With the release of the new “42″ movie, there has been a lot of discussion about Jackie Robinson and his role as the re-integrator of baseball (because don’t forget that African Americans played along side whites during the nineteenth century). I’ve written about Larry Doby’s role as the first African American player in the American League (and have a book on the subject as well) and have talked some about why Robinson and Doby were selected by Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck, respectively. Why did neither Rickey nor Veeck want Satchel Paige as the first black player on their teams? Veeck eventually added Paige to the 1948 Indians squad midway through the season, but by that point there were several African American players in both leagues. There were a number of reasons that owners were afraid to sign Paige first, and why one of the biggest stars of the Negro Leagues had to wait for more than a year after re-integration to play in the major leagues.
One thing that hindered Paige was obviously his age in 1947. He was 41-years-old, while Robinson was 27 and Doby was just 22. It’s possible that owners were afraid that Paige was past his prime, although he proved he could still get batters out in the Negro Leagues. Age was an issue to many of the activists working behind the scenes to encourage integration. If Paige was already 41, how many years could he be expected to play? (Or at least play at a high level?) There was some fear that Paige would retire or be released, and that would actually lead to baseball’s re-segregation. It was a legitimate fear; owners pushed African American players out of baseball prior to the twentieth century and nobody wanted to give them an excuse to do so again. There was more to the story than age, though.
There have been claims that Paige was happy in the Negro Leagues because he was such a draw and made a great deal of money for himself. That Paige was somehow “used to” living in segregated conditions and that it wasn’t necessarily important to him to pitch in the major leagues. I think that Paige probably was used to segregation at that point, but it didn’t mean that he liked it; he just learned to live with the situation. There were also claims that he had no desire to re-integrate baseball, and that it wasn’t important for him to do so. If you read quotes from Paige throughout his life and in his autobiography Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, you see that he wasn’t necessarily happy with segregated baseball. He also was very disappointed by the fact that he wasn’t selected as the re-integrator of baseball. In his autobiography he said, “I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time. I’d been the one who’d opened up the major league parks to colored teams. I’d been the one who the white boys wanted to barnstorm against…It was still me that ought to have been first.” In that quote, Paige is referencing the fact that black teams would play in major league stadiums, and that he traveled around the country barnstorming against teams with white players. At first, Paige and his All-Stars would travel with Dizzy Dean and his group of white players, later it was Paige and a team put together by Bob Feller.
So it’s obvious that Paige did have a desire to play in the majors, despite this perception that he was content to stay in the Negro Leagues. It also hurt him that he was bypassed in favor of someone that had spent a very small amount of time in the Negro Leagues (especially compared to him). Paige was a legend, and here’s a relative newcomer that ends up being the first person to re-integrate the majors. So what probably influenced the decision, aside from the age difference between Paige and Robinson, and Paige and Doby? It was the fact that owners were looking for a certain type of individual, as much as they were looking for a certain type of player. They wanted someone who would be able to stoically handle abuse, rather than fighting back. They wanted someone who had a clean past – no questionable moves on or off the field. Paige was very outspoken, and was less likely to keep his opinions to himself. He had also jumped contracts at times during the 1930s, something that people were afraid would make him look unreliable or dishonest. He also would occasionally forget about one of his starts, and the team would have to go looking for him. And there’s also the fact that Satchel Paige liked women. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were both in committed relationships with one woman, which made them appear as more “reliable.” I had the opportunity to meet Buck O’Neil not long before he passed away, and he told a great story about Satchel’s exploits with women. Apparently over the years, Buck had adopted the nickname “Nancy” from Paige. It happened when their team was staying at a hotel, and Paige was walking around looking for his date for the evening, Nancy, yelling her name. One of the other people at the hotel happened to be Paige’s soon-to-be wife. She heard him searching for Nancy and angrily asked Buck O’Neil about her. Buck lied and said that Nancy was his nickname and Paige was looking for him. Just one of the instances where Paige got into trouble (or nearly got into trouble) with women.
During the early 1940s, the African American newspaper in Cleveland, the Call and Post, really pushed major league teams to integrate. This wasn’t unusual; the black press played a major role in trying to address inequalities in baseball and in other aspects of society. After the Call and Post had repeatedly pushed Indians owner Alva Bradley to integrate, as well as other teams, they were wary of setbacks to the small amount of progress they’ve made to that point. They continued to argue that integrated teams would be a great improvement on the field, would bring in more money, and that the integration of baseball in general would open up doors to African Americans in other parts of society. Satchel Paige infuriated the local writers when he told national reporters in the early 1940s (that also came from primarily white daily papers) that he wasn’t so sure that integrated teams would be successful. He advocated for the major leagues to admit an all-black team into the league to play the white teams. Integrate the league itself, but not individual teams. The writers were upset because that was still segregation, even if it did at least put some African American players in the majors. Paige made these claims because he knew that for the one or two black players that would be added to white teams, it would be a miserable experience. He was just acknowledging the fact that these players would experience a lot of racism and abuse. The reporters were horrified, because he was providing white owners with more ammunition to avoid integrating, and was doing so in front of a national audience. It was incidents like this one that probably made a lot of people concerned about Paige. He was going to speak his mind, even if it wasn’t necessarily the appropriate time to do so.
So even though Paige was arguably the biggest star in Negro League history, he would not be the first African American player to reintegrate baseball. He was just considered to be too much of a liability because of his “baggage” – the fact that he was outspoken and that there were things in his past that could be used against him (things like jumping contracts and a love for women). Another interesting point about Paige – he left Cleveland following the 1949 season, after playing for the Indians for about a year and a half. Veeck was in the process of selling the team, and general manager Hank Greenberg was in charge of roster decisions. He decided to cut Paige loose and said that perhaps he wouldn’t have done so if Veeck still owned the team, but that Greenberg was tired of having one set of rules for the team and another completely different set of rules for Satchel Paige. Someone like that was just seen as too big of a risk in terms of integration. Opponents of integration were hoping that it would fail and were looking for any reason to prove it was not successful. You couldn’t give them any ammunition; you had to go with the “safer” player that would not cause problems or controversy.