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Man of A Century
Michael Bamberger
July 15, 2002
Nemesis of Ty Cobb, close friend of Satchel Paige, a Negro leagues legend remains the life of the party as he celebrates his 100th birthday
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July 15, 2002

Man Of A Century

Nemesis of Ty Cobb, close friend of Satchel Paige, a Negro leagues legend remains the life of the party as he celebrates his 100th birthday

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7. Be careful of the women you fool with. If they don't respect themselves, don't fool with 'em.

8. Smoke two El Producto cigars a day—one in the morning, one in the evening—but don't inhale.

9. Have a doctor you can trust.

This is not one of Duty's rules, but you may find it valuable: Don't do everything your trusted doctor tells you to do. Five years ago Radcliffe's doctor told him to stop having sex because he was having postcoital fainting episodes. Duty says he ignores this order. In fact he wants to make one last trip home to Mobile chiefly, he says, because there's a young woman there, not yet 30, with whom he is eager to defy his doctor's advice.

In his sharp moments—every day brings some alert hours and others less so—Radcliffe remembers the rich history of black baseball in Mobile, birthplace of Hank and Tommie Aaron, Willie McCovey, Amos Otis, Ozzie Smith and, of course, Paige, his homey. As boys, Ted and Satchel lived five blocks from each other, and Radcliffe says he knows a deep truth about his friend that others do not: Paige's actual birth date. According to Radcliffe, when Paige got into baseball he assigned himself a birth date: July 7, 1906, which would have made him exactly four years younger than Duty. Radcliffe claims that Paige, who died in 1982, was in fact born in 1900. "He was always two years older than me when we was kids," Duty says. "He was always two years older than me when we was in school together." Assuming Radcliffe is correct, then Paige was 48 years old as a rookie pitcher for the Cleveland Indians in 1948.

The often-told story behind Paige's nickname has him, as an enterprising boy looking for tips, rigging a pole at the Mobile train station to help passengers with their bags, or satchels. Duty says the real story involves less altruism. "He was a bad kid, always in trouble," Radcliffe says. "He'd go down to the train station and steal suitcases. Once he stole five satchels. That's how he come by that name."

Radcliffe most likely caught Paige more than any other catcher and regards him as the greatest righthanded pitcher he ever saw. This is a deliberate opinion: Radcliffe played for 36 years, 22 of them as a player-manager. When you ask him about the best players he saw, he considers most everyone: black players, white players, Latin players, career Negro leaguers, career major leaguers. He followed Babe Ruth's career and says Ruth would have been welcome as a Negro leaguer. " Babe Ruth was mulatto," Radcliffe says. "He had the nose of a colored man. He grew up in that orphanage, so nobody knows what all is in him for sure, but there's black and white blood in him. We all thought it was great that he could pass for white and hit all those home runs and make all that money playing white baseball. But Josh Gibson was a better power hitter. I played with Josh Gibson. Best power hitter, alltime."

Besides Paige and Gibson, here are other players on Duty's Alltime Roster, subject to change, depending on his daily mood.

Best lefthanded pitcher: Carl Hubbell
Best base runner: Lou Brock
Best base stealer: Rickey Henderson
Most aggressive player: Jackie Robinson
Kindest great player: Stan Musial
Nastiest great player: Ty Cobb
Most generous owner: Abe Saperstein
Best baseball-playing revolutionary: Fidel Castro
Best overall player: Oscar Charleston
Best white catcher: Mickey Cochrane
Best Negro leagues catcher: will not say

Some notes regarding the list: Of Paige, Radcliffe says, "Threw it harder than Randy Johnson—more accurate too." Duty found Hubbell's screwball, which he faced in exhibition games, unhittable and appreciated how much admiration Hubbell had for Negro leagues baseball. Radcliffe saw Brock and Henderson play hundreds of games, on TV and at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. He roomed with Robinson when they both played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. Radcliffe has spent time with Musial at various card shows over the years and played winter ball against Castro in Cuba. Duty says that when Cobb tried to steal on him, he was wearing a chest protector painted with the words THOU SHALT NOT STEAL. Radcliffe played for and managed teams owned by Saperstein, including the Harlem Globetrotters baseball team, a cousin to Saperstein's basketball team of the same name. ("He was my friend," Radcliffe says of Saperstein. "He once gave me $5,000.") As powerful as Gibson was, Radcliffe, like many Negro leaguers, ranks Charleston way ahead of him for overall play. " Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays before there was a Willie Mays," Duty says, "except that he was a better base runner, a better centerfielder and a better hitter." Cochrane was the preeminent catcher in the major leagues when Radcliffe was a young man in the game. As far as the best all-around Negro leagues catcher is concerned, Duty is not a modest man, but there is a tradition among legends for leaving certain questions blank. Ted Williams, for example, when asked to name his alltime lineup card, always leaves leftfield open. You don't answer obvious questions.

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