Tall Times in the West

By IAN WILSON

Leroy Paige easily could have adopted the nickname “Satchel” for the amount of travel he did over a pitching career that spanned five decades.

The lanky right-hander made a name for himself in the Negro Leagues long before he put his stamp on Major League Baseball (MLB), but he also played in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Barnstorming tours took him across North America, too, including some memorable trips through Western Canada.

Paige was described as “the greatest pitcher in the world” by the Regina Leader-Post when he visited Saskatchewan in early June of 1935.

A week later, he played in the first baseball game at Winnipeg’s Osborne Stadium and did not disappoint the 700 fans who shelled out a quarter to see him take the mound. The Mobile, Alabama hurler was a K machine over nine no-run frames for Bismarck that night, but he was matched by Kansas City Monarchs star pitcher Chet Brewer, who also frustrated would-be hitters during the scoreless draw.

“The starry right-handers hung up the amazing total of 30 strikeouts before Umpire Snake Siddle called a halt as twilight descended at the end of the ninth inning,” read the June 7, 1935 edition of the Winnipeg Tribune.

“Paige, displaying more smoke than Winnipeg fans have seen since Lefty Grove pitched here in the fall of 1933, took 17 victims while the other 13 fell before Brewer’s combination of speed and curves.”

After striking out the side to start the game Paige was in cruise control until the sixth inning, when a three-pitch strikeout ended a bases-loaded threat from the Monarchs. Brewer ran into trouble in the eighth inning when a single and two walks jammed the bases, but he also struck his way out of trouble and stranded all three runners.

“The Kansas City team, famous all over North America, outhit the smart Bismarck club 7 to 5, but Paige was deadly in the pinches. When he chose to bear down, he had the Monarch hitters absolutely helpless. Brewer, featuring a fast-breaking sinker, was equally effective under pressure,” noted the Tribune.

Among the Kansas City batters Paige left hitless that game were Hall of Famers Willard “Home Run” Brown and “Bullet” Joe Rogan.

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30 strikeout boxscore

The four-game series ended with a Saturday double-header that was attended by close to 2,000 baseball enthusiasts who were eager to see what Paige could do for an encore.┬áThe Tribune called the matinee matchup a “drab affair” that took over two hours to play (apparently, pace of play was an issue back then, too).

“Paige failed to uncover the form he displayed on Thursday night. Given a big lead by his teammates, Paige took things easy for the entire contest,” the newspaper said of the 11-4 victory for the visitors from North Dakota.

Whatever Satchel lacked on the mound, he made up for at the plate. “Paige was one of the leading swatsmiths in the afternoon, driving out two doubles and two singles,” according to the Winnipeg fishwrap.

LOBBYING FOR LEROY

As Satchel continued to dominate the Negro Leagues, often with Brewer as a teammate on the Monarchs, people started to wonder aloud more and more why he and his colleagues weren’t showing off their talent at the MLB level.

Five years before Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in the big leagues, Lethbridge Herald sports editor Dick Matthews was one of the voices calling for baseball integration.

“It seems tragic that players of Paige’s ability must be denied the opportunity of making their mark in the major baseball leagues,” wrote Matthews in his May 8, 1942 “Fan Fare” column for the Herald.

“It is difficult for Canadians particularly to understand the intolerant attitude toward the Negro in many sections of the United States. But it seems to us that it is just such measures as those adopted by the major ball leagues which keep racial differences constantly festering. The American ball fan is missing something when he is denied the privilege of seeing workmen of Paige’s calibre in action. And there are plenty more like him.”

Matthews described Paige as “a pitching symphony in ebony” who was “rated by many as the greatest pitcher who ever threw one down the alley,” and he recounted the impression he left on southern Alberta.

“Lethbridge and district fans had the opportunity to see Paige in action on several occasions when he appeared here with the Monarchs, and local players who fancied their prowess with the willow still talk about the way he blew the ball past them. ‘It looks about the size of a pea,’ related one Lethbridge star, after being whiffed on three successive trips to the plate,” wrote the Herald scribe.

A SERIES TO REMEMBER

Paige was a Negro Leagues World Series winner in 1942, when the Monarchs swept the Washington Homestead Grays in four games. He pitched five shutout innings in the first game, an 8-0 victory.

Paige started Game 2 at Pittsburgh in front of 5,219 fans a couple days later – an 8-4 win that featured a seventh-inning strikeout of fearsome slugger Josh Gibson with the bases loaded. After two more days rest, Paige toed the rubber again, this time at Yankee Stadium. He lasted just two innings, but the Monarchs prevailed 9-3.

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Calgarian Glen Gorbous, originally from Drumheller, played in Miami with Paige

With the Grays facing defeat a week later in Kansas City, they imported star players from other teams, including pitcher Leon Day. Facing off against – you guessed it, Paige – Day fanned 12 batters, while Satchel yielded four runs on eight hits. The Grays won 4-1 and both pitchers went the distance, but the Monarchs protested the game because of the late roster additions. That protest was upheld and the result was nullified.

The “real” Game 4 took place in Philadelphia, with Paige slotted to start a fifth straight game, but more drama ensued. After being stopped for speeding in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Paige missed the first four innings of the game. He got into the action in the fifth with the Monarchs losing 5-4 and shut the door the rest of the way. Paige struck out six while allowing no hits and no runs as Kansas City came out on top 9-5 in front of 15,000 fans at Shibe Park. It was an unconventional sweep and a masterful performance by Paige.

THE MAJORS

MLB would eventually heed the call of Matthews … and Branch Rickey.

Robinson suited up for Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Paige wasn’t far behind. Colourful Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck signed him in 1948 and he made an immediate impact.

With his best years behind him and despite being the oldest rookie the MLB had ever seen, the 42-year-old went 6-1 with three complete games and a 2.48 earned run average (ERA) in helping secure the American League (AL) pennant for Cleveland. Paige also became the first African American to appear in a World Series when he came out of the bullpen in Game 5. The Tribe defeated the Boston Braves in six games to claim the title.

After another season in Cleveland, Paige made his way to the St. Louis Browns, where he was a two-time All-Star for the AL squad.

Following the 1953 campaign, Paige didn’t pitch again in the majors until 1965, when he made a lone start for the Kansas City Athletics at the age of 59. He went three scoreless innings for the Athletics in that game, issuing no walks and allowing just one hit, while ringing up one batter.

Paige’s overall MLB stats: 476 innings pitched, 28 wins, 31 losses, 32 saves, 3.29 ERA, seven complete games, and 288 Ks.

While Paige went 12 years between major-league starts he was never far from a baseball diamond.

When “Ol’ Satch” signed on to appear in the western film The Wonderful Country in 1958, many interpreted the move as the end of his playing career. Paige, however, had other plans. Those included more minor-league stints and barnstorming tours.

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Calgary Herald ad for The Wonderful Country, which featured Satchel Paige’s acting debut in 1959.

PONOKA PAIGE

The 6-foot-3, slender hurler found himself in Ponoka, Alberta in 1959 for the town’s first annual baseball tournament at the Stampede Grounds.

The two-day tourney offered up $4,250 in prize money and attracted teams from Cold Lake, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Washington State.

National Hockey League (NHL) brothers Max and Doug Bentley – now both members of the Hockey Hall of Fame – played for the Delisle Gems, while the Colfax, Washington roster included seven Pacific Coast League (PCL) players.

Ralph Vold was another pitcher who had suited up in the PCL. After floating around the Brooklyn Dodgers system, he spent 1958 with the Phoenix Giants, San Francisco’s Triple-A affiliate. Vold, who was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1991, joined forces with Paige on a Ponoka Stampeders team that also featured Wetaskiwin NHLer Val Fonteyne.

No matter how stacked the out-of-town teams were, there’s no question that Paige was the main attraction.

Flown in from Mason City, Iowa and paid $500 for his Friday start, “baseball’s ancient wizard” got off to a rough start.

“The fans turned out expecting miracles from Ol’ Satch and instead found him tight from the cold and unable to loosen up,” wrote Edmonton Journal sports editor Hal Pawson.

“The United States Air Force champs from Fairchild base in Washington started out to bunt him to death … the result was three Fairchild runs in the first two innings before Satch got his curve working and crossed up the fly-boys by even fielding a bunt.”

Fortunately, Paige’s newfound mates picked him up by scoring eight runs in the first third of the game. He handed the ball over to Vold with an 8-3 lead, which the local boy nursed home to a 15-7 victory for the Stampeders.

Paige pitched well enough for the win in front of 4,000 fans, but he didn’t have long to stick around and sign autographs.

“Paige, who is on a barnstorming tour to end all such tours as he is pitching six games a week in widely-scattered parts of the continent, left after the game for Jamestown, North Dakota,” said Pawson’s June 20, 1959 article.

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Star-Phoenix newspaper ad promoting Paige’s visit to Saskatoon in 1959

BUSY BARNSTORMING

The tireless wonder would find his way north of the border again a few years later.

By that point, he’d been asked about his age enough and the length of his baseball career that he developed six rules for personal conduct. Here are his rules, as they appeared in the Hamilton Spectator:

First, avoid fried meats. Second, if you have an upset stomach, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts. Third, “keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.” Fourth, go lightly on the vices … “the social ramble ain’t restful.” Fifth, “avoid running at all times.” The final rule: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

During a tour of Western Canada in 1963, Paige agitated British Columbia baseball fans by missing a series of games in Kimberley, Kamloops, Kelowna and Vancouver at the end of July. Life Magazine was supposed to meet up with Paige in Kimberley to chronicle the B.C. trip. Following a series of panicked calls from organizers in Vancouver it was determined that he got hung up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

British Columbia’s loss was Medicine Hat’s gain, as Paige pitched in front of more than 1,000 baseball watchers at Athletic Park. Satchel Paige’s All-Stars dropped a 3-1 decision to the Medicine Hat Commodores, the best team in the Western Canada Baseball League (WCBL).

CHAT TV video clip of Paige pitching in Medicine Hat in 1963 … courtesy of the Esplanade Archives, Accession Number 2015.08.0201.

“Satchel, who is believed to be in the neighbourhood of 63, pleased the crowd by hurling the first two innings, giving up only one hit as nine Commodores trooped to the plate,” read Medicine Hat News sports editor Neil Naismith’s account of the visit.

(Paige’s age was a constant source of speculation in the press. It’s more likely that he was 57 years old during this Medicine Hat visit).

“Paige and the all-stars were brought here by Spero Leakos, general manager of the Medicine Hat Commodores, from Moose Jaw where Paige has been playing a few exhibition games. The Paige group was scheduled to play in the interior of British Columbia last week and in Vancouver Monday but missed the engagements because Satch apparently had never heard of the communities he was booked to play in,” explained Naismith’s article.

“As it turned out, someone boobed in the company which handles Satch’s bookings, and forgot to send the grand old man a copy of his schedule.”

Kids swarmed the visitor’s dugout for autographs at the exhibition game, which also featured Leroy Paige Jr. in left field and Satchel’s youngest son, Willie, hustling around the field as a bat boy.

LEROY’S LEGACY

Paige still had one last MLB start in him, but his exploits had surpassed legendary status by the 1960s.

“It was the almost unbelievable feats that he performed during his barnstorming days that have made the ageless moundsman the fantastic and legendary figure that he is,” wrote Ron Campbell in a July 26, 1963 piece for the Regina Leader-Post.

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Satchel Paige baseball card

“It was nothing for the lanky fast-balling righthander to pitch as many as 153 games in a season. He has more than 100 no-hitters to his credit and at the peak of his career he compiled the remarkable record of 100 wins against six setbacks in a three-year span in the highly-rated Negro Professional League. He once pitched three games in one day in a National tourney and won them all.”

Even with all that he had accomplished, the father of seven shook off the idea of retirement.

“I got to keep playing ball to send my kids through college … I made a lot of money the hard way. Everyone needs an education these days and I’m going to see all my children get one,” Paige told Campbell.

He also reflected on the state of African Americans in baseball.

“There are more opportunities than ever before for Negroes in other fields and it is bound to take its toll as far as baseball players are concerned,” he told the Leader-Post.

“After all, the road to the top in baseball isn’t any different than any other. It’s a tough, hard game. Don’t get me wrong. Baseball has been good to me and I love the game. That’s another reason why I’m still playing.”

Paige, the first Negro Leagues star elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, died of a heart attack in Kansas City in 1982.

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