Satchel Paige: The Astrodome’s 1st Pitcher?

Satchel Paige May Have Been The Dome's 1st Pitcher - or, at least, the first uniformed player to warm up as a pitcher in the Dome.

A few days ago, a fellow researcher sent me an E-Bay link to the sale of two related wire photographs of Satchel Paige dressed as a 1965 Houston Astro uniform and apparently roaming around the early Astrodome on April 9, 1965 as though he was about to pitch a game. One of the photos featured an up-looking frontal view of  old Satch, hands over head and ball and glove in pause,  looking skyward in the presence of some invisible catcher behind us, with the girders of the Dome ceiling protecting us all as subject and viewers. The familiar shooting star and the words “STROS” are visible across the breastplate of Paige’s jersey. The front “A” must have been hidden in a fold of the shirt as a result of Satchel’s skyward reaching pose, but it was Paige all right, at age 59, getting ready to deliver his famous hesitation pitch into the empty abyss of the apparently as yet untested canyon that would soon be billed through the universe by Judge Roy Hofheinz as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The other picture is a full body shot of Satchel Paige in motion to deliver a pitch on a dirt-covered mound on a dirt-covered infield.

ttp://www.ebay.com/itm/LEROY-SATCHEL-PAIGE-ASTROS-1965-ORIGINAL-WIRE-PHOTO-/330480948265?pt=Vintage_Sports_Memorabilia&hash=item4cf2331429#ht_2539wt_1138

Wow! What was this all about? I had no idea. In 1965, I was living in New Orleans, employed as clinical faculty at Tulane Med School and in-between work on my master’s and doctoral degrees. I had no idea that Satchel Paige had ever come anywhere near the Astrodome during those later years of his life.

Well, once I sent out the above link, with notice, it didn’t take long to get some answers, although I was almost as surprised by the number of Astros insiders by history who also knew nothing about the Paige appearance. Thanks to SABR’s Bird Dog Bob Dorrill, however, no mystery in this cosmos has much chance for survival for very long. Bob took all of my limited information and ran it through every potential resource we know. And he hit pay dirt when he made contact with, who else, Houston’s iconic sportswriter, the great and funny Mickey Herskowitz.

End of mystery.

Mickey Herskowitz didn’t know how the photographs came to be, but here’s what he told Bob Dorrill by e-mail: “The year WAS 1965, as Bill recalls.  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 and Satch’s coaching technique consisted primarily of chain smoking Lucky Strikes and ignoring his players.”

“He was once a GREAT pitcher who struck out Babe Ruth three times in an exhibition game.  He 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 Bill Giles? 
“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.
“Wish I had more details or background, but hope this helps. Satchel’s team (the Generals? or whatever) lost to the Globe Trotters. 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.’ “

Later in the day, former Astro and franchise icon Jimmy Wynn called Bob Dorrill to supply some additional detail on how Paige happened to make it to the Dome in game-dressed form. According to Bob Dorrill, “Jimmy (Wynn) 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.”

As you may recall, George Kirksey was the media point man on Houston’s late 1950s successful bid in 1960 for a major league baseball franchise in Houston and he also was a prominent founding member of the Houston Sports Association’s original ownership group.So, if anyone would have been able to pull off this trick, Kirksey would’ve been able to do it.

What’s amazing is that the Astros of 1965 failed to mine this thing for far more publicity than they could have gotten from it, but it sounds as though it happened so spontaneously, probably because Paige was in town anyway due to the basketball act, that it really was done to test the movement of a breaking ball in the new covered conditions of the world’s first contemporary domed stadium.

Still, it’s hard not to think of how the whole appearance of someone like a Satchel Paige would be handled in today’s world. For one thing, Mike Acosta of the 2011 Astros game-used authentication program would have jumped all over that uniform that Paige wore during his brief tour of duty. It would not have been thrown back in the uniform pool, awaiting use by the next gangly Andy Warhol prospect on the pitching staff, as it probably was dispatched in 1965. Mike would have grabbed it for historical preservation – and probably also have bagged the ball, glove, and cap that Satchel used too.

Forget probably. Satchel Paige would have been lucky today to have departed a similar performance at Minute Maid Park in his underwear.

UH Mad Dog Babe: 1980

 Also One for the Strange Affinity Department. It just hit me on another level. Knowledge of Paige’s Astrodome feat has now pulled me into a weird cloud of strange, if albeit worthless, affinity with the great pitcher. In 1980, while my bulldog “Babe” was working for the University of Houston as mascot (1979-80) for the Cougars’ Mad Dog Defense, I also worked with my undergrad alma mater on half time stunts. And a big one came about as a result of the 1980 Astros-Phillies playoff Series at the Dome.

Because of the NLCS in Houston, UH and Texas A&M were forced to start their football game after the baseball had finished. Well, wouldn’t you know it? That Saturday baseball game turned out to be one that lasted forever. The football game didn’t start until midnight.

Two things happened for as a result. Prior to the football game, I got called in to warm up as a pitcher along the left field foul line, dressed in an Astros uniform – and coming complete with a ball, glove, and catcher. Hard to believe it now, but I could still hum some fastballs in 1980, which I did, even as some of the fans along the line groaned away with, “Oh No! No more baseball today! Please!” I just tuned them out and dropped some harder pop into my catcher’s mitt.

Bottom Line: Satchel Paige and I both got to pitch in the Dome wearing Astros uniforms in situations that don’t count for diddily. How big a history club is this one?

One more landmark for me from the 1980 Midnight Hour Football Game. At half time, I got to successfully kick a 35-yard field goal as part of our UH entertainment routine. As far as I know, it remains on the books today as the only post-midnight field goal in Astrodome history.

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2 Responses to “Satchel Paige: The Astrodome’s 1st Pitcher?”

  1. Darrell Pittman Says:

    It couldn’t have been April 9, 1965, because that was the date of the exhibition game against the Yankees, the first game in the Dome. In the photo, the scoreboard still hadn’t been installed, so it had to have been taken well before April 9.

  2. Chris Wing Says:

    amazing !

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