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Josh, Satch, & Me

By John Holway, June 21, 2012
1944 signed photo of Satchel Paige in garden

On a muggy night in May 1944, a 14-year-old boy joined some 30,000 fans at Washington’s old Griffith Stadium to watch one of the great matchups of baseball history, the two most famous names in the Negro Leagues going against each other head to head—Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.

Satch, wearing the brown and white colors of the Kansas City Monarchs, took his pre-game warm-ups in front of the third-base dugout, as I crowded at the railing with other scorecard-waving kids to watch. He used a windmill windup made famous by Dizzy Dean and emulated by Joe E. Brown in the 1930s movie, Elmer the Great.

Across the field, on the first-base side, Josh, in the pinstripes of the Washington Homestead Grays, was warming up his own pitcher. I recall him laughing merrily at some joke that tickled his funny bone.

My journey to the park was symbolic—by segregated Virginia bus to Washington DC, then by integrated trolley to the park. No one in the stands that night guessed it, but baseball, and American society at large, was soon about to make that same journey, from segregation to integration. And, said Eric (Ric) Roberts, who was covering the game for the black Pittsburgh Courier, Paige played a great part in bringing about that change.

Gibson would never board that integrated trolley to the Majors. He would be dead at the age of 35, just three months before Jackie Robinson trotted out onto the field in his Dodger uniform.

Paige would make the trip. In fact, the next time I saw him was in Cleveland’s cavernous Municipal Stadium, pitching in the World Series before what was then the greatest crowd in Major League history.

Now, over half a century later, I have spent over 30 years researching the long melancholy chapter in American history that Josh and Satch symbolized. Among other things, I have learned that neither of these mystic gladiators was the only great black player of his age. As Paige himself said on many occasions:

“If you want to know the truth, I wasn’t the onliest one who could pitch in the Negro leagues. I told them at Cooperstown we had a lot of Satchels, there were a lot of Joshes. We had top pitchers. We had quite a few men who could hit the ball like Babe and Josh. Wasn’t any mebbe so.”

There were pitchers who were as good as Satch, maybe better—Smokey Joe Williams, and the tough ex-soldier, Bullet Joe Rogan, both of whom were in their thirties before they pitched in the black Majors. In a 1952 poll of Negro League experts, Williams edged Paige as the best pitcher by a single vote. In the Negro Leagues, Paige is second in victories only to lefty Big Bill Foster, 137 versus 122.* (If the totals appear low, remember that the Negro Leagues averaged 50 to 80 games a year, compared to 154 to 162 for the white Majors.) However, if Satchel’s victories in the white Majors and Minors, plus Latin America, are added, he totaled 215. (This does not include victories against semipro teams, which may have been another 200.) And as for strikeouts, Paige’s total is almost double that of his closest rival, Foster.

Likewise, there were other black sluggers who blasted more home runs than Josh Gibson did. Surprisingly, his 141 homers rank only fourth on the all-time list, behind the slender left-hander, Turkey Stearnes, the leader with 185, burly Mule Suttles, and Oscar Charleston. But again, if one adds Latin America, Josh comes out way ahead. And Josh came to bat far less than others. He averaged 44 homers for every 550 at bats, compared to 30 for Stearnes.

Gibson also came to bat far less than Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron. Josh had 1,812 official at bats, compared to 8,399 for Babe and 12,364 for Hank. If Gibson had batted as often as Aaron, he would have slugged 996!

Josh and Satch have burned their names into baseball’s consciousness, and its conscience. As other great black players followed them—Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Juan Marichal, and Rickey Henderson—Gibson and Paige left us all sighing at what they—but also all of us—had missed.

Gibson may have hit the only ball ever to clear the roof of Yankee Stadium, and he swatted several other 500-footers to go with it. And Josh was cursed with two of the worst home run graveyards of the 20th century—Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC. Suttles at least had two easy targets to aim at in St. Louis and Newark, though he faced two “death valleys” in Birmingham and Chicago. Stearnes had a good target in Mack Park, Detroit, but his long blasts died in Chicago and Hamtramck. If any of the three had played a full 154-game schedule in say, cozy Ebbets Field, one faints at how many homers he might have hit. The number of 75 for one season does not seem out of reach.

And this is not against patsy black pitching. Josh hit five homers in 61 at bats against Dizzy Dean, Johnny Vander Meer and other white big leaguers. That’s a rate of 45 for 550 at bats. He also hit .426 against them.

The careers of Josh and Satch overlapped for 17 years, 1930–46, which coincided exactly with the last 17 years of baseball segregation. For most of those years they were rivals, and tales of their showdowns became legends. Satchel’s Kansas City teammate, Buck O’Neil, remembers Satch and Josh, each at one end of a Pittsburgh bar, “yelling about what they would do to each other the next day.”

For five years, 1932–34, and 1936–37, they were teammates on the Pittsburgh Crawfords and formed perhaps the greatest battery in the history of baseball. Certainly only Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove of the white Major Leagues for their time could compare with them.

Now both Josh and Satch are in the Hall of Fame, as well as Foster, Rogan, Suttles, Stearnes, and others. Still, even today, some make the mistake of thinking of Paige as a comedian, which he was, as much as a great athlete, which he also was. Indeed, he was one of America’s most quotable humorists, in the tradition of Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Dizzy Dean, and Art Buchwald. But he was much more than a Stepinfetchit making white folks chuckle. When the laughs died down, there remained a long record of accomplishments that helped change the face of baseball and, in fact, our country as well.

In July 1940 the Saturday Evening Post had run a picture spread on Satchel. “For the first time,” reporter Ric Roberts said, “the white media had burned incense at the foot of a black man outside the prize ring.” The Post did what the black press had been unable to do: It elevated Paige from a great but obscure pitcher, toiling in baseball’s bushes, onto a pedestal beside the other great athletes of his race—Olympian Jesse Owens and heavyweight champ Joe Louis.

As for old Josh, Time magazine gave him merely a nod in a tiny article in its July 19, 1943, issue. But over the last 20 years things have changed dramatically. Today, articles on black baseball are plentiful, and new books come out frequently as researchers keep mining the written record, discovering clues from an almost forgotten era of baseball. As for me? Though I keep writing and researching, I often think of that evening in 1944 when I saw Josh smiling, swinging his bat, and Satch making a command performance right smack in the middle of our nation’s capital.

 

*All Negro League statistics are based on research of original box scores. They are as accurate as possible; however, some games were not reported in the newspapers, black or white.

 

 

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