SATCHEL PAIGE – Almost an Oriole?
By the summer of 1953, it was no secret that the St. Louis Browns would likely relocate after the season. Wherever they moved, the Browns 47-year-old relief pitcher, Satchel Paige, intended to come along. His loyalty to owner Bill Veeck -who gave Paige his belated chance at big league glory- was strong, so much so that Ol’ Satch would even go to Baltimore.
“I never got treated too well there, even when I pitched a couple of exhibitions,” said Paige. “But if Mr. Bill goes to Baltimore, I’ll go too.”
First, the Browns had to finish out their eighth consecutive losing season, one in which Paige won three and lost nine. He’d roll his eyes when asked if he was through, pointing out that a fellow was entitled to a bad year once in awhile. Actually, he didn’t pitch poorly at all, appearing in the All-Star game and ranking fourth in the league in both appearances and (retroactively) saves. Paige demonstrated good control, allowing less than a hit per inning, and recording a 3.53 earned run average in a league where 4.20 was the norm. Said umpire Bill McGowan, “For three or four innings, he’s still as good a pitcher as there is in the league.”
Paige made a rare start on September 22 in Detroit, St. Louis’ final road game of the year. He shook off a first-inning homer, then didn’t allow another hit until the Tigers batted in the eighth. That was more than enough to earn a 7-3 win, the last triumph in the history of the St. Louis Browns.
When the team returned home to play their last series, Paige stopped by Veeck’s office to reiterate that he intended to be part of next year’s team…even if they all wound up in Afghanistan. As it turned out, the club was heading for Baltimore, but there was a catch. At the insistence of the league’s other owners, Veeck was forced to sell the club to local ownership before the shift could be approved. That was bad news for Paige.
At the first ever press conference in Baltimore Orioles history, general manager Arthur Ehlers made it clear that the new team would not be accomodating Paige with a rocking chair in the bullpen like he had with the Browns. There would be no more arriving at his leisure in the middle innings with the team’s permission anymore. Most ominously, Ehlers announced, “He’s too old to fit into our plans.”
Paige took it all in stride as he spent the winter touring with his barnstorming team of all-stars. He acknowledged hearing the whispers from opposing hitters about his fastball not being so fast, and vowed to add a screwball to his repertoire and return to starting. Dogged by questions about his true age as usual, Paige identified himself as a “cool 46”, and insisted a lone grey hair was the only price he paid for a long last season in St. Louis.
As always, Paige was every bit himself. A poll conducted by the press and published in The Sporting News named him his club’s “wittiest” player, but also “least cooperative with writers.” Paige was the “most relaxed on the field”, but also the “most temperamental”.
By December, even Ehlers was unsure about Paige’s status for 1954. “The decision rests largely with Paige himself,” said the Baltimore G.M. “He has been quoted that he doesn’t particularly care to play in Baltimore and, of course, we don’t want any discontented players.”
Paige maintained that he did want to pitch for the Orioles. However, when the press caught up to him in January at the New York premiere of a movie about the Harlem Globetrotters, Paige reported, “I haven’t heard a thing from them yet. No contract. No nothing.”
Paige earned $25,000 in 1953, and the Orioles couldn’t cut his salary by more than 25%, still more than they were willing to pay. They shopped him around without any takers, and eventually word leaked out that Paige had cleared waivers. The Orioles discussed dealing him out west to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, but Paige wouldn’t hear of it. “No minors for me,” he insisted. “They don’t pay enough. It’s the majors or nothing.”
He meant it, too. He could make a living with his barnstorming club, and that’s exactly what he did. Eleven years later, Paige returned to the big leagues to hurl three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics at the age of 59, and he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1971. Satchel Paige, who spent a few months on the Orioles roster before they ever played a game, died in 1982 without throwing a pitch for them. That, my friends, is a shame.
By MALCOLM ALLEN