Ask most Americans what's special about “April 15” and they’ll reflexively answer, “Tax Day.” But name the same date to baseball people or civil rights activists, and they are just as likely to respond, “Jackie Robinson Day.” On April 15, 1945, he became the first black man to play in a Major League Baseball game.
But there’s much more to the history of race within the game than just one man. Robinson's story merely opens the door to that of The Negro Leagues, and there’s so much to that story, it’ll take decades before all the tales are exhausted.
So gather ‘round, chillun, I’ve a tale for you about a player who some say outshone Jackie Robinson: Mr. Satchel Paige.
I first heard of Satchel years ago on a visit to the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas, Mo. (This, by the way, is a great place, where full-size statues of the players stand around in one of the rooms.) But it wasn’t until I saw Soul of the Game that I really got into his story.
Paige and Josh Gibson vie with one another to be the first Afro-American major leaguer, only to watch rookie Jackie Robinson take the honor. As Paige was boisterous, outspoken, and drawn to trouble, Robinson was more subdued and led a “normal” life, leaving Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey to decide he would make a better case for integrating baseball. It’s doubtful that Paige could have “turned the other cheek,” as Robinson did, while fans hurled rotten food and racial epithets at him.
His full name was Leroy Robert "Satchel" Paige, and, as with most stories about him, there are several of how he got his nickname. He worked at the train station toting people’s bags as a child. He supposedly built a contraption to carry several bags at once, later being compared to a “walking satchel tree." But another boyhood friend said he gave Paige the nickname when the future player was caught trying to steal a bag.
The second story sounds about right. Just before his 12th birthday, Paige was arrested for shoplifting and was sent to reform school. Paige used his time—six years—to develop his pitching skills.
Paige played for many teams in The Negro Leagues and was so good that fans came to games just to see him pitch. It wasn’t just the pitching they loved, but also his antics.
For instance, in the ninth inning of a 1–0 ballgame, his teammates made three consecutive errors, loading the bases for the other team with two outs. Paige stomped furiously around the mound until fans started booing him. He then called in the outfielders and made them sit down in the infield while he struck out the final batter and won the game.
Paige's personal life was also full of drama. He married twice and had seven children—which obviously didn't keep him at home. When his team played in Cuba, he got into trouble over "a young lady from the provincial mulatto bourgeoisie." The girl’s family thought they were engaged, only to send cops after him to force the engagement when they learned he was only dating her. Paige was one step ahead—he fled the country.
Paige longed to play in the majors. In the early 1930s, he played in the same city as a white major league team and could see their stadium during the game. He said it ate away at him to play “in its shadow.” He did get to play against major-league talent, though, competing in a winter league in California for elite black and white baseball players. He allegedly struck out Babe Ruth four times.
During World War II, Paige frequently pitched in exhibitions to sell war bonds and raise money for war-related charities. With many of the major league’s best players away in the service, Paige was the highest paid athlete in the world at $40,000 a year.
In 1945, Rickey signed Robinson to the Dodgers. Paige may have been jealous, but he realized it was better that he not be the first. For one thing, he would have been too insulted to start in the minors. More importantly, Robinson was told never to retaliate, no matter what white people did. He agreed not to lose his temper—and he didn't.
In Paige's autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, he wrote, “Signing Jackie like they did still hurt me deep down. I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time. I’d been the one who’d opened up the major league parks to colored teams. I’d been the one who the white boys wanted to go barnstorming against.” In public, Paige just said that Robinson was “the greatest colored player I’ve ever seen.”
In 1948, on his 42nd birthday, Paige finally signed his first major league contract, $40,000 with three months left in the season. He was the first African-American pitcher in the American League and the seventh black big-leaguer overall.
After leaving baseball, Paige appeared in The Wonderful Country, a movie starring Robert Mitchum and Julie London, as a Union army cavalry sergeant of a segregated black unit. He was paid $10,000, and the movie became the pride of his life. In 1968, he was named deputy sheriff of Kansas City, a way of getting political credentials so he could run for state assembly—which he lost.
He returned to baseball in 1969, becoming pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves, mainly so he could get a major league pension.
A heart attack claimed Paige's life in 1982.
He was famous for his quotes; here are a few samples:
"I never rush myself. See, they can't start the game without me."
"Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common."
"I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I would toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation."