By Craig Muder
Paul Pettit leaned forward in his chair and smiled. After a baseball career that seemed destined for greatness from the start, he had finally made it to Cooperstown.
“I guess I got in through the back door,” said the man acknowledged as the first $100,000 bonus baby in big league history. “Not bad for a guy with one win.”
The 78-year-old Pettit visited the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday and recounted his career as part of an ongoing oral history project at the Museum. In town with his grandsons – who are playing in a local baseball tournament – Pettit shared his career story with Hall of Fame cameras, then toured the Museum.
It was not his first brush with fame.
In 1950, Pettit signed a contract worth the then-otherworldly sum of $100,000 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound left-handed pitcher had struck out 945 batters in 545 innings of amateur ball from 1947-49 – including six no-hitters – and was considered a can’t-miss prospect.
“I felt like I was ready (in 1951) when the Pirates brought me up,” said Pettit, who – by rule – had to be placed on the major league roster that season. “But I had hurt my arm, and it never really responded.”
Pettit pitched in just two games in 1951, then went 15-8 with a 3.70 earned-run average for Hollywood in the offensively charged Pacific Coast League in 1952. The next year, Pettit appeared in 10 games with the Pirates, going 1-2.
He would never return to the big leagues, despite changing his focus from pitching to hitting and posting 102 RBI with Hollywood in 1957.
“I thought I could help the Pirates at that point, but they never called me up,” Pettit said.
He retired following the 1960 PCL season.
“I think if I had known that I wouldn’t have made it as a hitter that I would have tried to stay a pitcher for a little longer,” said Pettit, who remains at 78 a robust figure with a keen memory. “I wish they had some of the surgeries then that they do now so they could have worked on my arm.
“But I loved baseball. I was just a regular guy who worked hard.”
Craig Muder is director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.