Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you

Today (July 7) is Satchel Paige‘s birthday. It’s a day to honor a man who I wish I had known more about in my youth.

I’ve written before, going all the way back to the first thing I ever put in this space, about the Springfield Redbirds, who were once the triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. When they began playing in my hometown of  Springfield, Illinois in 1978, I was not quite ten years old.

Over the course of the next four seasons, a very high-quality baseball game could regularly be found in the summertime, about 20 minutes away from my house. I didn’t fully appreciate this quite yet, but over time it has come to mean a great deal. Baseball matters to me in a way that no other sport ever has, or ever will. I can only conclude that the Redbirds played a role in this process.

In 1980, the third year that the Redbirds were in town, and the year they won the championship of the American Association, they hired Satchel Paige in the figurehead role of Vice President. By that time he was a Hall of Famer, the highest honor that the majors could bestow on him.

But Paige was also a living legend, having pitched–by his own recordkeeping–for 250 teams, in 2,500 ball games. He claimed to have won 2,000 games, and pitched anywhere from 20 to 100 no-hitters. The barnstorming nature of teams in the pre-integration era didn’t provide accurate records, so the actual numbers probably depended on what mood he was in on any given day. But no one doubts that he was a dominant pitcher, and perhaps the greatest one who ever threw to a hitter from a pitcher’s mound.

I remember going to a game once in 1980 and asking him if he would sign a program for me. He obliged this request, and I kept it with my things at home. It was a special thing to me, but I must admit that, as the years went by and that program somehow vanished. And so it goes.

Satchel Paige made his first big-league appearance at the age of 42, well beyond the age of most productive players. And his final appearance came in 1965, just a few years before I was born. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A’s, at the age of 59. It’s a record that will probably never be broken.

Satchel Paige died in Kansas City in 1982. His Springfield job was the last stop in a professional baseball career that spanned across seven decades. He’s known as perhaps the greatest player, in the most important position, in the best sport that I’ve ever known. I’m happy to have crossed paths, no matter how briefly, with such an important figure in the game’s history. I wish I had held on to that program, though.

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