The first time I saw Satchel Paige was on a muggy May evening in 1944 in Washington's old billboard-studded Griffith Stadium at the corner of Georgia and Florida avenues.
The park, where the Howard University Hospital stands now, was packed that night with 30,000 black fans, and every here or there a pink face or two. We had come to see the two greatest players in the game that year, Paige and Washington's Josh Gibson, renew their classic rivalry.
I don't remember how the duel came out, but I know Gibson didn't hit any home runs. And Buck Leonard, the Washington Grays' first baseman who now is in the Hall of Fame, didn't get any hits. In 14 years of trying, Leonard never got a hit off Paige.
"He threw fire, that's what he threw," Leonard said. "The ball would get up to the plate and rise just a little, just enough for you to miss it."
The next time I saw Paige was in October 1948 in the World Series in Cleveland before 86,288 people, at that time the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game. Paige had joined the Indians in midseason in what The Sporting News sneered was "a publicity stunt" by owner Bill Veeck. Paige won six games, lost one and had five saves. The Indians that year beat the Boston Red Sox in the first American League playoff.
The Indians wouldn't have been in the series without Paige, but Cleveland Manager Lou Boudreau didn't give him a Series start.
Finally, in the fifth game with the Indians losing, 10-5, Paige was called in. I remember the umpire running to the mound to wag a finger at Paige for using the hesitation pitch (stride and then throw). The umpire called a balk, but Paige didn't need the pitch. He retired the side, then was lifted for a pinch hitter.
Why didn't Boudreau start him? Paige was asked. "There was something wrong with my skin, I guess," he answered.
The third time I saw Paige was at his induction into the Hall of Fame. He had been elected to Cooperstown in 1971, although the original plan had been to put him and other stars of the old Negro leagues in a "special section," sort of "the back of the bus." A protest stopped that, however, and Paige's plaque rests next to those of the white stars he played against and beat.
But Paige boycotted the annual Hall of Fame day for many years. "I'm not in love with Cooperstown, I can tell you that," he said.
The feud began when Paige told a gathering at the shrine that Negro leaguers didn't need any white minor league training before going into the white majors. A functionary told him to sit down. "That's why I don't go back to Cooperstown," Paige said.
"Who put the big leagues back on their legs (after World War II)?" he asked. The question was rhetorical, but Paige made it clear his answer was the stars of the Negro leagues.
"They said we couldn't play," Paige said. "But we showed 'em we were like anybody else."
The last time I saw Paige was in Ashland, Ky., in June 1981 at the annual Negro leaguers reunion. Although he obviously was seriously ill, he held court like the potentate he was, entertaining fans and answering reporters' questions.
When he died Monday at age 75, the game--and the world--had changed profoundly since that night I first saw him in 1944. And Paige had helped make it change.