Satchel Paige wheezed heavily, inserted a tube into his nostrils from a portable oxygen pack nearby and waved away the chair offered to him. He wanted to stand up to address 56 of his fellow Negro league veterans and 500 townspeople who had come out to honor him and Cool Papa Bell Wednesday.

Paige, who suffered from emphysema, had turned down an invitation from President Reagan to be at Ashland for the third annual Negro league reunion, although he admitted debating the matter with his wife Lahoma -- "the boss" -- before deciding.

The Ashland meeting is a reunion of oldtime black ballpayers, isn't it? she asked.

He admitted that it was.

"Well," she said. "That's you. Have you looked in the mirror lately?"

From Clint Thomas, 83, the so-called black Joe DiMaggio, who began his career with the Detroit Stars in 1922 to Willie Mays, who played with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1949, it was the biggest gathering of black veterans under a single roof.

"To tell you the truth, all these players here, I either played with or against them," Satchel said.

"And if you want to know the truth," he said, I wasn't the onliest one who could pitch in the Negro leagues. I told them at Cooperstown we had a lot of Satchels. We had top pitchers. We had quite a few men who could hit the ball like Babe (Ruth) and Josh (Gibson).

"They said we couldn't play ball. They said we had tails. But we showed them we're people like anyone else.

"I got in trouble at Cooperstown for saying we had players in our league who didn't have to go to a farm club before they went to the major leagues," Paige said. "They told me to sit down. That's why I don't go back to Cooperstown. And I'm not going back, either.

"The majors broke us up. Then they took whoever they wanted to."

Another town he won't go back to is Cleveland. After he had helped pitch the Indians to the pennant in 1948 with six victories and only one defeat in a close race, he was given only a token appearance in the World Series.

"That's why I don't go back there, either." he said.

But Paige said he was glad to be in Ashland -- "At my age, I'm glad to be anywhere."

Mays, who flew to Ashland in answer to an urgent call from his old manager on the Black Barons, recalled hitting a double off the ancient Paige when Mays was only 15.

Who's that young fellow there?" Paige demanded of first baseman John (Buck) O'Neil. "Let me know when he comes back up."

"I come to the plate," Mays said. "The first baseman says, "Here he is.' You know, I didn't come close to hitting him again."

Paige remembered the game. But as he recalled it. Mays had not hit a double, he had robbed Paige of a double to center. Paige is very proud, and sensitive, about his hitting.

Mays said he got his "comeback" training from the Black Barons. When Kansas City Monarch pitcher Chet Brewer, now a Pittsburgh scout, hit Mays with a wild pitch, the teen-ager lay at the plate, awaiting succor. No one moved to help him. Finally Manager Lorenzo (Piper) Davis came out and asked if Mays could see first base. When Mays said he could, Davis told him to get up and get on it.

"History to us means surviving," Mays said. "And that's what I did. They made me survive."

When he signed with the New York Giants' Tenton, N.J., farm club in 1949, Mays said, he not only took a cut in pay, but the caliber of ball was much lower than he had played at Birmingham.

"I'm proud that these fellows sent me to the majors," Mays said, indicating the other vets. "I learned baseball from these people. I learned how to hit certain pitches, how to control my mind, how to get knocked down and get up and hit again. I learned all these things before I came to the majors. The majors were easy for me. I have no reason to say I was a major league ball player by myself."

Joe Black, former Dodger pitcher and now a vice president for Greyhound, said, "I hated all white people when I was 17. They told me I couldn't play baseball." But when he saw the Baltimore Elite Giants play, with catcher Roy Campanella and others, "I got my chin off my chest, stopped felling sorry for myself. They made me believe I could do something. These people encourage Willie and me."

Altogether, six Hall of Famers came to the reunion -- Paige, Bell, Mays, Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson and Monte Irvin, who played in both worlds, the Newark Eagles of the Negro National Leauge and the New York Giants of the National League.

In Cuba, Irvin recalled "Fidel Castro worked out with us. If we had known he wanted to be a dictator, we'd have made him an umpire."

Bell, who shared the guest of honor's place with Paige, revealed for the first time just how old Paige is. "I'm 3 years and 20 days older than he is," said Bell, "and I'm 107."

Once the fastest man in spiked shoes, Bell suffers from failing eyesight and swollen feet. "In my prime," he said, "it seemed like I could jump over the team bus. Now, someone has to lift me in there. Not only in, but out."

Paige once said of Bell that he was so fast he could turn out the light and jump in bed before the room got dark.

Bell said he and Paige were roommates once when Bell discovered that the light switch in the hotel room had a short in it; when he flicked the switch, there was four- or five-second delay before the lights went out. He double-checked and got the same results every time.

When Paige came in that night, Bell says he told him, "Sit down over there a minute, I want to show you something."

Bell undressed, put on his pajamas, flicked the light switch, strolled over to bed, laid down and pulled the sheets up. Bing, the light went out.

Turning to his roommate in the dark, he said, "See, Satchel? You been tellin' people that story about me for years, and even you didn't know it was true."