Somehow the pairing of Bill Veeck and Satchel Paige was inevitable, and thanks to some eye-popping promotions in the late 1950s in Miami, it was very memorable.
Veeck was baseball’s most innovative promoter, sort of a cross between P.T. Barnum and Don King. He never met an idea he didn’t like and he would try just about anything to put butts in the seats. In 1956 he was running the Miami Marlins, a minor league team at the time. Back then the closest thing the state of Florida had to major league baseball was the influx of teams who rolled in for spring training every February and March. It would be nearly 40 years before big league baseball would come to the Sunshine State.
Veeck put his promotional machine to work in Miami and one of his first moves was to sign Paige to a contract. Paige had been the greatest pitcher in the negro leagues in the 1930s and 1940s. He was exactly the type of ballplayer that Veeck craved: a sharpshooter and a showman. Paige featured a crackling fastball that he could locate at the knees of the batter and a sweeping curveball that baffled hitters. At the same time he performed acts of bravado such as having his fielders sit down on the diamond while he struck out the side in order. He was a legend.
The wrinkle was that in 1956 Paige was 50 years old. He hadn’t pitched in the big leagues in three years and when he had he’d been a relief pitcher. Marlins manager Don Osborn didn’t see how Paige could possibly be of value to him. Veeck, having already had Paige on his team when he ran the Cleveland Indians, knew the value of a popular name player. To prove to Osborn that Paige deserved a spot on the roster, he challenged his manager. Osborn was asked to select his best nine hitters and have them face Paige in batting practice. Veeck would pay $10 to any batter who could get a hit off “Ol Satch.” The famous right-hander set down all nine of Osborn’s hitters and inked a deal worth $15,000 plus a percentage of gate receipts for the games he pitched.
In grand fashion, Paige made his debut with the Marlins (newly named that for the ’56 season) in April. Per usual, Veeck made a spectacle of the event. He hired a Miami pilot to fly Paige into the ballpark on a helicopter. Satchel waved to the crowd as he hovered over the infield, his puzzled teammates watching from the ground. With grey stubble on his beard the veteran ace promptly struck out two of the first three batters he faced and pitched a complete game four-hit shutout. The legend had arrived in Miami. Paige finished the season 11–4 with an ERA of 1.86 with 79 strikeouts and only 28 walks.
Veeck went on to handle another ballclub after the season, but Paige signed a two-year deal with the Marlins. He performed brilliantly and he made a lot of money too, since he still received a percentage of gate receipts for his pitching dates. With his buddy Veeck gone, Satchel became his own promoter. Prior to one game in Miami he arranged a free concert performed by Cab Calloway and Desi Arnaz. Any fan who held a ticket for the game could attend the concert for free. More than 70,000 fans showed up.
After his three years in Miami, Paige went back to barnstorming and then at the age of 59 signed a major league contract with Charlie Finley’s Kansas City A’s in 1965. Paige made his return to the majors on September 25, against the Boston Red Sox. Finley invited several Negro league veterans including Cool Papa Bell to be introduced before the game. Paige was in the bullpen, sitting on a rocking chair, being served coffee by a “nurse” between innings. He started the game by getting an out on a pop foul. The next man, Dalton Jones, reached first and went to second on an infield error, but was thrown out trying to reach third on a pitch in the dirt. Carl Yastrzemski doubled and Tony Conigliaro hit a fly ball to end the inning. The 59-year old set down the next six batters in order, including a strikeout of Bill Monbouquette. In the fourth inning, Paige took the mound, to be removed according to plan by manager Haywood Sullivan. He walked off to a boisterous ovation despite the small crowd of 9,000. The lights dimmed and, led by the public address announcer, the fans lit matches and cigarette lighters while singing “The Old Gray Mare”.