In 1950, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed baseball’s original $100,000 bonus baby. Paul Pettit, the first amateur to have an agent negotiate his contract, was a 6-foot-2 California flamethrower who complemented his blazing heater with a tantalizing, looping curve.
Hollywood producer Frederick Stephani, hoping to film a baseball movie that featured Pettit, paid $85,000, and the Pirates kicked in $15,000.
Pettit’s signing sparked wonderment and envy. Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander told The Sporting News that in his 20 big league seasons when he won 363 games, he didn’t earn $100,000 — total. And when Ralph Kiner arrived in Pittsburgh in 1946, he made a piddling $5,000 that year.
But despite the early hoopla that surrounded Pettit, and his big price tag, he won only one major league game.
Pettit dominated high school baseball at Narbonne High in the Harbor City area of Los Angeles. With Pettit on the mound, Narbonne went to the Los Angeles City title game three straight years; he was named to the All-City Team each year.
By the late 1940s, Pettit, the “Wizard of Whiff,” was America’s most coveted baseball prospect.
In his new book, Lights, Camera, Fastball: How the Hollywood Stars Changed Baseball, author Dan Taylor explains just how sought-after Pettit was.
Scouts from all 16 teams, Major League Baseball’s total until the 1969 expansion, flocked to California to evaluate the phenom who had once thrown three consecutive no-hitters. Desperate to impress, the scouts helped Pettit’s father chop wood, and his mother do dishes.
Taylor summarized Pettit’s high school career: the lefty threw six no-hitters and struck out 390 batters over 140 innings — 27 in one 12-inning game and 19 in a seven-inning game.
In that era, no one counted pitches, a baseball reality that Pettit would one day rue. By the time he was 15, Pettit played for the semi-pro Signal Oil Oilers and the Hermosa Beach Seals.
Eventually Pettit, who had honed his pitching motion to maximize his fastball and to add a wicked spin to his curve, drew the attention of the Pirates’ top minor league franchise, the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars.
Among those observing the “can’t miss” portsider were Fred Haney, the Stars’ manager and future Pirates’ manager. Also in the stands was Stars’ scout Babe Herman who, when he retired from his 15-year career, had a .325 batting average.
In 1950, the Pirates assigned the 19-year-old Pettit to the Double AA New Orleans Pelicans. New Orleans had six newspapers, and Pettit recalled that he was spotlighted in them daily.
Pitching before crowds of 10,000 enthusiastic onlookers was a new twist for Pettit, who was accustomed to much smaller crowds in his high school’s bleachers. He felt intense pressure to live up to expectations.
Predictably, Pettit underperformed, and went 2-7 for the Pelicans. Nevertheless, Pirates’ brass remained upbeat about his future, and in 1951 brought him up to Pittsburgh for a rookie’s cup of coffee.
Pettit showed promise when he threw a no-hit relief inning against the New York Giants. But overall he struggled, and he was demoted three times — his last stop was the Class-A Charleston Rebels.
Pettit’s 15 wins with the 1952 Stars restored the Pirates’ faith in their bonus baby. In 1953, the team recalled him to Pittsburgh.
After winning his first start against the Cincinnati Reds, Pettit was unable to retire a single batter in his next start against the Giants. The Cincinnati victory represented his lone MLB win, and the Pirates’ front office quickly grew disenchanted.
Since Pettit had shown above average ability with his bat, the Pirates sent him to the Class C Salinas Packers, where he began his conversion to outfielder/first baseman. Although he acquitted himself as a position player and as a hitter, he never returned to the major leagues.
Before ending his professional career in Columbus, Salt Lake City and Seattle, Pettit hit the last home run in the Stars’ home park, Gilmore Field. In all, the $100,000 bonus baby played 13 big league games.
Before he died in 2020, I spoke to Pettit. He had just returned home from a Los Angeles Dodgers game that fellow left-hander Clayton Kershaw dominated. To say that Kershaw impressed Pettit would be an understatement.
Pettit spoke without bitterness about his career, treasured his days with the Stars and Pirates, but wished that sports medicine, especially as it related to preserving pitchers’ arms, was as advanced in the 1950s as it is today.
While in New Orleans, Pettit had injured his elbow, but kept on pitching his regular turns. As he told me, the pitching philosophy in the ’50s was to “Get out there and throw as hard as you can as long as you can. If you need help, we’ll call the bullpen.”
Pettit spoke with pride about post-baseball life — his post-baseball CSU Long Beach college degree, his 65 married years, the six wonderful children he and his wife raised, and his three decades teaching business, physical education and typing in high school.
Although he never achieved the baseball excellence he strived for, Pettit’s life succeeded in the most important ways — as a husband, a father and an inspiration to his young students.
— Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America who now lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @joeguzzardi19. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.