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After a lot of errors, the Hall of Fame's home run

It took far too long for baseball to honor its black players, and even then, officials almost dropped the ball.

July 24, 2009|Larry Tye | Larry Tye is the author of the just-published biography "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend."

When the National Baseball Hall of Fame holds its induction ceremonies Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., both players on the platform -- Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson -- will be African Americans. To some, it is a troubling reminder that African American participation in baseball has plummeted by two-thirds since Rice and Henderson broke into the game. But it is a scene that would have delighted Satchel Paige, whose induction nearly 40 years ago was a memorial to the days when our national pastime was all-white and blacks were banished to a shadow world called the Negro Leagues.

It was Leroy "Satchel" Paige's moment of majesty as he stood on the dais that August morning in 1971, ready to be enshrined as a diamond demigod. The White House had telegraphed, offering President Nixon's congratulations and saying, "If you still persist in not looking back, your many friends and admirers are pleased to do it for you."

Seven Caucasian heroes were being honored too that year, but it was the dark-skinned flamethrower with the horn-rimmed glasses almost everyone had come to see.

When Satchel makes it, newspapers across America trumpeted, so do the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Birmingham Black Barons and a lineup of black baseball trailblazers from Moses Fleetwood Walker to Andrew "Rube" Foster.

Even as he relished the limelight, familiar voices dueled in Paige's head. Should he be grateful that the lords of hardball finally were acknowledging that "blackball" had brilliant players, or should he resent them -- and all of the United States -- for making him pitch his best ball in the shadows? Was what counted that he was the first vintage Negro Leaguer to be voted into this exclusive club and the only pitcher to make it with a losing record in the Major Leagues? Or was it that the Hall of Fame had tried to banish him to a separate and unequal wing?

Getting there had not been easy. Paige had pitched his heart out during 20 years in the Negro Leagues, then reminded the majors of all that he could do when the Cleveland Indians signed him at 42, an age when most players were watching from the bleachers.

Supporters helped force the doors open for him at Cooperstown. Former Indians owner Bill Veeck never stopped reminding baseball why its conscience should be guilty, while Bowie Kuhn, the new commissioner, worked from the inside to change people's minds. The staunchly Republican Red Sox slugger Ted Williams led the push, taking time out during his own 1966 induction to urge "that Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson somehow will be inducted here as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here."

The press beat the drums for Paige for a full generation. "If you believe Leroy Robert Paige of the St. Louis Browns belongs in Baseball's Hall of Fame, you had better start writing to your favorite sports columnist about it right now," Ed Fitzgerald wrote in Sport magazine in 1952. "He won't have a Chinaman's chance of making it if you don't turn on the heat." Twenty years later, the Hall of Fame relented, sort of. It would let in one player a year based on his record in the Negro Leagues, starting with Paige. But it would be to a wing separate from other honorees. "This notion of Jim Crow in Baseball's Heaven is appalling," Jim Murray wrote in 1971 in this newspaper. "What is this -- 1840? Either let him in the front of the Hall -- or move the damn thing to Mississippi."

Paige did not need white scribes to tell him how much it hurt to be exiled to the Hall of Fame's black ghetto. Yet having endured a lifetime of being locked out of organized baseball, he saw this opening -- even through the back door -- as progress. He also needed the world to grant an old man his day in the sun. So he played along, telling the media, "I'm proud to be wherever they put me in the Hall of Fame."

It was left to friends to vent the resentment that Satchel would acknowledge later. "Some dark night," Veeck confided to a sports columnist, "I'm going to sneak into Cooperstown and find out where Satchmo's plaque is and put it in the front room where it belongs."

Six months after they announced his election to the Hall of Fame, Paige was in Cooperstown for the induction. The public had weighed in with outrage at the spectacle of a segregated museum, forcing baseball's rulers to agree to hang his plaque alongside the rest. He quieted his competing instincts by siding, as he always had, with moderation over militancy. "Thank you, commissioner, and my fans and baseball players from all around as far as Honolulu, Mexico, and I don't know where the rest of 'em come from. I know they're my friends, I know that," Paige said as he looked out at the mostly white audience.

His remarks were touching and funny. He talked about barnstorming across the country in cars so tightly packed that his knees were "sticking up in front of me. For five years, I didn't know where I was going. I couldn't see."

He talked about the enigma of his age, of pitching 165 games in a row and of never looking back.

"I was called some bad names back then," Paige said, recounting the years of segregation. But on that day, his day, he declared himself "the proudest man in the place."

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