The Runner Sports

Satchel Paige And Bill Blair Were Negro League Legends… And Once, Houston Astros

There was a time, however brief, when Leroy “Satchel” Paige legendary right-handed pitcher, and the groundbreaking second baseman, Jackie Robinson, each wore the uniform of the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs. As is well known, Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1947 season, while Paige joined Cleveland the next year as a 42-year-old rookie.

Paige was a Monarch in 1935, as well as from 1939 to 1947.

Jackie Robinson, Kansas City Monarchs 2nd baseman (R), with the great Satchel Paige, who anchored the Monarchs’ pitching staff until he was called to the American League in 1948. Photo Credit: Negro League Baseball Museum, Kansas City, MO

The Astrodome Hosts Its First Legend

It could be said Paige was the first Astro, but the 59-year-old was never officially on the Houston roster. You could call Paige the first player to wear the new Astros uniform, but the rest of the team was either already ensconced in spring training at Cocoa Beach, FL (or en route) by early February 1965, and everyone must have had the new one.

This photo, taken February 7, 1965, was a full two months prior to the fabled first game in the newly-opened Astrodome, the 2-1 exhibition game won by the Astros over the Micky Mantle-led New York Yankees, April 9.

On February 7, 1965, before any games had been played in the Astrodome, the Astros invited Satchel Paige to visit the stadium. (Caption from former Astro catcher John Bateman’s Twitter page @JohnnyBateman7).

In a September 16, 2011 article, Houston baseball historian (and Society for American Baseball Research-SABR member), Bill McCurdy, relates the story behind Paige and his odd and early Houston Astros connection. McCurdy titles his essay, “Satchel Paige: The Astrodome’s First Pitcher?” and that seems, ultimately, the most appropriate assessment.

McCurdy, through a friend, managed to get the above photo to longtime Houston sports scribe Mickey Herskowitz (now 84), who, in the 1960s and 70s, this reporter grew up reading in the Houston Post, and when that newspaper folded, the Houston Chronicle.

Herskowitz sent McCurdy this explanation of how on earth Satchel Paige not only ended up in Houston in February 1965, but how he ended up in the still-unopened Astrodome, and above all, how he ended up in a Houston Astros jersey, apparently pitching:

“Satchel had been through lean times, as he frequently had, and was in town as the ‘coach’ of one of the teams — maybe the Washington Generals — playing the Harlem Globetrotters. The game was at the old Sam Houston Coliseum (demolished in 1998, and formerly a downtown 9,200-seat arena for rock concerts, hockey, and wrestling).

“(Paige) wanted to see the Astrodome, which was a few days away from being opened — and being finished, thus no signs on the fences and no turf around the mound.  I’m sure Satch asked to throw a few from the mound for his own amusement, but do not recall who had the creative instincts to fetch a photographer. Maybe (then-Astros head of promotions) Bill Giles?”
Herskowitz continues, “The basketball game was that night, so he had time to kill.  I’m not sure where the Astro players were, but I’m guessing he showed up at the Astrodome around noon, so most of them were probably still asleep.
“Satchel’s team (the Generals or whomever) lost to the Globetrotters. I covered the game and interviewed him at halftime. That was when he reflected momentarily on his life and times and gave me the famous quote, ‘Life is a long and twisty road.'”
The story picks up with McCurdy’s friend, Bob Dorrill, who had received a call from Astros legend Jimmy Wynn, whom actually shared some more info on that special Paige/Astros jersey day.
Dorrill: “Jimmy said that while the players were in spring training, George Kirksey wanted to know if a curveball would actually curve indoors, so he invited Satchel Paige to come to the Dome right before the season started and throw a few. Apparently they worked fine.”
Kirksey, by the way, was a key founding member of the Houston Sports Association’s original ownership group, headed up by Judge Roy Hofheinz, the man behind the original design of the Dome. Kirksey, thus, was the media point man for Houston’s successful late 1950s bid for Houston to land an MLB franchise. So, McCurry asserts, “If anyone would have been able to pull off this (Paige) ‘trick,’ Kirksey would’ve been able to do it.”

Related: Astrodome is 50: Hats Off to The Grande Dame

 The Day Negro League Star Bill Blair Was Drafted By the Astros

Southpaw pitcher Bill Blair also played with Satchel Paige and was happy to tell the stories on the day the Houston Astros drafted the 86-year-old on August 11, 2008.

If you’re trying to wrap your head around the built-in anachronism of the above statement, here’s clarity: The Astros selected Blair, who, at the time, lived in Dallas with his wife of more than six decades, Mozelle, in the June 5 draft of 2008, according to this MLB article by Krysten Oliphant. This was an honorary gesture by MLB, intended as a tip of the cap to surviving Negro League players who never had a chance to play in the Major Leagues.

Without an actual spot on the 25-man roster, of course, Blair was given an honorary locker and an Astros uniform, with #23, a number abandoned months before by pitcher Jason Jennings, and a month before being adopted by newly-promoted SS Edwin Maysonet.

After dressing at his locker, located right next to pitcher Roy Oswalt‘s, Blair took to the field and joined the Astros for batting practice. The day concluded with a private reception attended by family, friends, community leaders, and Astros personnel. The special day was capped by an on-field ceremony that included a first pitch by Blair.
Bill Blair
Born on October 17, 1921, Blair passed away at 92 on April 20, 2014, in tiny Campbell, TX, a map dot in far northeast Texas, topping out at about 700 residents. Following his Negro League days, Blair turned newspaper publisher and positioned himself as the voice of the Dallas-Ft. Worth community for over forty years with what was known as The Elite News.
Blair attended Booker T. Washington High School and Prairie View A&M University. After six months at Prairie View A&M, Blair enlisted in the US Army and became the youngest African-American to serve as first sergeant in the Army during World War II.
Blair pitched from 1946 to 1951 for teams including the Indianapolis ClownsCincinnati Crescents, and was a player-manager for the Dallas Black Giants. He played against players such as Hall-of-Famers Cool Papa Bell and Hilton Smith, and of course, Paige. Of Paige, Bell once famously said, “He made his living by throwing the ball to a spot over the plate the size of a matchbook.”
Paige, of course, was also the author of his own spectacular baseball bons mots, predating the classic malapropisms of Yogi Berra; Paige favorites for many include “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” “Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you.” And one that the current Astros would do well to hang in the clubhouse, as well as the bullpen:
“Just take the ball and throw it where you want to. Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.”

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

At TRS, you'll get full Astros coverage, minor league peeks, player profiles, interviews, MLB historical perspective, and maybe a little rock'n'roll!
Brad Kyle