Thursday, March 25, 2010

Satchel Paige at Parker Field


Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian

With another baseball season soon to get underway, and the Richmond Flying Squirrels about to open their season next month -- home opener Apr. 15 at the Diamond -- I can’t help but think of what was a temple of baseball in my youth, Parker Field, which was located where the Diamond is now.

Parker Field opened in 1954 to serve as home for a new International League club — the Richmond Virginians. As the V’s were one of the New York Yankees’ Triple A farm clubs, in those days the Bronx Bombers paid Richmond an annual visit in April. Just before Major League Baseball’s opening day, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and the other great Yankees of that era played an exhibition game in Richmond against V’s.

It was always a standing-room-only affair.

Other than the hometown V’s my favorite club of the IL then was the pre-revolution Havana Sugar Kings. They played with an intensity, bordering on reckless abandon that made them a lot of fun to watch, especially for the kids.

One of my all-time favorite players I saw pitch at Parker Field was Leroy “Satchel” Paige (1906-82). Yes, the legendary Paige, with his windmill windup, high kick and remarkably smooth release still working for him, plied his craft on the mound here in Richmond to the delight and other reactions of local baseball fans.

In 1971, Paige (pictured above, circa 1949) was the first of the Negro Leagues’ great stars to be admitted to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame, based mostly on his contributions before he helped break the Major League color line in 1948, as a 42-year-old rookie. The statistics from his pre-Big League days are mind-boggling. It's been said he won some 2,000 games and threw maybe as many as 45 no-hitters.

Furthermore, long before the impish poet/boxer Muhammad Ali, there was the equally playful Satchel Paige, with his widely published Six Guidelines to Success:

  • Avoid fried meats that angry up the blood.
  • If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
  • Keep the juices flowing by jangling gently as you walk.
  • Go very lightly on the vices, such as carrying-on in society - the society ramble ain’t restful.
  • Avoid running at all times.
  • Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.

Long after his days as the best pitcher in the Negro Leagues, following his precedent-setting stint in the American League, Paige was on the roster of the Miami Marlins (1956-58). Like the V’s the Marlins played in the International League. When I saw him Paige was in his 50s. Not a starter, anymore, he worked out of the bullpen.

In the late-1950s live professional baseball in Richmond was mostly a white guys’ scene. Which meant the boos would start as soon as the crowd noticed Paige’s 6-3, 180-pound frame warming up in the middle of a game. When he’d be called in to pitch in relief, the noise level would soar. Not all the grown men booed, but many did. That, while their children and grandchildren were split between booing, cheering, or embarrassed and not knowing what to do.

Naturally, some of the kids liked seeing the grownups getting unraveled, so Paige was all the more cool to them. Sadly, for many white men in Richmond, then caught up by the thinking that buoyed Massive Resistance, any prominent black person was seen as someone to be against. So, they probably would have booed Nat King Cole or Duke Ellington, too.

The showman Paige would take forever to walk to the mound from the bullpen. His warm-up pitches would each be big productions, with various slow-motion full windups. Then the thrown ball would whistle toward home plate with a startling velocity, making the kids cheer and laugh to mix with the boos.

Paige as a Miami Marlin

Paige, from Mobile, Alabama, must have understood what was going on better than most who watched him pitch then. He was a veteran performer, who knew perfectly well there wasn’t much he could do to change the boos; they were coming from folks trapped in the past.

So, Paige good-naturedly played to the cheers, as time had taught him to do.

Of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea that what I was seeing was an aspect of the changes the South was going through, to do with race. My guess is few knew the reaction to Paige, being split on generational lines then, was a sign of how America’s baseball fans were going to change. One day Jim Crow attitudes would have no place at baseball temples.

Now, with the benefit of decades of reflection, I understand that Satchel Paige was a visionary. He was seeing the future by following his own advice — Don’t look back.

– Images from


Bruce Terrell said...

Thanks for that trip down memory lane. I was 15 before I realized the man I knew as "Uncle Don" was just my parents good friend, Don Larson. They knew him from the 1940s when my dad was a Marine Corps pilot stationed on the West Coast. I remember, as a kid, he spent the night at our house before one of those exhibition games between the Yankees and the Virginians. I was a little young and clueless about his perfect World Series game and how celebrated he was. I still have the mental image of that next morning when kids and grownups were lined up down our street waiting for him to sign their baseballs.

F.T. Rea said...


And, thanks for your story.

Hey, I'm old enough to remember seeing Yogi Berra jump into Larson's arms at the end of that game (on a black and white Zenith).

Carole Kipp said...

I loved Parker Field and think the name should have stayed the same. Rigley's Field kept their name and so did a lot of others. I also remember skating at the Richmond Arena in the 1950s. I cannot find any history on that. Does anyone have photos to share?

Carole Kipp said...

what was the name of the Richmond baseball team when Parker Field first opened?

fev said...

Help me out on this one -- did you see Paige pitch in spring 1969? Spring training game at Parker Field as Atlanta played north out of training camp?