Written By: Eliza Berman

Leroy “Satchel” Paige spent two decades pitching in the American Negro leagues before Major League Baseball, in 1947, began to integrate its ranks. When Paige debuted with the Cleveland Indians in July 1948, he was not only among the first black players in the league; he was also, at 42, the oldest rookie in the Major Leagues.

LIFE profiled Paige in 1941, years before joining Major League Baseball was a glimmer of a possibility. At that time, Paige pitched as a freelancer, working for whichever team would pay him the best fee. Major League pitchers, the magazine pointed out, typically played every fourth game, but Paige “pitches three games a week all season, winning most of them.”

Paige drew crowds thanks to his supreme talent—Joe DiMaggio said after facing him in a 1936 non-league game that Paige was the greatest pitcher he had ever batted against—and his outsize personality also attracted fans. He was a showman and a storyteller, bestowing playful nicknames upon his pitches (a changeup was a “two-hump blooper” and a medium-speed fastball was a “Little Tom”). And his performance seemed unaffected by his eating habits, which had him, reportedly, “consuming great quantities of ice-cold pop and hotdogs just before pitching.”

In 1971, Paige—who played his last game at the age of 59—became the first Negro leagues player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

Satchel rears way back before he lets go rest pitch, the cannonball.

Paige, here suiting up for the Black Yankees of the Negro Leagues, reared way back when he threw his best pitch, known as the cannonball.

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Satchel plays some boogie woogie on the piano for the Black Yankees. His playing shows more gusto than polish and considerably less talent than his baseball playing.

Paige played some boogie woogie on the piano for his teammates.

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Negro kids all over the country mob Paige. He is placed alongside Joe Louis and Bill Robinson as a popular hero. Satchel free-lances, pitching each week for best bid.

Paige was as popular with the kids as boxer Joe Louis or dancer/actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Satchel likes to drive big fast automobiles. His cares are usually bright red.

Paige liked to drive big, fast automobiles, and his cars were usually bright red.

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Satchel likes to shoot pool, but loses more often than he wins. he likes clothes but does not dress like a Harlem "sharpie" except for his narrow two-toned, pointed shoes.

Paige was tough to beat on the baseball diamond but more prone to defeat at the pool table.

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Satchel's wife, Lucy, is from Puerto Rico. They met while he was playing ball down there. She can't speak English well and Satchel doesn't know many words in Spanish.

Paige’s wife, Lucy, was from Puerto Rico. They met while he was playing ball there. She didn’t speak English well at the time of the photo, and Paige knew only limited Spanish.

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Satchel gets shined, clipped and manicured on three sides at once.

Paige got shined, clipped and manicured on three sides at once.

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Satchel warms up before the game. His uniform resembles the Yankees' outfit.

Paige, who hopped from team to team during his Negro Leauges career, warming up before a game.

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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