An interview with Jim Pagliaroni

Former Major League Baseball player Jim Pagliaroni passed away on April 3, 2010 at the age of 72. In June 2008, Steve Cox interviewed Jim for the documentary The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight Into History. The Pilots purchased his contract from the Oakland A’s on May 27, 1969. He played the rest of the year with the Pilots and retired at the end of the season. The following is the transcript of the interview. It has been edited for clarity.

Steve Cox: How did you get started in baseball?

Jim Pagiaroni: My dad was the head waiter of one of the major hotels in Detroit, Michigan, where I was born and raised. Actually, Dearborn, so I grew up watching the Detroit Tigers. Hal Newhauser, Hank Greenberg, people like that and I fell in love with baseball when I was about 5 or 6. Then we moved out to California, where I continued my love for the sport. Literally started playing ball as early as I can remember.

SC: How did you get into professional baseball?

JP: I graduated from high school in 1955. I was all CIF player of the year for California. I was very fortunate in signing a bonus contract in 1955 with the Red Sox, which was one of those weird-type bonuses over $4,000. I signed the aggregate bonus of something like $85,000, which was a lot of money back then. The penalty to the ball club was you had to bring the ball player up to the big leagues as a penalty to the 25-man roster.

I was 17 years old, sitting in a Red Sox uniform on the bench. Of course, without the experience I wasn’t able to play so it was a penalty for them on a daily basis. That’s what I signed and the next year I went into the service. Joe Cronin was our general manager and said, “Why don’t you go into the Army? We gotta pay your salary while you’re there.” (Which by the way is only $6k a year. Major league salary.) “Then your time in the military counts towards your baseball pension and you’ll get it out of the way and you come right back out and go into minor league ball.” I did that and it worked out super so when I came out in ’58, early ’58, I was able to go to Southern League and start my career.

SC: How long were you in the minors?

JP: I played 1958 with the Memphis Chicks Double-A and didn’t cut it there so the end of that year, they sent Allentown, Pa., to finish out the year. The following year I played at Vancouver, B.C., Triple-A, which was a Baltimore organization. I was with the Red Sox—they loaned me to them and I played with Brooks Robinson and quite a few other guys that ended up having a great career. Then the following year I played for (the) Spokane Indians in the state of Washington, which was a Dodger organization who had Willie Davis, Tommy Davis, Ron Fairly, Frank Howard—had a great team. In the middle of that year in 1960, they called me up to the big leagues. So I was very fortunate.

SC: So tell me about your playing in the early-to-mid sixties. You were a catcher?

JP: I was a catcher my entire career, all the way from Little League. I think the great thing about my story with the Red Sox, being in southern California, grew up there and signing with the Red Sox because I’d loved and admired Ted Williams. And I signed the bonus contract at age 17 and I go to Fenway Park, 17 years old, put on a Red Sox uniform, part of the team, and I got to the ballpark—this is a cute story.

I got to the ballpark early because I was excited and for some reason I had my jock-strap on and jersey and I went into the bathroom to go to the bathroom and I see this shadow coming to my left side and I looked up and it’s Ted Williams. Well, I almost died of a heart attack and he looks over to me and says, “Hey, bush! My name’s Ted Williams. I understand you’re the new kid on the block.” I said, “yes sir, Mr. Williams, I sure am.” He said, “Let me tell you something,” and he said something very prophetic. “This is just the beginning of the end of your life. Always treat it that way. If any of these reporters want to talk to you, you tell them that Ted Williams is your agent.”

He’d always had this long-time feud with the press. And so I got to play there in ’60, ’61 and ’62 and then I was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. I played with the Pirates ’63-’67, which was with Willie Stargell, Bill Mazerowski, Roberto Clemente, three Hall-of-Famers who I’d dearly loved. Had a great time there for five years and then I went on over to the Oakland A’s and played ’68 and ’69 with the young team that eventually won three World Series in a row with Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudy, all the guys, Sal Bando, and had a great time. And, of course, Catfish Hunter.

I was very fortunate to catch Jim “Catfish” Hunter’s perfect game—who I dearly loved and when he contracted ALS, Steve, he had me head up his foundation for his marketing and sales and not a finer human being you’ll ever meet in your life than Jim Hunter. So then I got traded, they sold me to the Seattle Pilots for a bale of hay for Charlie O’s mule. (laughs)

SC: What was it like, kind of joining the Pilots in the middle of the season?

JP: It’s like anything else. You’re joining a new ball club, you gotta get acclimated. A lot of the guys I’ve known I got to know while I was playing 10 years in the big leagues. So it was pretty easy doing the job and integrating with them and actually a great bunch of guys. Great spirit.

Understand that this was a first-year team that was a collection of young guys and older guys. Tommy Harper I believe. Joe Schultz was the manager who was an absolute joy to be around. It was real easy as far as I was concerned.

I didn’t, obviously I wasn’t thrilled about leaving the A’s, but being towards the end of my career, I knew that was an issue because I’d had two cervical discs removed from my neck and back in the winter of 1967 because of a major collision I’d had at home plate that ruptured a couple discs. So they took those out. I came back and I was fine, but I lost velocity in throwing, which really (cost) me maybe 15% of my throwing ability.

Well, if you look at my catching career, I led the National League one year in defense. Double plays 16, which is strike out-throw out. So I really had a great arm then, but to have that happen, it really affected that part of my game. I did hit with some power, which was fine. It was a strategic move on the A’s part because they had a young ball club as we all know ended up doing what they did, which was great. That’s how I ended up at Seattle. I really enjoyed the time there, enjoyed the team, enjoyed the management.

SC: What did you think of the Sicks’ Stadium?

JP: Sicks’ Stadium, which was interesting, when I played in the Coast League, when I played for the Vancouver Mounties and the Spokane Indians, we went into Sicks’ Stadium. It was familiar and of course what I like about it, it had the short porch in left field. For a right-handed hitter it was great. But Seattle’s such a beautiful area. I love it and over the years after baseball, I worked in part of that area for business and traveling the western United States. So, Sicks’ Stadium I really enjoyed.

SC: What was it like playing there? What was the atmosphere like?

JP: Actually, the crowds were very upbeat. They were so enthused about having a major league ball club. The park was pretty much full all the time or at least from what I remember it to be. So the attitude and spirit of the crowds were just great for the ball player. I played some positions while I was with Seattle that scared me to death. They put me on first base one night, they put me in right field another night and here I’ve caught all my life. I was absolutely petrified. But Joe says, well I could use your bat in the lineup, so there you are. I had no clue, no clue, but it worked. It was an absolute joy.

SC: I heard people say that Sicks’ was kind of a minor league park but it had the best playing surface. Some people said it was the best playing surface in the league.

JP: It was great, immaculately groomed all the time. Yes, that was accurate … as far as the actual physical field, it was wonderful.

SC: When you were playing there, did you ever get the feeling that the team might be in trouble? Maybe that the team might not last in Seattle?

JP: What’s interesting about that is Jim Bouton was there and Jim’s a very astute individual not only about life but also business. My background in the big leagues is I was a player’s representative for pension negotiations for five years for the Pittsburgh Pirates—worked directly with Marvin Miller on pension negotiations with the owners.

So I had some experience in business accumulated, and then of course I had my businesses outside that. So whether you like it or not you’re in tune to what’s going on and you hear certain things. It was always an issue of funding. It was always, are they well capitalized? And it seemed to be an issue and of course as we all know, that ended up being the issue that transferred the franchise to Milwaukee.

SC: Let’s go back to something. You talked about how you really like Joe Schultz. Tell me a little more about him. I’ve been told that he was kind of a players’ manager. In other words, he got along well with the players and was good at motivating the guys, but he wasn’t as good as a tactical manager.

JP: That could be true because some managers have a tendency to leave pitchers in too long or not long enough. That’s for conjecture of course. Being a new team and just by the nature of not being built up as an organization, we didn’t win a lot of games. However, for the material he had I thought he did very well.

I’m very funny about strategic moves. I think everybody makes the basic moves properly as a manager. I think those are magnified when you’re fighting for position, at the top, even become more under the microscope. I really never had any real issues that jump out in my mind about Joe, other than the fact that maybe he didn’t have a deep pitching staff. So, he was doing the best he could to juggle starters, middle-relievers, stoppers or whatever. It was a tough job, at best.

I enjoyed Joe. He had a great spirit. You love the guy because you know, (I don’t know if people knew this), but he worked for years at St. Louis as a St. Louis Cardinals coach and of course one of the things we found out is he owned a lot of Anheuser-Busch stock. So, after the game, the coolers were full of Anheuser-Busch beer. Whether we’d win or lose he’d come in, “Hey nice goin’ guys. Great. Nice try.” If we lost, “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow. Pound that Budweiser into ya.” So you know, he tickled you.

I enjoyed Joe. As opposed to—I’d rather take a manager, know a good manager. Good managers give people the tools to become better. To me that’s what management and business in the real world’s all about. Joe had a tendency to do that. He had a tendency to elevate your spirit, which I think a lot of times is that a placebo effect is better than a lot of other types of motivation. Especially if it’s constructive in the bad side.

In other words, it’s real easy to admonish somebody for making an error. Mental or physical. I think there’s a timing in order to do that. I was very fortunate in playing for some great managers. Danny Murtaugh, Pittsburgh Pirates. Hank Bauer at the A’s. Bob Kennedy with the A’s. I got to watch them, how they handled people in special situations. As I moved on into my private life, I even became more apparent of the correct way to manage people. It’s really to understand who they are, what they are and what their personal feelings are all about. Take somebody like Joe Torre … marvelous. And there’s many managers like that, my personal feeling.

SC: Were you with the Pilots in the following spring, in ’70?

JP: No

SC: Did you retire?

JP: I retired that winter, yes.

SC: What made you decide to retire?

JP: Well, it was a physical thing. I think one of the things you learn as you get older in the game (and I was only 31, just about to be 32) is that the ruptured disc issue and the surgery was one of which at best, having played first string for so many years, at best you knew that you could be second- or third-string catcher. Because I’d been through the business side of baseball, and was in negotiations for pensions, it got to the point where I had to either just be realistic to stay in the game at that level, or move on with my after-life career (as I call it in baseball). I’d made that choice.

SC: What did you think when you heard that the team moved?

JP: I thought it was great for the American League and obviously from the National League going from where they were at Sicks’ Stadium in the first year as the Pilots and then going into Milwaukee. I’d played against the Milwaukee Braves when they were in Milwaukee as well as when they moved to Atlanta. In fact we played the Milwaukee Braves the opening night in Atlanta. It was marvelous. I got to see the down-side of Milwaukee losing its team that they supported forever and then here they go, they get the team back. Which, I thought was a great move on behalf of Major League Baseball.

SC: Do you look back on your time with the Pilots fondly? Or do you see that as just kind of a pit-stop on the road?

JP: I never looked at anything as a pit-stop because you’ve been blessed by God to play a sport that I dearly loved as a child. You got to do it. So if you come away with any resentment, shame on you. I came away with a lot of gratitude and I always knew that no matter where I was, I was going to gain something by it. Again, the spirit of the athlete, even though they collectively know that they’re not going to make a challenge for first place, they really want to be respectable, it’s a matter of pride. In that, there was a great spirit, in that you join the Gene Brabenders of the world and the Tommy Harpers of the world and we had a great time, doing the very best we could, with what he had.

SC: As a ball player, did you keep up with what was happening in the country? The war, moon landing, etc…

JP: I think, obviously, if you were just a caring individual, you are. How could you not have empathy for soldiers that are fighting in a land that we weren’t welcome in and from the public sentiment, they weren’t when they got back. How can you not say, “how would you feel if you were there?” Of course the hippy movement, which was a breakthrough, socially. I don’t know what side of the fence anybody sits on but when I look at something like that, it really happened for a reason to release spirit and people’s ability to speak out, whether accepted or not. I think that’s a God-given right.

So, those years, as volatile as they were, when I was (with) the Oakland A’s, when Martin Luther King was shot. What a horrible thing! We were in Baltimore right after it happened. The Armored Guard had come in, BAR’s loaded on the street corners and you go, “what in the world is going on?” You stand there, at least I think the people I was around—athletes were just mostly shocked, in awe and somewhat (saying) “What’s wrong with us as a society to have this happen?”

For somebody that had the intestinal fortitude, I don’t care if you’re an Italian or Hispanic or African-American. To walk out and do the kinds of things that Martin Luther King did was absolutely a spiritual breakthrough. So again, it was monumental times. I look back on them and I really say to myself, “How did I handle it?” It was like the question you asked: “Did I handle it in the best sense of a caring person?”

SC: What about something, for example, like the moon landing? Do you recall that?

JP: Well absolutely, I’m a novice astronomer—have been since I was a kid! Telescopes, reflecting/refracting telescopes and all that. So when this thing happened, I watched the Sputnik thing get up and then watched this whole thing. I’m still a massive fan of what’s happening on Mars now with the Mars landing. I thought it was incredible, absolutely incredible. I was very proud of that obviously, from a technical standpoint because I’m not a technical guy.

SC: Are there any favorite moments or stories or recollections you have from when you were with the Pilots?

JP: There’s a few. But you know if it’s depends on the comical and stuff. I knew Jim Bouton was writing a book, because every time something funny would happen in the bullpen, he’d pull out his spiral notebook and write it down. He’d say, “that’s hilarious.” And I say, “why are you writing it down unless you’re writing a book?” He’d say, “I just wanted to make sure I remember it.” I said, “Nah, you would remember it.” It was funny.

That winter, when the book broke and he called me and said, “What did you think of the book?” I said, “I told you, you little devil, you were writing a book.” And he, anyway, did a great job. But as far as favorite stories … I think favorite stories are usually in shop, union shop type things in any industry or organizational or social group. Obviously, in baseball, it’s a lot about superstitions or practical jokes and stuff.

One of them was they had “Home Run for the Money” in Seattle. If you hit a home run in the ninth inning or the seventh inning with nobody on that was worth, they’d take a drawing that would be worth X dollars. If you hit a home run with two men on it was more and a Grand Slam was worth $25,000. But it had to be in that particular inning.

Well, I just happened to hit a home run in the seventh inning one particular game. I think I won a fan like $5,000 and lo and behold, that fan sent me a check for 10%—sent me a check for $500, which I thought, my gosh, this is unheard of. Later on, towards the end of the year, Fred Talbot, pitcher for the Pilots, gets up with bases loaded, hits a grand slam in the seventh inning and wins this fan $25,000.

Well, the next day we get on a plane and fly somewhere to continue our playing but we were all on the plane and I forget who came up to me. He says, “You know, we ought to play a practical joke on Fred.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “We ought to tell him that the word came back through because he knows you won someone $5,000 and got 10%, $500, that the front office heard that the fan heard that Jim Pagliaroni got 10% and they’re gonna send Fred Talbot 10% of the $25,000.” Which is $2,500.

So I happened to be sitting next to Fred on the plane and I said well Fred, I tell him the story. “We just heard that somebody in the front office, traveling secretary—I’m not sure who it was so we can’t really be accurate—said they got a phone call from the fan that won the $25,000 and they’re going to send you a check for $5,000.” Fred’s going, “You’re kidding!” I said, “Well, it must be true Fred. Look what that one fan did for me. That’s just an absolute blessing!”

By the time the plane landed he says, “Oh I can buy a new boat, I’ve always wanted this 40-horsepower outboard.” He was all pumped up. So a week went by, nothing. Nine days went by, nothing. We’re back home, and it comes out in the paper—I think it’s hilarious—this individual So-and-So who one the $25,000 is being chased by his wife for alimony payments and is nowhere to be found. Fred found out about it then he realized that it was a practical joke. Oh, he was ticked. That’s the real wonderful stuff we do in sports.

SC: Did you read Ball Four when it came out?

JP: Yes. Yes I did.

SC: What did you think of it?

JP: I thought, from a very academic standpoint, I thought Jim was extremely accurate. I think he was extremely personally emotional about his feelings towards the people he was talking about, the Mickey Mantles of the world and his issues. Jim was a very savvy individual, politically and business-wise. He was right on the money because I was involved in pension negotiations so he was right on the money in all aspects and how he spun it as a business. Obviously that wasn’t the theme of the book, but his portrayal of the business side of the game was absolutely accurate. Most of his stories—that I know of—were absolutely right on the money. He spun it really right and it was hilarious. I thought he did a great job.

SC:I looked up all the sections where you’re mentioned and you come off quite well in the book. It sounds like you guys got along pretty well.

JP: Well we did. We had certain opinions about things and I think we correlated on certain aspects of the business, which I was very personal about and still am today.

Sometimes I’m asked to go speak at different groups, church groups, and a question comes up about salary issues and stuff. I say, “you know it’s a business, sports fans. When you look at the New York Yankees that $1.2 billion in value—franchise—and it keeps going up every year. So, what if they paid $200 million in salary? In the business relationship, if your fixed asset is going up that much, you got a great business.

You look at even Charlie Finley—which there’s a great story. He bought—I’m not sure of the accurate amount—the Kansas City ball club. Somewhere in the 11 million or 9 million dollar (range). I’m just taking a guess here, but it was in 1968 I think, or ’69 or ’70 when there was some talk about moving the club. I think the value was like 38 or 39 million dollars. So there’s an appreciation of asset. So the cost of doing business was still the same to market. But the fixed asset keeps going up.

That’s how I can explain salaries, whether or not people buy that or not, to me it’s part of the financial mechanism that makes it work.

SC: Any other stories with the Pilots that you think were very memorable?

JP: There’s probably a lot of them, Steve, but those are some of the favorites. The one I told was kind of a favorite. I think those are the things you remember other than the fact that I really enjoyed my time there with the ball players. We still, some of us, communicate. I think that’s the thing you bring away from any industry that you really had a fortunate time in your life to play.

SC: Did you really miss the game when you left when you retired?

JP: As an athlete you always miss the physical playing and I kind of paint this picture. Good or bad, depending on how you cope coming out of the game. You have to understand that as a professional sport—because I still get in touch with the alumni—for indigent ball players, we tried to build up the support groups around that.

Brooks Robinson is the President of the Alumni Association and a personal friend of mine. Love him to pieces. The last number I got was 47% of the retired ballplayers—whether you retired last year, or 25 years ago—(are) indigent. Indigent means either financially, spiritually, socially, home-life, those are all bankruptcies that happen.

A lot of times I think it’s simply one where you were brought up as a young person into an atmosphere of athleticism and you’re catered to. People do things for you, take care of you and they pat you on the back when you go 0-for-4. Even as a little leaguer. So you come out of this game, if you’re not mentally and emotionally prepared, to the real world, which really says to you, “what can you do for me today?”

I loved my position in the food industry and I managed the western United States for many, many years for an international company based out of Connecticut in the U.S. We had a wonderful Irish vice president. One year I made top honors in sales. Hit all the bells and whistles on profit, sold, volume, all that. He looked at me and said, “By the way Jim, I know you been in the food business for a long time, but I want to remind you we don’t give you a standing ovation for making your numbers. I’m just going to ask you what you’re doing to make the next quarter’s numbers.”

That kind of sums it up to the real world where unfortunately ballplayers get out of the game. Unless you’re the Ted Williams, or Hank Aarons or the Sandy Koufaxes of the world or the great ball players now, Tony Gwynn. There are very few generations—after a 10-year new generation comes around—they remember you.

Unfortunately if your mind and emotions are still stuck in that framework, it’s really not fair to the individual not coming out of that denial. Much less, the suffering to the family and his group. That’s really the nutshell on how I feel about it.

SC: Ball players of your generation didn’t make millions of dollars to keep them going after retirement—they had to find a new way to make a living.

JP: How do you wake up every day and have hope and be charged up about walking out the front door? It really gets down to the simple, most important things. You’re right. That’s a big problem. I find that when you talk to groups regardless of the level of intelligence to the group, they’re kind of in awe of those base facts and figures. So many don’t.

If you ask any ballplayer, no matter how bad off they are, “How ya doin?” And he might be suffering at all levels, he’ll say “I’m doing just great, thank you.” They’re very prideful of the fact that they played the game, but weren’t able to cope and adjust to life after. Now, today—I’ll be the first one to say “hallelujah” that they make the money they do—still you have to manage that. You have to manage the net dollars, so when you come out of the game you can’t figure you what you want to do with the rest of your life without saying, “gee, I gotta go get a job just to make the mortgage payment.”

References & Resources
Check the website to read more about Steve Cox’s movie, The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight Into History, and be sure to also read my interview with Steve at Lookout Landing.

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Comments

  1. Bruce Markusen said...

    Good stuff with Pagliaroni, by all accounts a nice man who left us too early. His remark about 47 per cent of retired ballplayers being indigent is rather shocking.

    It makes you think that there are potentially many more Leon Wagners out there.

  2. gdc said...

    That 47% struck me also, maybe the MLB alumni association has current info.  Would be interesting to see whether college players have more success getting good second careers.  Or whether football players with a higher% of grads do better or whether their greater likelihood of injury or shorter big money career hurts them in comparison to MLB players.

  3. Northern Rebel said...

    Articles like this send me back to my boyhood, so thank you Arne!  Jim Bouton gave us a little insight into that anomaly that was the 1969 Seattle Pilots.

    It’s ironic that Seattle has become such a baseball town today. Success has a thousand fathers…..

  4. Juancho said...

    Didn’t know Pagliaroni had died. Condolences to his family and friends.

    But I don’t believe that 47% of former baseball players are indigent.

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