Any player/Any era: Satchel Paige

What he did: Paige pitched off and on for 40 years between the Negro Leagues, the majors, and beyond, estimating he won 2,000 games. Only 28 wins of these wins came in big league play, since segregation kept Paige from the majors until 1948 when he was 42 (at the youngest, since some dispute exists about his year of birth.) One of baseball’s great “What Ifs?” is how many wins might Satchel Paige have had with a full career in the majors.

Era he might have thrived in: Paige endured the rugged conditions of Negro League and independent ball, once living in a converted boxcar while playing for an integrated team in North Dakota. In other words, he probably could have made his mark in any era of big league play. But to do best in the majors, Paige might need a pitching coach as good as his one in reform school, Edward Byrd who, as Paige’s SABR biography notes, “showed Satchel exactly how to exploit his storehouse of kinetic energy.”

We’re giving Paige a start with the Detroit Tigers of the late 1960s and their legendary pitching coach, Johnny Sain. It might have been an ideal launching point for Paige.

Why: For much of his career, Paige was a drawing card, a soldier of fortune in black baseball and beyond. When a team’s finances were in doubt, Paige was sent for. Perhaps he thrived under the attention, the pressure, the limelight. Some people are built that way. But perhaps Paige would do ever better if he debuted in the majors playing a quieter, supporting role and getting the chance to learn from the best. In 1968 in Detroit, he’d have this opportunity.

The Tigers went 103-59 that season, led by Denny McLain who won 31 games. Mickey Lolich wasn’t bad either, going 17-9 and saving his best work for the World Series, winning three games including Game 7. The rest of the starting pitching was something of a crap shoot for the Tigers, though, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think a young Paige could have been Detroit’s third-best starter. He might have been a younger, better version of the man who held that title in ’68, Earl Wilson, another victim of segregation in the sense he got buried in the Red Sox minor league system in the 1950s as a young, black man.

Whatever the case, Paige would’ve debuted at a peak time for pitchers and gone on to pitch the bulk of his career in the 1970s and ’80s when less was demanded of hurlers and five-man rotations became commonplace. Paige’s longevity in real life is all the more impressive considering he overcame a dead arm in the 1930s, which he incurred through injury and overwork. Imagine him not having to go through that and getting good medical care. He’d also make a better salary and be among the first free agents. I’m guessing one of baseball’s most famous self-promoters would do well with it.

Then there’s Sain, who made 20-game winners out of Lolich and Wilson and guided McLain to his 1968 triumph and had him on his way to another Cy Young in 1969 when the Tigers fired him in August after clashes with management. Lolich praised his former coach in Sports Illustrated in 1972, noting, “He made me a 20-game winner. Yet, he never taught me a single thing about pitching a baseball. Maybe that’s because John’s not a pitching coach, he’s a headshrinker. Even when you learn from Sain, you never feel you’ve learned a thing from him. He lets you think you did it yourself.”

Given Paige’s spartan accommodations most of his career, perhaps he did come by most of his success himself. How much better he’d do with expert help, one can only wonder. I brought it up with one of my readers who noted that Sain coached 17 20-game winners. My reader also suggested that Sain’s emphasis on not having pitchers run in practice might go well with the easygoing philosophy of Paige, who had well-publicized tips for staying young (such as Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.)

The thought here is that barring catastrophic injury, Paige wins somewhere in the neighborhood of 325 games like others of his prospective era, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, and Steve Carlton. Sure, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to 2,000 wins, seeing as Paige wouldn’t be pitching year-round or for as long and as many teams as he could. In this era, he’d have the luxury of bowing out in his 40s.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

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