March 24, 2008
You Could Look It Up
A Dominican Retreat
In our last installment, I made reference to "Satchel Paige's midnight ride to the Dominican Republic, where he helped pitch the dictator Trujillo's team to a championship while being held at gunpoint." I've received many requests to tell the story, and will do so here. One caveat before I dive in, however: those involved in Paige's Dominican adventure, particularly Paige himself, liked to exaggerate the details of this story, making it more dramatic as the years passed. As they were not overly concerned with fidelity to objective truth, neither will I be. I'm going to tell it as best I can tell it, which is how Paige would have wanted it. As the song goes, some of this is true; some of this is better.
In 1937, Paige, 31 years old, was the Negro National League's top gate attraction. His presence on the Pittsburgh Crawfords, along with that of the player called "the Black Babe Ruth," Josh Gibson, made that team the class of the league, with pennants in 1935 and 1936. That all changed in spring training, 1937. The Crawfords were training in New Orleans. This was, as it turned out, too close to the Gulf of Mexico for comfort, for mysterious men were stalking the town that spring, looking for ballplayers. Paige had managed to evade them by making his customary late arrival to camp. One of them, a small, goateed man in a white suit, tried to make polite conversation with Paige as he came on and off the practice field, but Paige brushed him off, thinking him an autograph collector, a bill collector, or a process server, all of which Paige had frequent cause to avoid. For one thing, as far as he knew, he was under indictment for excessive speeding in half the jurisdictions in the country.
One afternoon, Paige stumbled into the small lodgings he had taken in the Big Easy. The small man in the white suit was there, smoking a cigar. He was bracketed by two other men, not much taller but a great deal wider; their suits bulged with menace. Now, half of the teams in the Negro Leagues were owned by men who had some dealings with the criminal element, and Paige happened to have pitched for half the Negro Leagues, so he was familiar with the distortions that firearms caused to men's fashions.
"You are a hard man to get a hold of, Mr. Paige," the small man began.
"Is that so?" Paige answered, and calmly stepped out the window onto the fire escape.
I will spare you the obligatory chase scene, which may or may not have involved automobiles. It suffices to say that Paige was wrestled back to his room and held in a chair by the two gunsels. He listened as the small man introduced himself as Dr. Jose Enrique Aybar, in charge of the Ciudad Trujillo baseball team of the Dominican Republic. Dr. Aybar might have explained the situation at that point: Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo owned Los Dragones, the Ciudad Trujillo ballclub (a modest man, Trujillo had renamed the capital city of Santo Domingo for himself). Political rivals owned the teams playing for San Pedro de Macorís and Santiago de los Cabelleros; in the Dominican Republic, baseball was a continuation of politics by other means. If Los Dragones emerged from the eight-week Dominican baseball season with a championship, it would enhance Trujillo's chances of staying in power. As such, ringers were called for. White major leaguers were unaffordable, but blacks…
Dr. Aybar then hefted a suitcase, opened it, and spilled $30,000 onto Paige's bed. Paige was to take $6000 for himself and use the remainder to attract as many quality Negro Leagues ballplayers as he could. Negro Leagues players weren't paid anything like that for comparable work, so Paige immediately signed on as pitcher/scout.
This arrangement would ultimately cripple baseball leagues in two countries. Imagine if, in any season, last year's American League All-Stars simply removed themselves from play. That's what happened in the Negro Leagues when Paige began spreading Trujillo's money around. Paige enticed the best of the Crawfords, including Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, to jump the club and join Los Dragones. Separate from Paige, the team also added some of the best players the Caribbean had to offer, including Puerto Rico's Petrucho Cepeda-Orlando Cepeda's daddy. When the other Dominican teams saw what Ciudad Trujillo was doing, they emulated their recruiting drive by adding their own Negro Leaguers and Caribbean stars, including Cuban greats Martin Dihigo and Luis Tiant, Sr. The cream of the Negro Leagues had unexpectedly relocated to the tropics. Back in the states, the Negro Leagues moved to ban Paige and the rest of the contract jumpers. Given the possibilities for barnstorming all-star teams, the less than holy status accorded league contracts, and the star power of the players involved, the banned players didn't take their outlaw status too seriously.
However, for the ballplayers, what seemed like a paid vacation quickly revealed itself to be something of a nightmare. They were met at the airport by armed soldiers, escorted to their hotel by same, and kept there; there would be no fooling around. With ballgames only on weekends, it must have been a very long two months-not that the ballgames were that much fun either, because the games were played at gunpoint. Trujillo's soldiers, prominently packing, would stand on one foul line; the opposition's soldiers would stand on the other. The players felt like the inhabitants of a shooting gallery. For Paige's men, this feeling was exacerbated by Dr. Aybar saying darkly, "El Presidente does not lose," whenever the Dragones would drop a contest. As Paige said later, "I had it fixed with Mr. Trujillo's policies. If we win, their whole army is gonna run out and escort us from the place. If we lose, there is nothin' to do but consider myself and my boys as passed over Jordan."
Thanks to the enforced downtime and a tight race, Paige had a lot of time to contemplate such matters. Los Dragones went 18-13; Paige was 8-2. This was good enough to qualify for the championship against San Pedro. It also qualified them to spend the night before the series in prison, insurance against any last-minute temptation to break training. As motivational techniques go, this one seems to have been a bust. Paige, his famously quirky stomach singing an aria of pain, was bombed in the first game, and the Dragones dropped the next two contests as well to trail 0-3 in the best of seven series. Paige was starting to see firing squads out of the corner of his eye…
Somehow, the Dragones rallied to take the next three games to force a winner-take-all seventh game, with Paige getting the start. Once again, the lanky right-hander failed to pitch well at first, and San Pedro carried a 5-4 lead into the bottom of the seventh. In that inning, Paige singled and Sam Bankhead blasted a home run to put Ciudad Trujillo on top 6-5. Safety in view, Paige took the mound in the eighth and began pumping fastballs. He pitched two shutout innings, striking out five of six batters, and the championship belonged to Trujillo. The ballplayers would live, though, sadly, so too would Trujillo, who held power in varying forms until his assassination in 1961, plenty of time for much in the way of repression and political murder. The ballplayers had been on the wrong side, particularly ironic in this case since Trujillo was no racial progressive, pursuing policies that, while not rising to the level of ethnic cleansing, did strive to remove Haitian (which is to say dark-skinned) elements from the country.
After the final ballgame, the American ringers quickly packed and got out of the country as quickly as possible. Paige would later claim to be among them, but this was a fabrication; in no rush to go back home and face his ban, he stayed in the Dominican pitching exhibition games. His teammates formed a barnstorming team, which Paige later joined (and became the Satchel Paige All-Stars in the process), and slowly worked their way back into the regular league structure.
Meanwhile, back in the Dominican, the money spent on expensive free agents had crippled the league; the teams were bankrupt. The league folded, not to be revived for more than a decade. The color line would be broken and Paige would make the big leagues before organized baseball was again played in the Dominican Republic.