THE OLD MAN AND THE GAME

       Pennant races were hot in 1965.  Sandy Koufax’s Dodgers were closing in on Willie Mays’ Giants.  The Twins were trying to clinch.  But on September 25, when ninth-place Boston played last place Kansas City, America tuned in to hear Time itself take the mound.

            No one knew how old the A's starter might be.  Some said 59, others even older.  "The goat ate the Bible with the birth certificate in it," he often said.  But regardless of age, when he ambled toward the mound, Satchel Paige brought a legend as long as, well. . .  his arm.

            The first batter is Red Sox centerfielder Jim Gosger (age 23).  Paige pinwheels and throws.  A strike.  The pitch is not some looping arc but a fastball, straight and true.  The second pitch is the same.  Gosger swings and pops it near the first base dugout.  One out. 

            The announcers are ecstatic (I was listening).  Everyone expected this "publicity stunt" to be an embarrassment.  The A's were "throwing the old man to the lions."  This was a baseball legend, not some "sideshow freak."  But Paige told reporters, "I just haven't reached the tired place yet."

            Next up is Dalton Jones (age 21).  He takes a fastball -- strike.  Another.  Then Jones, a Peewee Leaguer back when Paige made his major league debut, swings and hits a dribbler.  The first baseman bobbles it.  Jones is on.

            In a game known for reams of statistics, facts are flimsy when it comes to Satchel Paige.  Estimates must suffice.  In a career spanning 40 years, he pitched some 2,500 games and won more than a thousand, twice the MLB record.  Paige reckoned he pitched 50 no-hitters (Major League Record -- seven.)  But beyond guessing, the legend of Satchel Paige stems from his ageless cool and his tips for staying young.

            1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.

            Carl Yastrzemski is at the plate.  As a boy, Yaz saw his father, a semi-pro player, bat against Paige.  Now Paige's first pitch gets by the catcher.  Jones cruises into second, then bolts for third.  He is out by a mile.  Yaz digs in.  Paige pinwheels twice. . .

            2.  If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

            Legend says Paige honed his control as a boy in Mobile, Alabama, hurling rocks to pick birds off branches.  But he did not play baseball until caught stealing.  Paige's mother, a washerwoman, tried to keep him home -- with her eleven other children -- but a judge sent the boy to reform school.  He spent his adolescence making bricks, pouring cement, learning to read, write, and play ball.

            "Those five and a half years there did something for me," he later said.  "They made a man out of me.  If I'd been left on the streets of Mobile with those kids I'd been running around with, I'd of ended up as a big bum, a crook.  You might say I traded five years of freedom to learn how to pitch."

            Yastrzemski hits a 3-0 fastball off the left field fence.  A double.  Now Paige faces Tony Conigliaro.  At 20, Tony C is about to become baseball’s youngest homerun champ.  Before the game, he boasted how he would hit "this old so-and-so."  Satchel winds...

            3.  Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

            Everyone who ever played against him had a Satchel Paige story.  How he called his outfielders in to sit on the infield grass, then mowed down three batters with nine strikes.  How he set a matchbox on home plate, then threw pitch after pitch right over it.  Hammered nails into wood with fastballs.  Blistered one through a four-inch hole in a fence.  Stood at the centerfield wall and threw a rope to the plate -- 427 feet on the fly.

            Conigliaro takes a pitch.  Paige's famous Hesitation Pitch, announcers say, but it may have another name.  "I got bloopers, loopers and doopers.  I got a Jump Ball, a Be Ball, a Screwball, a Wobbly Ball, a Whips-dipsy Do, a Hurry-up Ball, a Nothin' Ball and a Bat Dodger."  His Barber Pitch brushed batters back.  His Titty Pitch ran in on the chest.  His fastball was Long Tom, Little Tom, Trouble Ball. . .  "I never threw an illegal pitch,'' he said. ''The trouble is, once in awhile I toss one that ain't never been seen by this generation."

            Conigliaro swings at one of the above and flies to right.  Paige strides off the mound, fifty-nine years old, jangling around gently.

            4.  Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain't restful.

            Paige's tips were published in 1953, the year after he made the All-Star team at age 47.  He won a dozen games that year, but only three the next.  Released by the St. Louis Browns, he did not leave baseball.  His autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, suggested why, and as he warms up for the second inning, it seems no idle boast.

            5. Avoid running at all times.

            Hitters agreed he threw harder than anyone in the majors.  His speed was a mystery because unlike the muscular Koufax, Paige seemed all angles and joints.  His skinny arm was a sling, a whip, a human javelin.  No radar gun ever tracked him but hitters did not need numbers to know.  ''The best I've ever faced," Joe DiMaggio said, "and the fastest."

            But skin color kept him out of the majors until Jackie Robinson broke in.  Sports writers could hardly believe it when the Cleveland Indians signed the 42-year-old "rookie."  But Paige pitched in relief, then started a game, drawing more than 70,000 fans.  He won 5-3 then threw back-to-back shutouts.  On the season, he won six games, lost just one, and took it all in his ambling stride.

            He said he wasn't bitter about pitching his entire career for the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, the Baltimore Black Sox... Not bitter until, each winter, he barnstormed against big leaguers and made them look silly.  He once struck out Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby five times in one game.

          Second inning.  Paige retires the side, one-two-three, on six pitches.

            Throughout the Depression, Paige pitched each winter against the Dizzy Dean All-Stars.  The brash "Diz" got along well with the "colored boy."  Dean boasted of his own speed but said “my fast ball looks like a change of pace alongside the little pistol bullet ol' Satchel shoots up to the plate."  But each spring, Paige noted, Diz went back to the majors "and I was bouncing around the peanut circuit." 

          Third inning, bottom of the lineup.  One-two-three, this time on eight pitches.  The announcers are incredulous.  A man pushing sixty has come out of retirement to pitch three scoreless innings.  Now he strolls to the mound again.  "I never rush myself," he often said. "See, they can't start the game without me."

            In the top of the fourth, Paige takes the mound until the manager comes out.  The crowd boos.  Paige walks off to a standing ovation.  He tips his cap twice, bows, and disappears into the dugout. 

            Satchel Paige pitched his last game the following year.  He spent the next decade playing off his fame.  Signed by the Atlanta Braves to become eligible for a pension, he never suited up.  He appeared on TV talk shows and around Kansas City driving his blue Ford station wagon.  But his most famous appearance came in August 1971 in Cooperstown, New York.

             "The only way I’ll get in the Hall of Fame,” Satchel once joked, “is with an admission ticket.”  But when baseball's hallowed Hall finally admitted Negro League players, Satchel was the first.  Standing at a podium, he said, "I am the proudest man on earth today."  Later at a luncheon, he criticized baseball's color line and was asked to sit down.  His final advice, then, is for America.

            Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.