The baseball season is in it’s second week, and my fantasy team is already struggling to stay out of the cellar. My inability to draft decent starting pitchers is part of the problem, but the shoulder injury Derek Jeter suffered in the season opener didn’t help. I’m no fan of today’s Mr. Yankees, who I think is overpraised, but the hit he took looked ugly, and I’m happy that he won’t require surgery. Baseball is a non-contact sport. The death from heat stroke of Steve Bechler was shocking in part because serious injury on the diamond is so thankfully rare. There are only a handful of people (mostly players, a few umpires) who have been killed as a direct result of the national pastime, most famously Ray Chapman, a standout catcher for the Cleveland Indians who was struck in the head by a Carl Mays pitch in 1920. Today, beanballs are much less common and when people get hurt, but it’s usually relatively minor — Ken Griffey’s hamstring, Juan Gonzalez’s thumb — or a result of the fantastic stress of heaving a ball at 95 miles per hour. Pitching is strenuous enough that it’s somewhat surpring how long-lived some pitchers can be. Nolan Ryan‘s career lasted 27 years after its inauspicious start; Nolan was 6-10 over his first two seasons in the majors before going on to win 324 games. Jesse Orosco isn’t nearly the pitcher that Ryan was, but if he continues to be used as sparingly as he is (a recent save was his third in the past five seasons), there’s no reason he can’t hold up for another few years. But it seems likely that no one will ever replicate the longevity of Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. Leroy Robert Paige was the undisputed best Negro League pitcher of his day, and quite possibly the best of any race; in the ‘30s, he played six exhibition games pitching against the great Dizzy Dean and won four. Most baseball players outside the majors made their money barnstorming, appearing in games that were often gussied up in various ways to draw a crowd. Negro League games were half circus, half sport, and Paige gladly played along, hamming it up, guaranteeing consecutive strikeouts, cheerfully waving at and talking to opposing players in the dugout. And he pitched like a fiend; the stories of his control — pitching over cigarette box strike zones and knocking over matches — are legendary. Paige was almost certainly the single biggest draw in baseball prior to the end of the color line, pitching before an estimated ten million fans, and he commanded hundreds of dollars for an appearance.
Paige remained a huge draw when he forced his way into the majors; he was reportedly incensed that Jackie Robinson was chosen to end the color line in 1947. Robinson was chosen because he was an articulate, college-educated Negro Leaguer and, more importantly, one who could keep his temper in the face of horrendous abuse from fans and other players. Paige felt, however, that he was simply a better player than Robinson, and he got a chance to prove it the next year, when he integrated the American League. (Josh Gibson, the "black Babe Ruth," might have been chosen instead of Paige had he not died a few months before Robinson began playing for the Dodgers.)
Paige was always cagy about his birthdate. At one point during his rookie year, his apparently declared his official age as "42??", and he famously declared that age was a matter of mind over matter ("If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter"). Owner Bill Veeck was accused of signing him as a stunt. But Paige was had a fine rookie year, going 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA, and served as a the draw Veeck hoped for. Seventy-eight thousand people showed up to see him lead the Indians to a 1-0 victory over the White Sox; the record set that night for night-game attendance still stands. After four more competent but not outstanding years in the majors, Paige retired.
in 1965, Paige got to take part in a show as ridiculous as any of those from his barnstorming games when the no-hope Kansas City Athletics signed him to their major league roster. Paige was roughly 59 years old, but he was game; he sat in a rocking chair in the dughouse and had a nurse apply liniment to his arm. Amazingly, the stunt proved to be more than a stunt; playing against the equally no-hope Boston Red Sox, Paige pitched three innings of one-hit ball.
Baseball records come and go. Maris’ home run record and Gehrig’s consecutive games streak have been toppled. Nolan Ryan’s career no-hitters may eventyually be topped. It’s even conceivable that someone will top Lefty Grove’s 31-win season or Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. But what manager, for love or money, will ever again put a 59-year-old pitcher into a major league ball game? Unlike Jesse Orosco’s arm, that record — the oldest player in the history of the major leagues — will outlive us all.