It’s September 25, 1965. The Boston Red Sox are visiting the Kansas City Athletics, one of 162 regular season games. What’s different about this one is the pitcher on the mound. He’s black, 59 years old, and his limbs seem to hang from his body as though they might fall off.
The owner of the Athletics, Charlie Finley, brought him out of retirement as a novelty act to sell some tickets. But Satchel Paige was so much more than that. In 1926, when “Satch” was just 19 years old, he signed his first professional contract: $250 dollars a month, $200 of which would go to his mother.
This, of course, was when black baseball players still had to play in The Negro Leagues. It wasn’t as organized as the MLB (many games were not recorded in stat books) but the passion was just as intense, if not more.
While Jackie Robinson bridged the gap to White America with his calm, unassuming demeanor and strong character, Satchel Paige represented the valiant black Americans that refused to let society tell them how much pride they were allowed to have.
Satch reveled in the free-flowing Negro League game, using his pitching as well as his showmanship to quickly become the biggest icon of black baseball. He was known for harassing batters with a kind of psychological warfare, sometimes telling them ahead of time what pitch they should expect next.
He was infamous for not telling reporters his age—people all across the nation were tracking his birth certificate. He always claimed that age didn’t matter, though.
“Maybe I’ll pitch forever,” he would say. He later penned.an autobiography under that same title.
The most legendary of his antics is still talked about any time his name comes up. The defense behind him had already made multiple lazy errors in the same inning, and the bases were loaded. Satch angrily waved his teammates off of the field until it was just him left to face the next three batters on his own. The crowd looked down at him doubtfully.
But Satch’s skin color had already trained him to overlook doubt—to turn it into a kind of competitive fire and then pour some gas on the fire just to see who gets pissed off. He struck out the next three batters.
In terms of dominance, ticket sales, and the way his skills developed over his career, Satch was arguably the Michael Jordan of his position. He started out as a pure flame thrower, with an astounding ability to paint the corners of the strike zone from a young age. When he added a dirt-slapping curveball to his arsenal, he became an unmatchable mound presence.
Then came the injury. Right in the prime of his career, Satch felt something in his shoulder pop out of place. His doctor said that he would never pitch again and just like that, the fastball that he had become known for was no longer sizzling in the catcher’s mitt. It was moving at mortal speed.
Satch didn’t totally give up pitching because he still had to make money. He played for a small-time minor league team and pitched sub-marine style. He learned how to throw a knuckleball and a knuckle-curve, and would mix it up with an occasional change-up. Nothing he threw exceeded sixty miles per hour.
But one day in practice, after their usual warm-ups Satch told his catcher that his arm was feeling good and that he might try to throw a few overhand like the old days. His teammates watched him, once again, doubtfully. Then, as if blood was running through him for the first time in over a year, Satchel Paige threw his signature un-hittable fastball.
He was back.
This time, though, the time away from his go-to pitch had transformed him into a terrifying force that baseball mounds had never seen and never will see again. He still had one of the hardest fastballs in the game, but he also could throw a 55 mile per hour curve that started at the batter’s chin and finished under the strike zone. He had a knuckleball. He could throw both overhand and submarine at any given moment.
Satch didn’t get to prove himself in the major leagues until he was 42, but even then he recorded an ERA of 2.48 and pitched two complete shutouts. He helped the Indians win the ’48 World Series and he went on to make two all-star appearances before retiring at age 46.
Back to that September day in 1965 Kansas City. 59 year old Satchel Paige looks around at the expressions of his teammates, of the fans, and of his opponents. He knows what doubt looks like by now.
He’s like a ghost on the mound, and he’s throwing pitches that seem to dissipate in mid-air by the time they reach the batter. It’s hard to believe that a man like Satch, more often recorded in myths than on television, ever existed in the first place. But here he is, and he’s still unstoppable.
The oldest man to ever play throws scoreless innings, and only gives up one hit. All of his other accomplishments will just be great stories, but this legend was broadcasted on the radio, recorded in a box score.
Maybe Satchel Paige was right. Maybe he will pitch forever.