The pitching prowess of Paige is the stuff of legend that credits him with more than 1,500 career wins and 300 shutouts. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how great he really was. Racism in America kept him out of Major League Baseball and mainstream until his early 40s and his Negro Leagues’ statistics are incomplete and/or not on par with those of the Majors, especially by Moneyball-era standards. In addition, Paige pitched in Central America during his early 30s, meaning that four seasons of his most formidable years are not in the record books.
Oh, and one more thing: baseball historians note that Paige was a bit of embellisher who had didn’t mind adding to the myth that followed him.
Despite this void of historical record, there are many facts and anecdotes that attest to his greatness. Paige was universally regarded by his peers to be the most dominant pitcher of the Negro Leagues. The available statistics show that Paige completed more than half the games he started and 15 percent of the ones he pitched were shutouts.
And while Paige was not allowed to play in the Majors for most of his career, he would often play Major Leaguers in games between seasons on “barnstorming” teams, all-stars that traveled across the country playing exhibition games. Joe DiMaggio, one of the many all-time greats that Paige pitched against, called him “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”
Following Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Cleveland Indians Owner Bill Veeck signed Paige in 1948. At 42, he set and still holds the record for being the oldest rookie in the Major Leagues. In his first season, Paige’s record was 6-1 with 2.48 earned run average (ERA) and he became the first African-American pitcher to pitch in the World Series as the Indians defeated the Boston Braves in six games.
Paige would pitch five more seasons with the Indians and St. Louis Browns, ending his career with 28-31 record and 3.28 ERA. In 1965 at the age of 59, Paige made a special retirement appearance, pitching three shutout innings for the Kansas City Athletics, making him the oldest player ever to play in a Major League game.
His greatness, even though much of it was unrecorded, put Paige in the Hall in 1971. However modern statistical analysis of the limited information available has proven Paige’s superiority as well.
Bill James, the godfather of baseball’s statistical analysis movement, has stated that a statistical analysis of Paige’s impressive Major League numbers in his 40s alone bolsters the fact that he deserves to be listed among the best ever. In 2012, Beyond the Box Score examined Paige’s available Negro League statistics, arguing that they “do more than just back some of the legend surrounding his name, but that they, in fact, add to his lore.”