From Mobile to Cleveland to Cooperstown
July 7, 1906
On this date, approximately one hundred years ago, the seventh of eleven children was born to John and Lula Paige in the town of Mobile, Alabama. This child would turn out a little more successful than the other ten; he would eventually be honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Leroy “Satchel” Paige was born somewhere between 1900 and 1910, but no one knew exactly when — not even Paige himself. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the town of Mobile didn’t keep perfect records and the birth certificate that came to be accepted as Paige’s didn’t have his last name spelled right. During his remarkably long baseball career Satchel would constantly joke about his age, and teammates would all take guesses at how old he really was. Paige once responded to the question of how old he was by answering, “As old as (Cleveland Indians owner) Mr. Veeck wants me to be.”
Leroy was the son of a gardener and his father would sometimes ask him, “You want to be a baseball player ‘stead of a landscaper?” “Yes,” young Leroy would reply and his father would simply nod his head in contentment. At the age of six he went to school, but quickly got into the habit of skipping out. His mother didn’t mind as long as he came home with some money to help feed the twelve other mouths in the house. When he was seven she sent him out to get his first job, carrying bags and satchels at a depot.
While Leroy wasn’t very book smart, he wasn’t dumb either. He had a natural ingenuity about him that spawned his unique windup and inspired him to give nicknames to each of his pitches. However, his creativity was on display long before he became a baseball player. While working at the depot, he grabbed a pole and attached a few satchels so he could carry them at the same time to make more money. The other kids laughed at him, calling him “a walking satchel tree.” After that, Leroy Robert Paige disappeared and Satchel Paige was born.
At that young age Satchel discovered that he could control where he threw things — not by hurling baseballs in a ballpark, but by throwing rocks at chickens, birds and other kids. This rock-throwing (along with his penchant for fighting and stealing) ended when Paige was sent to an industrial school to control his behavior. There, not only did Satchel learn how to behave, he learned how to pitch.
By the time Paige turned sixteen he had already grown to his full height — six feet, three-and-a-half inches. Even though he was a string bean, weighing in at just one hundred and forty pounds, his long limbs and amazing control helped him dominate the Negro Leagues at an early age. During exhibition games he really showed his prowess, and Joe DiMaggio once called him the best pitcher he had ever faced.
Even though baseball’s color line didn’t fall until Paige was in his forties, old Satch remained determined to make the majors. On July 7th, 1948 (Satchel’s birthday) he got a well-deserved gift from the Cleveland Indians — a major-league contract. At first the media had a field day, dismissing the move as a publicity stunt by Cleveland owner Bill Veeck. But Paige pitched well for Cleveland. During one point in the season he tied a major-league record with four consecutive shutouts. The oldest rookie in the majors, Paige finished with a 6-1 record and a 2.48 ERA.
Even though he only pitched six seasons in the majors, Leroy “Satchel” Paige clearly deserved recognition among baseball’s greatest stars. On June 10, 1971, he was selected for the Hall of Fame. Less than a month later, on his birthday — twenty-three years after he signed with the Indians — Satch got the place he deserved in Cooperstown when Major League Baseball decided that Negro League honorees would not be housed in a separate wing, but in the Hall itself.