Grave Story: Paul Giel (1932-2002)

Here lies Paul Giel, and if you’re a University of Minnesota football fan, you may know this name. He was a Heisman Trophy runner-up, a commentator for the Minnesota Vikings and an athletic director of the Gophers for more than 15 years. However, we’re going to talk about his career as a major-league pitcher and how a stupid rule cut it short. Giel played for the New York/San Francisco Giants (1954-55; 1958), Pittsburgh Pirates (1959-60), Minnesota Twins (1961) and Kansas City Athletics (1961).

Paul Giel was born in Winona, Minn., on September 29, 1932. His athletic prowess became clear early on in his life. In 1948, he pitched in an amateur baseball tournament in Shakopee, Minn., with a local Winona team. The 16-year-old tossed a no-hitter and struck out 22 batters. He threw four no-hitters in high school in 1949. As early as 1950, legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice was writing about him and the dilemma that lie ahead for Giel: as gifted a pitcher as he was, he was also a great football player and wanted to attend college.

“[A]pparently either Minnesota gets a football star or baseball gets a pitching star next year,” Rice wrote.

Paul Giel didn’t win many games in the majors, but at least he was in a Wheaties ad. Source: Star-Tribune, August 15, 1954.

Baseball would have to wait a bit, as Giel chose to attend the University of Minnesota and basically rewrote the record book on the gridiron. Equally talented as a quarterback, halfback or a wide receiver, Giel made a big splash in 1951. He was a one-man wrecking crew against Nebraska on Homecoming Day, running for two touchdowns, throwing for another and setting up two more in a 39-20 win.

Giel wasn’t a big, bruising back. He was 5’11” and 185 pounds, and he didn’t have a lot of talent around him. Minnesota had a mere 10-13-4 record during his time, from 1951-53. Even though he was basically Minnesota’s only weapon, he still ran for 2,188 yards and threw for 1,922 yards. He was the Big 10’s MVP twice and was the 1953 Heisman Trophy runner-up. He also won the Big 10 medal, which is presented to the athlete at each conference school with the best academic record.

By 1954, Giel was ready to turn professional. Numerous football teams in the U.S. and Canada were desperate to sign him, but he ended up leaving football to sign a $60,000 deal with the New York Giants. While his football career overshadowed his baseball career at Minnesota, he had been quietly brilliant as a pitcher there as well. He went 19-8 with the Gophers and had a 0.42 ERA in his sophomore season.

“I had decided to play baseball rather than pro football several months ago,” he told reporters at the signing. “But I just had to listen to those Canadian [football] offers. They were real good”

Paul Giel (left) and Horace Stoneham, Giants owner, at Giel’s contract signing. Source: News-Journal, June 10, 1954.

Because he was signed to a bonus deal, the rules of the time required the Giants to keep him on the major-league roster for two seasons. Giel had to go immediately from college to pitching in the majors. He never got to experience the minor leagues, where he would have played regularly and learned about the fine points of pitching. His new teammates did the best they could to prepare the youngster. He credited Sal Maglie for teaching him a curveball grip and Larry Jansen for teaching him to mix up his pitches and keep a batter off balance. Still, that was no replacement for the education he needed.

To complicate matters, the 1954 Giants were in the thick of a pennant race and would go on to win the NL pennant and the World Series over Cleveland. Manager Leo Durocher wasn’t about to throw an untested rookie into important games, so Giel spent most of his first year sitting on the bench.

Giel’s first MLB game came on July 10, 1954, as he was asked to pitch the 9th inning of an eventual 10-7 loss to the Pirates. He made a great first impression, striking out George O’Donnell, Gair Allie and Vic Janowicz (another college football star thrust into the majors as a bonus baby). But he would only pitch in a total of 4-1/3 innings over 6 games, ending the season with an 8.31 ERA. He was a spectator as the Giants swept the Indians in the World Series.

Giel improved enough as a pitcher to become a semi-regular contributor out of the Giants bullpen in 1955. He picked up his first career win on June 15, throwing 3 scoreless innings against the Cubs in a 7-2 victory. He hit a double in the 9th inning to start a 5-run rally, too. In 34 games, including 2 starts, Giel had a 4-4 record and 3.39 ERA, striking out 47 batters in 82-1/3 innings.

“Giel has really come into his own now that he’d got a chance to work,” says Giants catcher Ray Katt. “He has confidence, knows what he’s doing and can throw that ball just where he wants.”

Fate intervened in Giel’s career again, as he was shipped off for military service for two years. By the time he was able to resume his playing career in 1958, the Giants had moved to San Francisco and Giel was a 25-year-old with one good season in the majors. He was subject to demotion, so when he was torched in a couple of early performances, he was sent to Phoenix to straighten himself out. After 5 starts in Arizona, Giel as a more effective reliever and spot starter from June onward. He pitched into the 10th inning of a start on June 18 against the Pirates and came away with a 2-1 win after allowing just 4 hits. A couple of poor late season outings raised his ERA to 4.70 and left him with a 4-5 record, He gave up 12 home runs in 92 innings of work.

Giants manager Bill Rigney admitted the team made a mistake in rushing Giel back to the majors and that the right thing would have been to give him an entire season in the minors. “The guy never had a chance to pitch,” he said. “He spent two seasons on our bench as a bonus player. Then just when he started to come he left us for two years in the service.”

The Giants tried to put him on waivers in April 1959 so that he could go back to Phoenix, but the Pirates claimed him. He started the season in the majors but pitched badly and infrequently. The final straw came on May 11 when his old team the Giants rocked him for 6 runs in 2/3 of an inning. He was demoted to AAA Columbus, having allowed 12 earned runs in 7-2/3 innings.

Paul Giel after his first major-league win. Source: The Winona Daily News, June 16, 1955.

Giel came to Spring Training in 1960 with some new pitches, adding a change-up and trading in his curveball for a slider. The Bucs were impressed enough to keep him on the roster for most of the season. Although Giel won his only two decisions in 16 relief appearances, he had a 5.73 ERA and gave up runs in each of his last six outings. He spent the rest of the season in AAA and strongly considered retirement in the offseason. However, Giel decided to come back when his home-state Twins purchased his contract from Pittsburgh for the 1961 season.

“We’re happy to be able to bring Paul back to the Cities where he became famous,” said Twins president Calvin Griffith.

Unfortunately, the homecoming didn’t work out for anyone. He was lit up by the Kansas City Athletics on April 25, allowing 8 runs in 1/3 of an inning, and his ERA never really recovered. He was traded to the Athletics on June 1 after appearing in 12 games for the Twins with a 9.78 ERA. His only game for the A’s (and the final appearance of his career) came on June 2. He was shelled for 7 runs in 1-2/3 innings, walking 3 and surrendering a 3-run homer to Dale Long. He retired from the game the very next day. Athletics owner Charlie Finley demanded $50,000 from the Twins, since the pitcher he acquired lasted all of two days with the team. The two teams worked out a cash settlement a few days later to appease both sides.

In his career, Giel appeared in a total of 102 games over 6 seasons. He had an 11-9 record and 5.39 ERA. He struck out 145 batters and walked 148. He did show flashes of excellence, enough to make you wonder what he could have done if he had been allowed to develop properly into a big-league pitcher.

Giel was realistic about his career in baseball. In a 1978 interview with The Minneapolis Star, Giel admitted that his time in baseball was not a happy, enjoyable experience.

“It was a completely different world. You’re going to he Big Apple, to a Willie Mays, to a Leo Durocher. I was the 10th man on a 10-man pitching staff, hanging on, always the first guy to be cut and sent down. Quite frankly, to be candid, I just did not have enough. And I couldn’t seem to develop it.

“I was lucky enough to get five and a half years in, to be on the bench when the Giants won the pennant and the World Series. I was on the bench in Pittsburgh, too, when they won in ’60.

“The best way to describe Paul Giel: ‘He did not have a major league fastball,’” he finished.

Giel almost went to San Francisco to coach at a small college, but the Minnesota Vikings came calling and named him their business manager. The job primarily entailed promoting the team, making speaking engagements where needed and making sure Metropolitan Stadium was ready on game day. He also worked at several Minnesota radio stations as a baseball and football announcer.

In 1972, Giel was hired as the University of Minnesota athletic director. Unlike today’s collegiate world, where the athletics department is generally the top money-maker at major universities, Giel came into a program that was underfunded. He engineered a quick turnaround: Within the first six years, Golden Gophers sports teams won three baseball titles, three gymnastics titles, two NCAA hockey championships and two Western Collegiate Hockey Association titles. Its basketball and football teams made strides as well, and the Williams Fund, which paid athletic scholarships, grew by $125,000. He got the athletic department out of a financial hole and made it profitable. Even a slight heart attack in 1981, when he was 48 years old, didn’t slow him down for very long.

He was fired in 1988 by a temporary university president in a controversial move. Minnesota athletics had been rocked by a series of scandals, including a 1986 incident where three Gopher basketball players were arrested for sexual assault. The basketball team was placed on probation for two years by the NCAA in 1987, and then news broke that a former school administer, Luther Darville, has stolen $186,000 from university funds. He gave much of it to needy minority students, including many athletes. Giel wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing in the incident, but it was the final straw. Still, many Gopher boosters felt that Giel had been treated badly by the university hierarchy.

Giel was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975. His #10 jersey was retired by the Gophers football team in 1991.

Paul was inducted into the Winona Senior High School Co-curricular Hall of Fame on May 19, 2002. Just days later, on May 22, he collapsed in his car in Minneapolis after attending a Twins-Rangers game at the Metrodome. He was pronounced dead at 4:25 p.m., at the age of 69. His funeral at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church brought together nearly 1,000 friends and family, including Minnesota sports luminaries like Bud Grant, Herb Brooks, Flip Saunders and Verne Gagne. Giel is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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