by Joe Gordon
I was a lucky kid. My dad was an avid baseball fan and he passed that enthusiasm on to me at a very young age. I was named after his favorite baseball player: Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. He started giving me baseball cards when I was four or five years old.
This was the early 1950s. There were eight teams in each Major League. The Athletics (not the A’s) were in Philadelphia, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, the Giants were in New York, and the Braves were in Boston. Of all the teams in the majors, the St. Louis teams were the furthest west. Major League Baseball was just beginning to integrate. The remnants of the Negro Leagues were still playing, but would not survive much longer. Dad had been a professional musician and traveled the country before the war. In his travels he often watched Negro League games and firmly believed that many of the black players could compete in the Major Leagues if given a chance.
I grew up in a small farming town in north central Kansas. Every little town had a baseball field, usually sponsored by the American Legion and each town had a baseball team made up of its best high school players. I used to ride my bike out to the ball park to watch the games. I played and watched baseball all summer long. Baseball was what you did in the summer.
Dad had watched a lot of baseball, including major league games, in his traveling days and he always told me that Satchel Paige was the best pitcher he ever saw.
One day when I was six or seven, my dad came home and handed me a flyer that announced that the county fair, one county over, was featuring an exhibition baseball game between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns from the Negro Baseball League. What was more exciting was a large proclamation that Satchel Paige would be pitching for the Monarchs and that the Clowns were featuring the Harlem Globetrotter “Goose” Tatum. Dad had watched a lot of baseball, including major league games, in his traveling days and he always told me that Satchel Paige was the best pitcher he ever saw.
In those days it was common for Negro League teams to barnstorm around the country in their off season. The Monarchs were one of the premier teams in the league. The Clowns were showmen, but were a solid team who won the league championship in 1950.
We made sure we got there early so we could get good seats. Ever optimistic a foul ball would come my way; I had my glove fastened to my belt. My ball cap was pulled on tight. It was a muggy, Indian Summer evening. The field was a typical town ball field and probably held six or seven hundred fans. The lighting was so dim that I still do not know how the outfielders saw the ball. We got there more than an hour early and were some of the first people to get in. The teams had not taken the field, but we could see the team buses beyond the left field fence. Dad asked someone and found out the Monarchs would be using the third base dugout. He took me to the bleachers down the left field line just beyond third base, where the bull pen was. I asked him why we were so far from home plate and he just smiled.
Satchel Paige, wearing a warm up jacket, stopped and set down a small bag. He walked down to the catcher and very carefully unwrapped a stick of gum. He kicked dirt over the bull pen home plate and spread out the foil wrapping and put it on the ground. ‘That’s home plate,’ he announced.
I soon found out why. As the teams took the field, a player in catchers gear stopped about 25 feet from us. About the same distance down the third base line, Satchel Paige, wearing a warm up jacket, stopped and set down a small bag. He walked down to the catcher and very carefully unwrapped a stick of gum. He kicked dirt over the bull pen home plate and spread out the foil wrapping and put it on the ground. “That’s home plate,” he announced.
These barnstorming teams realized they were entertainers as well as athletes and had a whole routine they went through before the game. This was particularly true of the Clowns. Tatum came out for infield practice with a three foot long first baseman’s mitt and started a running commentary that lasted through the whole warm up.
Paige strolled back down to the pitching rubber, picked up a ball and started to warm up. This is when I realized what Dad had done. Here I was, 25 feet from Satchel Paige and I was watching him warm up. The first thing I noticed was how loose and easy he was when he threw. The second was that the catcher never had to move his mitt. He would give Paige a target and he always hit it. The whole time he was throwing, he and the catcher had an ongoing dialogue. He had names for many of his pitches and would call down to the catcher, “Here comes the Bat Dodger. Get ready for the Midnight Creeper. Look out, here come the Trouble Ball.” I was totally mesmerized.
By the time he was finishing his warm up, the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt sounded like a pistol shot. After the first couple of full-speed fastballs, the catcher stood up, pulled off his glove and blew on his hand. Then he made a big show out of pulling a big handkerchief out his pocket, folding it up, and stuffing it into his glove. Even though this was toward the end of his career, Paige still threw very hard.
Satchel pitched five innings that night and gave up one hit, a fly ball, and a couple of routine grounders. He struck out everybody else. The Monarchs won 8 to 3. However, it is that 20-minute warm-up that remains etched in my memory after 65 years. We do not get too many times in our life that we can call special, but that muggy Kansas night at the ballgame was magic.
JOE GORDON is an award-winning author, speaker, and retired educator who is a lifelong baseball fan. Gordon’s been a Braves fan “since they were in Boston” he will tell you. He has a masters’ degree in education and is working on his second novel and a non-fiction book on “How to Successfully Fail.” He frequently writes and teaches on a variety of related topics.
He proclaims that his baseball claim to fame is that he once got a base hit off a Hall of Fame pitcher. When pressed, he admits it was a late swing, bloop single over third base off a Jim Palmer fastball. “Palmer could really bring the heat in those days.” he reminds everyone. There is no discussion about how many times Palmer struck him out that summer.
He saw his first Major League game in 1956. As an adult, he lived in the Phoenix area for many years and was a regular at spring training games, Triple-A Giants games, and always attended the Arizona State games. He got to watch all those great future Major League Sun Devils: Rick Monday, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Barry Bonds, Bob Horner, and many more (five Sun Devils drafted this year including number one). Joe will tell you that he was fortunate to see many of the great players early in their careers. Over the years he watched Triple-A teams in Wichita, Phoenix, and most recently in Salt Lake City.
In addition to this story, two other memories that he fondly recalls are watching Larry Doby put a home run ball clear out of the old Kansas City Municipal Stadium and being in the stands when the Salt Lake Trappers broke the longest winning streak in professional baseball record in 1987.