Before the world would know him as Satchel Paige, Leroy Robert Paige was born in Alabama in 1906, in a time when the dust of the Civil War had barely settled, and the air was thick with the echo of shackles and chains. He was born into a world of Jim Crow laws, where segregation limited dreams. Yet, despite this, Leroy had a spirit as big as the Alabama sky.
Young Leroy was the seventh of twelve children, born to John and Lula Paige. While Satchel’s parents worked hard; his father on the railroad, his mother as a washerwoman, the Paige household was poor. But his parents raised their children wealthy in values, teaching the kids the importance of diligence and determination, lessons not lost on young Satchel. These lessons took root deep within him.
Two important life changes for Leroy came about in this period of youth. The first was when Leroy Paige became Satchel Paige. It happened while the young boy was working at the local train station carrying bags for the passengers. “I rigged up ropes around my shoulders and my waist, and I carried a satchel in each hand and one under each arm. I carried so many satchels that all you could see were satchels. You couldn’t see no Leroy Paige,” he would say. And with that, a nickname was born.
The second was baseball. Satchel’s passion for baseball was kindled in these early years. He’d spend hours playing catch with his brothers, using a ball of tightly wound rags and a bat carved from a tree branch. His pitches were as wild as they were powerful, and it wasn’t long before he was outplaying the older boys in the neighborhood. Baseball offered a glimmer of hope. Baseball was beginning to capture the imagination of the American public. For a young boy from Alabama, it represented a world beyond the confines of Down the Bay.
In 1926, Satchel found his path cross with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, a team in the Negro Southern League. He was twenty, as youthful as springtime and green as the grass on the baseball field. But what he lacked in experience, he made up for with an arm like a cannon and a heart as fierce as a lion’s.
Satchel was the kind of player who could make a crowd hold their breath. He was a natural, a phenom, a rare talent that comes along once in a lifetime. He became famous for his hesitation pitch, a trick that baffled batters and thrilled spectators. It was like watching a dancer on the mound, his movements graceful, his pitches lethal.
Through the 1930s and ’40s, Satchel played for several teams in the Negro Leagues, from the Birmingham Black Barons to the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Kansas City Monarchs. Then, shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, in 1948, Satchel signed with the Cleveland Indians. While no one is certain of his exact age, he was believed to be around 40 years old, the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball history.
On July 9th, on a warm summer night in Cleveland, in front of almost 35,000 people, Satchel took the mound for the first time wearing his Indians jersey. That day he became the first black pitcher in American League history. He pitched a couple of innings, giving up some hits but no runs.
Then, on August 3rd, he was given a chance to start, pitching in front of over 72,000 people. A couple of days later, Satchel started once again. This time, he threw a shutout. Didn’t even allow a single extra-base hit.
Seven days later, 78,382 fans came to watch him pitch in Cleveland. He threw another shutout, becoming the oldest pitcher to throw back-to-back shutouts.
That year, Satchel finished the season with a 6–1 record, a 2.48 ERA, and the Rookie of the Year award. More importantly, he helped the Cleveland Indians win the World Series, a feat as grand as the dreams he’d carried all those years.
Satchel was considered one of the best. A baseball superstar once remarked, “I know who’s the best pitcher I ever seen and it’s old Satchel Paige. My fastball looks like a change of pace alongside that little pistol bullet ol’ Satchel shoots up to the plate.” Many other superstars felt the same way.
Even at 59, when he made a one-time appearance for the Kansas City Athletics, he pitched three innings and only allowed one hit. It was a testament to the man’s spirit, love for the game, and tireless ability to defy the odds.
Satchel once said, “Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.” And indeed, for Satchel Paige, it never did. He played the game his way, with an infectious joy and passion that transcended the boundaries of the baseball field. He pitched, he dreamt, and in doing so, he taught us all a little something about the resilience of the human spirit.
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- This story was updated on May 28th, 2023.
“Satchel Paige achieves his dream to be an MLB pitcher” sources: Portrait of Satchel Paige taken in 1948 – Wikimedia Commons / Dizzy Dean Quotes – Baseball Almanac / Baseball: the biographical encyclopedia by David Pietrusza, Published by Total Sports Illustrated, Kingston, N.Y., 2000
To cite: “The short story of Satchel Paige.” Historical Snapshots.