Satchel Paige - Negro Leagues - Pittsburgh, California, and North Dakota: 1931–36

Pittsburgh, California, and North Dakota: 1931–36

In June 1931, the Crawford Colored Giants, an independent club owned by Pittsburgh underworld figure Gus Greenlee, made Paige an offer of $250 a month. On August 6, Paige made his Crawford debut against their hometown rivals, the Homestead Grays. Entering the game in the fourth inning, Paige held the Grays scoreless and had six strikeouts and no walks in five innings of relief work to get the win.

In September, Paige joined a Negro all-star team organized by Tom Wilson, called the Philadelphia Giants, to play in the California Winter League. This was the first of nine winters that he played in a league that provided ongoing competition between elite black and white baseball players, including major and minor league players. On October 24 Paige won his first California game 8–1, allowing five hits and striking out 11, including Babe Herman four times. He finished the winter with a 6–0 record and 70 strikeouts in 58 innings.

In 1932, Greenlee signed Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe away from Cumberland Posey's Homestead Grays to assemble one of the finest baseball clubs in history. Paige took the mound when the Crawfords opened the season on April 30 in their newly built stadium, Greenlee Field, the first completely black-owned stadium in the country. Paige lost the opener to the New York Black Yankees in a pitching duel with Jesse "Mountain" Hubbard, but got even with them by beating them twice that season, including Paige’s first Negro league no-hitter in July. Paige went 10–4, allowing 3.19 runs per game and striking out 92 in 1322⁄3 innings.

In the midst of the Depression, Cum Posey's new East-West League had collapsed by mid-season, and Greenlee was able to obtain many of the best players in black baseball. By the end of the season, Greenlee had signed to contracts Cool Papa Bell, John Henry Russell, Leroy Matlock, Jake Stephens, "Boojum" Wilson, Jimmie Crutchfield, Ted Page, Judy Johnson and Rap Dixon. With the Crawfords playing five future Hall of Famers, many Negro league historians regard the 1930s Crawfords as the greatest team in Negro league history.

The next season Greenlee organized a new Negro National League, which survived for 16 years. Despite Greenlee's efforts to control his biggest star, Paige followed his own schedule and was often late to games that he was scheduled to pitch. In August, he jumped the Crawfords, accepting an offer from Neil Churchill’s North Dakota semi-pro team, the Bismarcks (sometimes known as the "Bismarck Churchills" today), of $400 and a late model car for just one month’s work. It was Paige's first experience playing with an integrated team in the United States. He helped Bismarck beat their local rivals in Jamestown, who were also featuring a Negro league ace pitcher, Barney Brown. Paige was unapologetic when he returned to Pittsburgh in September to help the Crawfords win the second-half championship. Paige was snubbed by other Negro league players and fans when he was not selected for the first ever East-West All-Star Game.

1934 was perhaps the best season of Paige's career, as he went 14–2 in league games while allowing 2.16 runs per game, recording 144 strikeouts, and giving up only 26 walks. On July 4, Paige threw his second no-hitter, this time against the Homestead Grays. He struck out 17, and only a first inning walk to future Hall of Famer Buck Leonard and an error in the fourth inning prevented it from being a perfect game. Leonard, unnerved by the rising swoop of the ball, repeatedly asked the umpire to check the ball for scuffing. When the umpire removed one ball from play, Paige hollered, "You may as well thrown 'em all out 'cause they're all gonna jump like that."

The Denver Post conducted an annual baseball tournament (sometimes known as the "Little World Series") that attracted semi-pro and independent professional teams from across the country. In 1934 it was open, for the first time, to black players. Greenlee leased Paige to the Colored House of David, a prominent barnstorming team of white men who represented a religious commune and wore beards. Their manager was Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. Paige pitched shutouts in his first two starts, striking out 14 and 18. The final, championship game was his third start in five days and he faced the Kansas City Monarchs—at the time an independent, barnstorming team—who were participating in the tournament with a lineup augmented by Negro league stars Turkey Stearnes and Sam Bankhead. Paige faced Chet Brewer before a crowd of 11,120. Paige won the pitchers' duel 2–1, striking out 12 Monarchs for a tournament total of 44 strikeouts in 28 innings. The 1934 tournament was Paige's first major exposure in front of the white press.

Paige received his first East–West All Star Game selection in 1934. Playing for the East, Paige came in during the sixth inning with a man on second and the score tied 0–0, and proceeded to strike out Alec Radcliffe and retire Turkey Stearnes and Mule Suttles on soft fly balls. The East scored one run in the top of the eighth and Paige held the West scoreless the rest of the way, giving him his first All-Star Game victory.

Despite an outstanding season, Paige had a strong competitor for best Negro league pitcher of 1934, the 21-year old Slim Jones of the Philadelphia Stars, who went 22–3 in league games. In September, a four-team charity benefit doubleheader was played at Yankee Stadium, with the second game featuring a faceoff between Paige and Jones. Paige recalled driving all night from Pittsburgh and parking near the stadium, then falling asleep in the car. A batboy found and woke him, and he got into uniform just in time for his scheduled start. In a game that was sometimes described as the greatest game in Negro league history, Paige and Jones battled to a 1–1 tie that was called because of darkness. A rematch was scheduled, and this time Paige and the Crawfords beat Jones and the Stars 3–1.

That fall, Paige faced off against major league star Dizzy Dean, who that season had won 30 regular season games plus two more in the World Series, in several exhibition games. In Cleveland, Paige struck out 13 while beating Dean 4–1, although for that game Dean was playing with a minor league team. Later, while playing in the California Winter League, Paige faced Dean in front of 18,000 fans in Los Angeles, with Dean's team including major league stars like Wally Berger. The two teams battled for thirteen innings, with Paige's team finally winning 1–0. Bill Veeck, future owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox, was watching the game and many years later described it as "the greatest pitchers' battle I have ever seen." Paige and Dean would continue to barnstorm against each other until 1945. Later, when Dean was a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune, he called Paige "the pitcher with the greatest stuff I ever saw."

In the spring of 1935, Greenlee refused Paige's request to raise his $250 per month salary, so Paige decided to return to Bismarck for the same $400 per month and late model used car that he got before. Churchill added other Negro league players to the team—pitchers Barney Morris, and Hilton Smith, catcher Quincy Trouppe, and pitcher/catcher Double Duty Radcliffe. Paige dominated the competition, with a 29–2 record, 321 strikeouts, and only 16 walks. In Wichita, Ray "Hap" Dumont was establishing a new national baseball tournament, the National Baseball Congress. Dumont invited 32 semi-pro teams, paying $1,000 for Paige and his Bismarck teammates to attend. The tournament was held at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita, Kansas and offered a $7,000 purse. Churchill added yet another Negro league star to his team—Chet Brewer, the Kansas City Monarchs' ace pitcher. Bismarck swept the tournament in seven straight games. Paige won the four games he started, pitched in relief in a fifth game, and struck out 60 batters—a record that still held 74 years later.

In September, Paige could not return to the NNL because he was banned from the league for the 1935 season for jumping to the Bismarck team. J. L. Wilkinson, owner of the independent Kansas City Monarchs, signed Paige on a game-by-game basis through the end of the season.

That winter, a northern California promoter, Johnny Burton, hired Paige to front a team called the "Satchel Paige All-Stars," in a game to be held on February 7, 1936 in Oakland against a white all-star squad. The opposing team included a number of major league players out of the Bay Area, including Ernie Lombardi, Augie Galan, Cookie Lavagetto, and Gus Suhr, as well as Pacific Coast League star Joe DiMaggio, who was making his last stop as a minor leaguer before joining the New York Yankees. Other than Negro league catcher, Ebel Brooks, Paige's team was composed of local semi-pro players. Despite the imbalance in talent, Paige kept the game to a 1–1 tie through nine innings, striking out 12 and giving up one run on three hits. In the bottom of the tenth inning, he struck out two more, then gave up a single to Dick Bartell, bringing up DiMaggio. Bartell stole second on the first pitch, then went to third on a wild pitch. DiMaggio then hit a hard hopper to the mound that Paige deflected; DiMaggio beat the second baseman's throw to drive in the winning run. A Yankee scout watching the game wired the club that day a report that read, "DiMaggio everything we'd hoped he'd be: Hit Satch one for four." DiMaggio later said that Paige was the best pitcher he had ever faced.

In 1936, Paige returned to Pittsburgh where Greenlee acquiesced to Paige’s salary demands and gave him a $600-per-month contract, by far the highest in the Negro leagues. In games for which complete box scores are available, Paige went 5–0, allowed 3.21 runs per game, and struck out 47 in 472⁄3 innings. At the end of the season, Tom Wilson arranged with the other NNL owners to assemble an all-star team that would enter the lucrative Denver Post tournament. The team included Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Leroy Matlock, Buck Leonard, Felton Snow, Bill Wright and Sammy Hughes. They swept the tournament in seven straght games to win the $5,000 prize, with Paige winning three of them. In the title game against an overmatched semi-pro team from Borger, Texas, Paige pitched a 7–0 shutout, striking out 18. The Negro league all-stars then barnstormed, playing a series against a team of major leaguers led by Rogers Hornsby. One match-up featured Paige facing the 17-year-old Bob Feller, who had just finished a half season with the Cleveland Indians. Each pitched three innings and gave up one hit, with Feller striking out eight and Paige seven. Later in the game, the Negro league team pulled out a win.

Read more about this topic:  Satchel Paige, Negro Leagues

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