The popular feature “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met” has fascinated readers of the Reader’s Digest, including me in my youth. In later life as a newspaper reporter, I was treated to delightful encounters with some notable theater and music artists, all of them unforgettable. But the one I have to count among the most memorable showed up on a summer evening when I decided to take in a ball game at the old baseball stadium in Miami. I was 26 at the time.
The Miami Marlins in those days dwelt in the basement of the International League, a woeful team populated by a collection of inexperienced young players and over-the-hill veterans, with most of the latter group occupying the bullpen. The Marlins were losing as usual, and in the late innings as I had about decided to give up and go home, a lanky African American pitcher ambled his way to the mound in relief — none other than Leroy (Satchel) Paige.
I inched forward in my seat, realizing that I was about to witness history. I was going to watch the great Satchel Paige pitch, and pitch he did, making the opposing batters look foolish with his amazing whip-like fastball. I can’t claim to have met this great pitcher personally, but on that night I got to watch him pitch, and I’ll never forget the experience.
Paige, born in 1906 in Mobile, Alabama, would have been in his 50s on this night I saw him in 1960. He started his professional career in the Negro leagues in the 1920s after being discharged from reform school in Alabama and quickly rose in popularity among fans in the Negro League, moving from team to team, until when Paige was 42, Bill Veeck offered him a contract to join the Cleveland Indians. This was in 1948, and the Indians were in a tight pennant race at the time. Paige won six games and lost one as he helped the Indians to an eventual World Series victory.
He bounced around the majors for several more years, including two All-Star appearances, then returned to the minors, where I was treated to his performance on the mound in Miami. One might think he was about done by then, but no. He returned to the majors, where he pitched three shutout innings in relief for the Athletics. He was 59.
Paige was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971. He died in 1982.
Satchel Paige was a character and entertained fans as he dispensed folk wisdom with memorable quotes. One of my favorites attributed to him is, “Don’t look back; someone might be gaining on you.”
Why did I choose to write about Satchel Paige today? Funny how the mind works. I was washing dishes this morning, and as I scrubbed a frying pan, I suddenly recalled another of Paige’s famous quotes:
“Avoid fried foods which angry up the blood.” Good advice from an unforgettable character.