Joe DiMaggio was a prospect — a promising one for sure — but still two months shy of making his New York Yankees' spring training debut.
Leroy "Satchel" Paige was a Negro League pitching sensation whose exploits seemed the stuff of myth until they actually were seen.
On the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 26, 1936, at the Oaks Ball Park in Emeryville, the two future Hall of Famers crossed paths in a fascinating but seldom told chapter of their legendary careers.
DiMaggio, 21 at the time, wasn't the stoic Yankee Clipper yet.
Paige, 29, was in the prime of a career played mostly in the game's shadows. He wouldn't make his major league debut for 12 more years.
But the quiet Italian-American from San Francisco and the ebullient African-American from Mobile, Ala., knew of each other. And they were anxious to test themselves.
DiMaggio was coming off an MVP season in which he hit .398 with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. He was surrounded by big-league stars, among them Dick Bartell, Ernie Lombardi, Gus Suhr, Cookie Lavagetto and Augie Galan.
Paige arrived for his first appearance in the Bay Area with a 17-game win streak, during which he outdueled in barnstorming games major leaguers Dizzy Dean and Schoolboy Rowe. He had faced Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Hack Wilson and Pepper Martin, all future Hall of Famers.
Two days before the game, Paige told the Oakland
About Gehrig, Paige told the Post-Enquirer: "Gehrig is a powerful hitter, but he can be fooled."
The so-called Satchel Paige All-Stars featured just one other player from the Negro Leagues, catcher Ebel Brooks of the New York Black Yankees. The rest of Paige's lineup consisted of young black players from the Oakland playgrounds, creating what should have been a mismatch.
At times, it must have felt like one to the big leaguers. Paige struck out 12, including Suhr and Johnny Vergez three times apiece. He allowed just five hits, only three through nine innings.
DiMaggio was hitless in three appearances until the 10th inning, when he beat the setting sun to slap a single up the middle and off the glove of Paige, driving home the winning run in a 2-1 victory for the major leaguers.
In "Don't Look Back," a biography written by Mark Ribowsky in 2000, Paige recalled watching the postgame scene unfold.
"DiMaggio was there grinning to beat all," Paige was quoted as saying. "I didn't hear all he said, but I did hear him saying something like, 'Now I know I can make it with the Yankees. I finally got a hit off Ol' Satch.'"
DiMaggio later called Paige the greatest pitcher he ever faced.
A Yankees scout at the game reportedly sent a telegram back to the home office. "DiMaggio everything we'd hoped he'd be: Hit Satch one for four."
Paige was the afternoon's main attraction.
"The 4,000 fans were practically all for him, color or no color," reported the Post-Enquirer.
Although Paige sustained the defeat, few were disappointed. Paige had two of his team's six hits off major leaguers Tony Freitas and Johnny Babich. He drove in his team's only run.
The Post-Enquirer called the matchup "the prettiest mound duel ever concocted," and the Oakland Tribune called Paige and Brooks "the greatest two-man baseball team I have seen."
Said the San Francisco Chronicle, "If Satchel Paige had a white skin, he would be worth $100,000 to any big league club that could afford to lay out the money."
Babe Ruth never made more than $80,000 for a season, and DiMaggio signed his rookie contract for just $8,500 a few weeks after the Oakland exhibition.
Eddie Murphy of the Tribune suggested it was perhaps time for baseball's color line to be erased.
"It is surprising," Murphy wrote, "some move is not planned to lift the bans and allow this fellow and other diamond greats of his race to prove their supremacy just as they would be allowed to do in boxing and many other sports."
Eleven years later, Jackie Robinson finally did.