Obituary: Don Pavletich (1938-2020)

RIP to Don Pavletich, a backup catcher and first baseman who played in the major leagues for parts of 12 seasons. He died unexpectedly on March 5 at the age of 81. Pavletich played for the Cincinnati Reds (1957, 1959, 1962-68), Chicago White Sox (1969) and Boston Red Sox (1971-71).

Don Pavletich was born in Milwaukee on July 13, 1938, and he spent much of his life in his home state. He was raised in West Allis and was living in Brookfield at the time of his passing. He attended Nathan Hale High School in West Allis, playing catcher on the baseball team and quarterback on the football team. He signed a $35,000 “bonus baby” contract with the Reds in August 1956 after he graduated from West Allis Hale. He hit over .400 in his four high school seasons and was selected as the outstanding major league prospect in a Wisconsin semipro tournament shortly before he became a Red. Cincinnati beat out most every other team in the majors to sign him.

“Don Pavletich is the most polished youngster I’ve ever seen,” said Harvey Kuenn of the Tigers, while Orioles manager Paul Richards echoed the sentiment. “He’s going to be a great star someday,” he said.

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, March 5, 1957.

The “bonus baby” contract that Pavletich signed was a horrible concept. It essentially punished any team who signed a young player to such a contract by keeping them on the big-league roster for two full seasons. So instead of improving their abilities and learning the fundamentals of the game in the minors, the rookies sat on a bench in the majors for two seasons, because they weren’t major-league ready. For every player who recovered from that to have a solid career, like Johnny Antonelli, there are numerous players like Paul Giel who never reached their potential because of the rules. The 1957 Reds decided to carry two bonus babies on their roster — Pavletich and infielder Bobby Heinrich — which essentially gave them a 23-man roster. Heinrich played for 3 seasons in the majors and had a total of 18 plate appearances in 48 games. Fate, by way of the U.S. Army, intervened in Pavletich’s career. He appeared as a pinch-hitter on April 20 and grounded to second off Ray Crone of the Milwaukee Braves. He was inducted into the Army in mid-May after appearing in just the one game. While the move took him away from the majors, he was able to stay in shape and play plenty of baseball while serving in Europe.

Pavletich was discharged in 1959 and went back to the Reds. He again made the team out of spring training and again got into exactly one game — as a pinch runner on April 17. He ran after pinch-hitter Don Newcombe drew a walk and scored on a Gus Bell single. Ten days later, the Reds sent him to the Topeka Hawks of the Three-I League. Apparently, his military service factored into his bonus baby service, and the Reds no longer had to keep him in the majors. He wouldn’t return until 1962.

During his three seasons in the minors, Pavletich turned into the power-hitting catching prospect that the Reds hoped he would be. He homered 12 times for the Hawks following his demotion, though his season was shortened by an arm injury. He showed his potential in 1961 with the Indianapolis Indians of the AAA American Association in 1961. He slammed 22 homers, drove in 78 runs and hit .295. Pavletich also honed his skills at first base in the minors, which gave his frequently sore arm a rest. His play gave him a spot on the Reds’ roster for 1962 and beyond. He would remain in the majors for most of the next decade.

Pavletich spent 1962 mostly as a backup to slugging first baseman Gordy Coleman, though he did catch on occasion. His first MLB hit came on April 29, more than five years after his first major-league appearance. He singled off the Cardinals’ Larry Jackson. He hit his first career home run in a pinch-hitting role on July 27. It was a 2-run shot off Jack Curtis of the Braves. Pavletich hit .222 in limited action, but he would see his playing time rise in the coming seasons, even if he never appeared in more than 83 games in any one season.

The next couple of seasons were a struggle, and Pavletich was demoted to AAA San Diego in 1963 after hitting .208 in 71 games. He stayed in the minors until July of 1964, when he was brought back to the majors after an injury to starting catcher Johnny Edwards. He proceeded to homer in each of his first three starts. While he of course didn’t keep up that pace, he hit well until slumping in September, ending the year with a .242 batting average and 5 home runs.

For the next five years, Pavletich was a reliable backup catcher, occasional first baseman and pinch hitter. He hit a career best .319 in 1965, and one of his 8 home runs was a 2-run blast in the 11th inning against the Milwaukee Braves on June 25, in Milwaukee in front of his family and friends.

“This is a special thrill. My mother and dad were in the stands. So were all my relatives,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to come through like this in your hometown.”

Pavletich contributed more than late-inning heroics in his hometown. In the offseason, he worked for the Milwaukee Youth Aid Bureau, along with Bob Uecker and Felix Mantilla. They went to schools throughout the city to stress the value of good grades and good citizenship. “If you’re a pro baseball, basketball or football player — no matter what — kids look up to these guys. And I’m not just saying that because I am a pro. A lot of these kids didn’t even know us, but because we were pro players, they’d sit down and listen.”

Pavletich played in a career-high 83 games in 1966, and he responded with a .294/.344/.519 slash line, with 12 homers and 38 RBIs. A broken thumb kept him out of the starting lineup for a time, but he was far and away the Reds’s best offensive weapon at catcher. He eventually had to move from behind the plate to first base, as the Reds found a new backstop weapon named Johnny Bench. Five games into the ’68 season, Pavletich got hurt and was replaced behind the plate by Bench. Bench caught the next 54 consecutive games and won the Rookie of the Year award. Pavletich played in 46 games, with a .286 average, but with Bench behind the plate and Lee May at first base, his opportunities to play were greatly reduced.

Don Pavletich, left, and Johnny Bench work out in spring training. Source: The Tampa Tribune, March 4, 1966.

The Reds traded Pavletich to the Chicago White Sox in December of 1968. He hit .245 with 6 homers and 33 RBIs in his only season with the Sox. He missed some time with a broken bone in his left hand. He was traded from Chicago to the Boston Red Sox in December of 1969 and spent two seasons with them. He just couldn’t find a way to break into the lineup and appeared in a total of 46 games with the Sox in that span.

“Do you want to know how it is out here?” he said during one period of prolonged inactivity. “It’s boring. That’s the one word that describes it.”

The Red Sox cleaned house in the 1971 offseason and traded Pavletich and a host of others to the Milwaukee Brewers. Pavletich was released before he had the chance to play a regular-season game with his hometown team, however. That was the end of his big-league career.

Pavletich played in 536 games over parts of 12 seasons. He had a slash line of .254/.328/.420, and his 349 hits included 73 doubles, 8 triples and 46 home runs. He drove in 193 runs and had a career OPS+ of 104.

In the 1990s, Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins was interviewed by a Los Angeles radio station and was asked about hitters who used to give him the most trouble. The first answer was unsurprising — Roberto Clemente — but the second name Jenkins mentioned? Don Pavletich. He gave up three home runs to the catcher in 23 at-bats, for a .261 average and .696 slugging percentage.

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