2008 was a good year for older athletes. Kurt Warner shocked the NFL by nearly leading the Cardinals to the Superbowl at age thirty-eight.
Carlos Delgado, at thirty six, managed to out-homer his age by two. At the age of forty-five Jamie Moyer went 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA to help the Phillies win a tight NL East race and go on to win the World Series.
All these accomplishments pale in comparison to the legacy of Satchel Paige.
Paige made his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948. Paige’s age was listed at forty-two, though Satchel maintained an air of mystery about his true age.
There’s much disagreement as to whether or not the listed age was accurate. Some claim Paige, always the consummate showman, simply invented the idea of an inaccuracy as a publicity stunt.
Paige began his professional career with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts in 1926, advancing to the Birmingham Black Barons the next year. This seems to indicate that at the very least his listed age was within one or two years of being accurate. His listed birth date of July 7, 1906 would put him at the age of twenty when he started pitching with Chattanooga.
Satchel’s accomplishments as a rookie are impressive regardless of his age. Working as a reliever and spot-starter, Paige went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA, striking out almost twice as many as he walked.
The Indians won the pennant and later the World Series. In the playoffs he pitched 2/3 of an inning without giving up a hit.
He followed it up with a solid year in 1949, posting a 3.04 ERA and a 1.241 WHIP, but was unlucky, and went 4-7. The Indians released Satchel on February 17, 1950 and Paige didn’t play in the majors that year.
He was reunited with Bill Veeck, former owner of the Cleveland Indians, when he signed with the St. Louis Browns on July 14, 1951 at the age of forty-five. Paige struggled, going 3-4 with a 4.79 ERA, but he did have a 1.66 strikeout-walk ratio.
Many thought that Paige was washed up by this point, but Veeck stuck with him.
“Everybody kept telling me he was through,” Veeck later said. “That was understandable. They thought he was human.”
The next year saw Paige make what must be one of the best comebacks in Major League history. Paige went 12-10 for a team that went 64-90, posted a 3.07 ERA, and recorded ten saves.
He also pitched a career high 138 innings, giving up only five home runs. The amazing thing is that it was far from Paige’s first comeback.
In 1938 he developed a sore arm while playing in Mexico, and lost much of the velocity on his fastball. Many believed his career was over.
While playing in Mexico, however, and later with the Kansas City Monarchs’ traveling team (a kind of b-squad) he developed several off-speed pitches to compensate for his loss of velocity.
Although his fastball never was again what it had been before his arm troubles, he regained much of his velocity and emerged from the ordeal a much more mature pitcher. He joined the Monarchs’ league team for the tail end of the 1939 season.
He became an incredible grate attraction for the Monarchs, who started him every day for publicity. It was an odd set up, but Paige pitched well under the conditions and it helped the Monarchs make money.
Paige followed up with a solid year in 1953, posting a 3.53 ERA, but went 3-9 for the last place Browns. He didn’t accompany the franchise on their move to Baltimore (to become the Orioles) as he was released on February 2, 1954, at age 47.
His Major League accomplishments are impressive enough on their own, but when you take into account that the guy had pitched 20-something years in the Negro Leagues, where teams played many exhibition games in addition to the regular league schedule, and also played south of the border most winters, they are astounding. Satchel had already squeezed at least two careers worth of games into one before he ever pitched in the majors.
To top it all off, in 1965, at the listed age of 59, Paige pitched three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics, surrendering just one hit and no walks. That the man just might have been sixty makes it even better.
I think it’s fair to say that this his record as the oldest pitcher in a Major League game will stand for awhile. Paige’s accomplishments will never be matched.
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