About a decade ago, I had a chance to talk to Jim Pagliaroni over the phone. It was right about the time that Catfish Hunter died from the effects of ALS. Hunter’s family and friends had started the Catfish Hunter Foundation, and Pagliaroni was chosen to serve as one of its directors. I found Pagliaroni to be enthusiastic and outgoing, which jives with the assessments of most people in baseball, including members of SABR who met him at the national convention four years ago.
When I first heard the word “Pagliaroni” as a child, I must have thought it was some kind of rare pasta dish. Eventually I learned that it was the last name of the former big league catcher, who died last weekend at age 72 after a prolonged battle with cancer and heart problems. Though hardly a household name or an All-Star caliber player, Jim Pagliaroni (pronounced PAG-LUH-ROH-NEE) was a pretty fair 1960s-era catcher. A good-sized right-handed hitter, he had decent power—six seasons with double figures in home runs—and enough patience at the plate to compile a career on-base percentage of .344. He also carried a reputation as a good defensive catcher who developed a strong rapport with his pitchers.
Yet, Pagliaroni’s career was far more fascinating for his associations than his actual statistics. In some ways, he was the Forrest Gump of baseball. In 1955, he made his major league debut at the age of 17. Then, after an overseas military stint, he returned to the Red Sox and happened to be in the on-deck circle when Ted Williams hit the final home run of his career. As a young catcher with the Red Sox in the early 1960s, Pag also played with another Hall of Famer, a young Carl Yastrzemski. Traded to the Pirates for Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart, Pagliaroni became teammates with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. From there, Pag went to Oakland, where he played with Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Rollie Fingers. And then after a mid-season trade in 1969, Pagliaroni finished out his career with the expansion Seattle Pilots, who later became famous as the primary subject matter of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.
As a catcher, Pagliaroni had the opportunity to catch two no-hit games. He was behind the plate for Bill Monbouquette’s no-no for the Red Sox in 1962. Six years later, he caught Hunter’s perfect game masterpiece against the Twins. For a journeyman catcher, two no-hitters and seven Hall of Fame teammates stack up pretty well.
Here’s one thing I’ve never understood about Pag’s career. He played his final major league game, while with the Pilots, at the age of 31. Considering that he slugged .455 for the Pilots, it’s strange that he drew his release after the season, with no one picking him up off waivers.
Did playing with the Pilots carry such a stigma that no one thought him worthy of employment in 1970? Was there simply a surplus of catching at the time? Or was Pagliaroni blackballed? (After all, he had been a player representative for both the Pirates and A’s.) I’m sorry to say I just don’t know.