Paige was a right-handed pitcher and was the oldest rookie to play in MLB at the age of 42. He played with the St. Louis Browns until age 47, and represented them in the All-Star Game in 1952 and 1953. He first played for the semi-professional Mobile Tigers from 1924 to 1926.
Paige began his professional career in 1926 with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League, and played his last professional game on June 21, 1966, for the Peninsula Grays of the Carolina League.
Paige was among the most famous and successful players from the Negro Leagues. While his outstanding control as a pitcher first got him noticed, it was his infectious, cocky, enthusiastic personality and his love for the game that made him a star. On town tours across America, Paige would have his infielders sit down behind him and then routinely strike out the side. As a member of the Cleveland Indians, Paige became the oldest rookie in Major league Baseball and attracted record crowds wherever he pitched.
Date of birthWhile Satchel Paige was playing baseball, many ages and birthdates were reported, ranging from 1900 to 1908. Paige himself was the source of many of these dates. His actual birthdate, July 7, 1906, was determined in 1948 when Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck traveled to Mobile, Alabama and accompanied Paige's family to the County Health Department to obtain his birth certificate. Paige's birth certificate is displayed in his autobiography.
In 1959, Paige's mother told a reporter that he was 55 rather than 53, saying she knew this because she wrote it down in her Bible. Paige wrote in his autobiography, "Seems like Mom's Bible would know, but she ain't ever shown me the Bible. Anyway, she was in her nineties when she told the reporter that, and sometimes she tended to forget things."
Early lifeSatchel was born Leroy Robert Page to John Page, a gardener, and Lula Page (née Coleman), a domestic worker, in a section of Mobile, Alabama known as Down the Bay. Lula and her children changed the spelling of their name from Page to Paige in the mid-1920s, just before the start of Satchel's baseball career. Lula said, "Page looked too much like a page in a book," whereas Satchel explained, "My folks started out by spelling their name 'Page' and later stuck in the 'i' to make themselves sound more high-tone." The introduction of the new spelling coincided with the death of Satchel's father, and may have suggested a desire for a new start.
According to Paige, his nickname originated from childhood work toting bags at the train station. He said he was not making enough money at a dime a bag, so he used a pole and rope to build a contraption that allowed him to cart up to four bags at once. Another kid supposedly yelled, "You look like a walking satchel tree." A different story was told by boyhood friend and neighbor, Wilber Hines, who said he gave Paige the nickname after he was caught trying to steal a bag. At the age of ten, Satchel was playing "top ball" which was what got him into baseball. "Top ball" was when kids used sticks and bottle caps instead of baseballs and bats to play a variation of the diamond sport. Satchel's mother, Lula, would even comment on how Satchel would rather "play baseball than eat. It was always baseball, baseball."
Two weeks before his thirteenth birthday, Paige was arrested for shoplifting. Because this incident followed several earlier incidents of theft and truancy, he was committed to the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, the state reform school, until the age of eighteen. During the more than five years he spent at the school, he developed his pitching skills under the guidance of Edward Byrd. Byrd taught Paige to kick his front foot high and to swing his arm around so it looked like his hand was in the batter's face when he released the ball. Paige was released from the reform school in December 1923, six months early.
After his release, Paige played for several Mobile semi-pro teams. He joined the semi-pro Mobile Tigers where his brother Wilson was already pitching. He also pitched for a semi-pro team named the Down the Bay Boys, and he recalled that he once got into a jam in the ninth inning of a 1–0 ballgame when his teammates made three consecutive errors, loading the bases for the other team with two outs. Angry, Paige said he stomped around the mound, kicking up dirt. The fans started booing him, so he decided that “somebody was going to have to be showed up for that.” He called in his outfielders and had them sit down in the infield. With the fans and his own teammates howling, Paige struck out the final batter, winning the game.
Chattanooga and Birmingham: 1926–29A former friend from the Mobile slums, Alex Herman, was the player/manager for the Chattanooga White Sox of the minor Negro Southern League. In 1926 he discovered Paige and offered to pay him $250 per month, of which Paige would collect $50 with the rest going to his mother. He also agreed to pay Lula Paige a $200 advance, and she agreed to the contract.
The local newspapers—the Chattanooga News and Chattanooga Times—recognized from the beginning that Paige was special. In April 1926, shortly after his arrival, he recorded nine strikeouts over six innings against the Atlanta Black Crackers. Part way through the 1927 season, Paige's contract was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons of the major Negro National League (NNL). According to Paige's first memoir, his contract was for $450 per month, but in his second he said it was for $275.
Pitching for the Black Barons, Paige threw hard but was wild and awkward. In his first big game in late June 1927, against the St. Louis Stars, Paige incited a brawl when his fastball hit the hand of St. Louis catcher Mitchell Murray. Murray then charged the mound and Paige raced for the dugout, but Murray flung his bat and struck Paige above the hip. The police were summoned, and the headline of the Birmingham Reporter proclaimed a "Near Riot." Paige improved and matured as a pitcher with help from his teammates, Sam Streeter and Harry Salmon, and his manager, Bill Gatewood. He finished the 1927 season 7–1 with 69 strikeouts and 26 walks in 891⁄3 innings.
Over the next two seasons, Paige went 12–5 and 10–9 while recording 176 strikeouts in 1929.(Several sources credit his 1929 strikeout total as the all-time single-season record for the Negro leagues, though there is variation among the sources about the exact number of strikeouts.) On April 29 of that season he recorded 17 strikeouts in a game against the Cuban Stars, which exceeded what was then the major league record of 16 held by Noodles Hahn and Rube Waddell. Six days later he struck out 18 Nashville Elite Giants, a number that was tied in the white majors by Bob Feller in 1938. Due to his increased earning potential, Barons owner R. T. Jackson would "rent" Paige out to other ball clubs for a game or two to draw a decent crowd, with both Jackson and Paige taking a cut.
Cuba, Baltimore, and Cleveland: 1929–31Abel Linares offered Paige $100 per game to play winter ball for the Santa Clara team in the Cuban League. Gambling on baseball games in Cuba was such a huge pastime that players were not allowed to drink alcohol, so they could stay ready to play. Paige—homesick for carousing, hating the food, despising the constant inspections and being thoroughly baffled by the language—went 6–5 in Cuba. He left Cuba abruptly before the end of the season, with several stories told about the circumstances. Paige told one version in which the mayor of a small hamlet asked him, in Spanish, if he had intentionally lost a particular game. Paige, not understanding a word the man said, nodded and smiled, thinking the man was fawning over him, and then had to flee from the furious mayor. Another version, also told by Paige, says that when he called on an attractive local girl at her home, she and her family interpreted his attentions as an official engagement and sent the police to enforce it, leading Paige to flee the island with police in pursuit. A third version, told by the general manager of the Santa Clara Leopards, says that he left Cuba in haste after legal charges were brought against him regarding an amorous incident with "a young lady from the provincial mulatto bourgeoisie."
When Paige returned to the United States, he and Jackson revived their practice of renting him out to various teams. In the spring of 1930, Jackson leased him to the Baltimore Black Sox, who had won the 1929 American Negro League championship led by their bowlegged third baseman Jud "Boojum" Wilson. Paige, as a Southerner, found that he was an outsider on the Black Sox, and his teammates considered him a hick. Moreover, he was the team's number two pitcher behind Lamon Yokely, and Paige did not like being overshadowed.
In mid-summer Paige returned to Birmingham, where he pitched well the rest of the summer, going 7–4. In September he was leased to the Chicago American Giants of the NNL for a home-and-home series with the Houston Black Buffaloes of the Texas-Oklahoma League. Paige won one and lost one in the series and then returned to Birmingham.
By the spring of 1931, the Depression was taking its toll on the Negro leagues, and the Black Barons had temporarily disbanded. Few teams could afford Paige, but Tom Wilson, who was moving the Nashville Elite Giants to Cleveland as the Cleveland Cubs, thought he could. Playing in the same city as a white major league team, Paige recalled, "I'd look over at the Cleveland Indians' stadium, called League Park ... All season long it burned me, playing there in the shadow of that stadium. It didn't hurt my pitching, but it sure didn't do me any good."