Satchel Paige: Pitching through history

By Eric W. Jentsch
Signed baseball

"How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" – Satchel Paige

With a professional baseball career spanning the jazz age to the space age, pitcher Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (1906—1982) established himself not only as one of the most dominant American athletes of all time, but also as one of the most remarkable. Thanks to a generous gift, the museum recently acquired a baseball signed by Paige, inspiring us to share the story of this timeless legend.

Signed baseball
Official American Association baseball autographed in ink by pitcher Satchel Paige, around 1970–1980. Gift of Thomas Tull.

Paige earned the nickname “Satchel” as a boy, when he made money carrying passengers' bags at the train station in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Sent to the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs at the age of 12 for the minor offense of stealing some toy rings from a store, Paige worked on his baseball skills until his release just before his 18th birthday.

Satchel Paige baseball card with large illustration of Paige
Satchel Paige baseball card, 1953. Note the misspelling of his first name.

In 1924 Paige earned his first baseball paycheck pitching for the semi-professional Mobile Tigers. Paige's lanky 6'3" frame helped him dominate the semi-pro opposition, and he was signed to the Negro Southern League’s Chattanooga Black Lookouts in 1926.

Paige thus began his lengthy and nomadic professional baseball career. Records for the various Negro League Organizations are scarce and incomplete, but we know that between 1926 and 1947 Paige played for the Lookouts, the Birmingham Black Barons, the Baltimore Black Sox, the Cleveland Cubs, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Kansas City Monarchs, the New York Black Yankees, the Memphis Red Sox, and the Philadelphia Stars. He also moonlighted in other exhibition games and winter leagues, and by "barnstorming" with rural traveling teams.

Signed baseball
Baseball signed by Negro League players, including Satchel Paige.

Paige was beloved not only for his dominance on the mound, but for his enthusiasm and cocksure personality. He loved to impress the crowd, striking out batters with speed and control. Paige excelled with the 1942 Kansas City Monarchs, who won the Negro League World Series. The team, managed by Frank Duncan, and led by Paige and Buck O’Neil, is considered one of the most talented teams in Negro League history. As O’Neil has said of the club, “I do believe we could have given the New York Yankees a run for their money that year.”

Jacket patch designed to look like a baseball with text: “World Monarchs Champions 1942”
Negro League jacket patch, Buck O’Neil, 1942 Monarchs

Paige finally got his chance to pitch before Major League audiences in 1948, two years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Signed mid-season by the Cleveland Indians, the oldest rookie in Major League history at 42 years old, he set attendance records in Cleveland and Chicago on his first three starts. 

Paige went 6-1 with the Indians, helping the team reach the World Series, where, called to the mound in Game 5, he became the first African American player to pitch in a Major League championship game. The Indians would take the title, defeating the Braves four games to two.

After pitching for Cleveland for another year, Paige briefly left Major League Baseball, barnstorming for a couple of years before returning to the Majors in 1951, signing with the St. Louis Browns and being named to two All-Star teams.

Signed baseball
Baseball, signed by the 1951 St. Louis Browns, including Satchel Paige

After leaving the Browns in 1953, Paige continued to pitch for barnstorming teams and in the minor leagues. Paige’s last Major League appearance was in 1965, when at 59 he played one game for the Kansas City A’s and threw three shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox.

Paige’s last turns on the mound came in 1967, pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns, the last all-black baseball club. By his own estimation, he had pitched in about 2,500 games before putting down his glove for good.

Despite his popularity, success, and lengthy career, Paige’s legacy has been overlooked due to racial inequities. It is a testament to his abilities and charisma that he could become a living legend, despite being forced to play outside of the Major Leagues for the majority of his career and doing so while facing wide-ranging discriminatory practices and bigotry. As he said himself in 1982, the year of his death, “They said I was the greatest pitcher they ever saw. . . . I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t give me no justice.” 

Eric W. Jentsch is Curator of Popular Culture and Sports for the Division of Culture and the Arts.