It should be said, up front, before any other considerations or qualifiers, that Satchel Paige was a great pitcher. Possibly the greatest pitcher of all time. Let’s let that steep for a while. Satchel Paige was a great pitcher.
But while that is the ultimate truth, it is not the whole truth. Satchel Paige transcends mere greatness, for reasons both inspiring and heartbreaking.
The first aspect of Satchel’s transcendence is his raw skill. He claimed to have won 2,000 games and probably did. He claimed to have won 3 games in one day, and he very well could have. With Satchel Paige, the impossible just might be possible.
The second aspect was his flair. This will be covered thoroughly in other episodes, but Satchel was baseball’s finest showman.
The final aspect, and the most tragic, is the times and culture Satchel labored under. It’s why, despite his towering skill and inimitable flair, we can only say he was maybe the greatest pitcher of all time. There will never be a way to know for sure.
Thanks to barnstorming and friendly scrimmages he was allowed to participate in over the years, one phrase haunted Satchel for most of his life: If only you were white. It was ludicrous to say Satchel didn’t belong amongst the best players in the game; the dominant cultural paradigm in his day, tragically, had no use for logic.
Growing up as a boy in Mobile, Alabama, Satchel showed early on a disinterest in being subsumed by the era’s racism. Walking home from school with friends – or, more likely, skipping out on school with friends – young Satchel often came across rival gangs of white kids. The two groups would always clash, mainly by throwing rocks at each other.
During these fights, Satchel developed a useful trick: he noticed that, when he would up to throw the rock, the opposing kid would instinctively double over protectively. Satchel began to add a little delay – a hiccup – so his opponent would let his guard down, before he let the rock fly.
And thus was the origin of Satchel’s defining quirk: his hesitation release. By occasionally adding a brief hesitation in his wind-up, hitters found it much more difficult to time his already-befuddling pitches. Some at the time and presently consider it a cheat, but the technique’s use by pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw and, especially, Johnny Cueto, make it so it can’t be singularly credited for Satchel’s success.
And this story comes to perfectly encapsulate the life and career of Satchel Paige. The young boy, using a lethal mixture of intelligence and freak physicality, defeating and demanding respect from an unreasoning opponent. It’s how a poor black boy from the Jim Crow South eventually became one of the first African Americans to play in the Major Leagues, and ultimately enshrined in its Hall of Fame.