Black History Month: Satchel Paige, the pitcher meets the dictator

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In 1937, Dominican Republic President Rafael Trujillo, a one-time cattle rustler, forger, blackmailer, and then-dictator, decided that, in the name of national unity and to demonstrate his absolute power, he would create Hispaniola’s best baseball team.

Trujillo, who preferred polo and sailing to baseball, turned over the Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo’s daily operations to Dr. Jose Aybar, a dentist. Aybar, fearful that failure to please Trujillo could lead to his untimely and permanent disappearance, reached out to the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, teams which had many black American stars still unfairly banned from Major League Baseball.

Leroy “Satchel” Paige was Aybar’s goal and the tooth doctor left for New Orleans where the Crawfords were in spring training. In desperation, Aybar ordered his limo driver to block Paige’s vehicle. The agent, allegedly brandishing a pistol, offered the pitcher $30,000, or the equivalent of $675,000 in today’s money, the total to include six of his Crawfords’ teammates.

In Larry Tye’s book, “Satchel: the Life and Times of an American Legend,” Paige recalled that Aybar told him “You may take what you feel is your share.” Abyar’s offer represented more money for a month’s pitching than Satchel earned in a year of barnstorming.

Upon their arrival in the Dominican Republic, Paige and his teammates got an abrupt awakening to Trujillo’s power and the extent to which the dictator would go to win. Provinces, mountains, buildings, and bridges were all named Trujillo. At an introductory press conference, a journalist pulled Paige aside, and told him “Trujillo won’t like it if you lose.”

Trujillo assigned armed guards to follow the players around town – at the beaches, restaurants, hotels, and at their games to assure that they follow the straight and narrow path that would culminate in a championship season.

The Dominican season consisted of forty-four fiercely competitive games, played on steaming hot weekend mornings. The police often intervened to settle fistfights among wagering fans over called balls and strikes. Satchel’s Dragones debut was inauspicious. The team prevailed, but another pitcher got credit for the victory. When Paige hit his stride, reporters called his pitching arsenal “black magic,” his curve ball “enigmatic,” his fastball “terrifying,” and his intelligence “highly developed.”

An eight-game series between Paige’s Dragones and the Santiago Aguilas would settle the Dominican championship. As Paige retold the events, winning was the difference between life and death. In a Colliers Magazine interview, Paige said that Trijillo’s henchmen, looking like “a firing squad,” armed with knives and rifles surrounded the field. Lose, Paige feared, and “nothin’ to do but consider myself and my boys passed over to Jordan.”

Paige entered the deciding game in the 9th inning and blew an 8-3 lead before the Dragones eked out an 8-6 win; local fans rated Paige’s overall performance as, at best, mixed. By the time Paige returned to the U.S, he found himself the target of bitter criticism from the NNL, and from the black press for abandoning friends and country. The Pittsburgh Courier, a black weekly, wrote that Paige was less dependable than “a pair of second-hand suspenders.” Since the NNL ban on the traitorous players was still in effect, Paige established the Satchel Paige All-Stars, and the team hit the road for a successful barnstorming tour.

In 1948 on Satch’s 42nd birthday, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Paige to a major league contract. Paige was MLB’s fourth black player; Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Roy Campanella preceded him. A record night-game crowd of 78,383 fans watched Paige make his first appearance in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, a relief stint against the St. Louis Browns. Later, in his first starting role on August 3, he defeated the Washington Senators in front of 72,434. During the season’s remainder, Paige posted a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA. He pitched two-thirds of an inning in Game Five of the World Series. At age 59, the oldest to pitch in a MLB game, Paige tossed three shutout innings for the Kansas City Athletics.

In 1971, the newly formed and controversial Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues elected Satchel Paige as its first Hall of Fame inductee. Many writers were outraged that the Hall had created a separate wing for black stars and would admit only one African American player each year. Nevertheless, Paige engaged the 2,500-strong, mostly white audience with his tales. Paige shared that he once pitched 165 consecutive days and concluded his remarks boasting that he was ‘the proudest man in the place.”

After Paige died from a heart attack in 1982, Washington Post baseball scribe Thomas Boswell wrote that through his excellence, Paige proved that “50 years’ worth of black-league players had been wronged more severely than white Americans ever suspected.”

Copyright 2024 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joe Guzzardi is a Project for Immigration Reform analyst who has written about immigration for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected].