For most baseball fans, the season ends when the World Series final putout is made. But in 1946, the lucky residents of Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Des Moines, Denver, San Diego, Fresno, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco and, finally, Long Beach had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Satchel Paige’s Negro all-stars play against Bob Feller’s white all-stars.
The barnstorming tour, organized by Feller and conceived on his long, dangerous shifts manning anti-aircraft guns on the USS Alabama during World War II, began immediately after the regular season ended.
Topflight players participated. Feller’s team included future National Baseball Hall of Fame legends Phil Rizzuto, Bob Lemon, Stan Musial, batting champion Mickey Vernon, and three-time 20-game winner and three-time 20-game loser Bobo Newsom.
Paige’s squad had Negro League greats like Buck O’Neil, Sam Jethroe and Hank Thompson. For the Negro League players, the barnstorming exhibitions gave them a rare opportunity to showcase their skills, but only north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Each team traveled on its own DC-3 and played 34 games within about a month before sellout crowds. Feller, who in 1946 completed 36 of 48 starts, tossed 371 innings, 10 shutouts and set the then-modern-day record for single-season strikeouts with 348, said that the tour drew “huge crowds,” an estimated 250,000 total.
Blunt in his evaluation of what the tour represented, Feller said that it was a friendly but racial rivalry and a money-making proposition.
“I wasn’t doing it for my health,” he said.
Monte Irvin, the New York Giants’ Hall of Famer who to his regret passed up the tour, said that Paige and Feller earned a remarkable-for-the-era $100,000 each with the players receiving about $5,000.
Feller spared no expense. He hired a trainer, a doctor, a lawyer and a public relations specialist.
Paige, by then at least 40, matched up with the fire-balling Feller, 25, for the first couple of innings before giving way to relief pitchers.
Feller, the greatest pitcher Ted Williams said he ever faced, had tested his fastball’s speed against a speeding, 86-mph Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
On a sunny summer day in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, the Harley had a 10-foot head start before Feller released the baseball. The ball broke the paper bull’s eye target well ahead of the motorcycle. Major League Baseball announced that Feller’s pitch hit 104 mph.
Feller, financially astute even at a young age, took note of how popular interracial barnstorming was during the 1930s when a Dizzy Dean-led white team took on Paige’s black lineup.
One afternoon in 1934, Dean and Paige were all business. They traded 13 scoreless innings at Wrigley Field in Hollywood before Paige eked out a 1-0 win.
In 1946, the Negro Leaguers finished with five wins and 15 losses, not their desired outcome, but scoring 63 runs compared to the major-leaguers’ 91 showed white owners that blacks could compete.
But when the Sporting News asked Feller if black players were potential big leaguers, he said that he hadn’t “seen one, not one,” with the possible exception of a young Paige.
Years later, after being charged with racism, Feller changed his tone. In his Bob Feller’s Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom, Bullet Bob wrote that Paige “could spot a hitter’s weaknesses very quickly, quicker than anyone I ever knew.”
The Feller-Paige exhibitions helped advance MLB’s integration. The games proved that black players had the necessary skills, and that most Americans appreciated quality baseball regardless of skin color.
On Opening Day April 15, 1947, less than a year after the barnstorming tour ended, Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager Burt Shotton, dressed in street clothes as was his practice, penciled Jackie Robinson into the No. 2 spot in the batting order against the Boston Braves. In his debut, Robinson played first base.
Paige didn’t reach the big leagues until 1948 when he joined Feller on the World Series champion Cleveland Indians. Paige’s record, 6-1, proved that, all along, he deserved to be in the big leagues.
— Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America who now lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter: @joeguzzardi19. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.