Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dissecting Satchel Paige's major league debut

Just two days after the record books said he turned 42, Satchel Paige made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948 in front of a crowd of 34,780 at Cleveland Stadium. The sheer magnitude of the situation shouldn’t have fazed the legendary hurler, who once pitched in the championship game of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s league in the Dominican Republic under the threat of a machine gun toting militia. Yet, for Paige, toeing the rubber on major league soil brought a sense of high drama, shaking one of baseball’s most experienced moundsmen.

“I felt those nerves … they were jumping every which way,” Paige recalled.

Satchel Paige
Standing at the plate for the St. Louis Browns was 29-year-old first baseman Chuck Stevens, who entered the game sporting a .252 batting average with one home run, certainly not the type of numbers that would rattle fear into opposing hurlers. While Paige admitted his nerves, Stevens on the other hand saw a familiar target. Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Paige came out to Stevens’ California hometown of Long Beach to play winter ball. The two squared off many times before that fateful day.

“I played against him about ten times before that night. I played against him when he could really smoke it,” said the 94-year-old Stevens from his home in California. “When Satch relieved against us [in Cleveland], he was just spotting the ball around. [It seemed like] he had lost 60 mph off of his fastball. He threw his breaking stuff and he had great control so you knew he was going to be around the plate all the time. He wasn’t going to overpower you like I had seen him in his earlier days.”

Stevens wasted no time getting acquainted with his old friend. He promptly laced Paige’s offering into left field.

“The ballgame in Cleveland was not a big deal for me because I was just hitting off of Satch," he said. "I singled into left field, between [Ken] Keltner and [Lou] Boudreau. … I always had pretty good luck off of him.”

Stevens dates his success against Paige back to a meeting they had a few years prior, just as he returned from his service in World War II.

“One of the longest home runs I had ever hit in my life was off of Paige," he said. "I had just gotten out of close to four years in the service, and we played an exhibition game in Long Beach and Satch pitched against our ball club. The ball I hit, I guess it must have been well over 400 feet. I wondered where all that power came from when I was rounding the bases.”

Stevens’ teammate Ned Garver was a 22-year-old rookie relief pitcher. Only in the major leagues for two months, he found himself right in the middle of this historical event.

“There was never a time when there wasn’t a bunch of hoopla around Satchel because he was such a colorful guy,” said the 85-year-old Garver from his home in Ohio.

Garver pitched two and one-thirds innings of scoreless relief for the save that day, but his clearest memories from that game started before a pitch was even thrown.

“We had a man on our team who hit cleanup and played left field [Whitey Platt]. He was from Florida. He told the manager he wasn’t going to play,” Garver recalled. “Zack Taylor was our manager, and you know back in those days, you didn’t tell somebody you weren’t going to play. You didn’t get away with that kind of crap. [Taylor] said, ‘No, you’re gonnna play.’ So he put him in the lineup.” Platt wasn’t a happy camper to say the least, and when he batted against Paige, he let him know it. “The first pitch Paige threw to him, he threw his bat at Satchel, and it whistled out there about belt high. He just wanted to show that he did not like that situation.”

Paige fooled Platt so badly for strike three with his famed hesitation pitch, that his bat once again took flight, this time flying up the third base line. Looking to extract some sort of revenge for Platt’s first toss of the bat, Garver said Satchel pulled one from his bag of tricks to finish the deal.

“If he threw a bat at Satchel like he did, Satchel was not going to look on that with favor, so he was probably going to give some of his better stuff along the way. To strike him out gave him some satisfaction.”

Paige pitched two scoreless innings that day, quickly shaking whatever nerves he had when Stevens stepped to the plate. He finished the season with a 6-1 record and helped the Indians get to the World Series, where he made one appearance in relief. Even though his best days were behind him, he still had enough left to outsmart major league hitters and give fans a taste of what the major leagues missed in its prime.

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