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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Magic Moments with Satchel Paige

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Fredericksburg has hosted quite a few important visitors over the years, from politicians to entertainers, but for baseball fans, the most distinguished guest of all may have been the legendary pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige.

The man with the golden arm and the larger-than-life personality came to town on August 10, 1967. He appeared at Pat's Park behind Pat's Hall (today Ambleside School) in a game between the Indianapolis Clowns and the Baltimore Stars although the event was as much a comedy show as a baseball game.


Fredericksburg TX - Indianapolis Clowns with Satchel Paige Ad
Indianapolis Clowns Ad
Fredericksburg Standard

The Indianapolis Clowns, once members of the Negro League, added comedy acts and vaudeville skits to their performances when the team struggled to make money during the Depression. Over time the game took a backseat to the high jinx on the field. The Clowns became the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball.

Their regular roster included an interesting lineup of athletes, comedians and characters.

"Birmingham Sam" Brison, athlete and pantomime artist, played shortstop. At 6'2" and skinny as broom straw, Sam performed slapstick and joked with the crowd. An excellent all-around athlete, Sam spent the winter months playing basketball with Goose Tatum's Harlem Road Kings and later the Harlem Globetrotters.

In 1976 Sam had a small part in the movie Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings starring Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones. The story of the Indianapolis Clowns inspired the movie.

Another player, Dero Austin, just 31 inches tall, paid his way through college playing baseball for the Clowns. Many games started with Birmingham Sam unpacking Dero Austin from a suitcase at home plate.

Like a Marx Brothers film, a Clowns' game featured one gag after another. The catcher would intentionally block the umpire's view and call his own balls and strikes. Pitchers threw between their legs or behind their backs, with amazing speed and accuracy. The entire team participated in a goofy dance contest at home plate to close the show.

By 1967 the Clown's roster included white players as well as Black players. At least 2 women played for the clowns over the years.

Several major leaguers played for the Clowns at one time or another. In 1952 the team signed a 17 year-old shortstop and cleanup hitter from Alabama named Hank Aaron.

But no star in the shadowy world of Negro baseball shined brighter than Satchel Paige. By 1967 every baseball fan in America knew his name. He had not yet been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, although he soon would be.
The details of his long career are fuzzy. No one knows how many games he won or how fast he threw. In fact, much of the fascination with Satchel Paige lies in the mystery. Like folk heroes Daniel Boone and Casey Jones, the truth and the myth of Satchel Paige prove difficult to untangle.

Even the date of his birth is a mystery. He always said his mother wrote his birthday in the family bible but the goat ate it.

They say that in the old days Satchel, for fun, would sometimes call in the outfielders and have the infielders sit on the grass behind him while he struck out the side. Of course that might be legend talking.

In his 60s when he came to Fredericksburg, Paige could still fire up the crowd with an arsenal of pitches developed over a half century of playing baseball in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean.

As a young man he threw a sizzling fastball, a looping curveball and a knuckleball that moved like feather in a hurricane. As the years passed and his velocity declined, he relied on trick pitches like the Midnight Creeper, the Hesitation Pitch, the Bat Dodger and several other pitches "that ain't never been seen in this lifetime."

That evening in Fredericksburg he pitched one or two innings (recollections vary), but no one went away disappointed. Just getting the chance to watch Satchel Paige do his thing, even for a few magic moments, was like seeing a ghost from baseball's glorious past - every bit as sweet as watching Babe Ruth swing the bat or Ty Cobb steal home.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" October 1, 2023

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