Any time there’s an article or blog post that claims to list the best (or worst) possible “something,” there’s obviously a large degree of subjectivity involved. I think that these types of posts (while subjective) can spur interesting discussion when it comes to the topic at hand. In this post, I decided to make a rather bold claim of what I felt was the best July deal made by the Indians in the team’s history. While there are numerous candidates that could claim this title, I decided to pick my favorite and tell you why I feel that way.
In 1948 Indians general manager/owner Bill Veeck was looking for ways to improve the team. Veeck was a relative newcomer to the city of Cleveland; he purchased the team in 1946 and made the bold decision to integrate with Larry Doby in 1947 (something we’ve discussed on this blog in the recent past). Bill Veeck already proved throughout his career that he liked to make a splash and was a fan of bold moves. When it came time to improve the team midway through the season in 1948, Bill Veeck once again looked to the Negro Leagues for talent as he signed 42-year-old Satchel Paige to a contract in July of that year.
One thing to remember when it came to the reintegration of baseball during the 1940s; African American players (at first) were added to teams at a trickle of a pace, rather than a flood. It would take until 1959 before all Major League teams had at least one African American player on its roster (the last team was the Boston Red Sox). Paige became the second black player on the Indians, and the first black pitcher in the American League. He was a legend in the Negro Leagues and was probably one of the greatest pitchers of all time.
In his prime, Paige was virtually unhittable. There are stories that he called in the outfielders before he’d pitch to a batter – this was due to the fact that fielders aren’t needed when you strike out the side. Paige was also known for his pinpoint control. As an example, he would place a gum wrapper on home plate and consistently throw the pitch directly over the wrapper. I once had the opportunity to talk to a man that caught for Paige late in his career, after he’d come and gone from the Indians. He confirmed the stories about his amazing control and pointed out that this was in the twilight of his career. During his prime, Paige was courted by numerous Negro League teams, as well as teams outside of the United States. He even defected from the Negro Leagues in 1937 to play for a team handpicked by Dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
The Indians pitching staff already boasted names like Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Gene Bearden and Steve Gromek in 1948 when Paige made his debut on July 9 of that year (he was signed on July 7). Paige was already quite familiar with one of those pitchers – Bob Feller. Paige and Feller toured the country in the 1940s with their respective All Star Teams; Paige selected Negro League players for his All Star team, while Feller selected fellow white Major League players.
Paige generated a bit of controversy when he joined the Indians in 1948 because of his “hesitation pitch;” a pitch where Paige seemed to pause in the midst of his motion. It was eventually ruled as illegal and Paige was told a balk would be called if he threw it. Even with the banning of that pitch, Paige still managed a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 43 strikeouts in 72.2 innings pitched from July 9 through the end of the season.
The season came down to a one game playoff with the Boston Red Sox, as both teams were tied at the top of the American League at the end of the season. The Indians defeated the Red Sox 8-3, and moved forward to play the Boston Braves in the World Series. Paige did not pitch in that game, and only pitched for 2/3 of an inning in game 2 of the World Series (he gave up a sacrifice fly, was called for a balk, and got a strikeout). The Indians ended up beating the Braves 4 games to 2, to win their first World Series since 1920 (and to date, their last World Series).
Even though Paige was basically a non-factor in the one-game playoff and the World Series, I would argue that the Indians may not have even made it that far without Satchel Paige. They finished tied with Boston; Paige’s 6 wins look pretty important when you think about the tight race down the stretch in 1948. The New York Yankees finished just 2.5 games back from the Indians, so it’s feasible to believe that Paige gave them the push forward. They didn’t need to surrender any players to sign Paige either, as his contract was purchased directly from the Negro Leagues.
Paige played one more year with the Indians in 1949. While not as good as 1948 campaign, he still put up solid numbers – 4-7, 3.04 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 54 strikeouts in 83 innings pitched. Bill Veeck was going through a divorce in 1949 and sold the Indians in an attempt to liquidate his assets so they could be split with his soon-to-be ex-wife. When Hank Greenberg took over the team, he chose not to bring Paige back. He was once quoted as saying that he hated having two sets of rules – one for Satchel Paige, and one for the rest of the team. Greenberg added that if Veeck still owned the team, perhaps Paige would’ve been with the Tribe longer. Paige was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. While he’s remembered for his spectacular career, I like to consider the signing of Satchel Paige to be the best July move in Cleveland Indians history.