(Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the Oct. 19, 2007 issue of SCD.)
It was only fitting that Hall of Famer Bob Feller would hook up with Satchel Paige for one of the most extraordinary barnstorming tours in baseball history. Both men were made up of an equal parts mixture of the real and the mythical, so linking up for a postseason tour around the country in 1946 would turn out to be a perfect match and, indeed, a harbinger of historic things to come the following year.
More than six decades after the 1946 tour between the Bob Feller All-Stars and the Satchel Paige All-Stars, the event holds a special place in a hazy history of the Negro leagues that extends even to those rare occasions when black ballplayers had a chance to show off their skills against their white counterparts.
On the heels of one of the greatest seasons any pitcher ever had, Feller rounded up a group of American and National League stars for a whirlwind tour that crisscrossed the country and found the two squads scheduled to play almost three dozen games over the course of a month.
Feller won 26 games for a sixth-place Cleveland ball club that was still a couple of years away from its triumphant 1948 World Series win over the Boston Braves. The year marked the first time in four years that an essentially complete contingent of players was on hand in the major leagues after four years of World War II, making Feller’s season all the more remarkable.
He completed 36 of 48 starts, tossed 371 innings, 10 shutouts and set the record for strikeouts in a single season with 348. And then he rushed off to a barnstorming tour that ranked in importance with some of the world tours that major leaguers had taken part in earlier decades, pitching the first couple of innings in most of those exhibition contests.
“This was bigger than some of those world tours,” Feller told me in an exclusive interview.” We drew huge crowds at Yankee Stadium, and we drew very well at Comiskey Park in Chicago,” he added.
The tour, with about 17-18 players on each club, started in Pittsburgh the day after the season ended, and would find its way to Youngstown, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Des Moines, Denver and up and down the West Coast, including San Diego, Fresno, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The tour ended with a party in Long Beach near the end of October. A date in Minneapolis got scratched due to snow.
Each team had its own separate Douglas DC-3, an imposing undertaking at a time still years before MLB’s move west of the Mississippi. Less than a year away from the fall of the color line in April 1947, the tour, despite its stellar attractions from both dugouts, obviously could not include any bookings below the Mason-Dixon Line. Black soldiers had just returned from a World War against fascism to be faced with the stunning contradiction of a grateful nation that still insisted up second-class status for them.
“It was a racial rivalry,” Feller, “but we were very friendly.” By his own account, there was not that much interaction between the two teams. This was a money-making proposition at its core, at a time when it could be alleged that even major-league ballplayers were severely underpaid. “I wasn’t doing it for my health,” is the way Feller described it.
And though he declined to say how much he made on the tour, fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irvin says it was all of $100,000, a remarkable figure for the time.
“Paige and Feller got $100,000 each from the tour,” Irvin said in a phone interview. “Many of the players made $5,000 each,” he added, lamenting that he hadn’t been a part of Satch’s ball club even though he had the opportunity.
“I was asked to go and I was planning to, but we couldn’t agree on the money,” Irvin continued, pointing out that he went on tour with Jackie Robinson instead. “It was a big mistake on my part.”
John Holway, noted Negro leagues historian and author of a half-dozen highly regarded reference works on the topic, has his doubts about the $100,000 figure that Irvin suggested. “It sounds pretty inflated; I doubt it,” said the author of Josh and Satch and The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues. Holway also puts the total number of games played at closer to half of the number originally scheduled.
And while the flame-throwing Feller and the past-his-prime but still an unmatched gate attraction Paige were atop the marquee, the two teams truly were all-star aggregations, to say nothing of boasting the inclusion of a number of eventual Hall of Famers.
That designation includes for the Feller squad Phil Rizzuto, Bob Lemon and, eventually, Stan Musial.
Stan the Man had a World Series appointment with the Red Sox, joining up with the team on Oct. 18. The rest of the club included All-Stars Mickey Vernon, Ken Keltner, Charley Keller, Dutch Leonard and Spud Chandler. Bobo Newsom, the peripatetic pitcher who won 20 games three times and lost 20 three times, rounded out the roster (figuratively speaking), along with Johnny Beradino (who later starred on the soap opera “General Hospital), Sam Chapman Jeff Heath, Frankie Hayes, Jim Hegan and Rollie Hemsley, who also served as the manager for the Fellers.
“I picked ’em and I paid ’em,” Feller pointed out. “I was a busy guy,” he said with obvious understatement. Feller, the consummate businessman virtually from the start of his career, had incorporated a year earlier. “We got 65 percent of the gate, including all expenses.” Musial got $10,000, despite joining the club in the middle of the tour.
That left Satch with 35 percent of the gate, and Feller figures the Paige All-Stars averaged about $150 a day. There was even a kind of a slush fund for the writers, another 10 percent or so that helped with the publicity and getting box scores published.
“We stayed in good hotels; they stayed on their own,” Feller said. “I never heard any complaints, and they made a lot of money that month.”
Feller pointed out with a laugh that the big dollars for Musial from his abbreviated tour with the club was a true bonanza for the eventual Hall of Famer.
“Musial talked at the BBWAA (baseball writers) dinner that winter and said he’d done better at the barnstorming with Feller than he had with his World Series check of about $3,000.”
Ironically, the Satchel Paige All-Stars boasted having four Hall of Famers, the same number as Feller’s squad (counting Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson): Paige, Hilton Smith and Willard Brown. The rest of Satch’s team included pitchers Dan Bankhead, Barney Brown, Jeffrey Jessup, Max Manning and position players Buck O’Neil, Hank Thompson (who would later would play with the St. Louis Browns and New York Giants), Artie Wilson, Howard Easterling, Leonard Pearson, Sam Jethroe (later with Boston Braves), Frank Austin, Quincy Troupe, John Hayes and Monarchs manager Frank Duncan.
Paige, by then 40 years old if the DOB in the Baseball Encyclopedia is to be believed, was obviously well past his prime but still a force of nature.
He usually matched up with Feller pitching the first two or three inings. “He wouldn’t bear down all the time,” is the way Feller recalled their duels.
Still, it was fairly serious business for the Negro leaguers, who relished the opportunity to show their skills against major leaguers. Paige’s legendary antics, like calling in the fielders, whereupon he would strike out the side, were traditionally reserved for barnstorming games against local teams around the country rather than against big leaguers.
“He had great control, but he didn’t have a great curve ball,” is the way Feller recalled Paige. “He would have been in the top five or 10 pitchers all time.”
Feller also had great praise for another well-known figure from that tour: Buck O’Neil. “Buck was a good first baseman and a great ambassador for baseball. He should be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.”
A couple of other legendary baseball figures, Max Patkin and Jackie Price, were also on hand for the eccentric pregame and between-innings performances, both of whom had enjoyed the sobriquet of “Clown Prince of Baseball.”
Patkin is best known for his rubbery face and baggy uniform with a question mark for a number; Price, on the other hand, had actually been on the Indians’ roster in 1946, getting to the plate 13 times and hitting safely in three of those appearances.
In pregame shtick on the 1946 tour, he did exotic stunts like hanging upside down by one leg and hitting balls into the outfield. “Before the games, especially if we might have been running late, he would drive around the outfield in a jeep catching fly balls,” said Feller. “He was the best entertainer I ever saw.”
As for the series itself, the results, like so much of the history of the Negro leagues themselves, seem shrouded in a kind of mythological fog where the ultimate bragging rights are best left with a bit of wiggle room. “I always tell Buck O’Neil that we broke even,” Feller said with a laugh.