- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

He was unique, unhittable, totally his own man. And on Feb. 9, 1971, he became the first person elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by a newly formed committee on the Negro Leagues.

His name, of course, was Leroy Robert Paige, but nobody called him that. Instead he was known far and wide as Satchel, a nickname he picked up as a boy while dragging luggage around train stations to make a dime or two.

Paige, a right-hander, might have been the best pitcher ever, but no one ever will know. Because black players were barred from the major leagues until he was in his 40s, there is no way to judge him against contemporary white icons like Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller.

Unless you accept the word of Monte Irvin, a fellow Hall of Famer who batted against Paige in Negro ball before joining the New York Giants in 1949: “Satch was the best I ever saw.”

Or that of Joe DiMaggio, who faced him many times in exhibition games: “Satchel was the fastest man I ever batted against.”

Really, though, there is no reason to compare Paige with anyone, only to regret he didn’t have a chance to throw and show his stuff in the major leagues when he was 25, 30 or even 35.

Satch’s age was another part of his mystique. Usually his birth year is listed as 1906, although some accounts state it was as early as 1899. Regardless, he was at least 42 when Bill Veeck brought him to the Cleveland Indians in midseason 1948.

Veeck deserves special praise as one of baseball’s great societal innovators when he owned the Indians, the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox twice. A year after Veeck selected Larry Doby as the American League’s first black player, the addition of Paige was derided as a cheap way to boost attendance, but Bill knew what he was doing. Working mostly in relief, Satch went 6-1 for a team that won the pennant in a one-game playoff against the Boston Red Sox.

Later Veeck picked up Paige for the perennially hapless Browns, and ol’ Satch was 12-10 at age 46, or thereabouts, in 1952 for a club that lost 90 games. For six years in the bigs, Paige had a 28-31 record with a 3.29 ERA.

But that wasn’t the real Satchel Paige. During a career in Negro ball and in foreign countries that lasted from 1925 to 1948 and sometimes included 200 games a year, he featured a blazing fastball and a change-up that, one writer swore, “should have been equipped with backup lights.”

Statistics were kept sloppily if at all in those days, but for more than two decades Paige was an unquestioned master of his trade while pitching for the Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords and other teams. Many major leaguers hit against him on the barnstorming trail, where segregation often was a nonfactor, and most of them readily attested to his skills.

So how good was he? Some inklings:

He once struck out mighty Rogers Hornsby (lifetime batting average: .358) five times in a game.

He beat Dean 1-0 in a classic pitching duel in 1934, the year Dizzy won 30 games for the St. Louis Cardinals.

He told Josh Gibson, the most feared slugger in Negro ball, that he would strike him out on three pitches in a crucial situation — and did.

Above all, Paige was the kind of character who would be a star today on wit alone. His “Rules For Living” included this famous gem: “Don’t look back — somebody might be gaining on you.”

Paige made his last appearance against major leaguers with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, when he was officially 59, pitching three scoreless innings against the Red Sox. Thankfully, he survived long enough to see himself installed in the Hall of Fame before his death from emphysema in 1982.

Last year a statue of Satchel Paige, rearing back to throw a pitch in all his 6-foot-3 glory, was unveiled on the lawn behind the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. It took Satch much too long to reach the majors and the shrine, but now his accomplishments will be honored forever. As they should be.

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