A small a bigger story sometimes hides behind a bit of information. That bit came in this line I read a few years ago in Larry Tye’s book, Satchel:
In 1960 he [Satchel Paige] threw for the Salina [Kan.] Blue Jays ….
I had no idea. Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was arguable one of the best 10-or-so pitchers who played baseball. He was a Hall of Famer on the field, but he was an even better showman. What was one of the greatest players doing playing on a team in Kansas?
I’m a Kansas native. Throughout my life, I’ve had a deep connection with Salina. I lived less than an hour away from the city when I was growing up. Some of my family members still live there. Heck, I was even married there. Because of that, I needed to know what brought Paige to the middle of nowhere to play baseball one summer so long ago.
Salina was hardly a hotbed for athletic achievement back then. Pigeon racing and skeet shooting dominated the sports headlines. But when people weren’t racing birds or figuring how to shoot them, they had baseball. One of the local teams was the semi-pro Blue Jays. And the spotlight became brighter when Paige signed to play during the second half of the team’s season.
The team started the preseason season packed with players. Some were hoping to make it to the big leagues; some were past their prime and simply holding onto a dream. Thirty men tried out for the Jays, but roster restrictions boled the team down to only 16. Throughout the season, the team rostered 27 players. They came and went because of military duty, new jobs or injuries. Things got so desperate during one game that manager Wayburn Woody had to bat once.
“None of the players got paid for their services,” one of the team’s players, Vern Frantz, told me during an interview. “We played because we loved baseball. The only time we got paid is when we won and tournament and the prize pool got split. In 1950, my share of winning the national tournament was $200, which was quite a bit back then.”
Frantz, along with Don Spohn, had previously been signed by a major league team. The right-hander Frantz was signed by the Dodgers in 1946 after graduating from Wichita East High School. He played with the Dodgers for five years before going back to Wichita to help the Boeing Bombers semi-pro team win two national titles. He was eventually elected to the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988.
Spohn pitched in the Kansas City A’s minor league system from 1956 to 1959. He stayed near Salina after he was done pitching. His obituary says he was a detective for Salina’s police department, and he then sold insurance before retirement.
The Salina Blue Jays, sponsored by local businessman George Etherington, played ball in the Victory League. The league consisted of six teams. The other teams were from Wichita, 90 miles to the south. The other teams were McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita Weller Indians, Wichita Cessna Bobcats, Derby Chamber of Commerce and the Boeing Bo-Jets.
In 1960, the Blue Jays began play on May 15 . Opening night marked the first time the team got to use a newly renovated field (tour of the park which has been turned into a rodeo ground arena). The American Legion baseball team spray painted the bleachers and the outfield wall green for the big opening. Besides the new coat of paint, the field had a new scoreboard.
The season stared out with much fan fare. The high school band played. The mayor, Carl Ramsey, threw out the first pitch. A record setting crowd of 2,000 showed up, even though there was a threat of rain. The sparkling stadium was just 225 people shy of a full house. Once the teams finally got on the diamond, Salina dominated McConnell Air Force Base by beating them 10-2.
After the first game, the team could never really got on track. After 14 games, their record was 7-7. Then the team’s general manager, C.F. Scully Leiker, discovered Paige was in Kansas City. After spending the previous year barnstorming with the Havana Cuban Stars, he was open to pitch for anyone. Leiker contacted Paige and then inked the former star to a 17-day contract that covered the rest of Salina’s season.
Paige’s ultimate goal was to pitch in the Wichita Non-Pro Baseball Tournament. In 1935, as a member of the House of David team, he helped win the tournament. The team was an all-Jewish team from Bismark, S.D. During the 1935 tournament, Paige won all five games he pitched and still holds the tournament record record with 60 strikeouts.
Paige’s first night in Salina was eventful. He reported to the police that he was “bilked” out of $10 by a couple who said they were going to get him some food. No one was arrested, and the official police report says Paige estimated his age to be “approximately 50.”
Paige was hardly the only African American on the team. At least two Salina regulars, Jim Knight and Al Jones, were black. It’s a little surprising to see an integrated team in the middle of Kansas. In fact, only recently had all the major league teams played at least one African American.
Frantz, the former Salina Blue Jay, remembered Paige didn’t say much. Paige seemed well past his prime and his primary pitch was a hesitation pitch. Frantz said, even though Paige was a shell of his former self, he was still quite a character.
Paige pitched his first game for the Blue Jays on June 21 against the Cessna Bobcats. Paige’s presence on the mound perhaps inspired his team to score twice in the first inning — but that was all of Salina’s offense in a 3-2 loss. Paige pitched three innings, allowing no runs. Within the week, he pitched again — this time, five shutout innings against undefeated Great Bend.
Salina was getting close to post-season play. The Blue Jays hosted the regional tournament for teams within a 100-mile radius of the city. The top teams from the tournament moved onto the state tournament in Wichita. Salina already qualified for the tournament as part of the Victory league. By winning the regional tournament, the team would be eliminated from the state tournament with two losses, instead of just one.
Seven teams were in the tournament. Besides the Blue Jays, the Great Bend Elks, Lindsborg, Hillsboro Tip-Top Dairy, Council Grove Indians, Manhattan Car Wholesalers and Salina Carver Center (an all-black team) were to play in the regional contest. The Blue Jays cruised through the regional tournament by going 3-0, with a combined score of 21-4. Paige threw five innings in the second game and again had yet to allow a run since being signed.
Toward the end of the season, it looked like Salina was growing on Paige. He sponsored a baseball clinic for local kids. After turning down an offer to play for a team out of Vancouver, Paige said he wanted to make Salina his permanent home.
The Blue Jays had their ticket punched to the 34-team state tournament. The tournament was set up with no bracket — teams just matched up and played one another. Once a team lost a set number of times, they were ousted from the tournament. Salina won their first game 5-1 against Winfield. Paige pitched the first five innings.
The Blue Jays then lost 8-7 to Uniontown. Paige pitch a scoreless eighth inning and ninth inning. The team was on the brink of being done. They rattled off two wins against Hays and McConnel to stay in the tournament. Their next game was against the Boeing Jets. The Blue Jays had gone 1-2 against the Jets in league play, and things didn’t improve at the tournament. Salina lost the game 5-1 and were finished for the year.
Even though the team was done, Paige wasn’t. Before the national tournament started, he was given a sheepskin from the National Baseball College and wore a cap and gown at the ceremony. He didn’t maintain much loyalty to the Salina team, though. He signed with the Wichita Wellers to make it back to the national tournament in Wichita. He severed his ties to Salina and never lived there or pitched there again. In 1961, he pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs and the Portland Beavers.
Satchel Paige pitched competitively for 40 seasons. In those years, he played for many different teams. The Salina Blue Jays happened to be just one, and it happened as Paige’s career was winding down. While he fell short of he goal of reaching the Non-Pro Tournament with them, he will be remembered for bringing a hall-of-fame arm to the middle of the Kansas for at least part of one summer.
Salina Journal, numerous issues from the summer of 1960.
Satchel – The Life and Times of American Legend by Larry Tye
Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame
Vernon Frantz for an interview