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Mudville: June 23, 2024 10:39 am PDT

Another Day in the Sun

PART TWO

One of the two best-known players with a single game on their resume is Walter Alston, who played two innings in the final game of the 1936 season for the St. Louis Cardinals. In the top of the seventh inning, the Red Birds’ first baseman (and future hall of Famer) Johnny Mize was ejected, and manager Frankie Frisch (another future Hall of Famer) took Mize’s place in the field.

Alston entered the game in the top of the eighth. With one out and one on, the Cubs’ Phil Cavarretta bunted, and Cardinals third baseman Don Gutteridge threw to Alston, who juggled the throw and Cavarretta was safe. (Gutteridge was credited with an assist.) According to the St. Louis Star and Times, the next batter, Billy Herman, bunted right to Alston, who threw to third but his throw was behind the runner, and the bases were loaded. The Cubs scored three runs to take a 6-1 lead. In the bottom of the ninth, the Cardinals scored two runs, and with the Cubs leading 6-3, Alston came to bat with a runner on base and struck out on three pitches to end the game.

The headlines in the next day’s Star and Times gave Alston his first publicity, but not the type he wanted:

“Banishment of Mize by Umpire Paves Way for Three Chicago Runs”

“Successor, Walter Alston, Makes Blunders that Eventually Beat Dizzy Dean 6-3, Despite 7-Hit Pitching Effort”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “Walter Alston, a recruit first baseman plucked from the Cardinals’ Huntington, W.VA farm, was sent to first base. He’s not to blame for particularly what happened, but he was the goat.”

The error was also costly in other ways: the Cards were in second place when the game began, one game ahead of the Cubs. At the time, members of the top three teams in each league received a bonus. The Cubs’ victory created a tie for second place. Instead of each Cardinal earning $1,300 (at the height of the Great Depression), they had to share second place money and received $1,000.

Alston had an excellent college career at Miami of Ohio University, and after graduating became a high school teacher and coach. According to a SABR biography by Bill Johnson, the Cardinals knew about Alston’s collegiate batting, and signed him in 1935 to play on its C league farm team. Playing in 82 games that year, he batted .326. Alston again played in the C league and again hit .326 with 35 home runs and 114 RBIs, and on September 2 the Cards announced they had purchased him from the minors. A headline in the St. Louis Globe-Times announced “Cards Buy Slugger from Huntington.”

Alan Levy, a professor emeritus of history at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, wrote Walter Alston: The Rise of a Manager from the Minors to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 2021:

“While the story of Alston’s having played but one game in the majors was a widely told story in the fall of ’53 throughout Brooklyn, when Walter O’Malley hired Walt to succeed Charlie Dressen in Brooklyn (Dressen was let go when he had the audacity to ask for a two-year contract), there were two points many could and did raise. One was the point that there had already been some successful managers who’d never played in the BIGs, (and) especially noteworthy here to New Yorkers was the record of a ‘somewhat’ successful skipper who had just recently retired from the game – Mr. Joseph Vincent McCarthy!  So much for the strength of the ‘never played in MLB” argument,’” said Levy recently.

“Secondly, augmenting the first (point), every player on the ’53 Brooklyn Dodgers, with the notable exceptions of Jackie and Pee Wee, had played for Walt somewhere in the Brooklyn system as they were ‘going up,’ Alston having managed in the Dodgers’ system from ’46–’53 in Trenton, NJ, Nashua, NH, Pueblo, CO, St. Paul, MN, and in Montreal.  The players all knew how good Alston was,” Levy said.

The Cardinals’ organization had released Alston in July of 1944 when he hurt his back, said Levy.

“By Alston’s own admission, the release from St. Louis certainly marked a ‘low point’ even for the usually, although not always, unflappable Alston. But the low lasted only a few weeks, for in late July came a call from Mr. Branch Rickey, who was now directing the baseball affairs of Brooklyn,” Levy said.

Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and manager Walter Alston photographed in November 1953. (Photo by Greene Photography/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images)

“Rickey asked Alston to run his team in Trenton, NJ.  Alston eagerly accepted the offer. To the delight of New Jersey fans, as well as Rickey, Alston perked up the Trenton team in the last six weeks of the ’44 season, and he kept them (as player-manager in contention in ’45). A team from Lancaster, PA, with a star 17-year-old second baseman named Nelson Fox, nosed out Trenton for the Tri-State League pennant in ’45.  Rickey had already been impressed with Alston’s successful managerial work in various Ohio teams in the Cardinals’ organization. He knew he was betting on a ‘good horse’ when he hired Alston for further managerial duties in the Dodgers’ organization  It definitely worked out,” Levy said.

Alston managed the Dodgers in Brooklyn and Los Angeles for 23 seasons – working on 23 one-year contracts (I guess he didn’t want to risk Dressen’s fate).

When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, he said, “I know I didn’t make it on my one time at bat.”

(The other best-known player who appeared in only one game was Eddie Gaedel, who stood 3’7”. St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck signed Gaedel to a legitimate contract and sent him to pinch hit in the bottom of the first in an August 19, 1951 game against the Detroit Tigers. Possessing the smallest strike zone in history, Gaedel walked on four pitches, reached first base, and was then replaced with a pinch runner. I would have found a third best-known one-game player if not for a meaningless half inning. With the Brooklyn Dodgers leading the Philadelphia Phillies 12-1 in the ninth inning on September 28 1935, Brooklyn sent Rod Dedeaux to play shortstop, where he was not involved in any play in that top half of the inning. The following day, Dedeaux started the second game of a doubleheader, and went 1-4 with an RBI. That was his last appearance in the major leagues. However, Dedeaux went on to achieve baseball fame by coaching the University of Southern California’s baseball team for 45 years (1942-1986), winning 11 NCAA championships, including a record five straight from 1970 to 1974. USC Trojans who reached the major leagues include: Ron FairlyDon BufordTom SeaverDave KingmanRoy SmalleyFred LynnSteve KempMark McGwire, and Randy Johnson. Dedeaux also coached two Olympic baseball teams that won gold medals.)

Rod Dedeaux, USC and U.S. Olympic Baseball team Coach at Dedeaux Field on USC campus, October 14, 1983 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.)

John Paciorek probably had the most successful one-game appearance in history, batting 1.000, with three hits, two walks, three RBIs, and four runs scored. Along with biographies of Walter Alston, he is a one-game player who had a book written about him: Perfect: The Rise and Fall of John Paciorek, Baseball’s Greatest One-Game Wonder by Steven K. Wagner.

A native of Hamtramck, MI, Paciorek was a strapping 6’2” and had incredible high school stats – he batted .500 his senior year. In those pre-draft days, many clubs offered big bonus money to Paciorek. In 1962, he accepted the Astros’ offer of $45,000 plus tuition for college.

After signing with the Colt 45s, the team sent him to the Arizona Instructional League that fall. A Detroit Free Press article on him was headlined, “They’re Just Wild About Our Boy Paciorek” and the story described him as “the closest thing to the ‘All American boy’ since Jack Armstrong… and has hit drives more than 400 feet at the Apache Junction training camp,” the article stated.

The Free Press account quoted Houston general manager Paul Richards, who said, “This kid is a real pleasure to watch. He could become one of the really great power hitters and all-around players in baseball.”

During his 1963 minor league season in Modesto, California, Paciorek batted only .219 in 78 games, with nine homers and 49 RBIs. “I hurt my back in Modesto after I injured my arm throwing from the outfield. I didn’t tell my manager, Dave Philly, and kept playing – gutting it out — and that’s what started my back problem,” Paciorek said.

After concluding the minor league season, Paciorek was in Houston to have his back examined. He went to the Colts’ ballpark to workout with the club.

“In the morning workouts they saw me run and, and do things. And so (Houston General Manager) Paul Richards asked if I wanted to play in the final game of the season. And I said, yeah. That’s what happened,” recalled Paciorek.

“There was no way I was going to miss that game,” Paciorek was quoted in Wagner’s book. “If I’d have thought about it I’d have questioned whether I could do it because of my back.”

He was born with a congenital back problem, which was aggravated by muscle tears.

On September 29, 1963, the final day of the season, the 18-year old Paciorek was playing right field and batting seventh for the Houston Colt 45s against the New York Mets.

In the bottom of the second inning, with one out and Bob Aspromonte on first, Paciorek walked. He and Aspromonte scored when catcher John Bateman tripled off Mets starter Larry Bearnarth.

Portrait of former player John Paciorek during photo shoot at Clairbourn School. Paciorek, a former 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'. (Photo by Peter Read Miller /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)

In the bottom of the fourth, he came to bat with the bases loaded and nobody out.

He had his first major league hit when he punched a blooper into left field which netted two runs. Paciorek had his first two RBIs when Rusty Staub and Aspromonte crossed the plate.

“Bases loaded, I was probably excited,” Paciorek said in Perfect. “I was probably thinking I wanted to hit the ball hard. That was fun.”

Paciorek later scored on a sacrifice fly, giving the Colts a 7-4 lead.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, with Aspromonte on third and one out, Paciorek came to bat to face Cuban-born reliever Bob Baut. The first pitch was low and away for ball one.

“Although only a first-year player, Paciorek was playing like a seasoned professional, showing veteran-like poise to avoid swinging at marginal pitches while quick to attack the good ones rather than risk looking at called strikes,” wrote Wagner in Perfect. “It is called strikes that give a batter – and manager – fits, putting the best of ballplayers in a hole from which they have difficulty climbing out.”

Paciorek said in the book, “Maybe I was ultra-aggressive, because the feeling I had was that I was going to swing at every strike that I saw. I didn’t care if it was a curveball or a blazing fastball. I was going to stand in there. There was no way I wasn’t going to swing.”

With the count at 2-1, Paciorek looped the pitch into left field, driving in his third run of the game.

He scored another run again on a sacrifice fly; in the bottom of the sixth, he walked off Grover Powell, and later scored on a single by shortstop Bob Lillis.

In his final at-bat, Paciorek hit a hard ground ball hat glanced off the glove of Mets third baseman Ted Schreiber and Paciorek reached first. It was scored a hit.

“I thought it was a clean base hit,” Paciorek said in Perfect. “He dove for it and knocked it down. There’s no way that would have been an error. The thing I remember most is how exciting it was that the crowd was giving me a special applause (a standing ovation) as I came to bat for my final turn.”

The next day’s Detroit Free Press ran a story on Paciorek’s achievement under the headline “’Dream Start for John.”

“Eighteen year old John Paciorek made his major league debut Sunday for the Houston Colts and… showed every indication that he will be worth the (money) the Houston Colt 45s paid to sign him,” the article began.

The story added: “What Paciorek accomplished with an aching back on this day was amazing.”

The paper noted how “Paciorek was also a standout in the Detroit Free Press Baseball League and American Legion play, (and) said he would have liked to play for the Tigers but they didn’t meet his price.”

But his back never healed.

“In the following year I went to spring training and they were expecting me to be the starting center fielder, but my back was hurting so much. I could barely do anything. And so I looked horrible and they sent me to the minor leagues. And then I finally told the manager there, Dave Philly, that my back was just killing me, felt like a knife was going, you know, and what, like my sciatic nerve is what they said it was,” Paciorek said recently.

“And so they brought me to Houston and I had an operation, then I was out for two years and I tried to come back. I got myself into what I thought was really good condition because I was always a physical fitness nut. And I was always getting hurt, pulled muscles everywhere.  I was playing in Waterbury, Connecticut, and I was hurt and hurt and they finally got tired of putting up with my nonsense and they released me. I was grateful at the time because I used to have to come out two hours ahead of everybody else just to get stretched out,” said Paciorek. “Then I got my degree (at the University of Houston) and stuff and then I started teaching physical education.”

(Paciorek’s younger brother, Tom, also attended the University of Houston and was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He played 18 seasons for the Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox, New York Mets, and the Texas Rangers. A third Paciorek brother, Jim, batted .228 in 48 games for the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers.)

After John Paciorek graduated college, he found a job at the Jewish Community Center of Houston.

“I worked there for seven years and then I came out to California (where there was a) private school in San Gabriel, California. I worked there for 41 years. All my kids went there,” said Paciorek, who is now retired.

He said he received some publicity after Wagner’s book was published, and still gets phone calls about his career from time to time.

“I’ve written a few books myself, the The Principle of Baseball: All There Is to Know about Hitting and More and If I Knew Then What I Know Now.  Just about every ballplayer says that (if I knew then what I know now) at some point in their  career,” said Paciorek.  “Everybody says it. Yeah.”

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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