On this clear April day in St. Louis, the boos rained down on the Pittsburgh Pirates – first in a torrent, then in waves – all the while with Satchel Paige at the maelstrom’s center.
The novelty of seeing these new-look Pirates with their Negro League additions had worn off by opening day game’s end, and the vitriol of tens of thousands was not assayed by the presence of those segregated in the leftfield seats who’d come out to see the legend again, only this time in a Pittsburgh uniform.
Cardinals fans booing a National League rival, even in April, was hardly out of character, but these jeers flew with a steely edge of hatred beyond a ball game. And Paige was the sole new Pirate this audience hadn’t seen the day before.
But the unflappable Satchel was hardly moved. Terry Moore doubled to open the St. Louis part of the first and Johnny Mize, batting third, drew a walk. Paige quickly gained mastery over the Cards hitters, surrendering just three more hits by the 9th – one a Johnny Mize home run – and eventually stifling the volume on the boobird Redbirds fans.
In the top of the third the tumult had crescendoed in the top of the 3rd. With two outs, the notoriously no-bat Satchel came to the plate to face Lon Warneke in his first-ever at-bat in Major League Baseball. After watching three pitches go by for a 1-2 count, Paige blooped a fastball into rightfield for a single. Cool Papa Bell followed with his own first MLB hit and Lloyd Waner chased them with *his* first hit, a big 421-foot dinger.
Paige outwardly coolly strode the bases with the merest shadow of an upturned lip; inwardly his emotions vacillated between beaming with abandon and praying the strictly verbal invective didn’t become projectiles thrown from the stands. Later, he’d say that the final 90 feet was like rounding third into a jet engine.
Waner’s homer gave the Pirates a 3-0 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
In the 9th, carrying more than his lean arms’ shoulders, fatigue threatened to overcome Paige. He’d whiffed Enos Slaughter leading off the 9th, but a single and a double in quick succession threatened Pittsburgh’s 5-2 lead. Josh Gibson came out from behind the plate, calling Buck Leonard over from first. Gibson knew Paige well enough to know he’d want to close this one out, so…
After some discussion, Arky Vaughan came over from his shortstop position, smirked when he found the three were discussing where to get dinner that night, and turned back. The three dissolved the huddle just before the umpire ordered so.
Back-to-back singles from light-hitting rookie Herman Franks and pinch-hitter Dennis Gleason scored two runs to make it Pirates 5, Cardinals 4, with two gone in the bottom of the 9th. Inevitably, Pie Traynor took to the mound. Gibson stayed put behind the plate; Satch wasn’t going out. Paige told Traynor straight: I can do this. Traynor nodded and left his pitcher to it. He’d heard: I need to do this.
Moore, the one who’d won against Paige in the pitcher’s first Major League meetup, was at bat. Paige dealt six, seven, eight times, seemingly something different from the master’s arsenal on each. But Moore stayed alive, fouling off one after another. The tug-of-war ended on a hard shot to center directly at L. Waner, and the game was over.
5-4: The 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates’ first win, a victory much greater than the everyday W.
–Os Davis, April 20, 1938