As I sat at my computer a few nights ago, I idly flipped to the Nationals game on TV. I'll watch pretty much any major league baseball game, but the Nats bore me. They're largely background noise. On this day, however, D.C. played host to the Cincinnati Reds. The leadoff hitter for the Reds was former Oriole Jerry Hairston, Jr. The MASN broadcasters referenced Jerry's status as a third-generation player, which was never something that interested me much. But play-by-play man Bob Carpenter followed up by noting that the Hairstons represented the first third-generation family in MLB of African-American descent, which was not something that I'd ever given any thought. It's remarkable to consider that just sixty years ago, baseball was struggling to integrate. It also made me think about some of the opportunities that were missed along the way.
The current Baltimore Orioles, in their previous incarnation, were the St. Louis Browns, the perennial doormats of the American League. The Browns, to their credit, were the second A.L. team to integrate, following the Cleveland Indians. Of course, their first two black players (Hank Thompson and Willard Brown) were sent back to the Negro Leagues within a month, but a few years later unconventional owner Bill Veeck (as in "wreck") made a splash by signing the ageless Leroy "Satchel" Paige.
While with the Indians, Paige had been the first African-American pitcher in the junior circuit, as well as the first to pitch in the World Series. Veeck had taken a lot of grief from his fellow owners for signing the Negro League legend, who was believed to have been at least 42 years old at the time. But Satch paid immediate dividends, winning six of seven decisions and tossing two shutouts during the Tribe's 1948 pennant drive. As a Brown, Paige continued to pitch effectively in a predominately relief role, even as he entered his mid-forties. He won 12 games and saved 10 in 1952, and his 3.53 ERA in 1953 was well below league average. he saved 11 games for a team that won just 54, placing them dead last in the league.
The following season, the Browns moved to Baltimore without Bill Veeck...and without Satchel Paige.
As a devoted fan of the Orioles, I would have been proud to claim Satchel Paige as one of my own. He was still frustrating batters half his age at 46; why not at 47? I can't imagine that there was any sort of unspoken color line drawn by the new ownership. By my count the 1954 Birds had at least one black player: Joe Durham, who played 10 games in his debut season. Perhaps they thought trotting out a player as old and as unconventional as Satchel would give the team a carnival atmosphere and would make them a laughingstock. But with a barely-finished stadium and a team that wasn't terribly different from the one that had lost 100 games in St. Louis a year prior, any diversion caused by Satchel Paige would have been the least of their concerns. Hell, I would think that his pitching would more than make up for any perceived distraction.
Yet the O's owners wouldn't bite. Neither would anyone else, and Satchel Paige made only one more appearance as a major league pitcher. It was twelve years later, when the then-58-year-old righthander pitched three shutout innings on September 25, 1965 for Charlie O. Finley's Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox. He surrendered just one hit, a double by Carl Yastrzemski.
"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." - Satchel Paige