Hall of Famer and blackball legend Satchel Paige was almost as good a storyteller as he was a pitcher. In a career spanning five decades and a dozen countries, Satchel accumulated countless great tales of his exploits, and the one I’m about to tell is one of his most famous.
In 1937 the Dominican Republic was ruled by a nasty dictator named Rafael Trujillo who found his control over the island nation beginning to slip. Opposition groups formed in distant parts of the country and one rival in particular began gaining in popularity, partly through his alliance to a powerful baseball team in the Dominican Baseball League. An election loomed in 1938 and there was no way Trujillo was going to lose. What better way to regain the heart and minds of a baseball-mad country than field an even greater team to represent the capitol city, Ciudad Trujillo (one of the perks of being dictator is you get to rename the capitol city after yourself).
So in the spring of 1937, Dominican agents were dispatched to America and bring back a team of hired guns to win the pennant for Trujillo. According to Paige, a carfull of Trujillo’s torpedoes abducted him off a New Orleans street at gunpoint and took him to a hotel room. Confronted with an offer he couldn’t refuse bolstered by a suitcase filled with money, Paige agreed to assemble a dream team of outsider ballplayers.
Ok, let’s pause there and hose down Paige’s tale and see what it looks like underneath.
Rafael Trujillo was indeed the dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 up until he was assassinated in 1961. A look through Latin American history books confirm that the Trujillo regime was in fact a bit wobbly in the spring of ‘37. Opposition groups were gaining strength in the country side and El Presidente’s secret police roamed the streets in a red Packard dubbed “carro de la muerte” (“car of death”) picking up dissidents. He was one bad dude.
Satchel Paige was, of course, the most famous ball player outside the major leagues. In the spring of 1937 he was with with Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords, considered by most historians to be the greatest assemblage of blackball talent before integration. Though not as well known as the Puerto Rican and Cuban leagues, there was a Dominican Baseball League that attracted many Caribbean ballplayers during the mid 1930’s. For 1937, Liga Dominicana was streamlined to three teams representing the country’s biggest cities: Águilas Cibaeñas (Santiago), Estrellas Orientales (San Pedro de Macorís) and Los Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo. The Santiago team was supported by Trujillo’s opposition and boasted some top-draw talent imported from Cuba and the United States. They were the odd-on favorite to win the ‘37 pennant.
Dr. José Enrique Aybar, Trujillo’s pal and head of the National Congress, took the reins of Ciudad Trujillo and figured if he made it a winner it would bolster El President’s popularity. Los Dragones already had a few key Latino stars including pitcher Rudy Fernandez and Puerto Rican slugger Perucho Cepeda, but to guarantee a championship Dr. Aybar sought out the best money could buy and that meant Satchel Paige. As far as the abduction at gunpoint story goes, it most likely never happened. Paige is well-known for disdain for authority, and I for one can’t see him working for a bunch of thugs waving automatics around, no matter what the size of the paycheck. Most likely the doctor had his men track down the elusive Paige and invite him to Aybar’s hotel suite. Surrounded by luxury, not guns, the pitcher was offered $30,000 to recruit and fund a team of Negro League stars. Not as fun as the gun-toting Latino-gangster story, but that’s most likely how it went down that spring.
Paige was training with the Crawfords and since they had the best roster in blackball at the time, he knew the right men for the job. First was his personal catcher, Cy Perkins. Then came Cool Papa Bell, the team’s speed-demon hit-machine. The addition of Sam Bankhead, Leroy Matlock, Schoolboy Griffith and Harry Williams effectively gutted the Pittsburgh Crawfords. When Josh Gibson, blackball’s greatest slugger and almost Paige’s equal in popularity was recruited, Crawfords’ owner Gus Greenlee contacted his congressman about a foreign power stealing his players. While a minor international incident heated up, Paige and his mercenaries ducked out of the country.
The 8 week, 32 game season had already begun when Paige and his men arrived. They were fêted like the stars they were and almost immediately the night life took its toll. Paige, hung-over in his first start, performed poorly. Gibson couldn’t hit and quickly Santiago was atop the Liga Dominicana standings. Dr. Aybar’s plan to boost Presidente Trujillo’s image now began to make him look like a fool. That, in a dictatorship with secret police roving the streets in “cars of death”, was not a good thing.
According to Paige, Trujillo reacted just the way you’d expect from a dictator. Paige often told how the team was shadowed by armed escorts and locked up at night, virtual prisoners. The truth, as Los Dragonnes pitcher Rudy Fernández told it, was a little less extreme. Since the D.R. was not exactly a crime-free paradise and there were revolutionaries and other unsavory characters roaming around, an armed escort was sent out to make sure no harm came to the pricey imports. When the American’s night-clubbing and womanizing began to affect their game, Dr. Aybar put a stop to it by secluding a few of the key members, including Paige, on the nights before a game. The result was that Ciudad Trujillo began climbing up the standings. Again, not as cinematographic as being locked in a cell and held prisoner Caribbean Gestapo knock-offs, but the truth was still something you didn’t see in baseball back in the states.
With a dozen games left to play, Ciudad Trujillo was neck and neck with Santiago. Though they didn’t have the star-power like Paige, Bell and Gibson, Santiago had as strong a team as Los Dragonnes. Cuban superstar Martin Dihigo is widely regarded as the greatest ball player of all time. Chet Brewer was one of the best pitchers outside the majors during the 20’s and 30’s and often considered as good or better than Satchel Paige. Luis Tiant, father of the future Red Sox pitcher, rounded out a solid rotation. Clyde Spearman was one of Paige’s Crawfords teammates and was runner up for the Liga Dominicana batting crown that year.
Since Estrellas Orientales was out of the running, the league was narrowed down to just the two top teams and eight games left to play. Ciudad Trujillo took the first four and Paige, who seemed to benefit from his enforced sobriety, won two of them. Still, Santiago remained ahead by less than a percentage point and if they won three of the remaining four games they would be champs. Although a few of the team’s Cubans including Luis Tiant deserted, Águilas Cibaeñas took the next two games. One more and the championship was theirs.
Now this is a pretty dramatic set up, right? Two games left, winner take all? Two teams of baseball mercenaries, one representing a banana republic dictator and the other the voice of opposition - you couldn’t dream something like that up. But Paige could turn any good story into a made-for-TV movie.
In his memoirs and quite a few newspaper and magazine stories, Paige recalled how the gun-toting crowd was primed for revolution - a clear warning to win or else. Pitching the game of his life, Paige still found himself down 5-4 going into the seventh. According to Satch, Trujillo had his soldiers fan out and line up on the sidelines - a very clear message of what the consequences would be if Los Dragones lost. Fortunately Ciudad Trujillo staged a two run rally and took a one-run lead. Paige, throwing to save the lives of he and his teammates, shut down Santiago for the last two innings and won the game. Within 24 hours all the Americans had fled back to the safety of the United States, never to return.
In actuality, Paige’s victory was not a do-or-die scenario in the slightest. While the air was surely charged with excitement and the crowd whipped up into a frenzy, if Santiago managed a win, an eighth game would have followed to decide the championship. In fact, Paige didn’t even start the game, only entering in the ninth when Ciudad Trujillo was up 8 to 3. Granted, there was a bit of drama by the time Paige came in from the bull pen: Santiago had two men on base and one out. Now the real excitement began. Paige gave up three hits and all of a sudden the score was 8-6. A sure Dragones victory was now in jeopardy. Though not as dramatic as he probably would have liked, Paige bore down and aided by a game saving throw from the outfield by Sam Bankhead, finally got out of the inning and won.
With the season finished, the Americans did quickly return to the United States, but not out of fear of their lives, but because it was only mid-July and there was still baseball being played up north. Instead of returning to their respective Negro League teams, the renegade ball players found heavy fines levied against them and banned from league play. Paige, ever the showman, hooked up with a Midwest promoter and formed the “Trujillo All-Stars”. Playing semi-pro teams throughout the country, Paige told the press an ever-growing tale of the team’s experiences in the Dominican Republic. Consisting of some of best ballplayers outside the majors, the Trujillo All-Stars entered the famous Denver Post Baseball Tourney and wiped the floor with the amateur teams they faced, each man taking home a hefty cash prize.
Realizing that regaining their stars was more important than taking a stand against contract jumping, the Negro League owners allowed the mercenaries to return to league play, all except Satchel Paige. His reputation as the best pitcher in the game allowed him to demonstrate an unrepentant attitude and still earn outsider baseball’s biggest salary by hiring himself out to the highest bidder.
Baseball in the Dominican Republic was effectively ruined for a generation - the high cost of foreign talent bankrupted all three teams. That summer Trujillo stepped up his reign of terror, culminating in the “Parsely Massacre”. Trying to rid his country of dark-skinned Haitians and claiming their country gave shelter to Dominican dissidents, Trujillo sent his army to the border. Knowing the French-Creole speaking Haitians couldn’t pronounce the trill of a Spanish “r”, Trujillo’s men would hold up a sprig of parsley, asking suspect Haitians “quien es?” or “what is this?”. Over 20,000 people couldn’t pronounce “perejil” the correct way and were shot. The international outcry forced the dictator to take himself off the ballot in the 1938 “election” and instead ran a puppet until he returned to power a few years later.
Baseball remains the National Pastime of the Dominican Republic and native sons Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez are among the best ballplayers to ever play in the majors.
Hope you enjoyed the sneak peak!