LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Near anniversary of his death, hard not to think about baseball great Paige

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

As the calendar brings us closer to the anniversary date of the death of Satchel Paige (June 8, 1982), I was moved to review old files about this marvelous talent, with a contradictory memory and a hopping fastball which baffled all hitters, many of them major leaguers, with whom he was not allowed to play until he was 42-years-old.

In the early 1980s, an introduction to a successful minor league owner led me to Springfield, Ill., one chilly April day to spend an afternoon with Satchel. The Springfield Redbirds, owned by A. Ray Smith, a genial Oklahoman, were about to begin their season. Satchel had been hired as a special advisor. Smith loved having Satchel in the clubhouse. He could justify keeping Satchel on the payroll to amuse young players with sage advice. Certainly didn’t hurt the gate with Satchel hanging around.

On the day we talked — my tape recording, when transcribed, filled 21 pages, double-spaced — Satchel was in a good mood but had reached the point to where his bones ached and he had serious stomach issues. He was, nonetheless, as colorful as his reputed image. He spoke with a seasoned softness and his vernacular was charming and delightful. He made a lot of sense, owing to his worldly exposure. He had grown up in Mobile but had seen every corner of the country with an introduction to people of all walks of life. He was not formally educated, but when it came to life and its mutabilities, he was an expert. He had been around, and his street sense was honed and wizened. His conversation was laced with the dialect of his native tongue from the segregated times which shaped his early life. I have never enjoyed a conversation more than the one with Satchel on that day in the town where Abraham Lincoln rests in peace.

Satchel spoke insightfully. He invoked philosophy as he talked, using his familiar aphorisms for which he was famous. One of them about staying away from fried foods. (“They angrys up the blood”) had become a problem in his late years. His stomach was “always acting up.”

The memorable vignettes of his life remain enticing to those who appreciate baseball lore. Like Satchel telling his infielders to sit down and then routinely striking out the side. Legend has it that he did that quite often. Pitching nine inning games four or five days a week. Playing for Bismarck, N.D., when his team won the National Baseball Congress tournament in seven straight games. Satchel won four of them and pitched in relief in a fifth game. He struck out 60 batters.

Satchel was given to embellishment, but he was so popular a lot of people, including his teammates were happy to endorse any myths. Josh Gibson, the legendary slugger from Buena Vista, struck out, with the bases loaded, in the sixth inning against Satchel in the Negro World Series in 1942. In his autobiography, Satchel said that the strikeout came in the ninth inning. Satchel enjoyed being the showman.

Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, signed Satchel to a big league contract in 1948, the first black pitcher in the American League. The Indians won the World Series. Satchel pitched briefly in one inning. Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski argued in 2010 that Satchel threw harder than anybody in history, basing his argument on the opinion of big leaguers who saw and/or played against Satchel in his prime: Joe DiMaggio saying Satchel was the best he ever faced; Bob Feller admitting he was the best he ever saw; Dizzy Dean commenting that Paige’s fastball made his own look like a changeup.

In our conversation, Satchel spoke modestly but believed he could have beaten the best if he had the opportunity.

What he enjoyed reminiscing about most had to do with the second game he started — against the White Sox in Chicago. Veeck brought Satchel to Cleveland to work in relief, but manager Lou Boudreau used him as a starter. Against the White Sox, Satchel pitched a shutout. The paid attendance was 52,013, but fans stormed the gates and overwhelmed the ticket takers to overflow Comiskey Park.

“They were saying I wasn’t gonna hold up (for nine innings). I could hear it on Chicago’s dugout. He’s too old. So ‘round the 5th or 6th inning, it was the same. I shut ‘em out,” he said. “Goodness alive .... I didn’t have no clothes on at all when I got to the dugout. They had tore my clothes off. They was coming from all parts (of the stadium). Jumped over the box seats and just (started) ripping my clothes and my hat. They took my hat, my glove. I had to get everything new to start again.”

It wasn’t long afterwards, I was in Kansas City and went by to see him. He was too sickly to talk. His wife met me at the door and said, “He’s got no more energy left.”

She was right. He died a few weeks later.