That one baseball game between two moribund teams on the last day of the 1963 baseball season could remain such a discussed topic – one about which books have been written – after nearly 60 years is a testament to what history means in baseball. Records and benchmarks mean more than in any other sport and for proof of that, look no further than John Paciorek.
Paciorek played one Major League game and had three official at-bats on that September day in 1963, putting forth an effort that, at the time, went largely unnoticed. Yet, because Paciorek went 3-for-3 and never played in the Major Leagues again, that game became more than just a footnote. It placed Paciorek in an interesting position in Major League history, one that puts him atop a very small list. He is the only player to ever finish his career with a 1.000 batting average while collecting more than two hits.
There have been 94 players who have finished their career with a 1.000 batting average with 83 of them finishing at 1-for-1, according to The Elias Sports Bureau. There were 10 players who finished their career by going 2-for-2 but only Paciorek took it a step further when he went 3-for-3 with two walks, four runs scored and three RBIs in Houston’s 13-4 victory over the Mets at Colts Stadium on Sept. 29. 1963.
Paciorek’s brother Jim played in 48 games for the Brewers in 1987 while his other brother Tom enjoyed an 18-year career that spanned from 1970 to 1987. Back problems, however, curtailed John Paciorek following his historic debut and while he had surgery and worked to overcome those issues, he never again played in the Majors. He was out of baseball completely by the end of the 1969 season.
Though his baseball career was over, Paciorek, 76, still made an impact professionally. He went on to become an educator, coach, mentor and author, delving into the science and techniques of hitting along the way.
“If I hadn’t gotten hurt, maybe I would have gotten that insight into hitting,” he said. “But I didn’t develop an understanding of baseball until I was through with baseball. And, if I didn’t have a bad back, I probably would have been in Vietnam. So, from that standpoint, everything happens for a good reason.”
The unfortunate circumstances surrounding Paciorek’s baseball demise ended a career that many scouts and front-office types believed was headed in the direction of stardom. Paciorek, who grew up in Detroit, was a spectacular multi-sport athlete in high school and was expected to be part of a core group of young stars that would lead Houston to baseball prominence.
But Paciorek got hurt and future stars like Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub were traded away before they had a chance to truly blossom, putting the Colt 45s/Astros on the path to being a floundering franchise for nearly two decades.
If only Paciorek hadn’t gotten hurt …
“I realized at the time with Morgan and Staub and Wynn, I felt those guys were really outstanding hitters. I could have been a good hitter if I had the right mechanics.”
THE YOUNG STAR
Paciorek was an All-State, three-sport star at St. Ladislaus High School [Hamtramck], earning accolades in baseball, football and basketball. He was recruited by several big-time college football programs, including Michigan, Michigan State, Alabama, Nebraska and Houston in addition to being scouted by several Major League Baseball teams.
“My coach in high school, even while I was playing baseball in the offseason, said I probably could have been a professional punter,” Paciorek said. “I could kick the ball about 70 yards. When I was a freshman, I knew I liked punting. I walked around my house in Detroit practicing, one, two, three kick. I was practicing all the time. I was driving my parents nuts. I could throw a football accurately, too. I may have liked to have played quarterback if I could have but the duration of a football player’s life isn’t long, especially after finding that I had back trouble. Imagine 300-pound guys driving into me.
“And you watch basketball nowadays and I have trouble watching. It’s so different. I’m 6-foot-2 and could dunk pretty easily. I was pretty fast and quick but nothing like these guys. I just played through high school so I don’t know how I would have developed afterward.”
It was a basketball game in the summer of ’62, however, that helped shape his brief baseball career. Paciorek graduated that June but was unable to sign a professional baseball contract until Aug. 15 so he filled his time playing sandlot ball. It was during a summer league basketball game, though, against local high school standouts and college players that Paciorek’s fortunes turned. He suffered a severely sprained left ankle when he stepped on an opponent’s foot and as a result, was hobbled for weeks.
Though hurt, Paciorek kept playing baseball. While several teams wanted to sign him when the summer began, slowly scouts from those franchises stopped coming to his games because of what they saw – a less than impressive player. It didn’t matter that he was playing on an injured ankle. Only the Astros remained interested.
“I loved playing football but I always knew I wanted to play professional baseball,” said Paciorek, who batted .500 and had 13 homers as a senior in high school. ‘The University of Houston’s first-year coach Bill Yeoman, who had been an assistant at Michigan State, wanted me. I was supposed to be his number one choice but Paul Richards, the Houston general manager, was not going to let me play football. I was intent on signing with Houston if I didn’t play football for The University of Houston.
“Houston ended up signing me even though I was limping around that summer. Several scouts from Houston were coming out to watch me but I couldn’t run. I couldn’t hit, certainly not for power, which I was known for. They [the scouts] were probably wondering what the heck did Paul Richards see in this guy. But he offered me so much money not to play football.”
The Colt 45s gave Paciorek $45,000 to sign in addition to covering the cost of his college education if and when he decided to go. The Sporting News reported that he got a $100,000 bonus and called him the 100-Gee Phenom. The publication also said that he had been scouted by nine Houston scouts and that he would be assigned to the club’s Class-B Carolina League affiliate, which ultimately did not happen.
The United Press International [UPI] called him the husky, 200-pound shortstop. He told the news agency that “I wanted to play with the Tigers but the Colts met the figure my parents decided on”. UPI also reported that he was the second player in St. Ladislaus history to sign a professional contract. The first was Ted Kazanski, a light-hitting shortstop who had a six-year career with the Phillies [1953-58].
Paciorek got his first taste of professional baseball in the fall of 1962 when he participated in Houston’s Arizona Instructional League at Apache Junction, Arizona. It was there that he met Staub, who was a year older, while playing against some of the younger talent in the Houston system. His experience at instructs was a positive one and Paciorek was invited to Major League training camp the following spring.
“At spring training that year I went with the big club and it was a marvelous experience,” Paciorek said. They had great fields and accommodations but it was a such a disappointment to my ego when, halfway through spring training, I was sent to the minor league site in Moultrie, Georgia. There was a rule that they could only keep three rookies and they had to send everyone else out.
“They [the Colt 45s] were apologetic and that I was having a really good spring. They said I was one of the leading hitters but because I was so young they wanted to me to mature. I understood what they were talking about but I didn’t like it. I thought I should be in the big leagues. The guys they kept hardly played.”
The differences between Major League camp in Arizona and minor league camp in the deep South were stark and dramatic. The fields in Moultrie, according to Paciorek, were uneven and there was no batter’s eye in centerfield, just open space. Paciorek said that taking batting practice without a batter’s eye against a wild, side-arming lefty was not something for which he had signed up.
“I didn’t want to expend myself,” he said. “I was kind of a brat. I didn’t think.”
Paciorek also experienced segregation for the first time. He was disturbed by the separate and substandard accommodations that were provided for minorities in all aspects of public life. It proved to be an eye-opening experience.
It was also in Moultrie that he met Morgan, a youngster full of promise who would one day develop into one of the most dominant players in the National League.
“I was 210 pounds and he [Morgan] weight about 150,” Paciorek said. “He was such a blood and guts guy, though.”
Paciorek and Morgan were sent to Modesto of the Class-A California League and Paciorek got off to a solid start. He was hitting .275 [19-for-69] with three homers and 16 RBIs through May 12. The hot start wouldn’t last, though, after he injured his arm, shoulder and back while diving for a ball in the outfield. The injury short-circuited his season and ultimately his career.
“A few days after I hurt my back I was resting and I noticed a stiffness in my lower back,” Paciorek said. “Ultimately, the doctors told me I had an abnormality [condition] from birth. I was in pain, especially when I went down to field a ball. It was like a knife was in me.”
He appeared in only 78 games and hit .219 with nine homers and 49 RBIs. He hardly looked like the promising young superstar that Houston had signed the previous summer. Ultimately he made his way to Houston in late September to have his back evaluated while many of his fellow minor leaguers were enjoying call-ups to the big leagues.
Paciorek would have his moment, too. He just didn’t know it yet.
Portrait of former player John Paciorek during photo shoot at Clairbourn School. Paciorek, now a teacher and coach at Clairbourn, was perfect in his single MLB game appearance with three RBI's, two walks, four runs scored and hitting 3 for 3 with the Houston Colt .45s'. San Gabriel, CA 5/25/2012 CREDIT: Peter Read Miller (Photo by Peter Read Miller /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images) (Set Number: X154897 TK1 R1 F74 )
The Colt 45s, a year removed from being an expansion team, were not a good squad in 1963. They would finish the season at 66-96 and in ninth place in the National League, 33 games behind the Dodgers. The only thing keeping them out of the cellar were New York Mets, an historically bad team that also joined the NL in 1962. The Mets finished 51-111, 48 games behind Los Angeles.
So, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the series between the two worst teams in the league to close out the season wasn’t garnering much attention. The Astros had started an All-Rookie lineup on Sept. 27 in order to generate some buzz and to get the youngsters some playing time. That effort continued on Sept. 29 in the season’s final game.
Paciorek unexpectedly found his name on the lineup card that day. He was in Houston for a scheduled checkup regarding his back and shoulder when Richards asked if he wanted to play the final game of the season.
“I was ecstatic at the time at the idea of being in the big leagues,” Paciorek said. “The rookie game was two days earlier and I wasn’t supposed to play. I was just in Houston to have my back looked at it but I guess some scouts saw me working out [at the field] in the morning. I used to come out in the morning to go to therapy. I would go out in the morning at Colt Stadium and had someone hit me flyballs. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was a fanatic. Everyone thought of me as a freak, I was such a fanatic about exercise. Other guys were fielding and I guess some scouts saw me and guessed that I looked pretty good.
“In the back of my mind, I really wanted to play because Morgan and Sonny Jackson had played in that one game. They [the scouts] must have mentioned it to Paul Richards. I wanted to play but I really wasn’t thinking about it at that point. They asked if I wanted to play the final game of the season and I jumped at it. There was no way I was going to miss that. I knew mentally when I got the opportunity to play, nothing was going to stop me. I don’t even remember if my back hurt at all, I was so focused on playing in a big-league game. Everything happened just perfectly.”
Manager Harry Craft penciled Paciorek as the right fielder, batting him in the seventh spot in a lineup that also included fellow rookies Morgan, Staub, Jimmy Wynn and Ivan Murrell. Houston had four teenagers, including Paciorek, in its lineup that day as 3,899 fans settled in on a hot Sunday afternoon.
“There were only 3,000 people there and it was hot because it was a day game,” Paciorek said. “But this was the most amount of people I ever saw at a game so I was ecstatic. They gave me a number of ovations for the defensive plays I made and what I was doing on offense.”
The defensive plays to which Paciorek referred occurred in the second inning when he made two fine catches – one on a fly deep into the corner by Joe Hicks and then a running grab on an Al Moran blooper on which he called off Morgan. He then went to the plate for his first Major League at-bat in the bottom of the inning and drew a walk off Larry Bearnarth before scoring on a John Bateman triple.
“To tell the truth, it was my first regular-season game but I had already played in Spring Training where I was facing all of these big leaguers,” Paciorek said. “So, from that standpoint, it didn’t seem different to me. I was just grateful to be facing big-league pitchers again. Mentally, it was where I belonged so it didn’t affect me [at the plate]. I wasn’t overly excited.”
The Mets had taken a 4-2 lead by the time Paciorek came to bat in the fourth. Staub, Bob Aspromonte and Murrell led off the inning with three consecutive singles before Paciorek muscled Bearnarth’s 1-0 pitch over the shortstop’s head for his first hit, a two-run single. Paciorek ultimately came around to score his second run of the game on a Pete Runnels sacrifice fly.
Aspromonte led off the fifth with a triple and after a Murrell pop-up, Paciorek muscled another 2-1 pitch to left for his second run-scoring hit of the game. Paciorek followed that up with his second walk of the game in the sixth inning, this one against reliever Grover Powell. He would come around to score on Bob Lillis’ single to center.
The Astros were well in control, leading 13-4, by the time Paciorek came to bat to lead off the eighth. He banged a hard grounder on a 1-2 offering from Powell that third baseman Ted Schreiber knocked down. Paciorek, however, beat the throw for his third and what would ultimately be a history-making hit.
“The hits I got I wouldn’t consider top-notch hits,” Paciorek said. “I was up at crucial times, though. I got jammed but muscled one over the shortstop’s head and two runs scored. Another was similar to that and I drive in another run. One of the hits was really hard down the line. The third baseman dive and tried to throw me out but I beat him out.
“I realized at the time with Morgan and Staub and Wynn, I felt those guys were really outstanding hitters. I could have been a good hitter if I had the right mechanics. Morgan and those guys had more of the right mechanics than I did. That was the reason I was late and got jammed [on those pitches].”
One unfortunate footnote to that game was the fact that winning pitcher Jim Umbricht would also never appear in another game. He passed away from melnoma a week before the opening of the 1964 season.
WE’LL NEVER KNOW
Paciorek headed to Spring Training in 1964 with an inside track toward making Houston’s Major League roster and perhaps even earning a spot as a starter in the outfield. While he had some positive moments during the spring, his play as camp drew to a close was more ineffective than management would have liked and he was sent back to the minors shortly before the start of the season.
He had a miserable year, appearing in only 49 games while splitting time between Durham of the Class-A Carolina League and Statesville of the Class-A Western Carolinas League. Paciorek was hitting .135 with four homers and 13 RBIs before finally succumbing to his back issues. He ultimately had spinal fusion surgery and missed the remainder of the ’64 season and all of 1965.
Paciorek bounced around the Houston system for two more seasons before signing with Cleveland prior to the 1968 season. He experienced a bit of a resurgence in a return to the Cal League, where he hit .275 with 17 homers and 65 RBIs in 262 at-bats for Reno. He also saw some time with Rock Hill of the Western Carolinas League but it was clear that his career was coming to an end.
He appeared in 29 games for Waterbury of the Double-A Eastern League in 1969, hitting .213 in 89 at-bats before calling it quits.
Paciorek began working on his degree from the University of Houston as he was finishing his playing career and completed his schooling upon his retirement. He went on to teach and coach for more than four decades, first at Thew Jewish Community Center in Houston and then at the Calibourn School in San Gabriel, Calif.
“[My brother] Tom always said he thought I was the better of the two of us, but he was an outstanding player,” Paciorek said. “We had a different type of mentality. I always wanted to be the greatest and Tom just wanted to fit in. In high school, Tom was nonchalant and a lot smaller than I was when he was a sophomore and I was a senior.
“I wanted to be quick and fast and react [at the plate] and Tom would get up and wherever the ball was pitched he would hit it. He would hit a ball pitched on the outside corner to right center but not me. If the ball was outside, I’d still try to pull the ball.”
John Paciorek said when he was younger he never wanted to “do the part of thinking” that players like Staub and Morgan did. He said it wasn’t until he was out of baseball that he began to realize what the game, particularly hitting, was all about.
His newfound knowledge and appreciation of the science of hitting led to his becoming an author. Paciorek wrote several books — Plato & Socrates, Baseballs Wisest Fans and The Principle of Baseball, All There Is To Know About Hitting and If I Knew Then What I Know Now. He was also the subject of Steven Wagner’s book, Perfect: The Rise and Fall of John Paciorek, Baseball’s Greatest One-Game Wonder. Additionally, he has been featured in several other anthology books about baseball.
While Paciorek never formally coached at any advanced or professional level he said he did dabble with the idea.
“I was trying to,” he said. “I used to send things to Tony LaRussa and he agreed with what I said and seemed impressed with my knowledge of hitting. But I have eight kids and taught at the school where they were going. One of the things that motivated me to not take a job was that Tony said I would have to start at the lower rung and work my way up. I didn’t want to leave my family. I thought I had a good job as a teacher.”
His lengthy post-playing career work history is a testament to that. And while Paciorek never fully realized his dreams of returning to and staying in the Major Leagues, he remains a part of the game’s history, holding a record that will likely stand for many years to come.