Though baseball is referred to as America's favorite pastime, it wasn't so long ago that it came in different colors. And if ever there was engaging, living evidence of the injustice and stupidity of racial prejudice, it lay in the incredibly strong arm and equally enduring personality of one Leroy Robert (Satchel) Paige. Mr. Paige, who died Tuesday at his home in Kansas City, Mo., was believed to be 75. But the years never mattered; on the diamond he was ageless, to be outlasted only by the story of what he called "my 100-year career in baseball."
For too many of those years, Jim Crow kept Mr. Paige and scores of other brilliant black ballplayers out of the the major leagues. Still, there were millions of fans who watched this dazzling hurler during his more than two decades of barnstorming with Negro teams all over the country, the Caribbean and Central America. Best guesses are that Mr. Paige pitched perhaps a good 2,500 games and certainly a fantastic 55 no-hitters. Would you believe 104 wins in 105 games in 1934? Or 29 starting games in one month? Or 62 consecutive scoreless innings? Or striking out 60 batters in 40 innings?
Bill Veeck believed, just as he believed in talent and not in color barriers. It was he who signed Mr. Paige--at the age of at least 42--to a major league contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1948. And then did this "old man" ever show white America just a phenomenal bit of what it had been missing.
Some fans still thought it was to be some promotional gimmick. But Mr. Paige followed six relief appearances with his first start, in which he defeated the--ah, yes--Washington Senators. In no time, he compiled a record of six wins, one loss and a brief appearance in the World Series. In 1952 and 1953, he enjoyed two more great American League All-Star seasons, returning again in 1965 for an appearance with the Kansas City Athletics at the probable age of 58, the oldest man to play major league baseball.
Was he the greatest? "Let 'em argue," Dizzy Dean once said. "The best pitcher I ever seen is ol' Satchel Paige. My fast ball looks like a change of pace alongside that little pistol bullet Satch shoots up the plate." And how did he do it? "I never threw an illegal pitch," Mr. Paige said. "The trouble is, once in a while I toss one that ain't never been seen by this generation."