Satchel ambled onto ballfields like an unjointed turkey and wowed fans with his pinpoint accuracy.
Most of the 12,000 baseball fans who crowded into Cleveland’s venerable League Park one October afternoon in 1934 had come to watch Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, the pitching ace who just two weeks before had led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series championship. Dean was America’s darling, the dizziest of a brawling, cursing Cardinals team affectionately dubbed the Gas House Gang. He also was a bigot, or at least that’s what a casual observer would have concluded from his roots in segregationist Arkansas and his liberal use of slurs like “coon” and “nigger.” On this Sunday, Dizzy and his brother Paul “Daffy” Dean, his teammate on the Cardinals, had rented themselves out to the all-white Rosenblums, Cleveland’s top minor league team, for a barnstorming exhibition game against Leroy “Satchel” Paige and his all-black Crawfords from Pittsburgh. Dizzy was sharp for the three innings he tossed, allowing a single run on four hits before joining Daffy in the outfield. But Satchel was transcendent. In six hitless innings, he struck out 13 of the 18 batters he faced, as the Craws beat the Rosies 4-1. “Satchel Outhurls Dizzy” blared a headline in the Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s African-American newspaper.
Black and white players had been testing each other’s mettle on the barnstorming circuit long before Jackie Robinson crossed baseball’s color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers called him up in 1947. Even the best-paid professionals had trouble making ends meet and welcomed the opportunity to earn extra income from games played in both tiny hamlets and towering cities between all-black and all-white traveling teams. In the East, games were fitted in between the end of the World Series and the onset of winter; in the Midwest they were scheduled around the harvest; in California, Florida and the Caribbean they continued until spring. No player barnstormed as wide or far as Satchel Paige, a gangly phenom who ambled onto ballfields like an unjointed turkey and wowed fans during his warm-ups by sticking the thin foil wrapper from a stick of Wrigley’s gum on home plate and then tossing one ball after another over it with pinpoint accuracy. Perpetual movement suited Satchel’s disposition: He was eager to follow the sun and money wherever they took him. But nothing fired him up more than the chance to face off against white baseball’s ace of aces: Dizzy Dean.
Satchel and Dizzy were alter egos. Both were underfed, loose-boned boys from Dixie whose down-home demeanor belied their sagacity. Paige grew up in a shotgun shack in Mobile, Ala., where as a pint-sized baggage boy at the Louisville & Nashville Railroad station he earned extra tips by using a rope and pole to pull several suitcases at once. “You look like a walking satchel tree,” yelled one of his fellow porters; the nickname stuck. Dean, the son of an itinerant sharecropper, joined the army as a teen and earned the wrath of a sergeant who caught him flinging newly peeled potatoes at garbage can lids. “You dizzy son of a bitch,” the sergeant barked in a voice loud enough for the entire regiment to hear and agree. Each pitcher preferred his nickname to his real one, and delighted in fractured aphorisms that were so alike it seemed they were writing one another’s lines. “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up,” was one of Dean’s most-quoted folk philosophies. Satchel’s was “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging.” Both delivered often enough to earn election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The gritty play of both men during the Depression era was endearing to a nation weary of bread lines and an economy that kept hitting bottom. For nine years beginning in 1931, Satchel tore through white lineups during interracial contests in the California Winter League, striking out an average of 12 players a game. On the mound he’d twist his leg in the air like a pretzel, whip his arm back and send the ball plateward at speeds approaching 100 mph. From 1930 to 1937, Dean anchored the Cardinals pitching staff, capturing four consecutive strikeout titles and winning 20 games four seasons in a row. His brand of baseball was rawboned and hell-bent, as he showed in game four of the ’34 World Series when he entered the game as a pinch runner and broke up a double play by leaping forehead-first into the path of the ball. He had to be carried off the field after crumpling to the ground like a broken doll, but was back to pitch the next game.
The frequent barnstorming matchups between Satchel and Dizzy were occasions for both serious and humorous one-upmanship. Sometimes Dean’s teammates were merely the best local players he could muster. Occasionally they were top-of-the-line major leaguers like Wally Berger, a lifetime .300 hitter for the Boston Braves. Berger remembers one day when he got the only hits off Satchel, a double and triple, and Satchel “followed me around for a second, looked at me and said, ‘How’d you hit that one?’ I got a kick out of that. Satchel went back to the mound and struck out the next three batters in order.”
Talking to base runners was part of Satchel’s routine. Normally he shouted from the mound but when he really wanted to make a point or stir up fans, he walked his message to the base. He did that once in Dayton, Ohio, after Dizzy tripled off him with a blooper over first and nobody out. “The fans were yellin’ their head off for me,” Dean told a radio audience, “when ol’ Satch walks over and says to me, ‘I hope all your friends brought plenty to eat, Diz, because if they wait for you to score, they’re gonna be here past dark. You ain’t goin’ no further.’ Then he fanned the next three.” On another occasion, Dizzy went on the radio before a game in Oklahoma City and claimed Satchel had no clue how to throw a curve. When Dizzy came up to bat that afternoon Satchel yelled, “Hear say you’re goin’ around tellin’ people I ain’t got a curve….Well, then, you tell me what this is.” He threw three curves, with Dizzy swinging at air each time. “How’s that,” Satchel screeched, “for a guy who ain’t got a curve ball?”
There was no joking the afternoon in 1934 when Satchel and Dizzy traded scoreless innings at Wrigley Field in Hollywood, Calif. The art deco stadium, a replica of its famous namesake in Chicago, had compact dimensions that made it a home run hitter’s heaven. But not that day. The game lasted 13 innings, with Satchel’s squad eking out a 1-0 win. “The greatest pitchers’ battle I have ever seen,” remembered William Louis Veeck Jr., a 20-year-old college dropout who would become Satchel’s patron saint as owner of the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns. “Even in those early days Satch had all kinds of different deliveries. He’d hesitate before he’d throw. He’d wiggle the fingers of his glove. He’d wind up three times. He’d get the hitters overanxious, then he’d get them mad, and by the time the ball was there at the plate to be swung at, he’d have them way off balance.”
The Dean-Paige barnstorming continued into 1945, long past Dizzy’s prime. Satchel won most matchups then, as he had from the first, in part because the batters backing him up were more likely to be first-stringers. To the end the games were about money as much as anything, which is why Satchel and Dizzy generally pitched three innings, the minimum needed to satisfy fans and earn paychecks of $1,000 or more. But there was passion too, enough that the police were needed to quell a melee at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field after Dizzy talked an umpire into reversing a base-running call for the Crawfords.
Baseball, not skin color, sparked that riot, yet race did help draw fans, and it is what marks the Dizzy-Satchel contests as landmarks in American sociology as well as sports. Dizzy’s redneck image gave resonance to a racial rivalry with Satchel that really was a rapprochement. Their barnstorming tour saw ballparks that normally walled off blacks let them sit where they wanted. It brought in white reporters along with white fans. And when good ol’ boy Dizzy Dean praised blackball legend Satchel Paige, followers of all hues pricked up their ears.
“A bunch of the fellows gets in a barber session the other day and they start to arguefy about whose the best pitcher they ever see, and some says Lefty Grove and Lefty Gomez and Walter Johnson and old Pete Alexander and Dazzy Vance,” Dizzy wrote in a news column in 1938. “I know whose the best pitcher I ever see and it’s old Satchel Page, the big lanky colored boy. Say, old Diz is pretty fast back in 1933 and 1934, and you know my fast ball looks like a change of pace alongside that little pistol bullet old Satchel shoots up to the plate….It’s too bad those colored boys don’t play in the big leagues, because they sure got some great players.” This was no social reformer weeping over missed opportunities. It was the most convincing endorsement Satchel had from a white player. It also was news, and was reprinted in papers across the country. Several years later Dizzy ratcheted up the hyperbole, arguing that “if Old Satchel and I played together, we’d clinch the pennant mathematically by the Fourth of July and go fishin’ until the World Series. Between us we’d win sixty games.”
If the thought of what they were missing was a frustration for white ballplayers like Dizzy, it was torture for blacks like Satchel. “People used to say how Diz and me were about as alike as two tadpoles,” he once said, “but Diz was in the majors and I was bouncing around the peanut circuit.” Satchel’s barnstorming games against Dean’s All-Stars proved that the best of the Negro Leaguers were the equals of their white major league counterparts. But in so doing—in raising the curtain of racial segregation for those few games—it reinforced what Satchel and his black teammates were being denied the rest of the year. Once the real season started, Dizzy and his teammates went back to Broadway. Satchel and his returned to the chitlin’ circuit.
Larry Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter, is the author of Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend.