A Paige from History
by Wendy A. Bilen
A framed pencil sketch of a man hangs on my parents' den wall, its shiny gray simplicity separating it from the plaques and photographs that hem it in. The drawing's eyes do not pierce or stare at passersby because they are focused toward the window, toward another time.
The man is Satchel Paige, considered by many to be the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. If you look closely enough, you can see his eyes narrow in the light of the lowering afternoon sun, which reflects off his glistening black skin. The crowds of the Kansas City Monarchs and the jeers of the Assumption Catholic Church fans are muted as his senses tune in only one object: the catcher's mitt.
In 1931 baseball is a passion, not a profession, and it is not uncommon for local teams comprised of uneducated steel mill boys to play professional teams like the Chicago Cubs, supplementing their meager incomes with the one or two dollars and the glory they earn each game.
Paige, rolling the ball between his fingers, scuffs his cleats on the mound. A brown ghost floats toward the stands. In owl-like stance, he cocks his head toward first, then third, then back to the pitcher. He hears nothing.
He locks his eyes on the catcher's leather, and in a split second, the echoing smack of the ball in the glove heralds another guttural "Steeerikkkke!" from the umpire, who points two fingers toward the dropping sun.
The crowded stands roar. The batter feels his shirt clinging to his back in the Indiana heat, a grime mixed with diamond dirt and mill smoke. His heart pounds through his jersey. His team is good, but Paige is better. Few have mastered the prodigy's blazing fastball—none in this game—and no hits means no runs.
He steps back from home plate, closes his eyes, and swings the bat relentlessly through the air. He swings it again, hearing in his mind the crack of the connection he has made countless times before. Opening his eyes, he taps the bat against his cleats and the corner of home plate. He lifts his bat, spreads his feet, bends his knees, shifts his weight, and slowly turns his head toward Paige, who is waiting for him like a bull without a pen.
The batter's squinting eyes find Paige's beneath a lowered brim, and the breeze halts. Heads are still, though eyes move back and forth in anticipation of the showdown. Then, in an instant, lightening flashes through the air, followed by a peal of thunder that echoes through the alleys and the mills of a thousand Garys.
The stunned outfielders jump from their stations to meet the startling surprise, but they are not fast enough. The seventeen-year-old has crossed first base and, for the first time in his life, he is a hero.
Although he was the only player to get a hit off Satchel Paige in that game, and one of the few who ever made contact with one of Paige's pitches, he arose at sunrise the next morning, donned his gray uniform, and carried his lunch off to the steel mill to support his twelve younger brothers and sisters as he did most days of his young life. A later offer from the majors received a gruff and bitter reply, because even a batting average of 450 couldn't put enough food on the table.
Paige continued frustrating thousands of batters around the country, but professional baseball could see only his black skin until he was forty-two, when he signed with the Cleveland Indians as the first black pitcher in the American League. Miracles didn't reach the streets of East Chicago or black families of Alabama very often in those days, at least not miracles a lot of folks would recognize. But on a baseball diamond where the rules and the men were square, blinding electricity surged through the veins of the field and each player as witnesses peered in through a window of incarnate wonder—wonder that etched itself not only in a pencil drawing but in history.
So when I look at Paige, staring intently out my parents' front window as he winds up for a pitch, I imagine he's aiming to strike out that Assumption batter and hoping this time my grandfather will miss like everyone else.
Freelance writer Wendy Bilen has studied creative nonfiction at Northwestern University and will begin an M.F.A. program at George Mason University this fall. She lives in Evanston, Illinois.