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“Deal of the Century” Part 6: Like Father, Like Son

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July 11, 2009

By John Klima

(LIFE)

(LIFE)

For a few dollars on eBay, you can buy his autograph on an index card, but the seller is mistaken. Paul Pettit, the first $100,000 bonus baby, is not a “deceased ballplayer.”

Now he knows where some of those autograph requests end up.

The letters always arrive in April, and the price tag follows him into his old age. There is nothing he can do about that, but like his playing days, he lets it go. He’s just a former ballplayer now, he said, and the grandkids don’t know too much about his career, and that’s fine by him.

Pettit gazed at a photograph of himself steaming down the first base line. His leg is outstretched as he makes a final lunge for first base, but the ball is already in the first baseman’s mitt.

“This is me, playing at Richmond, Va., being thrown out by half a step,” Pettit said. He chuckles and says without a trace of bitterness, “Story of my life.”

Shirley came to remind him that it was getting late. “She was the best part of the whole thing,” he said. When Pettit signed, someone had the idea to throw in $750 for a honeymoon. Shirley laughed. She said she’s still waiting.

There is the value of Pettit. No matter what didn’t happen, the people who know him the best say he has remained the same kind of person. This is the fine line of being a professional athlete. Pettit never lost what his father gave him. He worked hard, had a hell of a laugh, and enjoyed the memories. Who knew? The greatest gift wasn’t the salary. It was in the satisfaction.

(LIFE)

(LIFE)

“Deal of the Century” Part 5: One and Done

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July 10, 2009

By John Klima

Catcher Clyde McCullough was disgusted with Paul Pettit’s lack of control at the start of the 1953 season. He stomped to the mound and wouldn’t give Paul Pettit the ball.

“He came out and said, ‘Where’d you throw that to?,’ ” Pettit said. “I said, ‘My arm hurts, Clyde.’ He didn’t say a word. He just gave me the ball, turned around and walked back to the plate.” (more…)

“Deal of the Century” Part 4: A Star is Torn

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July 9, 2009

By John Klima

“A lot of guys who go into professional baseball say, ‘I need to get a chance,’ ” Paul Pettit said. “As a bonus player, you get a first shot more than some other guys because the money is invested. I had a shot at New Orleans, but I wasn’t handled properly. I started too high. They thought I was ready to pitch at that level but I wasn’t. I was 19. Those guys were 25 or 26. They can hit any fastball hard.” (more…)

“Deal of the Century” Part 3: Size, Speed and Cash

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July 8, 2009

By John Klima

There was little patience. Because he was a bonus player who received more than $6,000 to sign, Paul¬†Pettit was required to be on the Pirates major league roster within a year. Mindful of the scrutiny and perhaps leery that Pettit was not at full strength, Pirates manager Billy Meyer expressed concern. “I only hope they don’t spoil him before he joins us,” he said in 1950.

(LIFE)

(LIFE)

Pettit said he anticipated some of the attention, but was not ready for the scrutiny. “They could have put me anywhere,” he said. “That was (Pittsburgh’s) mistake. Part of the problem, when I went to double-A, (was) they put a lot of pressure on me. There was a lot of publicity. There were three newspapers in town and I was in one of them every single day.”

There was also the $100,000 question. Though Pettit’s contract was spread over 10 years, and though he spent most of his first year’s salary to buy a new home for his parents, Pettit learned to live with a label.

“What is to stop any player from putting himself in the hands of an agent?” Yankees general manager George Weiss asked in a 1950 statement. “Someone must determine where baseball law ends and civil rights begin.”

The battle lines were drawn.

(more…)

“Deal of the Century,” Part 2: Paul Pettit’s Sweetheart Signing

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July 7, 2009

By John Klima

Tinseltown hadn’t been kind to Stephani of late. His run as an MGM contract producer ended when, after a string of box office failures, studio chief Louis B. Mayer flicked his cigar ashes at Stephani and never hired him again.

(LIFE)

(LIFE)

Down on his luck, the best Stephani could find was a freelancing job to write and produce a forgettable movie named “Johnny Holiday.” Shot on location in Indianapolis during the summer of 1949, it brought Stephani to the city where McKinney kept his headquarters.

Enter singer-actor Bing Crosby, a 25-percent owner of the Pirates. Though no sources can directly place McKinney meeting with Stephani, and though Stephani and Crosby never collaborated on a film, studio records show that Stephani and Crosby were both under contract at Paramount in the early 1930s.

Unlike Crosby, an avid golfer, Stephani never had any interest in sports. A complete review of his career with film synopsis obtained from the American Film Institute in Hollywood reveals no stories tied to sports.

Rumors swirled that Crosby had helped orchestrate an arrangement between McKinney and Stephani in the summer of 1949 that would allow the Pirates to evade the “High School Rule,” prohibiting teams from signing players before graduation. Most observers believed a handshake deal in which the Pirates agreed to purchase Pettit’s contract from Stephani was arranged prior to his graduation in January 1950, a move which further added to the firestorm Pettit was about to walk into.

“I felt all along,” said Haak, who became a legendary Latin American scout for the Pirates before his death in 1999, “(That) the Pirates had the inside track.”

(more…)

“Deal of the Century,” Part I: The Patron of Cautionary Tales

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July 6, 2009

By John Klima 

(LIFE)

(LIFE)

The letters inevitably arrive in April. They come from different points across America, but all ask the same thing.

“Dear Paul: You were the first $100,000 bonus baby,” one started, as if Paul Pettit had forgotten. It is a classic fan letter to a baseball player, a sugarcoated attempt at knowledge disguised, as a friendly ruse for a signature. “I am sorry that you didn’t play in the majors longer, but it still means something to have been there. If you have a photo to autograph for me, I would like it. Thank you.”

They all end with the same question, and sometimes, the letter writers even say please. The letters always find their way into Pettit’s garage at his home in Hemet, the place where the walls have been covered with photographs from his career, but this is no shrine. You can find his photos by his workbench, where his tools are neatly organized, next to the dusty set of golf clubs. Time and bad knees have caught up to him, he said, and he stopped playing a few years ago. He is 76 now, and on the kitchen table is a pillbox with his daily medications.

He takes the time to accommodate each letter, but sometimes it strikes him as funny that someone wants the signature of a pitcher who won one lousy game in the major leagues 53 years ago. It is as if they are waiting on a young man’s promise as a pitcher long since lost.

“The only thing I can think of,” he said with a laugh as he walked past images of former teammates, some now gone, the happy faces of ballplayers confined to black and white images, “Is that someone thinks it’s worth something.”

There is tremendous irony in his statement. Once, his signature was worth more than any other high school player in the history of the game. In 1950, he made a deal that shook the baseball industry and served as a precursor to the way modern athletes are bought and sold. (more…)