Profiles in Baseball: Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige


Two men that shaped their respective leagues around their play, and provided huge drawing power based on their personas were Satchel Paige and Babe Ruth. Nothing this author can write in a blog can do justice to their legacies and legend, but the following is an attempt at a brief biography of both men.
Satchel Paige (1906-1982): A man who started his MLB career in his 40’s, Satchel Paige was known for his fastball, illegal hesitation pitch, and coming and going as it suited him. Being a man without country, since he rarely stayed put in one place, Paige was a nice fit on the Cleveland club, led by Bill Veeck Jr., that would win the World Series in 1948. In Satchel’s first three games started in the majors the attendance was a staggering 201,829.[1]
Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, destined to be recognized for his antics, ‘Satchel’ likely earned that moniker via the five-finger discount road that led to five years[1] in Mount Meigs reform school.[2] (Historian Robert Peterson states Paige was nicknamed for carrying the mailbags used by the railroads.) Leroy Paige, like George Herman Ruth did at a Baltimore reformatory, developed into a renowned ballplayer. Both had fathers that were strictly blue-collar: Paige’s was a gardener; Ruth’s ran a bar.
His legend extended well back into 1920’s as a fastball pitcher with little control that got by on overpowering talent. His first seasons were spent deep in the Jim Crow South playing in Mobile, then for the Chattanooga Black Lookouts and Birmingham Black Barons.[3]
As he reached his prime, Satchel’s name would come up in the Negro Leagues (or baseball in general) when asking about who was the best pitcher. His records in the early 1930’s for Pittsburgh Crawfords (32-7 and 31-4), his North Dakota barnstorming tour of 134 wins in 150 contests or his out dueling Schoolboy Rowe and a team of major leaguers reflects just how well he pitched. But beyond the won-loss records, his showmanship and supreme confidence, was both exciting and abrasive.
Paige squabbled with a wide variety of owners over contracts, took stances based on his upbringing and came and went as he desired. Due to his gate attraction, Paige was in constant demand. The Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley obtained a restraining order in 1938 against Paige leaving the country for an opportunity to pitch in Venezuela.[4] Soon after, he went to Mexico instead. He showed up batters by removing his fielders, leaving only him and usually Biz Mackey as his battery mate. (Josh Gibson also caught Satchel.) Those man-to-boy encounters with his ‘bee ball’ or ‘jump ball’ were lopsided in favor of Paige.
He led players in contract jumping – with money (or a car) as the primary motivator. This was only after the low salaries in the Negro Leagues provided the impetus to jump to the Dominican Republic: “if we got the dough that we deserve, we wouldn’t want to run out on anybody.”[5] As usual, money and material things usually made the decision for the HOF pitcher than was later utilized by ever-the-shill owner Charlie O. Finley in the mid 1960’s at a record age of 59 years old. Paige got through those 3 innings with little damage and received a well-deserved pension. Satchel Paige also refused to pitch in towns where he could not lodge or get a meal in a restaurant.[6]
While on his Mexican excursion, a sore arm jeopardized his career where Paige struggled through a couple seasons before coming back to nearly full strength. He added polish – throwing a curve ball, and employing the hesitation pitch – but his Prima Donna act was still intact. He made his way to Kansas City (where he resided at his death in June 1982) and pitched for the Monarchs for much of the 1940’s, when not in the American League.
Robert Leroy Satchel Paige pitched in five decades from 1926 to 1965, likely amassing well over 10,000 innings pitched, more wins than the immortal Cy Young and admiration from competitors and observers alike. Joe DiMaggio, a lifetime .325 hitter, surmised he was the toughest pitcher he ever faced in West Coast exhibitions.[7] Ultimately though, Paige’s free spirit, his fastball and wit made his way and he never looked back.

Satchel Paige’s Famous Words to Live By

  1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.
  2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
  3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
  4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
  5. Avoid running at all times.
  6. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.[8]

George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth (1895-1948) was a child of the world, prone to excesses and boastfulness, but dominated the sports world in the 1920’s in a manner hard to compare (or duplicate) in the late 20th – early 21st century sports panorama. Growing up in Baltimore and spending most of his formative years as a ‘incorrigible’ at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys[1], Ruth learned one lesson there from the priests, and probably one only, how to hit a baseball as far as anyone could envision in those heady days of organized baseball. (Somehow the rest of the ‘lessons’ to be learnt there never took.)

Babe Ruth was placed in this reformatory at age seven as a hyperactive, big and outgoing boy that soon acquired a great desire to play baseball as likely the only positive diversion from his meager assignment as a youthful garment maker. He also obtained a rude moniker that stuck into the 1920’s –‘Nigger Lips’[2] – as McGraw’s New York Giants would jeer during the ‘23 World Series. Later though, his array of nicknames would only add to the Babe’s foggy legacy: The Colossus of Clout, the King of Crash, the Sultan of Swat, the Monster of Mash, The Bambino and a host of others never heard mentioned quite enough, so they faded away foggily, much like Montville Leigh The Big Bam describes of his childhood years.

As it was, George Herman Ruth learned how to hit towering fly balls from Brother Matthias Boutlier (from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia)[3], a burly man that was as large as an offensive tackle in the modern NFL. Boutlier might be the ‘Father of Home Run’ since his fungoe-style hitting was mimicked by the son that mastered the art of swinging skyward in evading outfielders and depositing balls over the fences. With baseball’s domination of his time, Ruth took Boutlier’s lessons to heart and practice them nearly year round, playing everywhere on the field, before someone important took notice.

In 1914, Jack Dunn, the operator of the powerful and influential Baltimore Orioles franchise of the minor league circuit (with the likes of HOF pitcher Lefty Grove playing in the early 1920’s) would acquire the Babe. Jack Dunn had a short career as ballplayer, playing on smarts to make up for a bad arm due to childhood mishap[4], but Dunn made his real mark as talent scout and a big league feeder system of star players for a price. On Valentine’s Day 1914, Ruth was signed as a pitcher sight unseen by Dunn for $250 per month. But before Dunn could reap any real benefits from his acquisition, Dunn was forced into competition with Federal Leagues’ Baltimore Terrapins, and shopped the Babe to Connie Mack and John McGraw, only to eventually sell him to Boston’s owner Joe Lannin.[5]

Within two years, Babe Ruth was a superstar pitcher, leading the league in ERA (1.75) and shutouts (9) in 1916. The Babe though would soon progressed to power hitting as naturally as ducks take to water or owls take to the nocturnal hunt. But as one passage by Montville Leigh weighs Ruth’s pitching prowess versus another ace of the day:

“Matched against Ruth, the emotional, developing reprobate, [Hall of Famer Walter] Johnson easily was cast as the white hat against the black hat, goodness against perdition. The problem was, perdition had a much better team behind him. The two men faced each other five times during the ’16 season:” Ruth won four times, 5-1, 1-0, 1-0, 2-1 and had a no decision, but was ahead 2-0 in ninth before getting into trouble. Ruth’s record against Johnson from 1915 to 1917 was 6-1.[6]

Even with Ruth then earning his living on the mound, it was his greater potential that sparked conversations early on in May 1917. As Montville Leigh’s Big Bam reflects, “Ruth took Johnson deep for the first time and earned a tailored suit [a favorite item of soothing] in the process. It also saw his future as a Yankee discussed jokingly amongst the principles: Col. Jake Ruppert and Harry Frazee. This as Ruth saw a change in his usage from star pitcher to mediocre first basemen to a Manny Ramirez/Ted Williams style of outfielder later on that season.”[7]

By 1918, Ruth was as dangerous with a bat as he was proficient with pitch. Ed Barrow took on the onerous task of taming the unconventional Ruth, leading to plenty of fights, tantrums and dramas. As Bill James reflects, “Ruth tested the limits of the rules constantly; this was what made him who he was. He refused to be ordinary; he refused to accept that the rules applied to him; until it was clear that they did. Constantly testing the limits of the rules, as I see him, was Babe Ruth’s defining characteristic…”[8] Barrow soon tested but eventually defined Ruth as an outfielder – due in large part to Provost Marshal General Crowder issuing his “work or fight” order in June 1918 – and the Babe led Boston to its last championship until the 21st century, garnering the first of twelve home run titles to boot.

As Ruth’s ability to smack the long ball grew, his desires to get compensation followed in concert. From his 3-year, $10,000 per year contract signed in 1918, Ruth reconsidered for $20,000 after his superior 1919 season in which he smacked 29 home runs, scored 103 times, drove in 114 runs and slugged a then modest .657, all leading the American League by wide margins. Ruth alone hit 12% of the leagues’ home runs. He scored 18.26% of Boston Runs and won 9 games with a ‘mediocre’ 2.97 ERA off the mound in his last significant pitching season.

His theatrical owner, Harry Frazee, refused to pay Ruth and demeaned the man’s recent exploits, citing his petulant and decadent behaviors as barriers to his future production, resulting in (likely) the most infamous trade ever made in baseball history. Three days into the Roarin’ Twenties, the Babe went to the New York Yankees for $425,000 (in total cash transferred, since $300,000 was a loan), and his hitting prowess would result in the biggest affect in baseball scoring until President Clinton took office 72 seasons later.

The cost of the Babe’s trade [in 2005 dollars] is roughly $1,357,500 (without the loan), a bargain to say the least. As Leigh Montville compares the Babe’s salary: “A conversion system from the American Institute of Economics Research translates the Babe’s [contract in 1922 of] $52,000 into $564,737.43 in 2005 dollars. Only two members of the 2005 New York Yankees, outfielder Bubba Crosby at $322,950 and second baseman Andy Phillips at $317,000, made less than $564,737.43…[For the Babe] to make the same amount in 1922 dollars as Alex Rodriguez, Ruth would have had to sign for $2,246,913.58. Baseball simply didn’t pay that kind of money.”[1] Frazee’s $1,357,500 [in 2005 dollars] for the loss of 659 home runs, works out to just less than $2,060 per dinger. Even in the 1920’s, this amount was easily made up at the gate for a $.50 ticket, a typical seat price. Frazee soon sold numerous other players between 1921-1923, including HOF pitcher Waite Hoyt, SP Joe Bush and SP Herb Pennock, only to build his rival to unparalleled success.

Yankee Stadium became the “House that Ruth Built” as his home run prowess, championships brought to the New York (after leaving Boston) and his image grew to be baseball’s iconoclast. He found adulation, but not love. He longed to manage, but never did in the majors. Babe Ruth’s immortality grows from the stories of his bombastic, devil-may-care nature, but his numbers (714) and (3) are remembered forever.

Even Barry Bonds, who just passed the Babe referred to passage of the Babe as “his home run record.” Barry must be mistaken since Henry Aaron has long since held the NL (and MLB) record – the only ones Barry can break. Ruth’s HR record in the American League is still secure until Alex Rodriguez grows five years older.

Both these men defied convention; grew up in low circumstances; and, fought the powers-that-be in baseball on numerous occasions. Likely, the two would have squared off with each other in much the same way, with the result a matter of a fan’s dream and fancy. But respect was something both would command of each other in such a fantastic meeting.

Footnotes:

[1] Peterson Robert. Only the Ball Was White. London: Prentice-Hall International, Inc.; 1970. 140.[1] Peterson Robert. Only the Ball Was White. London: Prentice-Hall International, Inc.; 1970. 140.[2] http://www.nlbemuseum.com/history/players.html – Biography of Robert Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige. Last Accessed: February 10,2007.[3] http://www.nlbemuseum.com/history/players.html – Biography of Robert Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige. Last Accessed: February 10,2007.[4] Lanctot N. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 2004. 74.[5] Lanctot N. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 2004. 73.[6] Only The ball Was White – pg. 10[7] http://www.nlbemuseum.com/history/players.html – Biography of Robert Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige. Last Accessed: February 10,2007.[8] O’Neil B, Wulf S, Conrads D, Burns K. I Was Right on Time. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.; 1996. 220.
[1] Montville Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday; 2006. 17.
[2] Montville Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday; 2006. 21.
[3] Montville Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday; 2006. 24.
[4] Montville Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday; 2006. 34.
[5] Montville Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday; 2006. 39-40.
[6] Montville Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday; 2006. 56-57.
[7] Montville Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday; 2006. 69.
[8] James Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract: The Classic – Completely Revised. New York: The Free Press; 2001. 998 p.

[1] Montville Leigh. The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday; 200. 147.
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