Lachemann reminisces about Jackie, Paige eras

Lachemann reminisces about Jackie, Paige eras

CHICAGO -- Rockies coach and longtime baseball veteran Rene Lachemann feels fortunate to have learned of pre-integration baseball from one of the greatest witnesses and participants -- Hall of Famer Satchel Paige.

Lachemann, 70, was a catcher for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 under promotion-oriented owner Charlie Finley. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter was 19 and pitched to Lachemann, who was all of 20. So with Paige, listed at 58 although no one was sure, hoping to build service time toward a pension, Finley decided to bring him back for the final days of the season, when he would pitch to 32-year-old veteran Johnny Blanchard.

Paige ended up throwing three scoreless innings and giving up one hit, to future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, against the Red Sox on Sept. 25, 1965. Lachemann, who warmed Paige up in the bullpen, recalls that he could still throw a low-80s mph fastball -- "at 60-some years old, that's a plus."

Lachemann, celebrating Jackie Robinson Day on Friday with the rest of Major League Baseball, was even more impressed when he listened to Paige.

Lachemann was the Los Angeles Dodgers' bat boy in the early 1960s, but he said he never met Robinson, who was not being invited around by the franchise for which he had contributed so much. He said he met former Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, who was a Negro Leagues player as a teenager and followed Robinson to the Majors. Campanella was in a wheelchair because of an auto accident, and Lachemann just shook his hand.

Meeting Paige was a true chance to learn that slice of history.

"The stories he'd talk about, what he went through," Lachemann said. "I talked with him because Sherm Lollar and some guys that played in the exhibition games against the Negro Leagues All-Stars said he was a guy who would have been overpowering, one of the top pitchers in Major League baseball if he'd have been able to pitch in his prime.

"I'd question him. We had a guy named 'Campy,' [Bert] Campaneris, and I asked if anybody could run as fast. He'd tell me the Cool Papa Bell story that he'd turn the lights off and get in bed before it would get dark.

"I said, 'I've heard that. That's old.' Then he said, 'I've seen Cool Papa hit a two-hopper between the pitcher's legs and it hit him in the rear sliding into second.' I said, 'Wait a second. That's pretty fast.'"

Lachemann said he was fascinated with Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, a total-package player in any league.

"He said you could talk about Babe Ruth or whoever, but this guy had more power than any hitter he'd seen in his entire life," Lachemann said. "I'd never had a chance to see Josh Gibson, but every place I'd go in the Minor Leagues, you'd see a marking of some ball that Josh Gibson had hit. I guess he had some problems off the field, but he would have been an easy Hall of Fame player in the Major Leagues."

Lachemann played in the 1960s, when baseball was still the unquestionably the No. 1 sport among African-Americans. Some of the game's biggest stars -- not only African-American but Hispanic -- would have been excluded before Robinson debuted with the Dodgers in 1947 to break the color barrier.

"I went to inner-city schools in Los Angeles, and all of the top athletes at that time were basically playing baseball," Lachemann said. "NFL football was not looked upon as a sport to make money in.

"And at that time, scholarships were not limited like they are now. If a kid wanted to go to school, he could get a scholarship and a full ride where he wouldn't have to pay anything. That's what's killed African-American participation, I think. When I went to USC, I think they might have had 50 baseball scholarships."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.