Thursday, February 24, 2011
69. Satchel Paige: Hitting Rock-Bottom
I was searching the internet for something or other when I came across a website dedicated to baseball in Western Canada and found an unpublished photograph of Satchel Paige. Taken in Butte, Montana in 1939 or 1940, Paige looked weary and distracted, posing with a baseball fan. I'd seen hundreds of pictures of Satchel before but this one was different. Besides the distractingly sad look on his face, it was the jersey he wore that captured my attention - it simply said "PAIGE" - that was all. I've seen Paige in the uniform of the Monarchs, Baltimore Black Sox, Birmingham Black Barons, St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, New York Black Yankees... etc, etc... but never "PAIGE." Intrigued, I decided to do a drawing of this unique jersey and write about what the Great One was doing in 1939 and 1940...
Recognized as the best pitcher in baseball, Satchel Paige took his golden arm wherever the money and swag was good. 1938 found the great Paige in Mexico City being paid $2000 a month to hurl for Club Agrario. The fledgling Mexican League desperately wanted to bring an element of legitimacy to their league and a handful of American Negro League stars provided that while the great Satchel Paige was looked upon to provide the flash and headlines.
By the age of 33 Satchel had probably thrown more innings of ball than anyone ever had before and while much younger and stronger pitchers flamed out with arm injuries, Paige and his rubber arm never dimmed. But one afternoon warming up in the rarefied air of Mexico City, Paige threw a curveball and felt a snap in his shoulder. He retreated to his hotel room and treated the injury with a liberal dose of tequila and went to sleep. The next morning the arm was worse. The pain was incredible and quickly doubled when he tried to pitch. He managed to appear in a few games for Mexico City but with the league promoters angered and Mexican fans disappointed he finally gave up and fled across the border back into the United states.
Satch traveled around the country seeking specialists who could find out what was wrong with the greatest arm in baseball, but the only advice he got was "you'll never pitch again." Paige soon found himself running out of cash and had to start pawning his belongings in order to survive. He sank into a deep depression, realizing that he had nothing to show for all his success and absolutely no options left outside of baseball. His years of ignoring contracts and leaving teams whenever he was offered better money somewhere else had made him few friends. Only 1 man was willing to take a chance with Satchel, Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson. Wilkinson put Satchel on the payroll and had him front the Monarchs second-rate traveling team. Now billed as the "Satchel Paige All-Stars" the team barnstormed all over the western part of North America, often teaming up with one of the bearded House of David teams and brought their game to the most rural of towns.
Wilkinson played up Satchels reputation for all it's worth, giving him top billing on all advertisements and guaranteeing him to pitch a few innings of each game. Paige endured the terrible pain game after game trying to alternately rest and pitch his arm back into shape. Wilkinson had the Monarchs' trainer, Frank "Jew Baby" Floyd travel with Satch and see if he could do anything to help him along. "Jew Baby" (don't even ask where his name came from, better men than I have failed to find out) rubbed Satchel down relentlessly before and after each appearance with a mysterious home-made potion, then alternated between steaming hot towel treatments and freezing cold water and ice.
Through it all Satchel Paige thrilled thousands of baseball fans who had never seen real ballplayers. The publicity surrounding Paige made him a mythical figure and the arrival of the All-Stars to a small town sometimes was the highlight of the whole year. Since the regular press didn't really write about Paige or other black players and teams, many had only heard of the great pitcher through word of mouth, pushing his already monumental reputation to biblical proportions. When the All-Stars weren't touring with the House of David they played against town teams and amateur clubs where players of all levels got the chance to try their best against the greatest pitcher in the world. Dizzy Dean or Carl Hubble would never visit the places the Paige All-Stars did and to get a chance like this was something that participants never tired of retelling throughout the years. Even in constant pain Paige gave the audience what they expected from him. His double and triple windmill wind-up, hesitation pitch and trash-talk was well worth the price of admission. That his famed fastball was now nothing more than a change-up didn't really seem to matter all that much. He relied on junk pitches and street psychology to get over on opposing batters that simply added to his mystique. However some came away disappointed by seeing Paige as a mere mortal and it was humbling for the proud Paige as well. Batters that would have hesitated to even step into the box and face him a few years earlier now hit line drives off of him and the second-rate traveling team who backed him up didn't always win.
Then on a warm Sunday in Oklahoma City, the arm came back. There are a few stories that supposedly tell the true circumstances surrounding his comeback: one relates how he was punched in the arm by a teammate resulting in the arm suddenly becoming painless, another had him making a pick-off throw to first, the ball unexpectedly rocketing to the first baseman with such velocity that the whole ballpark paused in a collective hush, and still another simply has him telling his catcher that he was feeling good that day and that was that. What all the stories have in common is that they all feature the arm suddenly, not gradually, regaining its power again. What that means and what was really wrong, we'll never know.
But one thing was for sure: Satchel Paige was back.
If you're interested in this phase of Paige's career or just want a great book about an average negro league ballplayer during the 1930's and 40's, you have to get a copy of "Catching Dreams by Frazier "Slow" Robinson. He was Satchel's catcher on the 1939 and 1940 All-Stars and his book relates what it was like playing along side Paige as his career hit rock-bottom. Robinson wasn't a star, after the Paige All-Stars broke up he bumped from team to team as a second-string backstop but his stories are top notch - not as interesting as Paige's nor as embellished as Buck O'Neil's, Robinson's book is indispensable for anyone interested in what life was really like for a typical journeyman during the golden years of the negro league baseball.
The website where I found the photograph of Paige that started this story: Baseball In Western Canada