What makes an athlete marketable? He or she must be able to sell tickets and draw fans. They must have the ability to stay in the news, to be a story even when they are not playing. To be THE story, not just “a” story. They have to have flair. It’s not just about dunking, or catching a touchdown, or throwing a baseball. How an athlete does it matters. Big time. It’s a walk off the mound after throwing a big strike out. It’s catching a touchdown and spiking it in the face of an opponent.
Whether all fans like it not, this is a foolproof path to stardom. When flair meets success – even moderate or subjective success – fans will flock, and athletes become marketable. Throughout the history of sports, no athlete matched real, lasting success and flair better than Alabama’s hurler, Satchel Paige.
Paige’s panache is unmatched throughout sports history. Though many of the legendary Paige anecdotes weaved together over time may have been embellished, they become believable because of the Paige’s admitted outlandish behavior.
Here are two of my favorite Satchel stories, both of which can be found in Larry Tye’s brilliant book, Satchel.
The first is the story of Paige facing off against Buck Leonard, one of the most imposing and talented hitters he faced in his early professional career. Satchel was throwing fastballs with such speed that Leonard demanded the umpire examine the baseballs to make sure there was nothing illegal happening. The ball was fine, but Leonard was not. After this charade happened again Paige yelled from the mound, “You’re gonna have to toss all of ‘em out ‘cause they all gonna jump!”
The second story is also classic Paige. Like most starting pitchers of the modern era, outfield errors are not met with a hearty pat on the back and a “go get ‘em next time” attitude. Paige took the error-induced rebuke a few steps further, though. After a game was nearly tied because of errors in the outfield, despite a typically brilliant performance from the never-humble Paige, he reportedly called the outfielders in and made them sit behind the pitching mound, emptying his team’s defense beyond the infield. Paige then proceeded to strike out the next hitter and the end the game.
Whether his antics targeted the opposition or his own teammates, they never lacked flair.
Paige’s legend and flair became famous in part because of his mysteriousness. Like Brett Favre in August, writers and fans rarely knew what Paige was up to. Heck, even the owner of the team Paige was playing for at any given time would not know where he was. He might be sleeping in his car outside the stadium or pitching in South Dakota because another owner made a better offer. Whatever the situation, Paige was a mysterious character, making it even more amazing when he showed up and blew away the competition with his flamboyance – and his fastball. Mystery builds intrigue. Whether it was intentional or not, Paige was the type of mysterious character fans loved to hear about and watch in person. If he showed up.
Oh yea, and Satchel Paige was an incredible pitcher… for a VERY long time. Unfortunately, due to incomplete record keeping from a racial divide, his numerous no-hitters, miniscule ERA, and massive strike out totals are lost to history. But, the few stats that were recorded for Paige – starting when he was a whopping 41 years old – still prove to be amazing. According to the records that are available, Paige appeared in only 179 games in the years 1948, 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1965. Yep, Satchel Paige was pitching at the age of 58, where he appeared in one game for the Kansas City Athletics. He tossed three innings of one-hit ball and also recorded a strikeout.
His ERA in the time span of his advanced years was just 3.29 – good, but up from where it was when he was in his prime, obviously. Though he still threw seven complete games in only 26 starts.
Usually athletes have more flair than substance. Despite Satchel Paige’s considerable bombast, his substance and ability blew his flair out of the water. Paige did not have the focus to become a big time endorser, but he would have been cut a few substantial checks while companies learned the hard lessons of his constantly split focus. Paige was a star wherever he went, well on in his years. Companies would line up to have a popular pitchman with his skills shilling their products. Paige was a modern player born to an old fashioned era. If Paige’s personality was matched to a better era in baseball he would have made Michael Jordan look like an amateur.