80th Anniversary of Satchel Paige’s First Win in the Puerto Rico Baseball League

Satchel Paige had a sore right arm in 1938, which sent “shock waves” through the Negro Leagues and Caribbean. Paige pitched some for the 1939 Kansas City Monarchs “traveling squad,” or “B team,” before he started “feeling better” and was activated by the parent team. Paige, in October 1939, accepted an offer by the Guayama Brujos (Witches) of the Puerto Rico Semi-Pro League. Guayama was the league’s defending champion, having won the loop’s inaugural 1938-39 season with a 27-12, .694 PCT. The Brujos were also 1939 National Semi-Pro champions, having defeated the Duncan Cementers in an exciting best-of-seven series which went the distance in September 1939.

Paige arrived in San Juan on a Pan Am Clipper nearly four weeks after Puerto Rico’s 1939-40 Semi-Pro season began on October 1, 1939. The Brujos featured an all-star cast headed by SS Perucho Cepeda and OF Tetelo Vargas, from the Dominican Republic. Ceferino “Cefo” Conde and Rafaelito “El Mago de Las Magas” Ortíz provided pitching depth. Guayama, one of eight league franchises then, is a municipality in southeast Puerto Rico, 56 miles south of San Juan.

Paige’s first start, on October 29 against the Mayagüez Indios, was washed out after one frame. He endeared himself to the Guayama faithful on Sunday, November 5, 1939, when he shut out the Santurce Crabbers, 23-0, and fanned eight. Guayama’s 28 hits, three by Paige, motivated Josh Gibson, Santurce’s player-manager, to pitch one-third of an inning! This was the morning contest of a doubleheader. (This season had 28 Sunday doubleheaders scheduled from October 1, 1939 through April 7, 1940, but some were rained out and played on other dates.)

William Perkins—Satchel Paige’s Favorite Catcher

Bill Perkins

One reason Paige accepted the offer to pitch for Guayama was due to William Perkins, who caught him with the Birmingham Black Barons (1928-1930); Cleveland Cubs (1931); Pittsburgh Crawfords (1931-1936); and in the Dominican Republic (1937). Perkins wore his chest protector with these words visible: “Thou shall not steal.” He was age 43 when he caught Paige with Guayama and highly respected in the Caribbean, based on his fine play in the Dominican Republic and Santa Clara Leopards in the Cuban Winter League, mid-to-late 1930s. Perkins and Raymond Brown formed a great battery in 1936-37 with Santa Clara—Brown was 21-4 (.840 PCT) in the 66-game regular season with Perkins. Brown went 1-1 in the best-of-three game title series with Marianao, besting Martín Dihigo in the first game, but losing game three, won by Dihigo. Perkins tied Dihigo for the 1935-36 Cuban Winter League lead with 38 RBIs. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, thought so highly of Perkins that he would not trade him. Greenlee had Josh Gibson under contract then, so Perkins backed up Gibson and played other positions when needed.

Rubén Gómez grew up in Guayama. He loved to watch Perkins warm up Paige before games at Guayama’s Parque Ina Calimano. Gómez, age 12 at the time, studied warm-up tosses of Paige. Perkins would put cigarette packets as a home plate, and Paige threw “strike after strike over that tiny object,” noted Rubén Gómez. (His son, Rafael, also mentioned this to me.)

November 12 – December 31, 1939

Paige defeated the Humacao Oriental Grays, 4-2, on November 12, followed by a 6-2 win on November 19, striking out nine and five Grays, respectively. On Thursday, November 23, Paige won the make-up game with Mayagüez (6-3), with nine strikeouts. Three days later, he bested Santurce, 6-1, and got three hits, to finish November at 5-0.

Paige blanked Mayagüez, 1-0, December 3, 1939, to set a league nine-inning strikeout mark with 17, one tied by Bob Turley, with the San Juan Senators in 1953-54. (San Juan’s Pat Dobson fanned 21 Arecibo Wolves on December 10, 1967, with Johnny Bench catching, to set the nine-inning Puerto Rico League strikeout standard.)  Mayagüez catcher Marco Comas remembered the classic 1-0 duel between Paige and Bud Barbee, December 3, 1939. “Barbee struck out 15 for us,” said Comas. “Tetelo Vargas scored the only run. You could say Paige threw aspirin tablets at our ballpark.” Paige had a pinch-hit single in the other game of the December 3 twin-bill.

The Ponce Kofresí Pirates fell to Paige, 2-1, on December 10. Paige went 3-for-4 and drove in the winning run. Sunday (December 17), Paige faced league-leading San Juan for the first time. This contest, played on a neutral field, was suspended due to darkness with the score tied at 5. Paige fanned 14 Senators. Roy Partlow, his pitching opponent, had recently arrived in Puerto Rico after pitching in Cuba.  Raymond Brown, San Juan’s formidable starter, had physical ailments and recommended the Senators contact and sign Partlow. San Juan team official Pedro Vázquez traveled to Havana to sign Partlow.

A Paige-Partlow rematch took place Saturday, December 23, at Sixto Escobar Stadium, home of the Senators. Partlow prevailed, 5-1, to pin the season’s first loss on Paige. An exuberant crowd ran onto the field and lifted up LHP Partlow and Clarence Palm, his catcher. Gene “Bicicleta” Benson—San Juan’s CF in 1939-40—recalled the rivalry between the league’s best two teams, San Juan, winners of the first half; and Guayama, second-half winners. Benson was the first import in Puerto Rico who used the basket catch in the OF. (Luis R. Olmo of the Caguas Criollos was probably the only native player to use the basket catch, 1939-40.) Benson and Palm watched movies in San Juan during the week. “He (Palm) would look up and see Hoy, so he said to me, “Ben, you know, Hoy must be a heck of a picture. It’s playing all over town.’ But it was the coming attractions of today, it meant ‘today.’”

Paige preserved a win over Aguadilla with two relief innings on December 24, before ending the month with a 13-1 rout of Caguas with six strikeouts; plus, two hits at the plate. He was 3-1 in December; with an 8-1 W-L record going into 1940.

January 7 – February 25, 1940

Cefo Conde pitched the first inning versus Caguas on January 7, 1940, and gave way to Paige in the second. Conde recalled Paige warmed up before games by throwing a much longer distance than the norm. Paige, at times, would hurl the ball over a matchbox in front of William Perkins.

“My English was pretty good,” recalled Conde. “Paige and I used to run around during the week; one day I asked Satchel to show me how he worked on his pitches and control.

            We went up on the roof of a building in Guayama. Satchel made a circular gadget like an arc and put it in front of an imaginary home plate. Then he had me place five sponges in my glove before he began throwing hard. After a few of these practices, I was pitching better. I caught Satchel against Aguadilla when William Perkins was unable to play, and used the same five sponges. Those sponges came in handy.”

Conde may have been a pioneer in the “bullpen game” concept in January 1940, when he started several contests before Paige was inserted in the second frame. El Mundo’s (prominent newspaper) summary of the January 7, 1940 game noted that “Paige went in to hold onto his claim as the best pitcher in Puerto Rico.”

Paige’s 13 strikeouts in eight innings versus Caguas (January 7) was made sweeter by his 3-for-3 hitting against Bertrum Hunter of the Criollos, in Guayama’s 1-0 win. Hunter pitched for the 1938-39 Ponce Kofresí Pirates in the regular season, but won three games for Guayama in the finals versus San Juan, after the Brujos signed him to a short-term contract. Hunter and Paige were teammates on great Pittsburgh Crawfords teams of the 1930s.

Paige won his next two decisions—4-3 over Aguadilla (January 14) and 11-4 versus San Juan (January 21). But he absorbed a rare loss versus Ponce on January 28, in a 10-5 Ponce win, game two of their twin-bill. Paige’s record was 11-2 heading into February.

Records indicate Paige had a no decision against Mayagüez, February 4, but preserved a win for Cefo Conde. Paige’s next three starts were wins: February 11, 3-1 victory over Santurce; February 18, a 4-0 SHO against Humacao, his third SHO; and a win over Humacao on February 25, one where he went 2-for-4, in his 6-4 victory. Paige sported a 14-2 W-L ledger.

March 2 – April 7, 1940

A March 2 Saturday make-up game against Santurce featured 10 strikeouts and two hits by Paige in a 4-2 win. Eight days later, he suffered his third loss in a 10-3 win by Mayagüez. Paige’s hitting motivated Guayama manager Fernando García to insert him in the fifth spot in the batting order that game. On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, Paige blanked Ponce, 6-0, for his fourth SHO. The next Sunday he bested San Juan, 5-4, with two hits in four AB. Paige was now 17-3.

Win #18 came against the Aguadilla Tiburones (Sharks), Thursday, April 4. The 14-4 rout helped Guayama win the second-half. Leon Day was Aguadilla’s star pitcher/hitter, accounting for all three Aguadilla HR in 1939-40. The level of play in Puerto Rico impressed Day, based on our conversation in his home in 1993. “You’re talking about Paige, [Billy] Byrd, Partlow, [Pancho] Coímbre, [Perucho] Cepeda, [Josh] Gibson. Buzz (Buster) Clarkson hit a ball off me in Mayagüez. It went over the left field fence like a knuckleball… the hardest ball I’ve seen hit.”

Paige completed his 19-3 regular season with a 2-0 gem over Caguas on April 7, fanning five Criollos. Caguas OF Luis R. Olmo was impressed: “Satchel Paige was the best pitcher I ever faced…and this includes MLB, Mexico, Venezuela, the Caribbean…,” noted Olmo. “He dominated hitters and was in total control.”

1939-1940 Regular Season Stats plus Post-Season

Guayama (39-17) swept San Juan (38-18) in four final series contests to claim their second straight title. Partlow (11-4, 1.49 ERA), Raymond Brown (7-0, 1.05 ERA) and Hiram Bithorn (5-4, 1.71 ERA) were San Juan’s key regular season starters, but only Partlow was active in the finals. Paige won two final series games. His 19 regular season wins remain an untouchable single-season record in 80-year Puerto Rico League history, pre-2019-20.  Paige’s 208 strikeouts—in 205 IP—will never be broken. The top five strikeout artists in 1939-40 were Paige (208), Leon Day (186), Santurce’s Billy Byrd (158), Partlow (139) and Mayagüez’s José A. Figueroa (137). Paige finished third in ERA (1.93), behind Ponce’s Silvio “Cocaína” García (1.32) and Partlow (1.49), and ahead of Byrd (1.97) and Day (2.17). Bithorn and Raymond Brown did not qualify for the ERA title. RHP Henry McHenry of the 1939-40 Humacao Oriental Grays completed all 28 of his starts, in posting a 10-14 record for the sixth-place (22-33) Grays.

The 1939-40 Guayama Brujos had outstanding pitching with Paige (19-3, .864 PCT), Cefo Conde (12-8, 2.54 ERA) and Rafaelito Ortíz (6-4, 2.53 ERA), combining for 37 wins. Conde pitched 181 innings; Ortíz contributed 103. Perucho Cepeda—Orlando’s father—edged Josh Gibson for the batting title: .383 to .380. Perucho’s five HR were second-best to Gibson’s six. Tetelo Vargas’s .363 BA was fourth, behind Cepeda, Gibson and Partlow’s .366. Tetelo scored a league-leading 69 runs, equivalent to 200 in a 162-game season! Perucho’s 58 RBIs led the league, equivalent to 168 in 162 games. William Perkins, a phenomenal catcher, caught Raymond Brown (21-4) in Cuba and Satchel Paige (19-3) in Puerto Rico. Paige was 4-0 versus Humacao and Santurce; 3-0 against Caguas; 2-0 versus Aguadilla; and 2-1 apiece when facing Mayagüez, Ponce and San Juan. This excludes Paige’s 2-0 final series record against San Juan.

Special thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado, who furnished a Table with Paige’s 1939-40 pitching stats, and to Gene Benson, Marco Comas, Cefo Conde, Leon Day, Rubén Gómez, and Luis R. Olmo, for in-person insights on Satchel Paige and the 1939-40 Puerto Rico Semi-Pro season.

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