The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Satchel Paige remains a Kansas City icon, but time has taken a toll on his former home

Satchel Paige lived in this Kansas City house and made a home in the city. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the coming days, if plans hold, the Kansas City Missouri Homesteading Authority will start seeking formal proposals from developers for a massive house on 28th Street, in the heart of the historic Santa Fe neighborhood.

The house has boards instead of windows and a wire fence around its perimeter. It looks like many of the houses in the neighborhood — majestic but worn around the edges, its beauty as evident as the toll that time has taken.

But this house stands in a particular state of regal disrepair, as if trying to defy dilapidation, though the years have not been kind. Locals keep an eye on it. The neighborhood association has been trying to fix it up for years. Everyone knows Satchel Paige used to live in that house, and everyone in Kansas City knows Satchel Paige.

Paige was one of the all-time great characters in baseball, a prolific pitcher with a memorable fastball and decades of success. He made a name for himself in the Negro Leagues, debuting in the majors at 42. He pitched his last major league game at 59, a record that is unlikely to be broken.

He is a cultural icon, too. At the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, a whole wall is dedicated to Satchel, no last name needed. Houston Astros Manager Dusty Baker speaks often of a book he owns about Paige, one he has kept in his office during many of his managerial stints, loaning it out to players as an honor of sorts, when he thought they could benefit from Paige’s story. Hawk-eyed observers noticed that President Biden keeps an old Paige baseball card in the Oval Office.

But many of those who played with Paige are no longer living. The elementary school Kansas City named after him has closed. The field named after him is in disrepair. For his family, the house represents a chance to revitalize that legacy, to make sure “Satch,” as so many teammates knew him, lives on for generations.

Paige’s relatives would like to buy the property but don’t have the money. So for now, they watch anxiously as the city asks developers to make their pitch, hoping they can be part of whatever is next for the home in which they were raised.

Linda Paige Shelby is one of eight children Paige and his wife, LaHoma, raised in that house. Shelby moved out of it decades ago. The roof had started to leak. The electric bills were massive. She worried she was doing harm to the home by falling behind on upkeep without the money to catch up. She prayed for months about what to do. Eventually she decided to let it go, to an owner the family had known a little bit beforehand.

“He went through so much to get what he obtained. I feel horrible that I was the one that actually couldn’t maintain the home,” Shelby said. “But I had tried everything possible.”

But that owner, who has since died, neglected the property, too, Shelby said. The city eventually bought it. Then, in 2018, as the Paige family again was trying to find a way to buy the home, it burned. No one knows what happened.

“I can’t stop to think about why,” Shelby said. “We’re too busy trying to just move forward.”

Shelby and her family didn’t have the money to do much with the house then. The Santa Fe Neighborhood Association secured a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the city and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) for more than $250,000 to stabilize the property, to board the windows, to build that fence and to make sure it was weather-tight — “a labor of love,” Santa Fe Area Council head Marquita Taylor said.

“Having the knowledge of how important this is for our community, for our city, for it to be recognized after all these years and bring back the history before it’s lost,” Taylor said. “The history of the greatest pitcher of all time. There’s so many that don’t know. They’ve heard the name, but they really don’t know.”

Thousands of tourists come to Kansas City each year to celebrate the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has helped elevate the profile of Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard and so many others who weren’t allowed to play alongside the White stars of the time. Paige’s legend, for example, first grew as he pitched for multiple teams in multiple Negro Leagues for organizations that sometimes came and went as fast as he did.

He was known to barnstorm with one team one night and drive hours through the night to pitch again for another the next day. He, like many Negro Leaguers, spent his winters in Latin America, where the money and the weather were good. The more often he pitched, the more often he got paid.

Not until his arm gave out in 1938, leaving him unable to chase checks as he had for years, did Paige find a long-term home. J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the more stable Negro League teams, gave him a chance with a traveling team that fed the main Monarchs roster as Paige’s arm recovered. By 1941, he was a regular starter for the Monarchs, and he remained with the team until 1947 — his longest stint with any organization.

But as Paige’s wanderlust subsided, he found a home in Kansas City — at that house on 28th Street. Shelby remembers Paige as a doting father who taught his girls to shoot and showed off his arm at carnival games, who offered them bourbon and honey when they were sick and who told high-profile visitors stories you wouldn’t believe.

Trophies lined the shelves of their home back then. Black icons such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington would visit when they weren’t out drawing crowds to the legendary jazz scene on 18th and Vine. The Harlem Globetrotters were known to stop by now and then, too. The home was a symbol of all Paige had achieved and a sanctuary for those who understood what he had endured.

Paige and his family lived there through his final years with the Monarchs, then as he was finally welcomed into the majors with the Cleveland Indians at 42. They stayed until he died in 1982.

Now Shelby won’t even visit the property because it’s too painful to see the house in disrepair. Managing her father’s legacy has never been easy. She says she chats with other families of former Negro Leaguers, commiserating about the challenges of preserving the legacy of leagues that lost their talent to the majors and their financial viability in the process.

Shelby knows restoring the house to its 1950s glory is likely to cost more than she and her family can afford, though she and her siblings, who run the Satchel Paige Foundation, started a GoFundMe in hopes of raising enough money to buy the property from the city and start renovations. They set a target of $350,000. So far, they have accumulated less than $3,000.

“I know they’re laughing at that,” said Shelby, who worries that an outside developer would not feel a need to incorporate the family into planning or consultation for whatever fate it chose for the house. The family members would love to be co-owners of the house moving forward, so they can have a say in how Paige’s story is told.

“We don’t want a dime,” she said.

Instead, Shelby said, her family just hopes to make the house as representative of her father’s legacy as possible. One of her siblings has the family’s old dining room set and is ready to return it to a restored home. Paige’s trophies were destroyed in the fire, Shelby said, but there are pictures, so they could be replicated.

Bradley Wolf, Kansas City’s historic preservation officer, said the city would be open to proposals to turn the house into a museum to Paige’s legacy, but he and the family know those exhibits often aren’t moneymakers and the home might need to function in other ways to sustain itself.

“Most likely we’ll picture some type of use that includes some type of income-producing,” Wolf said. “Maybe some event space, depending on how it’s used. We’re pretty open to what people come up with.”

He said anyone who wanted to recognize Paige’s history with the house will “have to get permission from the Satchel Paige Foundation,” meaning the family is likely to have some role. But Shelby worries that no one else would care for Paige’s legacy as much as those who knew him best.

“We’re coming from a place of emotion and love, and that doesn’t die. It doesn’t go away,” Shelby said. “As long as you use it for an honorable purpose to preserve his legacy, we’re on board with that.”