Legendary pitcher made an impact in Missoula in 1939

Satchel Paige came to Missoula in 1939. His wing was ailing, but he flung two innings of relief for the Kansas City Monarchs against the House of David on June 30 at the South Higgins Avenue Park, later called Campbell Field.

The Monarchs, an all-black team, and the Davids - variously dubbed the Whiskers, the "Bearded Beauties" and the Israelites by Missoulian sports editor Ray T. Rocene - returned to town on Aug. 11. Paige played a stint in left field during a 12-3 loss and never came back.

Dennis Eugene Pleasant turned 11 that summer 60 years ago, and he saw Satchel Paige pitch.

"I've never seen anyone throw the ball that fast," he said this week.

DiMaggio once said the same.

They didn't call him "Lefty" much yet.

"In school they couldn't call you nicknames, so I was Gene Pleasant," he said.

He was "Mascot Gene Pleasant" in the team picture of the 1937 Bonner Lumberjacks. Second baseman Arnold "Ode" Odegaard, a longtime friend and teammate, still calls him Strap - "short for jockstrap," Pleasant said.

"They also called me, 'You crazy left-hander,' " he added with a laugh. "I had all kinds of names."

Pleasant's father, also Dennis, was supervisor of the planer at the Anaconda Co. lumber mill in Bonner for decades. He was also one of the biggest baseball fans around.

At some point in late June of 1939, Dennis Pleasant informed his eager son they would see Satchel Paige pitch in Missoula on Friday night.

The Pleasants lived in a nice mill house, down by the Bonner post office. It was conveniently within walking or biking distance of Kelly Pine Field, home of the Lumberjacks, refurbished two years before and named in memory of the one-armed ball player and millworker who died in an automobile accident near the East Missoula aqueduct in September of 1935.

The Pleasants took the Buick, either a 1937 or '38, to town.

Times were good, times were bad. The Great Depression was pretty much licked, but there was that Hitler fellow to keep an eye on. That same night Missoula was celebrating Montana's 50th-year Golden Jubilee with a street dance on North Stephens.

On Wednesday, Joe Louis, two years into his 12-year reign as heavyweight champion of the world, had been knocked down in the third round by roly-poly Tony Galento in Yankee Stadium. The fight ended a round later with Galento "smashed into bloody helplessness," according to Sid Feder of the Associated Press.

Motion-picture fans were being introduced to the angst of a girl and her dog and their relocation over the rainbow, and to Hollywood's spin on the Civil War through the eyes of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara.

For the sake of reality, let's assume Dennis and Lefty Pleasant didn't discuss the Oscar-winning potential of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind" as they drove to the park on South Higgins, where today the university's South Campus soccer field is located.

In those days it was the outskirts of town, which is (ahem) why they put it there in the first place, Pleasant said. "There were a few houses, and the roller-skating rink," he added. On the South Hills? "Nothing."

The Pleasants sat behind home plate, looking over the centerfield fence toward the mouth of Pattee Canyon. It was the first and only time Lefty Pleasant saw Paige pitch, but he already was familiar with the House of David's famous pre-game pepper display.

First baseman John Tucker, in his 16th season with the Whiskers, teamed with Tally and Anderson for a show that wowed the fans.

"You probably don't remember pepper games?" Pleasant said, sounding a bit sad to have to ask the question. "They'd roll the ball down their backs and into their mitts and do a lot of special theatrical acts."

The House of David players usually were bearded to a man.

"They were portraying old-time religion," Pleasant said, although their recruits didn't hail from any one denomination. They were among the nation's best touring teams for years, and made annual stops in Missoula to play the Monarchs, the Harlem Globetrotters and/or local teams from the mid-1930s

until at least the late 1940s.

A ballplayer becomes a legend when stories are told about him and nobody cares if they're true. Few legends have performed their crafts in Missoula. Paige was among the greatest.

Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Bill Russell played in NBA exhibition games here in the 1960s. All three qualify as legendary.

Dave Dickenson was dubbed "Legend of the Fall" when he led the Grizzlies to the 1995 I-AA football championship, though that was a localized distinction.

The Missoula Timberjacks (1956-60) boasted player-manager Jack McKeon, and they played against Bob Uecker of Boise. Both are the stuff of legends for reasons other than their baseball skills.

Paige, who spent his best years pitching in the Negro Leagues, was arguably the best pitcher, anywhere, ever. If you believe the official record, he was 36 the summer he came to Montana. Historians believe you should add several years to that, which only serves to perpetuates his legend.

Eight years and one hellish World War after Paige pitched in Missoula, the color line in the majors was broken in 1947 by Jackie Robinson. Bill Veeck brought Paige up to the Cleveland Indians a year later. Paige had a final one-game stint with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, at age 59 at least. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, he died in 1982.

In the days before the Monarchs' first visit to Missoula in 1939, Rocene reported that Dizzy Dean had pitched against Paige in Tulsa in 1935.

"Interviewed in Paige's hearing, popoff 'Dizzy' spoke thus: 'Paige has a real fast ball, but his curve isn't much,' " Rocene wrote.

When Dean went to bat against him, Paige struck him out on three curve balls.

Paige was known to pull the "Rube Waddell" strikeout stunt, waving in his outfielders after the first two or three batters had reached base, then proceeding to strike out the side.

Of such stories, legends are made.

Until he saw a news clipping of that '39 game, Lefty Pleasant didn't recall that Paige came on in the eighth inning with a 6-0 lead, retired the first two batters he faced, then surrendered a single and a home run, the latter to Tucker. The Monarchs won 7-2.

What Pleasant remembers from that night was the awesome visage of Paige.

"I can still see him, how tall he was, how fast he was," Pleasant said.

He learned later how difficult it was for the Monarchs to find a place to stay in Missoula.

"I think the Northern Hotel finally put them up, and I think one time the Park," he said.

Pleasant became a pretty fair pitcher in his own right, for Missoula American Legion teams, for semi-pro clubs in the area, for the Army team when he enlisted in the early 1950s.

He was the antithesis of Paige, a southpaw and self-described junk-ball pitcher with no heat to speak of. He turns 71 next month, climbs regularly to the top of Mount Sentinel (not just to the "M") and at this moment might well be mountain biking somewhere deep in the Rattlesnake.

Just a few years ago, the man named Lefty - now even in the phone book - helped coach minor Little League baseball. Those kids were just about the age he was in 1939, when he saw for himself the majesty of Satchel Paige.

Monday - 6/7/99

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