When I woke up that morning in early August 1969 in a Holiday Inn in suburban Montreal, I had no idea what was going to happen that day.
I was 11 and on vacation with my parents and sisters. We had driven to Montreal from Toronto and were having a grand time in the outdoor pool. As far as we kids were concerned, the pool was the vacation.
But our dad, Jack, was a passionate baseball fan. And 1969 was the inaugural year of the Montreal Expos, Canada’s first major league baseball team. The team was a big hit and it was impossible to get a ticket to a game, but the mighty Atlanta Braves were in town and Jack hatched a plan: we would go downtown and hang out in the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. That’s where the Braves were staying. When the team came downstairs to get the bus to Jarry Park, we would get autographs.
It worked. My sisters and I got all the Braves to sign our sheets of paper. There were some superstars on that team: Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Phil Niekro, Felix Millan and many others. As a budding baseball player and fan, I was thrilled.
We were ready to go back to the pool when Jack said, “C’mon, we’re having coffee with one of the coaches.”
We sat down at an outdoor cafe. In front of us was a Black man. He seemed very old to me.
Then Jack put his hand on the man’s shoulder, turned to me and said, “Paul, this is Satchel Paige. He’s the greatest pitcher of all time.”
Remember, I was 11. I didn’t know anything about the history of baseball, nor did I care. So as Jack and Paige were talking, I tuned out.
But as we were driving back to the hotel, I got curious. “Who’d that guy play for?’ I asked Jack.
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He explained that Paige played the best part of his career in the Negro Leagues, because in his day – the 1920s to the mid-1940s — Black players weren’t allowed in the major leagues.
I asked why.
I remember Jack using the words prejudice and segregation. I asked why again. “That’s just the way it was,” he said.
“That wasn’t fair.”
“No,” Jack replied, a scowl coming over his face. “It wasn’t.”
We were a white family who lived in an all-white neighbourhood in a muddy new Toronto suburb. I knew nothing of racial issues. Leroy “Satchel” Paige was the first Black person I had met.
This “prejudice” puzzled me. So I started reading and over the next number of years, I learned about the remarkable Paige and the hatred he and others had to endure.
He was, as Jack said, a pitcher of almost unheard-of talent. The great Joe DiMaggio said he was “the best I ever faced, and the fastest.” And Dizzy Dean, a future Hall of Famer who had a blistering fastball, said, “My fastball looks like a change of pace, compared to the old pistol bullet ol’ Satch shoots up to the plate. If Satch and I were pitching on the same team, we’d clinch the pennant by the fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time.”
Jackie Robinson should have entered the majors not as a headline, but as a talented rookie ready to make his mark.
But that couldn’t happen, I learned, because Paige was Black. He was finally admitted to the majors in 1948 at age 42, a year after Jackie Robinson, at age 28, became the first Black man to play in the majors in the 20th century.
That didn’t make any sense to me. What would a person’s skin colour have to do with being “allowed” to play baseball?
After meeting Paige, I woke up to the horrors that come from exclusion.
It’s February now, and my beloved game of baseball is back for a new season. As always, I am excited.
But I also get sad at this time of the year.
Even though Satch and his Negro Leagues colleagues got the recognition they deserved (many were inducted into the Hall of Fame), the Negro Leagues shouldn’t have existed. Satch and Dizzy should have been on the same team, as Dizzy wanted. Jackie Robinson should have entered the majors not as a headline, but as a talented rookie ready to make his mark.
And I shouldn’t have to be writing this essay.
But I also have a happy thought. I envision Satch “up there” now. Jack is there too. And they’re continuing that chat they started in Montreal in 1969.
And I look up and say, “Thanks, guys. Thanks for waking me up.”
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