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The Author Speaks

The Ageless Satchel Paige

Lying about their age is nothing new for baseball players, who know that youthfulness generally draws more suitors and fatter contracts. None fudged his birth date longer and with more whimsy than Leroy “Satchel” Paige. But instead of making himself younger, the Negro Leagues’ strikeout king typically tacked on years to make himself as mysterious and moth-eaten as Methuselah.

In 1934 the "Colored Baseball & Sports Monthly" reported that Satchel was born in 1907. In 1948 he was born in 1901 (Associated Press), 1903 (Time magazine), 1905 (Pittsburgh Courier) and 1904 (his mother). The Cleveland Indians hedged their bets after signing him in 1948, writing in their yearbook that Satchel was born “on either July 17, Sept. 11, Sept. 18 or Sept. 22, somewhere between 1900 and 1908.” Newsweek columnist John Lardner took him back farther, saying that Satchel “got Hannibal over the Alps. He held Aaron Burr’s coat when the latter fought Hamilton. He saved the day at Waterloo, when the dangerous pull-hitter, Bonaparte, came to bat with the bases full.”

Unparalleled

The mid-century mystery over Satchel’s age matters partly because it provides a lens into race relations during the sorry era of Jim Crow segregation. It also reminds us of his astonishing feats at an age—his real one—when most ballplayers are watching from the bleachers, and that today, a quarter-century after his passing, still is an inspiration for every older American.

After a full career in the Negro Leagues, Satchel broke through to the majors in 1948, helping propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series at the over-the-hill age of 42. He holds the record as the game’s oldest player. He earned the distinction during one last go-round at an inconceivable 59, in what was intended as a fan-pleasing stunt but ended up being three innings of shutout pitching against the hard-hitting Boston Red Sox. He started pitching professionally when Babe Ruth was on the eve of his 60-home-run season in 1926; he still was playing when Yankee Stadium, the “House that Ruth Built,” was entering its fifth decade in 1965. Over that span Satchel pitched more baseballs, for more fans, in more ballparks, for more teams, than any other player in history.

Secrets to Longevity

How did his velvet arm defy Father Time as well as Mother Nature? Reporters asked him, then did their own investigations. The secret is chloroform liniment with cologne, announced the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not bothering to explain how the exotic brew could yield more than a sweet smell. Collier’s begged to differ, although the best it could do was narrow the formula to perhaps wolfbane and wild cherry stems. Too complicated, said the New York Times. It’s “plain, old-fashioned olive oil.” Satchel agreed with everyone.

The truth about Satchel’s arm was there to see for anyone not distracted by his storytelling. From collarbone to fingertips, his right limb was the best conditioned on the planet, the product of flinging baseballs every day for 40 years. He railed against exercise but did more than anyone by doing his job. It was apparent as soon as he stepped out of the shower: His right arm was half again as big as his left. His wrist, the fulcrum for everything, was grade A beef. What he rubbed on was subterfuge; what mattered were the muscles and fibers, tendons and tissues.

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