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02/19/05 8:00 AM ET

Paige a legend in two leagues

Negro Leagues star was first black pitcher in AL

CLEVELAND -- He was a legend long before he ever put on an Indians uniform in the summer of 1948, and on the day he finally did, Satchel Paige had to be 41 going on 51.

His age always stood as a mystery to everybody, and Paige reveled in keeping it that way.

"Age is a question of mind over matter," he once said. "If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

But what did matter was talent, and regardless of what measuring stick people might have used, Paige showed plenty of talent from the time he first took the mound with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts in 1926.

From there Paige barnstormed the baseball circuit. He pitched in the U.S. and Latin America with more than a half-dozen Negro League teams, and showcased his arm in front of black audiences that worshiped him.

black history month 2005

"Regarded as the nearest thing to a legend that ever came out of the Negro Leagues, this tall, lanky right-hander parlayed a pea-sized fastball, nimble wit, and a colorful personality into a household name that is recognized by people who know little about baseball itself ... " wrote historian James A. Riley in his Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues.

But segregation kept Paige from winning the universal acclaim that went to his white peers. For as good as they were, Paige was their equal, if not their superior.

Enough white people saw him pitch to make that statement themselves.

"They said I was the greatest pitcher they ever saw," Paige once said. "I couldn't understand why they couldn't give me no justice."

In those days of Jim Crow, black ballplayers were forced to toil outside the spotlight that shone on Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Cochrane, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg and others.

Justice? It was a made-up word without meaning in a sport that would exclude a talent like Paige's.

But in the summer of 1947, Jackie Robinson, another Negro League alum, broke the color barrier when he stepped on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His arrival opened the floodgates, and talent from the Negro Leagues poured into the Majors.

Next to reach the bigs was Larry Doby, who signed with the Indians and integrated the American League weeks after Robinson's debut. Paige followed Doby in 1948, signing with the Indians to become the first black pitcher in the league.

Yet no one who came before or after had built the kind of baseball-wide reputation that Paige had. No one squeezed more out of his baseball life than Paige, and no one enjoyed baseball more than he.

"I never had a job," he once said. "I always played baseball."

Yes, he always did. His career spanned 40 years and what seems like as many professional leagues.

"There never was a man on Earth who pitched as much as me," he once said. "But the more I pitched, the stronger my arm would get."

The stories about Paige, his life and his resiliency rival the number of pitches he threw in his career.

"A mixture of fact and embellishment, Satchel's stories are legion," Blackbaseball.com wrote about him. "From the rich array of folklore come stories of his pulling infielders to sit behind the mound while he proceeded to strike out the side with the tying run on base; stories of him intentionally walking the bases loaded so that he could pitch to Josh Gibson, the most dangerous hitter in black baseball; stories of him repeatedly striking out the first nine batters he faced in exhibition games; stories of him throwing 20 straight pitches across a chewing gum wrapper that was being used for home plate; stories of him throwing so hard that the ball disappeared before it reached the catcher's mitt."

Paige left the baseball landscape littered with stories that often bordered on fiction. But inside what some people might call tall tales were plenty of truths, truths that cemented his legend as one of baseball's best.

By the time Paige joined the Tribe in 1948, he was winding down his legendary career. He already had several thousand innings behind him, but he proved in that glorious season of Indians baseball that he had plenty more left.

He went 6-1 for the Tribe, with a 2.48 ERA. He spent the 1949 season with the Indians as well, although he didn't duplicate the season he'd had in 1948. He went 4-7 with a 3.04 ERA, not bad numbers for a man who was 42 going on 52.

His legacy, though, was built more around what he did in the Negro Leagues than what he did in the Majors. Still, he did enough in the bigs to earn selection to the list of "100 Greatest Indians."

He was a special talent, even in his declining years.

Paige's plaque in Cooperstown reads as follows: "Paige was one of the greatest stars to play in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Thrilled millions of people and won hundreds of games. Struck out 21 Major Leaguers in an exhibition game. Helped pitch Cleveland Indians to the 1948 pennant in his first big league year at age 42. His pitching was a legend among Major League hitters. "

But even Cooperstown might have it wrong. It lists Paige as 42 in his rookie season. But other sources say he was 41, and folklore puts his age at many years more than 42.

On the subject of his age, Paige just kept 'em all guessing: "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" he'd ask.

Old enough, Satch. Old enough.

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.