negro League World Series, and the Grays put the tying run on base with two out in the ninth inning.
Paige signaled teammate Buck O'Neil to the mound.
"You know what I'm fixin' to do?" Paige told O'Neil. "I'm gonna walk Howard Easterling; I'm gonna walk Buck Leonard; I'm gonna pitch to Josh Gibson."
Paige and Gibson, known as the "black Babe Ruth," had been teammates years earlier with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and they had talked about a pivotal moment when they might face each other. Here was that moment.
|Bob Kendrick: Former marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and an authority of black baseball.|
|Raymond Doswell: Interim president of the museum, a historian with a PhD and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Don Motley: Co-founder and former executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, long-time youth baseball coach in Kansas City area.|
|Larry Lester: Author, historian, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Dick Clark: Author, historian, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Robert Ruck: Senior lecturer in history at Pitt, author and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Leslie Heaphy: History professor at Kent State, author, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Brian Carroll: History professor at Berry College, SABR member and an authority of black baseball.|
|John Overmyer: SABR member, author and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|James A. Riley: Author of Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues (seminal work in this area) and authority on black baseball.|
|Phil S. Dixon: Author and an authority on black baseball.|
|John Thorn: Author, SABR member and an authority on black baseball.|
|Isaac Brooks: SABR member and an active member of the Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference.|
|John Klima: Journalist and baseball authority.|
|Craig Tomarkin: SABR member, baseball statistician and an expert on black baseball.|
|Paul E. Doutrich: History professor at York College, SABR member and an expert on baseball.|
|Chris Murray: Sportswriter with an expertise in black baseball|
|Chuck Johnson: Writes a column for MLB.com.|
|Charles Alexander: History professor emeritus, SABR member and an authority on baseball.|
"Come on, Satchel, throw the ball," Gibson hollered at Paige.
"I'm gonna throw you some fastballs," Paige said.
He threw three fastballs; each harder than the one before and each one a strike. Game over.
Walking off the mound, Paige turned to O'Neil, whom he called "Nancy," and said, "You know what, Nancy, nobody hits Satchel's fastball."
True or not, the story is vintage Paige. Colorful and iconic, he was the face of the Negro Leagues. His persona lorded over black baseball.
"You get that Muhammad Ali combination in Satchel Paige: 'I'm gonna do what I say I'm gonna do,'" said Larry Lester, a writer and one of the foremost authorities on black baseball. "That puts you a little bit out there. It makes you a little unique that you can do what you brag about."
Perhaps no man in baseball history bragged as much as Paige did or had his flair for dramatics. No man pitched more innings, either. At least that's what he told people.
"But the more I pitched, the stronger my arm would get," he'd say.
Who could dispute him?
For his career, Satchel claimed he pitched in more than 2,600 games, threw 300 shutouts and recorded 55 no-hitters. The mythology tied to Paige, a 6-foot-4 string bean with a loose arm, might exaggerate his total wins to an otherworldly 2,500.
Surely, Paige's career made a case for his being the best ever, which is why his name stands atop these rankings.
How good was he really, stripping away the mythology?
His work with the Monarchs, the Crawfords and a half-dozen other teams and his barnstorming against Major Leaguers in the 1930s and '40s left plenty of indicators as to how great Paige was.
Those who faced him during his halcyon years claimed his fastball looked like a "pea" and had more miles per hour on it than Bob Feller's or Dizzy Dean's; Paige's curveball was the equal of anybody else's, they said.
And his control?
Think Greg Maddux. It was said that Paige could throw a fastball through the eye of a needle.
O'Neil used to say if he had one game to win, the pitcher he'd pick -- from modern times or from yesteryear -- would be Paige.
"Buck always said when Satchel was locked and loaded, nobody could touch him," said Bob Kendrick, a friend of the late O'Neil's and the former marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. "You might beat him when he was out there messin' around, but when he was locked and loaded, forget about it."
O'Neil's sentiments echoed those of fans, sportswriters and historians -- men and women who have chronicled Paige's Hall-of-Fame career. O'Neil's sentiments echoed those of ballplayers who had to hit against Paige as well.
In 2000, the museum played host to a gathering of Negro Leaguers. Kendrick asked them all one question: What was the highlight of their baseball careers?
Nearly all of them cited facing Paige.
"I found that amazing," Kendrick said. "To me, that spoke volumes about how great Satchel Paige was."
Justice B. Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.