Had baseball not been baseball, and America not America, Satchel Paige likely could have started pitching for the Yankees in the mid-1920s, certainly by 1927, that iteration of the Bronx Bombers considered to be the greatest team of all time.
For those of us still smarting over the local team shipping a certain someone to the Yanks after the 1919 season, there’s that tiny bit of solace. The dynastic Yankees didn’t have Paige racking up a string of 25- and 30-win seasons concurrent with Babe Ruth belting out homers (including his record 60 in ′27) faster than the Bambino tossed down hot dogs.
The Yankees on Thursday night celebrated Paige, who died in 1982, by handing out bobbleheads crafted in his likeness prior to their home game against Tampa Bay. The honor came 82 years to the day — May 11, 1941 — that the magical, charismatic righthander, then age 34, pitched at the Stadium as part of a four-team Sunday doubleheader.
In the opener, Paige led the New York Black Yankees, originally formed as the Harlem Stars, to a 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Stars. The games that afternoon brought 34,000 fans to the Bronx, nearly triple what the Yanks averaged at home that season, America not yet officially dragged into World War II after the bombing at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Red Sox, by the way, were in town for the other game that day, the one between the two white teams. The Sox prevailed, 13-5, with Earl Johnson scattering seven hits in a complete game. As if Paige’s appearance alone wasn’t enough to make the day something special.
The ubiquitous “Life” magazine, which printed more than 13 million copies a week at its peak, was there to chronicle the afternoon, and went on to feature Paige, with his trademark high-kick delivery and devilish fastball, in a three-page spread in its June 2 edition.
Through Paige’s lifetime, according a recent story by Dave Kaplan, he pitched in some 20 games at the Stadium, which often rented its grounds to Negro League and Black barnstorming clubs. His appearance on May 11 was, in part, to give his career a boost. Because of his penchant for breaking contracts, in pursuit of added earnings, Paige was banned from the Negro National League in 1938. The hype and grandeur of the Stadium framed his attempt to earn back good graces and better paydays.
Already a big, quotable personality throughout the baseball industry, despite the longstanding existence of Major League Baseball’s color line, Paige was featured front and center in Life, a magazine read widely through white America. Eyes of many in the US, willfully kept shut for decades, accepting that Black players had their own leagues and were best kept there, were opened wide through the lens of the Life camera.
It was hardly a magazine alone that shifted our sensibilities on race, but it had to have nudged us ahead that tiny bit. The monolithic weekly had weight far beyond a copy of its inked pages. All these decades later, sadly even in sports, we remain a work in progress on race, replete with giant steps backward, interludes of acceptance and tolerance, and some iotas of progress clipped from headwinds of hate and ignorance.
Ultimately, it was the uber talent, dignity, and strength of mind of Jackie Robinson —paired with the profit to be gleaned around him and other Negro League stars and stalwarts — that erased the color line with his Dodgers debut in 1947.
Paige was born in 1906, 13 years prior to Robinson, and though he pitched into the 1960s, he missed much of the benefit of the game’s new age. “Don’t look back,” Paige might have said, as he often did, “something might be gaining on you.”
“Age is a case of mind over matter,” is another of his well-known gems. “If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”
But it does. For all of us. And but for Paige’s birth year, and the stretch of years his greatness was both diminished and suppressed by segregation, the events leading to his bobblehead fete Thursday night in the Bronx might never have happened. Timing. Happenstance. Fate.
“Don’t pray when it rains,” the great hurler likely would have said, again as he was wont to do, “if you don’t pray when the sun shines.”
That bit of philosophy came from Leroy Robert Paige, born into scant financial means, who earned his nickname as a kid lugging bags at a train station in his hometown of Mobile, Ala.
Many of the kids and even adults who walked out of the Stadium Thursday night, their Satchel bobbleheads in hand, perhaps never heard of Paige before or knew of the Negro Leaguers, their struggles, their talent, their triumphs. It has been more than 70 years since the leagues folded.
Blacks played ball in the US prior to the 20th century but didn’t band as formal leagues until the start of the 1920s, then disbanded at the start of the ‘50s in the wake of Robinson’s debut. Rather than someone lesser, they became teammates.
The Red Sox, then part of a 16-team league, were the last of the MLB teams to integrate, promoting Pumpsie Green to the varsity roster in 1959. A versatile, light-hitting infielder, then age 25, he made his debut with the Sox on July 21, and then on Aug. 4 played his first game at Fenway.
The Sox are home this Aug. 4, a Friday night with the Blue Jays at the Fens. What better date for a Pumpsie Green bobblehead night?
Because, as Satchel might have said, what’s life if you don’t learn something from the Yanks?
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.