Flashback: $100,000 “bonus baby” Paul Pettit was a flop in pro debut with 1950 New Orleans Pelicans
Flashback: $100,000 “bonus baby” Paul Pettit was a flop in his pro debut with the 1950 New Orleans Pelicans
Paul Pettit was one of the most heralded pitchers to come out of high school in 1949.
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed him to a contract that paid a $100,000 bonus, the largest ever paid to an amateur player. Unusual for the time, the 18-year-old Pettit started his career at the Double A level of the minors at New Orleans, then a Pirates affiliate. While his arrival with the team in 1950 was met with a high level of anticipation, both locally and nationally, he turned out to be a huge disappointment.
Pettit prepped at Narbonne High School in Harbor City near Los Angeles. It was reported he struck out 945 batters in 549 innings in three years of high school, American Legion, and semi-pro games. He pitched six no-hitters and batted .460 for his high school team. All sixteen major-league teams at the time had expressed interest in the pitcher who was dubbed “a left-handed Bob Feller” because of his fastball.
In a bizarre business deal, Hollywood film producer Frederick Stefani, first signed Pettit to a film, radio and television personal services contract worth $85,000 over several years, while still in high school. Stefani wanted rights to Pettit’s entertainment career in the event the prospect turned into a sensation. Organized Baseball rules at the time prevented major-league clubs from signing prospects until graduation. After Pettit’s graduation Pittsburgh ended up assuming Stefani’s contract and added $15,000, which also went to Pettit.
St. Louis Cardinals owner Fred Saigh appealed to commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler that the Pirates’ deal had violated the high school rule. But Chandler gave the Pirates a clean bill of health on the transaction.
Pirates general manager Roy Hamey decided Pettit would start the regular season in New Orleans after an initial Pirates training camp in San Bernadino, CA. After looking over Pettit in camp workouts, Pirates manager Billy Meyer declared, “He’s got the best fastball since Bob Feller in his prime.”
Pettit’s arrival in New Orleans in early March was greeted with a much publicized dinner at Antoine’s, where he got his first taste of autograph seekers in the Crescent City, in addition to a culinary feast.
Pettit’s every movement in spring training was chronicled by local newspapers. New Orleanians remembered the 1937 season when 18-year-old phenom Bob Feller was in spring training camp with the Cleveland Indians. Heinemann Park was packed when Feller was scheduled to pitch.
In Pettit’s initial outing with the Pelicans on March 24, he gave up a run in a three-inning stint against the Indianapolis Indians. 3,200 fans braved the cold weather to see their much-awaited star. When Pettit, who pitched five innings, and Bob Purkey combined for a no-hitter against the Nashville Vols, it gave the Pirates’ front office a good feeling about their large investment.
Yet an unassuming Pettit was practical about his appearance. He said, “Don’t let the game fool you–I’m not ready to pitch in this league yet, but I’m going to learn everything I can while I’d down here.
“This season can the most vital one of my career, because I’ve got to learn in one year what most fellows find out in four or five years in the minors.” He was referring to the baseball rule for bonus players who can play only one year in the minors before the Pirates have to bring him up to the majors.
Pettit was among several pitching prospects the Pirates were grooming as part of a youth movement to move the needle for the traditionally losing franchise. They included Purkey, Vern Law, and Bob Friend, all of whom went on to long, successful careers. Native New Orleanian Lenny Yochim was also among the pitchers who played for the Pelicans and Pirates during this period.
In Pettit’s first start of the regular season on April 23, 11,000 fans packed the 9,000-seat Pelican Stadium. But he was less than stellar, as he showed wildness from the beginning of the game. He ended up walking 11 batters, while giving up seven runs in 7 2/3 innings. Altogether he threw 152 pitches.
Pirates pitching coach Ben Tincup, who had been assigned to monitor Pettit’s progress since spring training, wasn’t surprised by his erratic outing. He said, “He was wild. That was to be expected. I think he’ll get better as he goes along. If he loses some of that wildness that has been plaguing him, he’ll be okay.”
After a couple of more starts, Pettit developed a sore elbow in mid-May and was sent to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for evaluation by specialists. The doctors determined he had not suffered a permanent injury. There was concern he had overworked himself in high school. In any case, he had lost speed on his fastball. Pettit told newspaper reporters that the Pirates had changed his delivery, and he believed it had something to do with his ineffectiveness.
He was used sparingly in relief situations in an effort to give him time to rest his arm. By mid-July he was back in the starting rotation. But he remained wild. In a July 14 start, he walked eight in his longest outing (8 innings) of the season. It wasn’t until August 10 against Birmingham that he picked up his first win of the season.
He finished the 1950 season with a 2-7 record and 5.17 ERA. He yielded 73 hits and 76 hits in 94 innings, while striking out 46. It was not the type of season he or the Pelicans had hoped for.
Pettit broke spring training in 1951 with the big-league Pirates, but it wasn’t until May 4 that he saw action. In his major-league debut against the New York Giants, he pitched one scoreless inning in relief. He made 10 appearances with the Pirates in 1953, gaining his first major-league win against two losses.
Arm problems continued to plague Pettit, until he finally turned his efforts toward playing as an outfielder and first baseman, beginning in 1954. In 1962 at age 30, he was out of baseball for good, unable to live up to the billing he received as an 18-year-old.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.