BUCODA — Bucoda Volunteer Park sits empty on a 37-degree December afternoon. The dozen picnic tables, newish-looking playground equipment and covered outdoor kitchen area are all idle Wednesday. The only movement and sound comes from the rippling Skookumchuck River bordering the western end of the park.
It’s hard to believe that 80 years ago, likely the entire population of Bucoda, all 500 of them, gathered somewhere in this small park to watch legendary Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige throw against the Bucoda semi-pro baseball team in an exhibition game. But it’s true.
Paige, whose career spanned five decades in the Negro Leagues and later the MLB, made a name for himself entertaining crowds crosscountry with a blistering fastball and an arsenal of trick pitches. The 6-foot-3 righty played just six seasons in the majors, starting at the age of 42, after the unwritten rule preventing Black players from joining was abolished. It was one year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Paige, like Robinson, would go down as one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
Leroy Paige was born on July 7, 1906, in Mobile, Alabama. He earned his nickname “Satchel” as a young kid while working as a luggage carrier at a train station. At 12 years old, he was sent to the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, after shoplifting. It ended up being lifer-altering as Paige learned to pitch there and turned pro after leaving the school.
For 21 years, from 1926 to 1948, Paige served as a hired gun in the Negro Leagues. The highest-paid pitcher of his era, he threw for any team that could afford him, traveling as many as 30,000 miles in a single year.
He was known to call his outfield in shallow and then strike out the side. Once he did it on nine straight pitches; an immaculate inning. On at least one occasion he sent all four of his infielders to the dugout while he pitched. He faced some of the top Major League hitters of the era before joining the MLB in 1948, even striking out Rogers Hornsby, one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever, five times in one exhibition game.
His larger-than-life prowess and popularity helped bridge the gap between the Negro Leagues, white fans and the all-white Major Leagues, quickening the integration of the two leagues.
Paige played for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1939 to 1942, leading them to four-straight Negro American League pennants. In 1942, he won three games in a four-game sweep of the Homestead Grays, led by famed hitter Josh Gibson, in the Negro League World Series.
It was with the Monarchs on July 13, 1940, that a 34-year-old Paige faced off against the Bucoda Buccos at the site where Bucoda Volunteer Park is now located.
Fifteen years ago, now-Tenino history teacher Dave Montgomery returned to his hometown of Tenino after attending college. His dad, Don Montgomery, asked if he would research the Buccos, which folded in 1965, for the Tenino Depot Museum.
Dave had heard the tales of Paige pitching in Bucoda from his dad, who himself played for the Buccos in the mid 50s and early 60s. Legend has it that during pre-game, Paige walked around Volunteer Park with a .22 rifle hunting for snakes.
“Which is like, ‘Wait, a Black man was walking around with a .22 and nobody thought anything of it?’” Montgomery said.
Might be hard to believe being 1940 where, in much of America, racial segregation was strictly enforced, both by Jim Crow laws and by age-old custom. But Paige was already a national star at this point, regardless of race. Montgomery also points out that it would make sense given that the park is on the opposite side of the Skookumchuck River from Bucoda, where the town turns to trees and brush.
Montgomery scoured microfilm archives at the Washington State Library in Tumwater, looking for any news articles on the Buccos. One day while searching, he saw a photo of Paige in a July 11, 1940 article of The Chronicle, which previewed the Monarchs-Buccos game that was to be played two days later.
“You can guess how excited I am at this state library, going through microfilm, and all the sudden I see a picture of Satchel Paige,” Montgomery said. “And I know who that is. I’m super excited. I teach history and I love baseball. Of course I know who Satchel Paige is. And then I see that Bucoda is going to play them and I’m about jumping out of my chair.”
Over the next couple days, he uncovered just one more remnant of the game; a short recap in The Chronicle published July 17, 1940, four days after the matchup, where the Buccos engineered a 6-5 come-from-behind victory over Paige and the Monarchs in the ninth inning.
“I want to know who all played in this game, I want a line score, a box score, give me something,” Montgomery said. “All they had was a paragraph.”
Most of the people who played in the game or even watched it have since passed away, he said. He was able to track down the grandson of a man who played for Bucoda in the game.
“When his grandson found out that he faced Satchel Paige, he was like, ‘Did you get hit!?’ His reply was, ‘Yeah, straight backwards,’” Montgomery said. “He fouled off one pitch and later struck out. His grandpa was just happy he made contact. I think that says a lot about Satchel and how good he was.”
It must also be noted that Satchel, who pitched a total of 2,500 games during his 30-year career, winning 2,000 of them, would often pitch only the first three innings of a game and then be pulled. He once started 29 games in one month. His traveling team wanted to keep him fresh to pitch every game so fans could see him play at every stop across the country. So the six runs Bucoda scored likely all came against a reliever.
“When Satchel traveled, he didn’t necessarily pitch a complete game,” Montgomer said. “That way he was able to pitch every day and everyone was able to see him. He was the star attraction of this Kansas City team.”
For the next seven years after the Bucoda game, Paige elevated his star power in the Negro Leagues. Complete records were never kept of Paige’s games in the Negro Leagues, which couldn’t afford to hire record keepers. So Paige kept track on his own in a notebook he carried with him. By his own record, he played for 250 teams and threw 250 shutouts. By comparison, the MLB shutout record is held by Walter Johnson at 110. His 2,000 wins gives him four times as many as Cy Young.
Paige made his MLB debut on July 8, 1948, two days after his 42nd birthday, after the Cleveland Indians bought his contract. He drew a crowd of 72,000 people his first game. He would finish the season 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA, helping spark the Indians to the American League pennant and a World Series victory that year. He was named to the American League All-Star Team in 1952 and 1953, when he was 46 and 47 years old, respectively.
On Sept. 25, 1965, Paige became the oldest to ever play an MLB game, at 59 years, 2 months and 18 days, tossing three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in a publicity stunt. He sat down eight of the nine batters he faced, all but Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, who hit a double.
Paige was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971; the first Negro League player allowed in. He died at his home in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1982, at 75 years old.
There is still a baseball field in Bucoda Volunteer Park, the Stan Ozbolt Field, a now-defunct Little League field which faces southwest on the eastern edge of the park. Ozbolt was the last manager of the Buccos from the 1950s to its final season in 1965. Montgomery isn’t sure if the field is in the same location as the original Buccos’ field. All he knows is that somewhere in that small park is the place where it happened; where a baseball legend came to rural Thurston County, stepped foot on the grass and shared America’s Pastime with the town of Bucoda.