In 1971, Satchel Paige came to Cooperstown
But as the legendary pitcher, showman and civil rights activist approached the podium on the Library steps outside the Baseball Hall of Fame the morning of Aug. 9, 1971, he had no choice but to violate one of his most popular commandments.
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Numerous Hall of Famers vouched for his greatness. Dean said his fastball looked like a change-up compared “to that little pistol bullet Satchel shoots up to the plate.” Joe DiMaggio said Paige was the best and fastest pitcher he faced. Slugger Hack Wilson claimed Satchel made baseballs look as small as marbles to batters struggling to see and hit them.
The announcement of Paige’s unanimous election at a packed press conference in Manhattan on Feb. 9, 1971 was supposed to be a crowning moment for him and for baseball. But the festivities took a sour turn when it was revealed his plaque would hang in a different room than previous inductees. Though Paige publicly accepted this “separate but unequal” decision – “I’m proud to be wherever they put me” – the media did not.
“The notion of Jim Crow in Baseball’s Heaven is appalling,’’ columnist Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “What is this – 1840? Either let him in the front of the Hall – or move the damn thing to Mississippi.”
Jackie Robinson suggested Paige boycott the induction.
Privately, Satchel seethed, telling friends, “The only change is that baseball has turned Paige from a second-class citizen to a second-class immortal.”
On July 7 – Satch’s 65th birthday – saner heads prevailed and MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Hall President Paul Kerr announced Paige’s plaque would hang in the main hall. “I guess they finally found out I was really worthy,’’ Paige told reporters. “I appreciate it to the highest.”
Following his induction, he spoke frankly with reporters on a variety of topics, including his candidacy to become MLB’s first Black manager. “I could manage easy – I’ve been in baseball 40 years,’’ he said. “And I would want to manage.” But he also offered a reason why it wouldn’t happen. “I don’t think the white is ready to listen to the colored yet,’’ he said. “That’s why they’re afraid to get a Black manager. They’re afraid everybody won’t take orders from him. You know there are plenty of qualified guys around.”
Among them was Frank Robinson, who would topple that racial barrier four years later when he was hired to manage the Indians. Paige’s comments had set the wheels in motion.
It was all part of his remarkable, trailblazing journey – a journey that saw him bust open some doors in Cooperstown 50 summers ago, clearing a path for Black pioneers to finally feel at home in the home of baseball.
Scott Pitoniak is a freelance writer from Penfield, N.Y.