In a conversation last week about Muhammad Ali with my friend and Only A Game colleague, Charlie Pierce, Charlie mentioned that one of the greatest regrets of his career in writing about sports was that he’d never met Ali.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about which athletes I’d most like to have met. I’ve limited the list to people whose lives have overlapped with mine, and Babe Ruth died when I was a little over a month old, so I’ve left him out.
I’ve limited the list to people whose lives have overlapped with mine, and Babe Ruth died when I was a little over a month old, so I’ve left him out.
But Satchel Paige lived until 1982. I could have met him. I’d have enjoyed that. Paige was among the first black men to pitch in the Majors. At the age of 40-something, he finally got that opportunity with the Cleveland Indians, thanks to Bill Veeck. This was in 1948. Paige was so old and tired by then that all he could do was win six games with an ERA of 2.48 and help Cleveland grab the American League Pennant.
I’ve met some of the men who played with Paige. One of them was Buck O’Neil. He told some stories about Paige that had nothing to do with baseball. One of those stories was of the shaggy dog variety. It was about a night when O’Neil had helped Paige hide the woman who was with the pitcher in his hotel room when his wife turned up unexpectedly. The story ended with O’Neil saying, “and that’s why he always called me Nancy.” That’ll have to do for now.
I’ve met some men who played against Paige, too, and though they didn’t enjoy trying to hit him, each of them found him memorable. He was, by all accounts, a great storyteller himself. If I’d met him, I’d have asked him to repeat the one about the Negro League game in which he was called in as a reliever with the bases loaded and two strikes on the batter. In the version of the story I read, Paige claimed he brought the ball with which he’d been warming up to the mound, so when the manager handed him the game ball, he had two. Paige said that on that day, as on so many others, he was concerned with conserving his strength. This was why he thought it expeditious to get three outs at once. So in one exceedingly unlikely motion, he simultaneously picked men off first and third while so successfully pretending to throw a pitch to the plate that the batter swung at a ball that wasn’t there. The umpire, apparently a Paige fan, called the batter out.
“How can you call me out if there was no ball?” The understandably baffled batter asked the ump.
“If you’re dumb enough to swing at it, I’m dumb enough to call you out,” replied the ump.
I’d like to have heard that story from Paige himself, so he’s on the top of my list of too late.