Satchel Paige, the greatest pitcher ever excluded from Major League Baseball, arrived at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium for a tryout with the Indians in July 1948. A Negro leagues legend believed to be in his early 40s, Paige faced one batter, Lou Boudreau, who was both the Indians’ manager and shortstop.
Boudreau, who would go on to be the American League’s most valuable player that season, was impressed with Paige’s pitches. So was Cleveland’s owner, the audacious Bill Veeck, who proceeded to sign Paige, making him the oldest rookie in major league history. In turn, Veeck was immediately accused of staging a publicity stunt.
In part, the criticism may have been accurate, for Veeck would become associated with all the things he would dream up to sell tickets. But other factors were at work in Paige’s case.
He could, after all, still pitch. More than that, Veeck strongly believed that African-Americans deserved the chance to play in the major leagues. Just months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947 by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Veeck followed close behind by signing the 23-year-old Larry Doby. In doing so, Veeck made Doby the second black player in the majors and the first in the American League.
It was an emblematic moment in baseball history and one that is being revisited as the current version of the Indians tries to win the club’s first title since Doby and Paige and the rest of the 1948 team triumphed over the Boston Braves in six games.
Doby batted .318 in that Series and smacked the decisive home run in Game 4. A postgame photograph showed Doby and the winning Cleveland pitcher, Steve Gromek, in a joyful embrace, offering a stirring image of baseball’s emerging integration.
Recalling that moment in a 1987 interview with Dave Anderson of The New York Times, Doby said: “That picture went out all over the country. I think it was one of the first, if not the first, of a black guy and white guy hugging, just happy because they won a ballgame.”
As for Paige, having put together a 6-1 record in the second half of 1948 that included three complete games, he made it into a World Series box score, too, getting the final two outs in the seventh inning of Game 5 while 86,288 fans looked on at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. The first of those two outs came on a fly ball to center field caught by Doby.
Robinson eventually won a World Series, too, but not until 1955, when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees after losing to them five times in October in the previous decade and a half. By then, Robinson was near the end of his major league career.
Like Paige, Robinson and Doby had also played in the Negro leagues. But unlike Robinson, who played a season of minor league baseball in Montreal before moving up to the Dodgers, Doby did not have an apprenticeship.
Veeck signed him on July 3, 1947, and he was pinch-hitting for the Indians on July 5 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Doby played sparingly that first season, and not all that well. But in 1948, with the help of Tris Speaker, the Indians’ Hall of Fame outfielder, Doby converted from second base to center field and started to become a dangerous hitter.
Baseball could be a treacherous place for a black ballplayer in those days. Racist taunts and physical threats had to be endured — from antagonists bellowing from the grandstands of Southern ballparks in the minor leagues or from vile bench jockeys like Ben Chapman, the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager. Veeck wrote in his autobiography, “Veeck as in Wreck,” that when he signed Doby, “we received 20,000 letters, most of them in violent and sometimes obscene protest. Over a period of time, I answered all.”
Larry Doby Jr. said that his father, who died in 2003, did not dwell on those who protested his presence with the Indians.
“He said he never got booed in Cleveland,” the younger Doby said in an interview. Initially, he was skeptical of his father’s claim, but “when I got over the shock of hearing it, I realized it was true. It was a special place for him and my family, and whenever we’d go back, I’d see how he was greeted when he wasn’t playing.”
He added that his father also spoke of the fun he had playing in the Negro leagues, where he had been a rising star with the Newark Eagles before Veeck reached out to him. “He had fond memories of those times,” Larry Doby Jr. said, including the 1946 Negro leagues World Series, when Doby’s Eagles beat Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs.
Paige’s age was always something of a mystery. He was tall, lean and philosophical, a rubber-armed Alabamian whom Veeck described as a “skinny Paul Bunyan, born to be everybody’s most memorable character.”
Paige had been hoping for a summons to the major leagues, if only to shore up the income he was losing as black fans focused more on Robinson’s quick success in the majors than on attending Negro leagues games or Paige’s barnstorming tours.
“Even with me going on 42, the way I was throwing, I felt I was too young to take any cut in pay,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.”
It was Abe Saperstein, the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, who initially recommended Paige to Veeck, and Paige was only too happy to demonstrate what he had left. Before he left home for that July 1948 tryout with the Indians, he celebrated with his wife, Lahoma, relieved that he was getting a chance.
“After 22 years of throwing, I was going to get a crack at the major leagues,” he wrote.
Once at Municipal Stadium, he threw soft tosses to Boudreau before throwing fastballs. “I wasn’t doing anything except just pitching, like I’d always done,” he wrote.
“Old Satch met the challenge,” wrote Ed McAuley of The Sporting News. “He threw 50 balls, and Boudreau blasted some of them for theoretical base hits. But most of them the manager couldn’t meet solidly. Most impressive of all, only four of them were outside the strike zone.”
J. G. Taylor Spink, the Sporting News’s publisher, scorned the Paige signing. He wrote that “Veeck has gone too far in his quest for publicity” and that he was suspicious “that if Satchel were white, he would not have drawn a second thought from Veeck.” He added: “Paige said he was 39 years of age. There are reports that he is somewhere in the neighborhood of 50.”
Paige, as comfortable with self-promotion as Bob Feller, his famous Indians teammate and fellow pitcher, felt he was everything Veeck needed.
“Maybe Mr. Veeck did want some publicity, but he wanted a pitcher, too,” he wrote. “There was only one guy around who could fill both orders. That was Ol’ Satch.”
On the mound for the Indians, Paige quickly proved Spink, and others, wrong. In his first game for Cleveland, he came on in relief for starter Bob Lemon and threw two scoreless innings against the St. Louis Browns. Almost as important, his showmanship was evident.
“Underhand, sidearm, overhand, with a different windup for every pitch and with a carload of different pitches, he showed ‘em how it’s done in as grand a coming-out party as any ballplayer ever had,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote. The story also described, in the day’s unsubtle race language, how Paige “came a-shufflin’ out of the bullpen.”
(Another article in the paper, written later in the season, mocked Doby’s way of describing a home run. “I don’t mind sayin’,” he was quoted, “that it was just right for me, though he nevah did plan it that way. A changeup curveball it was, kind of shouldah-high. Couldn’t been nicah.”)
Paige pitched in 21 games in the 1948 regular season, including seven starts, and two of his complete games were shutouts. His E.R.A. was 2.48.
As for the interest he generated, his first start, in Cleveland, drew 72,434 fans. For his second start, at Comiskey Park against the White Sox, 51,013 were present. On Aug. 20, back home, his start brought in 78,382 fans and prompted Veeck to send a telegram to Spink that read, “Paige pitching — no runs, three hits. Definitely in line for the Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award. Regards, Bill Veeck.”
“I don’t know what Veeck’s motivation was,” in signing Paige, said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “I don’t know if he knew the old man had some gas left in his tank. But when Veeck put the old man out there, he was dealing!”
Paige lasted one more season with the Indians and then spent several years with the St. Louis Browns. Doby finished his major league career in 1959, with the White Sox. Both of them, and Veeck, are in the Hall of Fame, as are Robinson and Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who recruited Robinson to make history.
While Rickey’s role in integrating baseball is well known, Veeck’s actions in that regard remain less familiar. Even his Hall of Fame plaque cites his imaginative showmanship as an owner — he was the man who invented exploding scoreboards and once let a dwarf bat in a regular-season game — before noting that he signed Doby and Paige and opened up the American League to black players.
Mike Veeck said his father did not think he had been shunted aside in the story of how segregation in baseball came to an end.
“I don’t think being second to Branch ever bothered him,” he said.
Indeed, in his autobiography, Bill Veeck acknowledged that he had been less bold than Rickey was in figuring out to break baseball’s color barrier.
“I moved slowly and carefully, perhaps even timidly,” he wrote. “It is usually overlooked, but if Jackie Robinson was the ideal man to break the color line, Brooklyn was the ideal place. I wasn’t that sure about Cleveland.’’
But Cleveland did turn out to be the place where history was made in 1948, and where Veeck, Doby and Paige all shared in the accomplishment.