In 1935, Paige, along with five other Negro League stars including Quincy Trouppe and Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe, led Bismarck to the national semi-pro baseball championship.
Paige was tall and skinny, standing six-foot-three-inches tall and weighing about 180 pounds, with long thin legs and long arms.
He learned to play baseball in an Alabama reform school. He had a high leg kick and he would shoot the ball to the plate around his pointed foot. Half the time, the batter would be swinging at Paige’s foot.
When he got a try-out with a team in Mobile, he was so fast that the manager asked him, “Do you throw that fast consistently?”
To which Paige answered, “No, I do it all the time.”
His fastball was lightning fast. Hack Wilson, the great National League home run slugger once said that Paige’s fastball “starts out like a baseball, but when it gets to the plate, it looks like a marble.” Paige responded by saying: “You must be talking about my slow ball, my fastball looks like a fish egg” by the time it gets to home plate.
Famous catcher “Double-Duty” Radcliffe said Paige was not only fast, but he also had “fantastic location. He could throw 105 miles an hour and hit a mosquito flying over the outside corner of the plate.”
For warm-ups, Paige was said to practice by throwing pitches over a dime. Not just over home plate, but over a dime, and he could even put a ball over the corners of the dime.
A whiplash motion of his pitching arm also fooled the hitters. Paige hired himself out to teams that would pay him his price, and he helped several Negro League teams to championships during his 25-year career.
In 1933, Neil Churchill, a Bismarck car dealer and entrepreneur extraordinaire, hired Satchel Paige away from the Pittsburgh Crawfords for the tail end of the season. Churchill wanted to beat the Jamestown team, which featured several great black players.
In Paige’s debut, he hurled his new Bismarck team to a 3-2 victory over Jamestown, striking out 18 batters.
Paige’s highest strikeout total – 20 whiffs – came several days later in a ballgame against the Beulah Miners ballclub. Bismarck won 8-0, and Paige gave up just three hits: two singles and a double.
Paige contributed to the victory by getting two hits in four plate appearances, hitting a single and a long triple to deep right field.
Paige did not play in North Dakota in 1934, but he re-joined Neil Churchill’s Bismarck team in 1935 because the Great Depression had put the Negro Leagues into disarray, and Paige was as happy to get a regular paycheck in those hard times as Churchill was to bring this talented pitcher to North Dakota. Churchill hired Paige for $400 a month and a car; and Churchill allowed Paige to be hired by other teams on “off days.” Paige pitched for any team that would pay him good money and, as he later said, “I don’t believe there’s any place I didn’t play baseball.”
Bismarck won the National Baseball Congress championship at the end of the season. The photo above shows Paige with Bismarck’s playoff lineup.
Paige came back to North Dakota several times after 1935, playing exhibition games in Minot in 1950 and in 1959.
Paige created a legacy during his prime years from 1926 through 1950. After the color line in baseball had been broken, Paige became the first black pitcher in the American League, playing for Cleveland in 1948 at age 42. He only got to play major league baseball until 1953. Paige estimated that he had pitched in 2,500 games and had won 2,000 games – or about four times more than the major-league record.
Who among the Beulah batters or the Jamestown ballplayers in 1933 could know that the lanky right-handed pitcher they faced would someday become a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame?
Paige’s was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1971 as the first black player to be inducted whose career was largely in the Negro Leagues. On the day of his induction, he said “I am the proudest man on earth right today.”
Paige died on June 8, 1982, in Kansas City, MO, at age 76. North Dakotans can be proud that one of the greatest pitchers of all time once played in Bismarck.
-Steve Hoffbeck is a Professor of History at Minnesota State University Moorhead and author of “Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota.”