Monday, September 24, 2012

Satchel Paige's dazzling debut left a great impression on his opposition

Just two days after the record books said he turned 42, Satchel Paige made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948 in front of a crowd of 34,780 at Cleveland Stadium. The sheer magnitude of the situation shouldn’t have fazed the legendary hurler, who once while pitching in the championship game of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s league in the Dominican Republic, was ordered to win the game under the threat of the machine gun toting militia. Yet, for Paige, toeing the rubber on major league soil brought a sense of high drama, shaking one of baseball’s most experienced moundsmen. “I felt those nerves … they were jumping every which way,” Paige recalled.

Standing at the plate for the St. Louis Browns was 29-year-old first baseman Chuck Stevens, who entered the game sporting a .252 batting average with one home run, certainly not the type of numbers that would rattle fear into opposing hurlers. While Paige admitted his nerves, Stevens on the other hand saw a familiar target. Back in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Paige would come out to Stevens’ California hometown of Long Beach to play winter ball. The two squared off many times before that fateful day. “I played against him about ten times before that night. I played against him when he could really smoke it,” said the 94-year-old Stevens from his home in California.

 “When Satch relieved against us [in Cleveland], he was just spotting the ball around. [It seemed like] he had lost 60 mph off of his fastball. He threw his breaking stuff and he had great control so you knew he was going to be around the plate all the time. He wasn’t going to overpower you like I had seen him in his earlier days,” he said.

Stevens wasted no time against his old friend and promptly laced Paige’s offering into left field. “The ballgame in Cleveland was not a big deal for me because I was just hitting off of Satch. I singled into left field, between [Ken] Keltner and [Lou] Boudreau. … I always had pretty good luck off of him.” Stevens dates his success against Paige back to a meeting they had a few years prior, just as he returned from his service in World War II. “One of the longest home runs I had ever hit in my life was off of Paige. I had just gotten out of close to four years in the service, and we played an exhibition game in Long Beach and Satch pitched against our ballclub. The ball I hit, I guess it must have been well over 400 feet. I wondered where all that power came from when I was rounding the bases.”

Stevens’ teammate Ned Garver was a 22-year-old rookie relief pitcher. Only in the major leagues for two months, he found himself right in the middle of this historical event. “There was never a time when there wasn’t a bunch of hoopla around Satchel because he was such a colorful guy,” said the 85-year-old Garver from his home in Ohio. Garver pitched two and one-thirds innings of scoreless relief for the save that day, but his clearest memories from that game started before a pitch was even thrown.

“We had a man on our team who hit cleanup and played left field [Whitey Platt]. He was from Florida. He told the manager he wasn’t going to play,” Garver recalled. “Zack Taylor was our manager, and you know back in those days, you didn’t tell somebody you weren’t going to play. You didn’t get away with that kind of crap. [Taylor] said, ‘No, you’re gonnna play.’ So he put him in the lineup.”