Satchel Paige finally looked back yesterday and death overtook him

But not in time.

For once, death, and the death in life of prejudice, could claim nothing but the skeleton of an old man. Satchel Paige got away free.

Thus ended one of baseball's most heroic and tragic lives.

Heroic, because Paige, by endurance and skill, outlasted injustice. Although the majors didn't find room for him until 1948, when he was at least 42, Paige left a legend so large that no page of statistics could significantly alter his mark.

"I did not see Walter Johnson, but Leroy was the best I ever saw," said Bill Veeck yesterday. "If his career had run its full course in the major leagues, Paige would have held every record there was.

"He had the best fast ball, the best control and the most knowledge of pitching of anyone. Even in his late 40s, he warmed up by putting a package of cigarettes on the outside corner of the plate. That was his target," said Veeck, Paige's boss during his five big-league seasons.

"Paige threw overhand, sidearm, underarm and crossfire. All his pitches moved and tailed. He had a great change-up as well as his hesitation pitch and eephus (blooper) pitch. He had a presence on the field that was comparable to no one but Babe Ruth.

"In five years, I believe Ted Williams had one hit off him and Joe DiMaggio two," recalled Veeck. " . . . You could tell that those were the only two hitters he looked on as his equals."

The sadness of Paige's baseball life has little to do with him directly. After all, by living an ill-charted, almost mythical life full of anecdote and folk wisdom, Paige actually may have increased the durability and weight of his chapter in the sport's tome.

The Paige tragedy is that, by his excellence, he proved that 50 years worth of black-league players had been wronged more severely than white America ever suspected.

On the other hand, Paige's life, seen only as an indefatigable, wise and funny personal odyssey, is a cheerful tale.

"Leroy had tremendous self-confidence, but he was not a braggart. He took enormous pride in performance. But he had his own priorities. Like fishing. Once, in St. Louis with the Browns, he arrived at the park in the seventh inning carrying a huge channel catfish, about 80 pounds," Veeck recalled. "He said, 'Burrhead, isn't this more important than the first six innings of a game?' "

Veeck, known for his broad view, agreed. "Leroy missed a few planes, but he got to the game by the time you really needed him. Once, in Washington at Griffith Stadium, he came in late, got in to pitch in the seventh inning, then finally won the game with a hit in the 17th," said Veeck. "My wife and I waited and waited for him afterward because we were supposed to go out for clams. Finally, I found him up in the clubhouse with everybody around him enthralled. He was giving a dissertation on hitting . . .

"Paige was a natural showman, like the way he ambled into a ball game from the bullpen--this old gentleman, not one to rush into difficulties. But that showmanship was not without malice aforethought. Leroy was unlettered, but not unlearned. He could call on a great fund of general knowledge.

"All those wise sayings he's credited with, like 'the social rumble ain't restful' and 'if your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts,' well, I'd say most of them are actually true," said Veeck.

"Satchel never liked to have anybody beat him at anything," recalled Cool Papa Bell yesterday. "I was the one who taught him how to control his curve ball and throw a knuckleball. A week after I'd showed him the knuckler, he called me over and said, 'Now you throw it.' People watchin' us saw he was throwin' it better than I was, so they said, 'See how Satchel's teaching Cool Papa the knuckleball.' "

Paige met considerable resistance in 1948. "(The publisher of The Sporting News) was always deriding us for signing Paige, saying it made a farce of the game," said Veeck. "Everytime he won, I'd send (the publisher) a wire: 'Winning pitcher, Paige.'

"Also, the umpires weren't going to give this old black legend any of the best of it. He threw to a plate that was shorter and narrower than anybody else's. But he still fooled 'em."

In the end, Paige disarmed those who thought they hated him. "He never forced himself on anyone," said Veeck. "He'd sit alone at one end of the Pullman car. But, in 10 minutes, the whole (Indians) team would be gathered around him."

As a St. Louis Brown, Paige had one intractable enemy--Louisiana-born catcher Clint Courtney, who wouldn't even warm up Paige, much less catch him in a game. "Then one day," Veeck related, "I noticed Clint was warming him up. The next week, in Detroit, I walked into a bar in Detroit called The Flame. There were Leroy and Clint having dinner together.

"Courtney told me, 'My pap's comin' up tomorrow from Lou'siana and he's gonna be mighty mad when he hears about us being friends. But Satch and me figure we can whup him together.' "