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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Separating the facts and legend of Satchel Paige

Satchel Paige, circa 1948 (Wikipedia)

By Jayson Stark / The Athletic

The legend of Satchel Paige never gets old, just like Satchel himself. But perhaps you are wondering, just as I was: Now that his whole career is a part of baseball’s official record, how many no-hitters can we confidently say Paige pitched?

Was it 50? Was it five? Was it two? Was it some other number — possibly even zero? It is not a simple question, and before this article is over, I will explain why. But first, let’s set the scene.

My friend Dirk Lammers, a no-hitter historian, dropped me a note the other day to ask: Now that Major League Baseball has officially recognized statistics from the Negro Leagues, how many no-hitters will be added to the record books?

So I told him I would look into it. Guess what. I’m still looking.

That is because MLB’s current answer goes something like this: “Sorry. We don’t know that.” And MLB does not expect to be able to answer it for months, maybe years.

Why would that be, you ask, if statistics from the Negro Leagues have been formally added to the MLB record book? Excellent question. Let’s sum it up this way:

What was added: All of the Negro Leagues’ career and season records.

What was not added: Anything that theoretically happened in any Negro Leagues game or span of games.

Hmm, there was not much mention of that second part in MLB’s announcement of the addition of those Negro Leagues statistics and records last week. But it is true, which I learned after posing Lammers’ no-hitter question to the Elias Sports Bureau’s John Labombarda.

“Version 1.0 of this project was: Let’s get the single-season and career numbers in first,” said Labombarda, a member of the Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee, which evaluated these numbers for MLB. “So that’s what we did for now, for today. But we don’t have any game-by-game box scores loaded yet. So we can’t do no-hitters, three-homer games, 15-strikeout games, etc.”

That, he said, is coming in Version 2.0 or possibly 3.0. But work on those versions has not begun, he said. Once it has, though, it will be quite a hefty research project.

According to MLB’s announcement last week, its researchers have unearthed data on only about 75% of Negro League games from 1920 to 1948. By that, they mean they are working with limited box scores, almost no complete play-by-play data and even less thorough newspaper accounts of these games. For now, they feel grateful just to have that.

But now imagine trying to convert all those disparate pieces into a database that could tell you, say, how many hits Cool Papa Bell got for the Homestead Grays on May 12, 1943 — and you will have a greater understanding of the mammoth difficulty of this undertaking.

“This was a very challenging project,” Labombarda said, “one that isn’t even close to being done.”

It is a project that was well worth embarking upon, obviously. Yet the more we learn about how incomplete the data was that this 17-member committee had at its disposal, the more we cannot help but ask this central question:

How could the league add all of the career and season records to the hallowed official numbers of baseball despite the slight technicality that it cannot total up the numbers of all the games that produced those records?

Now let’s get back to Satchel Paige, because he is the perfect example of the difficult decisions that lie ahead for this committee.

So how many no-hitters did he actually throw?

According to Joe Posnanski’s biography of Paige in a countdown for The Athletic of the 100 greatest baseball players, Paige (who came in at No. 10) claimed he pitched 2,600 games, had 300 shutouts and threw 55 no-hitters — or possibly 50, according to other accounts.

But is there any chance Paige is going to wind up being credited with throwing nearly eight times as many no-hitters as Nolan Ryan? Uhh, no.

Like much of Paige’s life and times, those 55 no-hitters are a richly entertaining slice of his folklore. But no record exists of almost any of them. What we do have is a valuable compilation of various forms of Negro Leagues no-hitters on Lammers’ website, And Paige shows up on that unofficial list five times.

But is there any chance MLB is going to give him credit for five no-hitters? Not likely.

“He had a seven-inning for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1940,” Lammers said. “That won’t count. He had another combined one for Kansas City. He had another seven-inning one in 1936 for Pittsburgh. But there are really only two that I think should be considered official.”

OK, then. How did you enjoy that quick ride down the elevator from 55 to two? Some fun, eh? But let’s home in on those other two games because they are different from the rest. They are as famous and well documented as any games Paige pitched in his Negro Leagues career.

They come complete with newspaper accounts — and enough play-by-play data that you can find actual box scores of both on the fabulous Negro Leagues no-hitters page at Retrosheet. So there is no doubt those games are real.

July 8, 1932: At Greenlee Field in Pittsburgh, Paige, pitching for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, no-hit the New York Black Yankees, striking out 11. According to an article in The Afro-American, “Satchel refused to give the Easterners a solitary hit” that day. And that, my friends, is some eloquent baseball writing.

July 4, 1934: Paige had a 17-strikeout, no-hit dazzler against the famed Homestead Grays, also at Greenlee Field. Seven future Hall of Famers played in this game. The Pittsburgh Courier wrote that Paige had conclusively “stamped himself as the greatest showman in the game.”

So unlike most of those 50 or 55 no-hitters Paige took credit for, there is zero dispute over whether these two games happened. But will they wind up in baseball’s official record book once the committee has finished its work?

Here’s the problem: MLB’s initial inclination, according to Labombarda, is to count only games against league competition in its official record. And Paige’s team was not in the same league as either the Black Yankees or the Grays at the time those games took place.

The Grays, in fact, were such a draw unto themselves that they had dropped out of the Negro National League and gone independent for a year. So in theory, none of their games that season could wind up in the official baseball record book.

But is that lack of formal league affiliation enough reason to toss those Paige no-hitters out of the MLB’s record book? Not in the view of another member of the committee, Tom Thress, Retrosheet’s president.

“I would definitely include both,” Thress said in an interview. “In talking about which teams to consider ‘major league,’ there seemed to be a general consensus in the committee to, at a minimum, include teams who were in a major league for most of their history but may not have been for a season or two or three, mostly for reasons out of their control.

“Certainly, the 1934 Homestead Grays would qualify under such a standard,” he said, “as, in my opinion, would the 1932 Crawfords and Black Yankees.”

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