Obituary: Paul Pettit (1931-2020)

RIP to pitcher Paul Pettit, a one-time “bonus baby” whose major-league career was over by the time he was 21 years old. He did have a long career in the minors as a first baseman/outfielder after an elbow injury brought his pitching career to an end. He died on September 24 at his home in Canyon Lake, Calif. He was 88 years old. His son Tim, a former Angels farmhand, told the Los Angeles Times that his father had suffered a stroke on September 18 and had been slowed by heart and nerve issues for the past year. Pettit played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1951 and 1953.

George William Paul Pettit was born on November 29, 1931, in Los Angeles. The young southpaw’s talent became evident at a pretty early age. He threw a no-hitter for Narbonne High School on May 21, 1947, when he was 16 years old. He struck out 9 and walked 3 and knocked in a pair of runs with 2 doubles. He threw another no-no in the championship round of the 1948 Dorsey Invitational Prep Baseball Tournament, but he lost the game to Dorsey after a couple of errors led to two unearned runs and a 2-1 loss. All total, he threw five no-hitters in his high school career, including three consecutively. In June 1948, he was named the Marne League Player of the Year. He struck out 53 batters in 29 innings and hit .400. He was on record as saying he’d sign with any ballclub that offered him a $20,000 bonus. That price tag eventually became much, much higher.

Pettit saved his finest mound performance for his senior year in 1949, when he struck out 27 batters in a 12-inning, 2-1 win over Banning. He was named to the Los Angeles all-city baseball team for the third time that year, and given the number of scouts who showed up to his games, it was assumed he would sign a massive contract with a major-league ballclub sooner rather than later.

He did sign a contract in October 1949, but it was with movie producer Frederick Stephani. The hefty contract called for: a $10,000 signing bonus; a $60,000 signing bonus to be paid over the next 10 years; a $6,000 annual salary; $5,000 for each movie he made; and 10% of the net profit of each movie. Pettit would also get a $750 bonus when he got married. He had never even appeared in a school play before signing the deal. The movies would have been filmed solely between November and February so as not to interfere with the boy’s baseball training.

Source: San Pedro News Pilot, March 14, 1952.

Pettit, for his part, agreed to “devote his entire time and attention to the services of Stephani and to use his best efforts and upmost professional skill and ability as an actor or an athlete to promote the success of any motion picture production or athletic endeavor in which he may be called upon to render service,” or so stated the Wilmington (Calif.) Daily Press.

Here was the hitch. The contract that Pettit signed was a baseball contract, set to go into effect when the young lefty graduated from high school in February of 1950. If a baseball club tried to sign him before graduation, it would have been fined $500 and denied a chance to re-sign him. Stephani operated under no such constraints.

“I wanted to make some sports movies,” he later said. “It cost too much to sign an established player, so I found me a likely looking youngster who I thought might develop and signed him up. That left me free to deal with the baseball clubs after he graduated.”

Pettit never appeared in a single film, but it gave Stephani a financial stake in his baseball career. When the Pittsburgh Pirates announced that they had signed Pettit to a record-shattering $100,000 contract on February 1, 1950, the team assumed Stephani’s deal, leaving the producer with the movie, radio and video rights. Stephani also got $15,000 as his cut. Pettit couldn’t even touch the bonus money until he turned 21, with the producer and Pettit’s father George, a Long Beach night watchman, in charge of it.

The $100,000 contract was the first six-figure bonus baby deal in baseball history, topping the $75,000 given to Buddy House by Detroit and the $50,000 for Johnny Antonelli, Dick Wakefield and a few others. Unlike other bonus babies, Pettit was not forced to report immediately to the major leagues, though he did have to join the Pirates at some point by 1951.

“We are very happy to land the boy,” said Pirates general manager Ray Hamey. “Our scouts have watched him very closely for a long time, rate him very highly and believe he had a chance to become an outstanding pitcher in the majors. He certainly should be, for that kind of money.”

Frederick Stephani, incidentally, was a writer, director and producer in Hollywood and was nominated for an Oscar in 1948 with Herbert Clyde Lewis in the “Best Writing, Original Story” category for It Happened on Fifth Avenue. He directed numerous TV show episodes in the 1950s and co-wrote and directed the first ever Flash Gordon serial in 1936. Aside from this one deal with Pettit, there is nothing else tying him to baseball. It may be enough to put him in the running for one of baseball’s earliest player agents, after Babe Ruth’s agent Christy Walsh.

Back to Pettit. He was assigned to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association in 1950. In his first game, 12,000 people came out to see the phenom, and the overflow crowd was roped off in the outfield. “Was I nervous? Gee I walked 11 that night, and the plate might as well have been over the border in Mississippi,” he later recalled.

On April 3, in the youngster’s third professional game, he was brought in to relieve starter Bob Purkey. Purkey had thrown four hitless innings against Nashville, and Pettit finished off the combined no-hitter with five of his own. His hitting was also impressive enough that the Pirates were already considering turning him into an outfielder.

Source: The San Bernardino County Sun, February 14, 1950.

Pettit batted .333 in 21 games. His pitching, though, was alarmingly poor. He went 2-7 with 5.17 ERA and walked 76 batters in 94 innings. By the end of May, he was complaining of soreness in his elbow. His season ended on September 10, and he spent his offseason enrolled at Harbor Community College in California, where he worked on a physical education major and a business administration minor. He also married his high school sweetheart, Shirley, in early 1951 — the Pirates gave him his $750 honeymoon bonus. They were wed for 65 years and had six children.

After some strong performances in spring training in 1951, the Pirates decided to try Pettit in the majors, but he was rarely used. He made his debut during a 5-1 loss to the New York Giants on May 4, 1951. He worked a perfect ninth inning and then sat for six days, getting his next chance on May 11 against the Cubs. He was the fourth pitcher of the day for Pittsburgh in a 10-4 loss. He worked 1-2/3 innings and allowed a home run to Andy Pafko. A few days later, he was sent down to the minor leagues with a 3.38 ERA. He passed through Indianapolis, New Orleans and Charleston before the end of the season.

By 1952, Pettit had moved to the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, and he was regretting the $100,000 bonus — or at least the fact that the public had heard about it. Because Pettit was under 21 years old and not able to access the money, he, Shirley and their son Paul Steven were living in a $300-a-month apartment in Los Angeles.

“I often think that if I’d been allowed to start off my career unnoticed without all this fanfare, I would have done alright,” he said.

He made the best of the time in Hollywood, starting 29 times in 31 games and ending the season with a 15-8 record and 3.70 ERA. He pitched 197 innings, and while his control was shaky at times, his arm appeared sound for the first time since he signed his contract. The fastball that led to so many strikeouts early in his high school days had all but vanished, though.

Pittsburgh gave Pettit another chance at the majors in 1953, and after a couple of good relief outings, he started his first game on May 1 against Cincinnati. He allowed 3 runs (1 earned) while walking 6 and striking out 2, before a blister on his foot forced him from the game in the seventh inning. It was Pettit’s first (and only) major-league win. He was knocked out of his next start without retiring a batter and was roughed up in future outings as well. He was sent back to the minors with an ERA of 8.62 and recalled in September. After a couple of poor starts, he worked 3 hitless innings against the Giants in relief on September 19 to bring his ERA down to 7.71 for the season. It was his last game in the majors, as he was released outright to the Hollywood Stars in the spring of 1954, ending his career with Pittsburgh.

In parts of 2 MLB seasons, Pettit appeared in 12 games, 5 of which were starts. He had a 1-2 record and a 7.34 ERA. He walked 20 and struck out 14 in 28 innings. His professional career, though, was far from over.

Paul and Shirley Pettit were married for 65 years. They were high school sweethearts, and the Pirates gave him a $750 “bonus” for a wedding present. Source: San Pedro News Pilot, January 4, 1951.

As a pitcher, Pettit had one season left in him. After struggling with the Stars in 1954, he was sent to the Class-C Salinas Packers. He had an 8-7 record as a pitcher, which was fair. When he moved to the field as a position player though, he became a slugger. He clubbed 20 home runs as a left fielder and first baseman and batted .324 for the Packers. His trips to the mound became more and more infrequent as he transitioned into a full-time hitter.

“I get into every game which is a lot better than warming benches in the majors for another four or five years,” he said in a 1954 interview. He was glad to leave the issue of the bonus baby behind, though one topic still seemed to hurt. “I thought I’d hear from Fred (Stephani) once in a while but the last time he wrote was in 1952.”

Pettit had a few good seasons as a hitter, matching his career high with 20 home runs for Hollywood in 1957. Had be been able to keep up that pace, a major league team might have taken a chance on the pitcher-turned-hitter. However, he chipped a bone in his left shoulder, and his offense never really recovered. His last season was 1960 with the Seattle Rainiers, and he batted .255 with 5 homers. He took a year off from baseball to complete his higher education and tried to mount a comeback with the Rainiers in 1962. It ended after two at-bats, bringing his playing career to a close.

Pettit’s pitching record in the minors was 31-28, with a 4.19 ERA. He also had a batting average of .276, with 70 home runs and 364 RBIs. After his playing days were over, he worked as a scout for the Royals and was asked to manage the Dubuque Packers of the Midwest League in 1968 when manager Max Lanier suffered a heart attack and needed to recover. He soon returned to his home in California, where he was a high school teacher and baseball coach for 30 years.

“When my brothers and I got to high school, he walked away from baseball to spend time with his kids,” Tim Pettit told the Times. “It gave us unfettered access to one of the best coaches I had in baseball. We got all of him. We didn’t have to share him with MLB. That was a cool thing.”

Pettit, who was widowed in 2016, remarried last year and still received fan mail and autograph requests. “It’s fun to have the notoriety,” he said in a 2019 interview with the Times. “There’s a certain amount of adulation that goes along with it.”

For more information: Los Angeles Times

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