Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Satchel Paige
It was hyped as "The Baseball Party to End All Baseball Parties." On August 7, 1956 the Orange Bowl playing field was transformed into a baseball diamond and America's national pastime made its debut in the giant football stadium. A crowd of 51,713 watched the Miami Marlins beat the Columbus Jets 6-2 in a charity game that featured the pitching and hitting heroics of Satchel Paige. The game drew the largest crowd to watch a minor league baseball game at the time. Long before the Florida Marlins existed, the Miami Marlins were South Florida's baseball team. The Marlins were a triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies in the International League and played their home games at Miami Stadium. But on one magical night, the Orange Bowl was their home field.
Team owner Bill Veeck was a longtime baseball maverick. He was often referred to as the P.T. Barnum of baseball. Veeck would resort to anything to bring fans to the ballpark. When he owned the St. Louis Browns, he once signed a 3-foot-7 inch dwarf named Eddie Gaedel in 1951, who walked on four pitches in his only Major League at bat. Many years later when he owned the Chicago White Sox, he designed an exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park, had his players wear strange uniforms that included shorts and was infamously remembered for organizing the 1979 "Disco Demolition Night" leading to the destruction of disco records and leaving the playing field in shambles. But Veeck's greatest legacy in South Florida was bringing the legendary pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige to the Marlins.
Satchel Paige is one of baseball's most iconic and colorful players. His peak years were pitching for the Kansas City Monarchs in the negro leagues from the late 1920s through the 1930s. Many baseball historians considered him to be one of the most dominant pitchers of his time. He often played against Major League players during offseason barnstorming tours and beat them repeatedly. Former Cardinals hall of fame pitcher Dizzy Dean once called Paige the best pitcher he ever saw. But by the time Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, Paige was 41-years-old and well past his prime. In 1948, then-Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Paige to his first major league contract. Paige and Indians teammate Larry Doby were the first African-Americans to play in the American League. Together they helped the Indians win the 1948 World Series. Paige pitched in the major leagues through 1953 at the age of 47.
By 1954, the St. Louis Browns released Paige. It appeared his profesional baseball career was over. He was 48 years old and still had the desire to keep playing. He bounced around in the minor leagues until his former boss Bill Veeck decided to sign him to a $15,000 contract and a percentage of the gate with the Miami Marlins in 1956. Many thought it was another one of Veeck's crazy gimmicks to bring in the 50-year-old Paige. But on the contrary. Despite his old age, Paige could still get minor league hitters out. In his first game as a Marlin, he pitched a complete-game 4-hit shutout.
But the highlight of Paige's tenure in Miami came in an exhibition game at the Orange Bowl. The stadium was clearly not meant to host baseball. Changing the field into a baseball park was like fitting a square peg through a round hole. The field dimensions were horribly skewed. Home plate was located in the southeast corner of the field and the right field wall less than 300 feet away. To compensate for the short right field, a giant fence was constructed. But none of that mattered to the fans who were hungry to see baseball. It was a festive night at the stadium. Proceeds went to charity and the pregame entertainment included a concert by jazz and blues legend Cab Calloway. Imagine 50,000 people singing "Heidi Heidi Heidi Ho!" in unison. But the real show was put on by Satchel Paige. Paige pitched into the eighth inning and also drove in 3-runs with a double to left-center field, giving the Marlins a 6-2 win. A week later, he pitched a one-hitter against Rochester and left to a standing ovation. During his three years with the Marlins, Paige was 31-22 with a 2.73 ERA, very good numbers for any pitcher regardless of age.
Satchel Paige eventually made one more appearance in the major leagues with the Kansas City Athletics on September 25, 1965, when he was signed by another maverick owner Charlie Finley. He was 59 years old. Paige's career major league record was just 28-31. He never got the opportunity to play in the major leagues as a young man. But he was never bitter. He was known for his sense of humor and was loved by teammates and fans. He was also known for his many colorful quotes. His most famous was "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you." That's exactly how Paige lived his baseball career. He was the first player from the negro leagues to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.