Satchel Paige's last stand

Mariano Rivera, just in case you haven't heard anyone mention this in the last eight minutes, is old.

How old? Well, he won't become the oldest pitcher to lead his league in saves. For one thing, he's probably going to finish this season with fewer saves than Jim Johnson. For another, spitballer Jack Quinn was 47 when he led the National League in saves in 1931. Granted, it was only 15 saves. But then again, Mariano Rivera is only 43.

On the other hand, Rivera is the oldest pitcher in major-league history to earn more than 15 saves. In fact, the list of 42-plus pitchers with at least 20 saves is short indeed: Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, and Hoyt Wilhelm (the latter two were both 42 at the time).

Eckersley was just about finished, but Wilhelm was not; the knuckleballer would pitch until he was almost 50, with a few outstanding seasons to come. Dutch Leonard, another knuckleballer, turned in some big relief seasons in his early 40s. But there's one more geriatric relief pitcher whose exploits are too often forgotten ... Satchel Paige, who joined the St. Louis Brown in 1952, when he was 45 years old, and posted two fine campaigns. So fine that he made the All-Star team both years.

Paige returned to barnstorming and the minor leagues in 1954, and thrived for some years. He wasn't finished in the majors, though. Not quite. Exactly 48 years ago today, Satchel Paige took the mound in a major-league game once more, when he was 59 years old. To this day, Jack Quinn is the only man to pitch after his 50th birthday ... and he cleared that bar by just six days.

It was a publicity stunt, cooked up by Kansas City A's owner Charlie Finley. Paige would get a "night" at Kansas City's Municipal Stadium, which wasn't any sort of novelty. But Finley took "Satchel Paige Night" a step farther, as Satchel Paige would actually pitch on Satchel Paige Night. Three innings against the visiting Red Sox. It was September, so there was plenty of roster space, and Paige signed on the dotted line for the princely sum of $3,500.

Umpire Bill Valentine was behind the plate that night. Valentine told me that Paige was really pitching, and the Red Sox really were doing their best to hit him. "He kept the ball down, kept it moving below the knees," Valentine recalled. "I'll bet you he wasn't throwing 80, and they'd swing and say, 'Son of a bitch, that was right there!' "

Billy Bryan was catching for the A's, and didn't really talk much to Paige before the game. "He didn't have a lot of conversations with guys," Bryan told me. "He wouldn't call you by name, would just say, 'Hey, catch' or 'Hey, pitch.' But we didn't need to talk much. Just two fingers, fastball and change-up, and sometimes he'd change up on his own."

Outfielder Jim Gosger led off for the Red Sox, and popped out. Dalton Jones came up next, and reached second on an error by A's first baseman Santiago Rosario. But Jones was out trying to advance to third base on a pitch in the dirt, Bryan making the peg to third. Carl Yastrzremski doubled, but Paige escaped the inning when Tony Conigliaro lifted a fly ball to left field.

And from there, he cruised. Satch retired the Red Sox in order in both the second and third innings, and needed just 28 pitches for his entire outing. Jim Gosger was the first batter and the last, as he grounded out to end the third. And today it doesn't bother him one bit. "My two biggest thrills in baseball," he told me, "were batting against Satchel Paige and hitting a home run against Whitey Ford the only time I faced him. As far as I'm concerned, Satchel was a prince."

The prince would never pitch again in the majors, although a few years later he did make Hank Aaron look silly in an exhibition game. There's just never been anybody else like Satchel Paige, and there won't ever be again.

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