John Holway / Negro Leagues
Harry Salmon pitched from the side like Ewell Blackwell of the Reds. I never did see anyone pitch like that. He was hard to hit. He tickled me. All the batters would jump out of the way when he went into his act.
By John Holway
When Paige joined the Birmingham Black Barons as a rookie in 1927, the ace of the staff was the lanky fastballer, Harry "Beans" Salmon. Satchel was so impressed that he adopted the style himself.
Nervous hitters described it as "a cross-fire pitch." "Looked like he was going to step on the third baseman," first baseman George Giles laughed. "He was pretty tough on right-handed hitters."
When Salmon and Satchel pitched a double-header, Cool Papa Bell said, it was Salmon who drew the tougher opponent. Harry posted a 14-6 record for the year to Satchel's 8-3.
Salmon and Satchel would give you a headache," moaned outfielder Jimmie Crutchfield. Left-hander Sam Streeter, the third man in the triumvirate, was 14-12. The three of them led the Barons to their first Negro League pennant.
Five years later, when Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays went to Birmingham to find a pitcher, he passed up Satchel and picked Salmon instead.
(Salmon could do something else that Paige couldn't he could hit, posting averages of .368, 400, even .500.)
I met Salmon back in the 1970s in Pittsburgh. He was tilted back in a chair at a gas station, shooting the breeze with the boys.
The interview, presented for Black History Month, is from Blackball Tales, due for publication in 2004:
I first met Satchel in 1926; he was with Chattanooga, and I was with the Birmingham Black Barons. I pitched against him down in Chattanooga on a Sunday and beat him 2-1. We opened up again in Birmingham, and I beat him 2-1 in ten innings. When I first came here to Pittsburgh in 1932, the first game I pitched against him I beat him 10-4. In fact, I can't remember a game that he ever beat me. Nope.
He was my roommate when he first came up to Birmingham. Well yes, I taught him some things. When he started, he was real fast. Wasn't much of a curve ball man, but he was a good strikeout man. But the thing of it was, the balk part. He'd most always get his foot off the rubber; when he'd go to pitch, his foot would slide off. That beat us a whole lot of times.
You know, you writers, the more you write, the better you are. That's the way Satchel developed his control -- practice, practice. We used to all get out and throw and see how many strikes we could throw.
He was a hard thrower, but he learned how to pitch afterward. You know, his arm got sore later and when the years go by, you learn how to pitch with your head more than you do with your arm. Thats what he became a good-headed pitcher.
Satchel was full of fun -- you know how youngsters are. He was our showman. He even played a jews harp [harmonica] at times. He'd entertain us back in the hotel.
Me, Ive had some good days, and Ive had some bad ones. That's the way you go through life anyway, whether you play ball or you don't: You have some good days and you have some bad ones.
I was born in 1895 May 30 in a place they called Warrior about 18 miles outside of Birmingham. I was eight years old when I started working in the mines. Mmmm-hmmm, I shoveled coal at eight years old. Yes, it was pretty young.
I was sort of adopted, see? I stayed with other people more than with my mother, and they werent going to feed me for nothing. You had to do some kind to work for your living. I'd go down and bring the men their tobacco and stuff. And I had a little shovel; Id shovel a little coal. You know, they have laws against that now. There's been a lot of changes in the last 70 years.
You couldnt be a weakling. You always tried to protect yourself. But you couldn't be too overbearing either. If you were too overbearing, you couldn't survive. You didnt have to go look for trouble, because trouble found you. It's easy to get into but rather hard to get out.
I worked in the Edgewater mine in Kimberly, just drifting from one place to another. I started playing ball when I was in the mines.
In 1920 they selected most of the best players from the mining camps and formed them into the Birmingham Black Barons in the Southern League. We'd go to Knoxville, New Orleans, Atlanta and Memphis. We all worked in the mine.
I couldn't say what my greatest game was. I've had a whole lot of them to be proud about, and a whole lot to be sad about.
But I enjoyed going against Sam Streeter in 1920. I was called in to pinch-hit against him. He was with Montgomery at the time, and I was lucky enough to break up the ball game. We were tied, and I hit a single toward second to drive in the winning run.
Yes, I pinch-hit a lot. You had to be a good hitter, because you played more than one position. I pitched and played the outfield.
Pie Traynor, played for the Pirates, came up the same year I did, '20. He was playing short for the Birmingham Barons, the white team. I saw him play a lot of times. No, I never played against him; they wouldn't allow that. Sam West was playing outfield for the Barons too, went up to the Washington Senators. But that was as far as we could go at that time unless we went out of the States. In Cuba and Puerto Rico we were mixed, but here in the States, you know how it was.
I had my jaw knocked out of place in Asheville North Carolina on Easter Sunday 1922. My mouth was open nearly two hours; the wind was just cutting my throat. I went to about four doctors, and they said they couldn't do much. The last doctor I went to, I could hardly talk. He said, "Can you stand for me to knock it back?
They say a catcher is the backbone of the team. I dont think so; I differ with them. There's nothing anybody on the team can do until the pitcher turns the ball loose, isn't that right? The catcher has something to protect him. What does the pitcher have out there except his glove, huh? He doesn't have anything but that glove.
You couldnt play ball on Sunday in Birmingham then. We had to go to Montgomery or Memphis and come back to Birmingham on Blue Monday. But we always drew good. We out-drew the white club.
I couldn't say what my best year was. I never did pin any roses on myself, but I was the leading pitcher. Right-handed all the way. I threw anything and everything: spit balls, anything that you could get one out with. I could throw hard, but I didn't know much about the other part of pitching.
I was inexperienced, and I had to learn. But I got more experience, and theres mighty few of the pitchers that I didn't beat. And mighty few of the pitchers that didn't beat me.
Rube and C.l. Taylor were the two smartest men I ever saw the wizards. I called Rube Brains, because he used every trick there was to win a ball game. A shrewd man. I've seen him have his club bunt seven straight innings and then beat the other club. Yes, it put a lot of pressure on the pitcher, on all who were playing the American Giants.
But we made Rube chew up many a pipe the way we played. And he laughed at us many a time also.
The only time I saw C.I. was in 22; he came in with the lndianapolis ABC's. He had so many brothers that played that they could near have a team of their own with just Taylors on it. I think I beat them 6-2. He tried to get me to go with him, but it got cold and I went back home to Birmingham.
My catcher, Larry Brown, and I came here to Pittsburgh together to the Pittsburgh Keystones, out to old Central Park, under William Dismukes, who was manager. Old man Williams -- Charlie Williams -- and his brother Stanley owned the club. We had Dolly Gray, Rod Williams, Larry Brown, myself.
In 1927 the Black Barons moved up to the Negro National League. That's when we got Satchel.
Oh man, there were so many tough hitters then. Dave Malarcher and Steel Arm Davis of the American Giants Cristobal Torriente, the Cuban boy . Turkey Stearnes . Pete Hill was one of the hardest hitters. Kansas City with all their hitters: Dobie Moore was my great friend, plus George Sweatt, Newt Joseph at third, Hurley McNair.
To tell you the truth, most of the players that are playing now I wouldn't say all of them -- couldn't have played with our club.
Cool Papa Bell. He could run! But I could always tell when Cool was going down to second base; he'd rock back and forth on first base.
We had a catcher, Bill Perkins out of Albany Georgia, had heard a lot of talk of Cool, but he'd never seen him run. I threw an off-ball [pitchout], and it was perfect. But Cool was going, running so fast that Perkins held the ball till Cool stopped at third. So surprised at the way he was running.
Mmmmmmm-mmmmm! Never seen a man run like that before in my life!
Cool could bunt, and he could hit the ball hard. Down In Cuba in 1930 he hit two home runs in a row off Johnny Allen. We were kidding John; we said, Well, I heard youre going to the Yankees.
He said, Yes, I have an opportunity to go.
Cool said, Well, I'm going to keep you back a year.
Some of those hitters could stand up there and take two strikes and spit at you and tell you to get the ball in there, they would hit it somewhere. They just had the good eye.
Mule Suttles hit one in Cienfuegos Cuba off Sam Streeter out of the park, over a row of houses on the other side of the park, about 450 feet. You know, it wasnt recorded, just one of those things.
Biggest disappointment was for Josh Gibson not to make it to the major leagues.
Josh hit the longest ball I ever saw. The leftfield fence was 500-some feet away in Puerto Rico, and a hard wind blew in from the ocean. Oh God, it went over 500 feet against the wind, over the fence.