For Leroy “Satchel” Paige, baseball was equal parts skill and theatrics. The naturally gifted freelance pitcher was known for his fastball and infield banter in the minor, major and negro leagues, as well as internationally in countries including the Dominican Republic. “He could throw the ball right by your knees all day,” renown center fielder Cool Papa Bell once said about Paige.
Paige was among the first Black players to join an American League when he signed with the Cleveland Guardians (then known as the Cleveland Indians) on July 7, 1948. He retired from the Major Leagues in 1953 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971. Paige died on June 8, 1982.
Here a few lesser-known facts about the legendary showman.
1. Paige learned how to pitch in reform school.
Leroy Robert Paige spent a hardscrabble youth working to support his family in Mobile, Alabama, and may have first earned the nickname “Satchel” during a stint as a porter at a local train station. He grew up loving baseball, but received no formal training in the game until age 13, when an arrest for shoplifting landed him in the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Lawbreakers.
There, his powerful arm caught the attention of coach Moses Davis, who first taught him the high leg kick that became a trademark of his windup. Paige went on to sign his first professional baseball contract only a few years after his release. “You might say I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch,” he later said.
2. Paige played for dozens of different teams during his career.
Paige was a baseball nomad who was known for “jumping” between clubs in search of bigger paychecks. Along with suiting up for a merry-go-round of American teams in the minor, major and Negro leagues, he also hired out his famous right arm to foreign clubs in places like Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Canada.
When he wasn’t busy with professional ball, he would barnstorm his way across the country playing exhibition games, often sleeping in his car and pitching day after day. Paige once estimated that he’d played a whopping 2,500 games over the course of his career—and claimed to have won some 2,000 of them.
3. Paige was famous for his on-field theatrics.
Along with being a first-rate pitcher, Paige was also a consummate showman who reveled in slapstick humor and trick plays. Fans fell in love with his windmill windups, relentless trash talk and leisurely strolls to the mound, and they were especially taken in by his penchant for showboating.
One of his favorite moves was to call in his outfielders and then singlehandedly strike out the other side. According to Paige, an even more famous stunt came during a Negro League World Series game in 1942, when he intentionally walked two batters so that he could face power hitter Josh Gibson with the bases loaded. After taunting Gibson and warning him about where he intended to place each throw, Paige struck him out in three pitches.
4. Paige once played for a team owned by the dictator of the Dominican Republic.
One of Paige’s strangest pitching gigs came in 1937, when he and several other Negro Leaguers traveled to the Dominican Republic and joined “Los Dragones,” a team owned by the egomaniacal dictator Rafael Trujillo. Paige and his fellow all-stars were paid a king’s ransom and put up in the country’s nicest hotels, but they soon found that working for Trujillo had its drawbacks.
Games were played under the watchful eye of rifle-toting guards, and the team was put on house arrest the night before the championship to make sure they didn’t get into trouble. “Los Dragones” went on to win the title, but the Negro Leagues later slapped Paige and his teammates with a brief ban for having skipped out on their American contracts.
5. Paige often claimed to not know how old he was.
While the records show that Paige was born in 1906, his lengthy playing career made his age a constant topic of debate in the media. Many reporters incorrectly believed he’d born in the 19 century, and Paige only added to the legend by playfully claiming that a goat “ate the bible with the birth certificate in it.” He even offered a cash reward to anyone that could find proof of his age. “How old would you be if you didn’t know hold old you were?” he once asked.
6. Paige named all of his pitches.
Paige typically relied on his scorching fastball to strike out batters, but he gave the pitch a litany of different names including “Bat Dodger,” “Thoughtful Stuff” and “Long Tom.” He was particularly found of hurling the “Bee-Ball”—a pitch with so much zip that it supposedly buzzed like a bee as it sailed into the catcher’s mitt.
As the years passed and his power faded, he fell back on an arsenal of trick pitches such as the “Midnight Creeper,” the “Wobbly Ball” and the “Whipsy-Dipsy-Do.” One of his favorites was the “Hesitation Pitch,” which saw him pause mid-delivery to fool batters into swinging early. The throw usually worked like a charm, but Major League managers complained about it so much that it was eventually made illegal.
7. Paige credited his longevity to an ointment made from snake venom.
During a stint playing semi-pro ball in North Dakota in the mid-1930s, Paige became good friends with the local Sioux elders, one whom was a medicine man. He later claimed the Indians provided him with a soothing ointment made from rattlesnake venom and gunpowder. His teammates were afraid of the strong-smelling elixir, but Paige swore by the stuff and took to rubbing it on his sore throwing arm after every game. “I always keep some of it in a jar and it kept my arm nice and young,” he later wrote. “It’s real fine oil, the best.”
8. Paige made his Major League debut at the age of 42.
Many believed Paige would be the first man to break baseball’s color barrier, but his advanced age saw him passed over in favor of Jackie Robinson, who made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947. Paige didn’t get a crack at the Major Leagues until over a year later, when Cleveland owner Bill Veeck picked him up to bolster his bullpen for the pennant race.
Despite facing constant discrimination and being old enough to be many of his teammates’ father, the 42-year-old rookie didn’t disappoint. His first start drew a record 72,000 fans, and he finished the season with a 6-1 record and a 2.48 ERA. Paige later threw for part of an inning during Cleveland’s World Series run, making him the first Black player in history to pitch in the Fall Classic.
9. Paige acted in a Hollywood Western.
Along with writing two autobiographies, Paige also appeared alongside Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum in the 1959 cowboy film “The Wonderful Country.” He later claimed that his cameo as a cavalry sergeant was the first non-baseball job he’d ever had.
10. Paige was the first Black player admitted to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
In the 1960s, many fans and fellow players began pushing for Paige to be the first Negro League player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He finally won selection in 1971, but a controversy broke out after it was announced that Paige and other Negro League heroes would be “segregated” in their own wing of the Hall.
The decision was reversed after a public outcry, and on August 9, the 65-year-old pitcher appeared in Cooperstown, New York for his induction ceremony. He used his acceptance speech to reflect on his long career, his battles against racism and his life philosophy. “Don’t look back,” he quipped at one point. “Something might be gaining on you.”