In late summer 1965, baseball fans in Fairbanks were apparently a little nervous. Their amateur — but quite popular — Fairbanks Goldpanners baseball team suddenly faced a competitive threat from a new hardball franchise in Anchorage, and folks in the Golden Heart City were most concerned about the world-famous celebrity who would purportedly organize and manage the team.
“Of course, the announcement that Satchel Paige will manage the Earthquakers — the new Goldpanner-type semi-pro team in the Cook Inlet city — has brought a number of comments,” sports columnist Stan Caulfield wrote in the Aug. 31, 1965, issue of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
“It has even brought a few which sounded like they expected this would mean the end of the Goldpanners’ reign of supremacy in Alaska,” Caulfield added.
The notion that the impending arrival of Paige — the ageless former Negro League and MLB pitcher who was still hurling the pill at age 59 — would cause a seismic shift on the baseball scene in Alaska was, to say the least, stirring.
Many pundits and players of the sport had argued for decades that Paige was the greatest pitcher the game had ever seen, and the ageless wonder certainly was a showman supreme. Win or lose at any level of baseball — amateur, semi-pro, professional — Paige always left ’em smiling in the stands when he pitched.
But a year after Caulfield’s cautionary column, Paige was nowhere to be found in Anchorage, or anyplace close, for that matter. Instead of helming the much-anticipated Earthquakers, Paige spent the summer of ’66 hurling for the minor-league Carolina League’s Peninsula Grays in what would be his last professional pitching appearance.
The grand Anchorage scheme of 1965 petered out before it even got off the ground. In the end, the Goldpanners had nothing to worry about. Hardball followers in the Last Frontier has learned what the rest of the country already knew: Satchel Paige, for all his greatness on the mound, was the chameleon of the baseball business, a legend whose whimsy shifted with the wind like his famous hesitation pitch.
An Old Debate
Had ol’ Satch been earnest when, in August 1965, he declared to the world that he was pondering settling in Alaska for good? The debate about this little-known nugget of Paige’s storied life and career continues to this day.
“On the one hand I think he was serious,” says author Larry Tye, whose definitive biography of the Hall of Famer was published in 2010. “Satchel never turned down good money for anything, and if the money was good enough, he would have been sorely tempted to stay in Alaska.
“On the other hand,” Tye added, “he had a family back home in Kansas City, and as desperate as he might have been to support his kids, doing it from thousands of miles away in Alaska seems whimsical at best.”
Those who were there at the time, like current Anchorage resident Becky Parker, say the city was ecstatic to have Paige in town. But today, in hindsight, Parker says Paige’s proposal for a new aggregation just wasn’t bound to get off the ground for one reason: the baseball market was already crowded in the city.
“We already had two military teams at the time, plus two other teams that were playing locally,” she says.
At first glance, the pairing of Leroy “Satchel” Paige and the city of Anchorage seemed an unlikely coupling. Paige, born and bred in steamy Mobile, Ala., was a world traveler whose career took him, at various times, from Mexico to Manitoba. He was a baseball nomad who possibly hadn’t even heard of Anchorage before 1965.
But at closer glance, it might have actually been a better match than people would have thought. Anchorage was just over a year removed from what became known as the Good Friday Earthquake, a massive, three-minute temblor that measured an astounding 9.2 on the Richter scale, caused dozens of deaths, and leveled parts of the city.
So a visit from a celebrity like Satchel Paige a year later would have been a welcome development for the city and its residents, and the subsequent announcement that he would form a touring baseball team — one that could help re-stimulate the local economy and bring revenue dollars into the region — made locals positively giddy.
Paige, meanwhile, was always up for a big paycheck, and the Anchorage gig apparently promised that, so much so that he allegedly would have turned out less lucrative offers from locales in the Lower 48.
“I’m not asking anyone for a job,” Paige told the Associated Press during a stop in Baltimore during his 1965 promotional tour with basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. “When I was the top pitcher in baseball, no one wanted me. Anyway, the contract would have to be awful good to beat the one I’m getting for pitching and managing in Anchorage, Alaska.”
But Paige, ever the yarn-spinner who rarely was consistent with the content of his quips and quotes and frequently but good-naturedly talked out of both sides of his mouth, set a different scene for the Chicago Tribune’s David Condon, who quoted the pitcher lamenting his supposedly dire financial straits. Taking the Anchorage gig, Paige told the sportswriter, was simply finding some way, any way, to put food on his half-dozen kids’ plates as his fabled arm continued to age.
“A long way off [in Alaska], but it was gonna be a pay day, and like I said, it’s getting pretty late for me,” Paige related to Condon.
“Up in Anchorage they asked me if I’d sign a contract to play next year,” he continued. “What would you have done? I’d have taken any job in baseball. Even groundskeeper. That’s absolutely right. I’d have been a groundskeeper.
“No one wanted me. So when they offered that job in Anchorage, I would have taken it even if they said I had to sleep in one of those igloos.”
Satch’s Big Jolt
Paige’s short-lived romance with Anchorage began in August 1965, when he arrived in the city amid massive fanfare to kick off a four-day barnstorming exhibition tour in the region. He landed at Anchorage International Airport on Aug. 25 — notably, the same day former Vice President Richard Nixon passed through town on his way to Asia.
One day later, at Anchorage’s year-old Mulcahy Stadium, Paige kicked off his brief, initial jaunt through the state by announcing the formation of the Earthquakers, a revelation the AP said “jolted the crowd ... last night with the unexpected announcement.”
With local resident Bob Allaman picked to be the team’s general manager, Satch told the local media he was mulling over the prospect of moving to the city permanently.
“Lately, I’ve wanted to leave barnstorming baseball to settle down somewhere to help the sport,” the hardball great said. “And Anchorage seems to me the place to do it.”
“I loved Anchorage at first sight,” he added, “and I’m the man who can build this team up. I’m the man who knows the baseball players and can get them to come here to play.”
But while Paige was regaling a rapt Anchorage crowd with what would turn out to be tall tales, he was also concocting another option, this one more than 3,500 miles and 60-plus hours away in Kansas City.
For a month after his triumphant arrival in the Last Frontier, Paige took the mound for the Major League Kansas City Athletics, pitching three successful innings — he allowed only one hit — in his return to the majors a dozen years after he hurled for the St. Louis Browns.
Paige’s September 1965 appearance in K.C. got his nearly 60-year-old blood flowing and his mind turning. As he set off on the cross-country tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, he and his agent, Abe Saperstein (also the Globetrotters’ long-time owner), struck upon the idea that the pitcher could actually spend the entire 1966 season playing for the lowly A’s.
“Only a short time before he signed with the Athletics recently,” the Negro Press International’s Charles Livingstone wrote, “he had talked of settling down to a quiet life in Alaska. But evidently Athletic President Charles Finley changed [Paige’s] mind with [Finley’s] checkbook, and Paige is in the midst of yet another comeback.”
There was just one catch — yeah, that whole Anchorage thing. Paige was contractually obligated to the Earthquakers, and he immediately set about trying to uncouple himself from the Alaska deal. In early October 1965, in fact, Paige almost derisively told Condon that “I’m messed up with that Anchorage contract.”
But more than two months later, in mid-December, Paige was telling the press in Baltimore that he still planned to go through with the Anchorage deal. “We’ve got about a six-team league up there and now they’re talking about building a domed stadium,” he told a Baltimore Sun reporter. “If Mr. Finley or anyone else is interested in my services, they’ll have to buy my contract from Anchorage.”
After that, Paige began telling the line that he and Saperstein were definitely trying to get Paige out of what the Los Angeles Times in January 1966 called “this legal snarl” with “a semi-pro team in Anchorage...”
But, undoubtedly to the chagrin of both Paige and the city of Anchorage, everyone’s plans fell through — the Earthquakers never got past the planning stage, and the Athletics ended up not bringing Satch back for another season. That left Anchorage without a legend and Paige faced with the discomforting realization that his pitching career was just about over.
He shouldn’t have worried long, because in 1971, he became the first Negro Leaguer inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. At that point, Paige enjoyed a renaissance of adulation and interest in him before he died in Kansas City in June, 1982.
What Might Have Been
Meanwhile, the city of Anchorage regrouped from both the terrible 1964 earthquake and the disappointment of losing a chance at being the home of a hardball legend. The city never gave up hopes of landing a baseball team of any level, and those dreams were eventually realized. Today, Anchorage is home to two franchises in the collegiate Alaska Baseball League, the Bucs and the Glacier Pilots.
And, of course, historians, researchers and fans of baseball’s past are left to figure out exactly what Satchel Paige’s intentions were for Anchorage. What is beyond doubt is that his Alaskan dabble has enhanced the ever-burgeoning Paige mythology. Plus, the fact that people are still trying to figure out what was in Satch’s head would have left the ageless wonder grinning from ear to ear.
“The one thing I can say for sure,” Tye adds, “is that Satchel would have relished the notion that, half a century later, we were parsing his intentions.”
Regardless of what was turning over in Paige’s mind in 1965, he at the very least gave the city quite a show. Becky Parker says her husband, Fred, pitched against Paige — the nearly-60-year-old Paige — during an amateur game in Anchorage. Satch, of course, showed he still had it, using a variety of off-speed pitches to throw three scoreless innings. He also picked up a base hit.
“They advertised [his visit] quite a bit,” she says. “He was impressive.”