Don’t Look Back: An Ageless Tale of Satchel Paige

Understandably lost amid the furor surrounding the Yankees and Mariners decision to swap talented young players was news that 49-year old Jamie Moyer, who is recovering from Tommy John Surgery, signed a minor league contract with the Rockies. So much for out with the old.

Baseball is a young man's game, but unlike most other sports, there's still plenty of room for older players. Over the years, the number of 40-year olds in the game has ebbed and flow, but the barrier hasn't been that difficult to cross, especially during the last 30 years. However, 50 is another story altogether.

Hoyt Wilhelm and Jack Quinn are the only two pitchers since 1901 to be active at the age of 49, so, if Moyer throws a pitch with the Rockies, he'll join that select company. An appearance would also put him on the precipice of the 50-year old club, which, for pitchers, is the exclusive domain of Satchel Paige, who, at the age of 59 (age-58 season), made an appearance for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965.

Active 40-Somethings by Year
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Source: Baseball-reference.com

Thanks to his barnstorming exploits and success in the Negro Leagues, Paige's legend was born long before he finally debuted with the Cleveland Indians at the age of 41 in 1948. In fact, Paige's debut in the majors was really just a footnote on his great career. So, when his second team, the St. Louis Browns, uprooted to Baltimore and decided not take him with them, the veteran righty went right back to doing what he loved most: playing baseball anywhere and for anyone.

"Old Satch has a lot of stuff left and we'll be interested in signing him on for 1966. I don't have any idea how old he is, but he can still pitch." - Charles O. Finley, owner KC Athletics, quoted by AP, September 11, 1965

Paige's encore performance on September 25, 1965 was really nothing more than a publicity stunt concocted by Athletics' owner Charles O. Finley. After all, the evening was billed "Salute Satchel Paige Night" and the attendance of 9,289 was almost double the combined crowd that witnessed the game before and after the Saturday contest against the Red Sox. Adding to the spectacle, Finley furnished Paige with a rocking chair so he didn't have to sit in the dugout, and just to be on the safe side, had a nurse in full uniform standing by his side. Everyone seemed to enjoy the obvious exploitation, even Paige himself, but the revival was far from a charity case.

Since his release by the Orioles, Paige not only continued to barnstorm, but he also had several successful seasons in the minor leagues. From 1956-1958, he compiled a 31-22 record with a 2.48 for the Philadelphia Phillies' Miami affiliate in the International League. Then, in 1961, he started five games for the Cardinals' Portland team in the PCL and turned in an impressive 2.88 ERA. However, the now 54-year old still couldn't get a return ticket back to the majors, at least not until Finley came calling in 1965. It was a long road back to the big leagues, and one that had obvious ulterior motives, but, when Paige did make his triumphant return, it was because he had earned it.

"The Baseball Register lists his birth as July 7, 1906. That would make him 59, but some say he's at least 62." - UPI, September 11, 1965

During his career, Paige's real age was a mystery...one that he enjoyed perpetuating. When he signed with the Athletics, newspaper accounts pegged his age from "somewhere in his 50s" to as old as 62, but the best description was to simply call him ageless. At least that's probably what the Boston Red Sox were calling him after he shut them down. In three innings, Paige surrendered only one hit, a double to a young Red Sox left fielder named Carl Yastrzemski, before handing over the ball to Diego Segui and exiting the major leagues for good. (Incidentally, Paige's confrontation with 20-year old Tony Conigliaro holds the record for the greater age disparity in a batter-pitcher confrontation).

During the offseason, Paige expressed an interest in returning to the majors to celebrate his 60th birthday (or was it 70th?), but he was too proud to ask for a job. Because of that pride, some wondered why Paige agreed to be a party to Finley's gimmick in the first place, but the old veteran's motives betrayed the less sophisticated image cast by his folksy charm. When he decided to make a token appearance with the Athletics, Paige's mission was to show the baseball world that he could perform well even at such an advanced age. However, the point wasn't to have people marvel over his lasting power, but instead force them to consider how good he must have been earlier in his career and confront the reasons why for so many years he was denied the opportunity to show them.

"All they ask me is how old I am. But nobody asks me why I stayed out of the major leagues for 15 years. That's a long time isn't it? Let me ask another question. When Baltimore bought the St. Louis club, why did they turn me loose? When I was a top pitcher for three years in Miami, how come nobody pick me up? Somebody must know why." - Satchel Paige, quoted by Lou Hatter, Baltimore Sun, September 28, 1965

Despite denying him the opportunity to ply his trade for so long, major league baseball decided to bestow its highest honor on Paige when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971. That didn't make up for all the years he was shunned by the game, but in reality, the real loser was baseball and all the fans that missed out on the chance to see the legendary hurler in his prime. Nonetheless, Paige still left behind a legacy, not to mention some very sage advice. "Age is a question of mind over matter," Paige once said. "If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." I am sure Jamie Moyer agrees.

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