The Great Satchel Paige Entertained Generations of Detroiters

Undoubtedly the greatest single drawing card in the history of the Negro leagues was Leroy “Satchel” Paige, who was once described by Detroit sportswriter Harry Salsinger as “a first-class throwing man.” That was in 1941, after Paige had helped attract 35,000 fans to Briggs Stadium as the star attraction of the Kansas City Monarchs. By then, the lanky Alabaman’s reputation as a showman and his mound prowess had reached near-mythic proportions. Yes, Paige once intentionally walked the bases loaded in an important game so he could strike out the powerful Josh Gibson. But no, Satch didn’t call in the outfield and strike out the side, or throw a no-hitter, every time he pitched. Yet the possibility that he just might do something dramatic or bizarre created a rare sense of anticipation and excitement that entertained countless fans over the course of several decades.

Satchel Paige at Briggs Stadium in 1945.

Detroiters paid to see Paige pitch at a variety of venues and in an array of uniforms. He first appeared in the city in 1927 as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons, giving the heavy-hitting Detroit Stars lineup fits at Mack Park. In the 1930s he appeared at Hamtramck Stadium with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Later he toed the slab at Briggs Stadium for the touring Monarchs. And, once the American League desegregated after World War II, he dazzled Tigers batters as a reliever and spot starter for Cleveland and the St. Louis Browns from 1948 through 1953.

What fans saw resembled a buzzsaw on stilts. The comically proportioned Paige was nearly 6-4 and weighed about 150 pounds. His arms, legs, and feet whirled like fan blades as he went through his windmill windup before releasing a sizzling fastball at the knees that even eagle-eyed batters had a hard time following. “That last one sounded a little low, didn’t it, ump?” questioned one strikeout victim. Adding to Satchel’s effectiveness was his pinpoint control; as a stunt during warm-ups he sometimes substituted a postage stamp for home plate.

Paige’s cross-country barnstorming tours with Dizzy Dean in the 1930s and Bob Feller in the 1940s were wildly popular and helped make him the best-paid Negro leaguer ever. Promoters regularly hired him to pitch on a one-time basis; by Paige’s own estimate, he free-lanced for 250 different teams during his lifetime. It’s estimated that over the course of 40-plus years the rubber-armed right-hander pitched some 2,500 games against sandlot, semi-pro, Negro-league, Latin-league, major-league, and white all-star teams. He won about 2,000 of them, including 100 or so no-hitters.

Paige was a natural self-promoter. In an era of inequality, part of his genius was in intuitively knowing how to please fans of both races. His ambling gait, eccentric mannerisms, and colorful speech comforted whites by reinforcing the racial stereotypes of the time, while his extraordinary talent lifted the spirits of blacks, who saw in his consistently overpowering performances irrefutable evidence that men of color could compete on an equal footing with whites. Satchel had a carefully cultivated public persona, but in private the crowd-pleasing showman disdained close friendships and remained very much his own man. “Off the field,” Robert Peterson wrote in Only the Ball Was White, his groundbreaking study of the Negro leagues, “Satchel Paige went his own way, unfettered by the calendar and clock of lesser mortals.”

During the course of researching my own book on the Negro leagues, Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars, I had the opportunity to discuss Paige with several old-timers. Bobby Robinson, a Stars infielder from 1929 through 1931, told me of the time he toured Black Bottom—Detroit’s now vanished ghetto—with his celebrated opponent in tow. They walked into one store. “Do you know who this fella is?” Robinson asked the merchant. “He looks familiar,” the store-owner admitted. Once Robinson pointed out that it was Satchel Paige, in town with Birmingham to play the Stars, a crowd quickly gathered, shaking hands and asking for autographs. The owner, anxious to make a good impression, opened his shop to whatever the pitcher wanted. Satch, evidently enjoying a successful road trip, opted for two boxes of ladies’ panties.

The amazing Paige was 42-years-old as a major-league “rookie” in 1948, and 59 when he pitched three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in a 1965 game against Boston, a token appearance designed to make him eligible for a major-league pension. Naturally, he was an obvious choice for the first class of Negro leaguers inducted into Cooperstown in 1971. Paige died in 1982, keenly aware of how pre-1947 baseball history might have been rewritten had he and other black players been allowed to compete decades earlier in the big leagues. “If I’d been pitching to people like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig,” he said, “they would have hit fewer homers and those lifetime batting averages might not be so impressive.”