One of the biggest drawbacks of statistics is the how they can get in the way of our imagination. I’ve heard stories of how Pete Rose could will his team to victory on any given day of his career that spanned 23 years. Our stats claim that, actually, you can value his contributions at 80 wins. Rickey Henderson’s speed was electric and unfathomable, and no one can put a number on that, we’ve heard. FanGraphs says, really, his baserunning was worth 142 runs. Aroldis Chapman throws so hard, his fastball isn’t comparable to anyone else’s in baseball. Our data suggest that last year it was 7 runs above average.
While statistics have contributed significantly more than they’ve taken from us, it is occasionally fun to ignore them and just pretend the stories we want to believe are true. However, for a pitcher that is the focus of some of the most incredible tales in baseball history, a few stats from the end of his career are all the more reason to trust the absurd stories we have about him.
Satchel Paige pitched almost all of his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues and barnstorming. He estimated that he played for 250 teams, though his “facts” about himself were often far from reality (for instance, he claimed that he never hit under .300, but he actually hit .097 in the majors). Baseball wasn’t integrated until Paige was 41 years old. Up until that point, he had built a legendary career that earned him the first Hall of Fame induction for any Negro Leagues player. Unfortunately, record keeping from these leagues was nearly non-existent, and almost no statistical evidence remains of his elite performances.
Stories of Paige paint a picture of arguably the most talented and entertaining pitcher to ever throw a baseball. As a teenager playing semi-pro baseball in Alabama, he supposedly got so mad at a poorly performing defense that he ordered his outfielders to sit down in the infield, where they watched him strike out the game’s last batter to complete his shutout with the bases loaded.
The greatest Negro Leagues hitter, Josh Gibson, once told Paige that he was going to hit a grand slam off of him in an upcoming game. With Gibson in the hole and one player on base, Paige intentionally walked the next two hitters, so Gibson would have an opportunity to hit a grand slam. Paige struck him out.
Joe DiMaggio called Paige the best pitcher and hardest thrower he had ever seen. Teammates claimed he could consistently throw his fastball over a gum wrapper. In his six exhibition matchups against Dizzy Dean (during two seasons in which Dean achieved a total WAR over 13), Paige won 4 games, and Dean said Paige’s fastball made his own look like a changeup.
Witnesses of Paige’s pitching would go on to tell countless other stories of his heroics, and a good number of them can’t be true. But what is possibly most remarkable is how historically effective he was when he was finally allowed to play in the majors, long after his prime.
Satchel Paige’s pitching demands were enormous, because through almost his entire career, people only paid to watch him pitch. He would frequently throw over 100 pitches in consecutive days. While his estimate of 2,500 games started is almost certainly exaggerated, he may very well have thrown more professional innings than anyone ever has. He pitched professionally for 22 years before Major League teams would allow him to join a roster; he would have done so with more financial incentive to pitch frequently than any reasonable person could expect.
Considering the wear and tear on his arm, expectations even for such a legendary pitcher would need to be very tempered for his performance in his 40’s. After all, only 67 pitchers have ever even thrown 100 innings after they turned 40.
Of those 67, Paige ranks 8th in ERA- (81). Of the seven in front of him, three were knuckleball pitchers, one pitched before World War I, and one has been held out of the Hall of Fame due to steroid allegations (whether fair or not).
In the course of his first 4 seasons, 128 pitchers threw at least 300 innings. Of those 128, Paige’s strikeout rate ranked 2nd. At the end of that four-year stretch, he was 46. 46 year olds don’t strike players out. You have to go down 20 spots to find a pitcher who was less than 10 years younger than Paige.
After Paige had been out of the majors for over a decade, the Kansas City A’s had him throw for them when he was 59 years old. He threw three scoreless innings, allowing only one runner.
It’s easy to wish we had better stats of Satchel Paige’s early career. It could help us establish if he really had, as he said, over 20 no-hitters. We could definitively say whether or not he had 250 shutouts, 2000 wins, 21 straight wins, or over 60 consecutive scoreless innings, all of which he claimed to be true. It’s quite likely all those numbers are fabricated. It’s possible that many of the stories about his pitching are exaggerated.
But when Satchel Paige was finally given a chance to prove himself, he blew away any realistic expectations anyone could have set for him. No one will ever know what stories about Satchel Paige really happened, or how trustworthy people’s observations of him were. But 25 years into his career, at years in his life few ever spend pitching professionally, he gave us a reason to believe them.
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