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Composition and Satchel Paige

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Once I was at a composition conference headquartered in downtown Nashville. Some colleagues and I, having never seen Fisk University, decided to make the trip. During our trip, we ran across a sports shop near campus that showcased Negro League memorabilia. When I stepped inside and saw a photo of Satchel Paige, I exclaimed firmly and confidently, “That’s the best pitcher right there.” I was an expert among my companions.

An elderly man chuckled and replied, as if I had addressed him directly, “You can get a good argument about that.” I don’t think so. Yet I felt that the gentleman was setting a trap for me. I enjoy a good sports debate as much as anyone else, but I like to have a storehouse of facts to back my opinions. But what did I have on that occasion? Just prevailing gossip, Paige’s legendary showmanship, and what I saw in a couple of movies. Intuitively, I knew not to try to counter. I wasn’t going to say something as dumb as “everybody knows that.” Instead, I said “I hear you.” Then I eased into the background and out of the store.

The Teaching

I didn’t miss the irony: In town for a conference on composition and had just done what I tell my composition students not to do. Don’t make hard claims when you have no idea what the counterclaim could be. To paraphrase the philosopher John Stuart Mill, if you know only your side of your argument, you don’t really know your argument. You set your essay up for collapse. Don’t worry that the alternative assertions might be compelling. All that means is that you found a better viewpoint.

Think of bridges, I always say. Your thesis might be that bridges should be constructed without the capacity to sway and bounce because swaying and bouncing make you nervous. But if you learn that the sway and bounce prevent bridges from collapsing, you should, despite your anxiety, change your thesis. The same with making superlative claims about Satchel Paige. What is the other side?

The quest to escape my bad composition led me to The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. I vowed not to compose that poorly the next time around.

The Contenders

Leon Day was a bad dude. He played every position except catcher, hit for a high average, and ran the hundred-yard dash in 10 seconds flat while in uniform. With respect to his time on the mound, he is described as the “most consistently outstanding pitcher in the Negro National League during the late 1930s and 1940s.” That period was when Satchel Paige was still in his prime. Day once hurled a one-hitter with 18 strikeouts. Playing for the Homestead Grays, he beat Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs in a Negro League World Series game. During his late 20s, he missed two seasons because of military service. On opening day of his first season back he tossed a no-hitter. Given his heroics over seventeen stellar seasons in professional ball, Leon Day has to be a part of any conversation about the GOAT.

But as good as Day was, you wouldn’t necessarily choose him over his predecessor Smokey Joe Williams. Smoke indeed. In a twelve-inning game, he struck out 27 batters. The famous Ty Cobb, a contemporary, said Williams could have won 30 games a season if allowed to play in the Major Leagues. He regularly beat Major League teams in exhibition games. In a 1952 survey conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier, Williams was named the all-time best pitcher in the Negro Leagues by a count of 20-19 over Paige.

Never, however, do you dismiss Paige. Showmanship aside, his achievements speak volumes.

In one particular two season stretch with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, he compiled a record of 63-11. After playing against Paige on the west coast, Joe DiMaggio said that Paige was the toughest pitcher he ever faced. It is estimated that in his professional career overall Paige pitched a ridiculous 300 shutouts and an incomprehensible 55 no-hitters. Admittedly, he didn’t always face top competition, but still. In 1948, at the age of 42, Paige became the oldest rookie to play in the Major Leagues. He went 6-1 over the second half of the season and helped the Cleveland Indians win their only World Series. In 1952, playing for the St. Louis Browns, he became the first Black pitcher to make an all-star team. If he did that in his mid-40s, you figure the Major Leagues missed a beast of a pitcher during the era of Jim Crow. When I put it all together, I continue to think Satchel Paige was the best pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues. Maybe.


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