A MOST UNNATURAL NATURAL
Satchel Paige, who died last week at 75, was truly a legend, in the sense that most accounts of his life depend heavily on colorful but possibly apocryphal tales. One is amazed to read that Paige won 104 of 105 games in a single season, and that he regularly called in his outfield and then struck out the side. It doesn't much matter that such stories may not be true, because the verifiable facts about Paige are extraordinary enough.
Paige began pitching semipro baseball in 1924 when he was 17, and was still pitching in 1953, at 47, in the major leagues. He starred in the Negro leagues of the 1920s and 1930s and performed with marked success against major league batters in exhibition games, winning head-to-head pitching duels with Dizzy Dean (who called Paige the best pitcher he ever saw) and Bob Feller. Barred from organized baseball by the shameful color ban, Paige didn't sign a major league contract until he joined Bill Veeck's Cleveland Indians in July 1948, when he was past 40 and seemingly at the end of his career. Skeptics dismissed the signing as another of the flamboyant Veeck's publicity stunts, but in the second half of the '48 season Paige won six, lost only one, pitched two shutouts, had an ERA of 2.48 and had a hand in the Indians' winning the pennant. Four years later, with the seventh-place St. Louis Browns, he had a 12-10 record and the best ERA on his team, made the American League All-Star team and was one of baseball's best relief pitchers—"Get the runs now! Father Time is coming!" Casey Stengel would admonish his Yankees in the early innings of games with the Browns. In 1965, when he signed at the age of 59 for a one-time appearance with the Kansas City A's, Paige pitched three scoreless innings, allowed only one hit and even struck out a man.
People tend to remember Paige because of the mystery of his age, which really wasn't that much of a mystery until Veeck, the consummate showman, began hinting to newsmen that Satchel was actually much older than his listed age. Paige, also aware of the uses of publicity, went along with the charade. But the late Lee Allen, historian of the Baseball Museum at Cooperstown, N.Y., came up with a photostatic copy of a birth certificate showing that Paige was born on July 7, 1906. Paige's so-called Rules for Living are also part of the lore, but he didn't know he had a set of rules until a three-part story on him appeared in Collier's magazine in 1953. Several lively quotes from Paige lay unused in writer Richard Donovan's notes, and rather than lose them, the editors decided to bring them—and perhaps a couple of rules of their own devising—together in a box under the heading "How to Stay Young." The rules: "1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood. 2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts. 3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move. 4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain't restful. 5. Avoid running at all times. 6. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." That last one landed Paige in Bartlett's.
Paige's "languid and melancholy" appearance, as it was once described, and the publicity device of supplying him with a rocking chair in the bullpen helped project an image of Satchel as a kind of Stepin Fetchit character. In fact, Paige was a sharp, sometimes ruthless athlete-businessman. He was greatly admired in the old Negro leagues, but not universally loved, despite his wit and humor. He enjoyed himself, but he was his own man. And he wanted to be appreciated—with money and applause.
Paige was thought of as a "natural," blessed from the start with a blazing fastball and amazing control. Clint Courtney, his catcher with the Browns, said, "You hear about pinpoint control, but Paige is the only man I've ever seen who really has it. Once he threw me six strikes out of 10 pitches over a gum wrapper." But the control was something he worked hard to acquire. In a taped interview with oral historian Stephen Banker, Paige said, "You're born with speed, see, but you can get the control. We had a lot of players when I came up could throw the ball hard, way harder than I could, as far as that's concerned, but they couldn't gain control. It's such a thing as I practiced all the time; I just practiced control. Anything you practice you begin to come good at, regardless of what it is, whether it's baseball or not." So the "languid" natural was actually a hard worker who carefully cultivated his considerable gifts. And what he thereby achieved in baseball, above and beyond the extravagances of his legend, was a career unparalleled in the long history of the game.
THE ABDUCTION OF BELLE
The blocky, 130-pound computer is named Belle, after its birthplace, the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., and it packs quite a wallop in chess circles, having won the most recent World Computer Chess Championships in Austria in 1980 and having beaten its share of human opponents. For a few anxious moments on May 7, Belle's co-developer, Ken Thompson, a Bell Labs scientist, feared that his computer had suddenly expanded its capabilities and staged a disappearing act. Invited by the Soviet Union's Central Sports Committee to put on an exhibition with Belle, Thompson arranged to ship the computer to Moscow aboard an airliner departing from New York City's JFK Airport; he then got on the plane himself. But when he arrived in Moscow, he found out that the computer wasn't aboard.
After several calls to the U.S., Thompson learned that Belle had been confiscated at JFK by U.S. Customs agents, who had neglected to inform him of the action. The seizure occurred as part of Operation Exodus, a new program designed to curb what government officials consider a worrisome outflow of American technology to the U.S.S.R. and its allies. The exhibition canceled, Thompson returned home. "It was a huge embarrassment," he said. "It was a slap in the face to the people who invited us."
A spokesman for the Commerce Department, which administers the issuance of export licenses, said that the computer had been seized because it was of potential military use to the Soviets. He said that Belle, which can analyze about 100,000 chess positions a second, is "a fairly powerful small computer" of the type that defense contractors use to simulate military options. Not until he posted a $600 bond last week did Thompson get Belle back. Thompson, who faces a possible fine if he's found to have violated the Export Control Act, was puzzled by the confiscation. "For chess, Belle is awesome," he said. "It's definitely the speediest thing around. But that's all it does." Does Belle have any military application? Said Thompson, "Only if you drop it out of an airplane. You might kill somebody that way."