Baseball Footnote Makes Important History, Example and Unique Legacy

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In the early months of 1992, I emceed a luncheon where Hank Aaron presented Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers, the 1991 American League RBI leader award. Fielder had 133 RBI’s in 1991 and the award was then called the Hank Aaron Award (now changed).

Over lunch and waiting for the presentation, Aaron had said to me, “If you don’t know the history of the game you do not know your game.” I totally believe and echo that statement. The following is an interesting narrative reinforcing those opinions.

John Paciorek has been a longtime educator and the impacts on his charges have been legendary to the many students in the Houston and suburban Los Angeles areas. Paciorek, a native Detroiter and longtime coach and baseball instructor in California, was featured on the Monday, June 29th “CBS This Morning” show. The television feature imprinted that John Paciorek has been a hero to his students and most didn’t even know that he had been a Major League Baseball player.

Paciorek, 70, has been teaching and coaching for over 40 years. Soon after getting his degree at the University of Houston, he started teaching at the Jewish Community Center in Houston and is now winding down his career at the Claibourn School in San Gabriel, California near Pasadena. He also molded Mack and Pete, his baseball playing sons, to fulfill their strong baseball pedigrees.

Long CBS Feature

CBS producer Chris Spinder and reporter Lee Cowan showcased a man who is much more than the sum of his stats. (Baseball speak) Spinder also edited the piece and hit a homerun, pulling together an enormous amount of interesting baseball folklore. Some of the feature was shot at Dodger Stadium and it ran five and a half minutes. This was a very long feature for national network standards. All three anchors from the “CBS This Morning” show, Nora O’Donnell, Charlie Rose and Gayle King, discussed and complimented the on-air package after it aired.

Growing up in a working class and predominately Polish-American neighborhood, Paciorek became a famed Detroit Catholic League High School sports phenomenon in the early 1960’s. While playing at Hamtramck St. Ladislaus High School, he developed a life-stream that took him all the way to Major League Baseball, albeit with a special twist. Most of all, he has become the answer to a unique Major League Baseball trivia question. This folklore starts with the question, “Who has the all-time best lifetime MLB baseball batting average?”

On September 29, 1963 against the New York Mets in his first Major League game for the Houston Colt 45’s, John Paciorek went 3 for 3 with two walks. Batting in the seventh spot for Houston, he also had three R.B.I.’s and scored four times. His career 1.000 % batting average is considered a special footnote in baseball history. He had a perfect day at bat and in the field for the National League club. He also had two putouts in rightfield. The irony is that this spectacular first game became John Paciorek’s only Major League game.

There are plenty of players with a 1.000 % batting average (one or two hits). But none had three hits like John Paciorek. Only John Paciorek.

“When I got up there I felt so confident, that I just was ready, I just felt that I belonged there. I just always thought that I belonged playing in that situation,” Paciorek said. He later added, “Ray, the ball looked so big to me that day.”

The Colt 45’s beat the Mets, 13-4 in that game. Harry Craft, the Houston manager submitted a unique starting lineup in that game. He started 8 rookies as his position players.

Serendipitously, another native Detroiter played shortstop for the Mets in that game, Al Moran. Moran was a few years older and had attended Detroit Catholic Central High School.

Career Cut Short By Injury

John Paciorek and Steven K Wagner at Dodger Stadium
Award winning author Steven K. Wagner and John Paciorek in Dodger Stadium.

But stardom for John Paciorek in the Big Leagues was not to be. The 18 year old outfielder developed a serious back injury in the off season and never made it back to the Major Leagues.

“John carved out this fame because of that one special game,” said former teammate Rusty Staub. Staub was a six-time All-Star and 23 year MLB veteran. “No one was a better athlete than he was. He was certainly a star in the making.” Staub and Paciorek were roommates with the Colt 45’s.

“It was the last game of the season and the crowd was only 4,000 but they made noise every time I came up to bat. By my last at bat, they sounded like 50,000 people as they were so loud,” John remembered fondly. Soon after, the 18 year old outfielder developed a serious back injury in the off season and never made it back to the Major Leagues. There is even a historical broadcast from that game that reinforces John’s sentiment.

Fame In The Family

John’s younger brother Tom was another outstanding athlete but had more baseball notoriety because of his 18 year MLB career. Tom also is a beloved personality in Chicago for his longtime award winning television broadcasts with the Chicago White Sox. Tom was renowned for his lively and entertaining Polish-American memories growing up in that same Polish household in Detroit. Tom brags about learning Polish as a second language from the Sisters of Saint Francis at St. Lad’s and he will recite counting to ten at any request.

All five of the Paciorek brothers excelled in sports when they played in the Detroit area. John, Tom, Mike and Bobby shined at St. Lad’s and the youngest, Jim, did the same at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. Jim went on to the Milwaukee Brewers and had an extended career playing professional baseball in Japan. Mike played in the Dodgers system and has a second career in the movies, most notably in the 2005 remake of the “Bad News Bears” starring Billy Bob Thornton.

During the special CBS interview feature, Hall of Fame baseball manager, Tom LaSorda had high praise for the Paciorek brothers. LaSorda said, “Everyone had scouted John and the Dodgers would have loved him but Houston was an expansion team and they gave large bonuses. They were collecting young prospects by the bushel baskets.” LaSorda added, “You know, this young man at that time (John), had everything going for him, you could see a great career with him. No telling what he could have accomplished.”

Early Notoriety

John Paciorek was All-State in high school in three sports, football, basketball and baseball. Many of John’s early coaches set the stage and were great examples for him. Besides being tutored at a young age in baseball by his father (John), while at St. Ladislaus High School, John Radwanski started developing modern training methods that Paciorek noticed. Radwanski went on to become a school administrator and in 1962, St. Lad’s baseball was led by Robert Samaras, Ph.D., who went on to a fine collegiate coaching career. Samaras applied a humanistic psychology approach. He later became a motivator, author and well-respected baseball and basketball innovator. These coaching styles were seeds planted for Paciorek, without John realizing it. Recently, Samaras reflected about John, “John looked as a sure thing. He never complained and he always tried to play through his back discomforts. He was a champion. Because of his perseverance, he made every team that he was on, much better.”

John Cullen, famed coach at Detroit Benedictine High School said in his memoirs, “In 1960, I had my ace, Fred Fleming pitching against St. Lad’s and John Paciorek. As a high school sophomore, Paciorek hit one so far and high at Jayne Field in Detroit, I know the ball is still up there as a satellite.”

Paciorek started getting more notoriety in 1960 playing American Legion Baseball for Detroit Beaudry Post-126. He was a shortstop then and was playing against older age competition. John still excelled. Things started really heating up and got into high-drive in the summer of 1962. Phil Frakes, as coach of Detroit Citizen’s Insurance team had a national reputation in elite youth baseball circles. His goal was to win the national championship every year. He built his 1962 team around John. Paciorek really came to prominence as a baseball pro prospect when he was named MVP for leading the Detroit Citizen’s Insurance team to the National Amateur Baseball Federation national championship in Louisville, Kentucky. Morris Moorawnick, a famed sports statistician of celebrated reputation called him, “The next Mickey Mantle.”

Former Minnesota Twins pitcher, Bill Zepp, a teammate of John’s on that 1962 NABF national championship Citizen’s Insurance squad said, “John was only 17 and he overshadowed all the 18 year olds. And as he prepared for his Major League chance through hard work, one could tell he was determined. Besides outworking everyone, in my opinion, his best attribute was that he could run. Many a times he bunted and beat out a hit. He was fast and he worked on his speed.”

Fred Lauck, a retired attorney and former American Legion Baseball competitor while playing for Detroit Edison Post-187 said, “John was younger than most of us but he could just do things on the ball diamond better, no matter how hard we tried, he still dominated.”

Detroit Citizen’s Insurance Team

Dick Honig who played shortstop on the 1962 NCAA University of Michigan national championship baseball team and who is currently an international baseball consultant and equipment supplier (Honig’s Whistle Stop) was a special coach and tutor for that championship 1962 Detroit Citizen’s Insurance team. He said recently, “It might be an overused cliche but John Paciorek was a man playing among boys. He was that good and more. He had a complete game.”

Paul Richards, the general manager of the expansion Houston Colt .45s, came to Michigan in 1962 to persuade Paciorek to sign a professional contract with Houston. Tom Paciorek reminisced, “None of us had ever been to a restaurant before. They took us to this fancy restaurant in Detroit. We ate steaks, and when they asked John if he wanted anything else, he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take another one of those steaks.'”

After the successful summer season with Detroit Citizen’s Insurance, John accepted Houston’s offer of $45,000, an enormous amount of money for the son of an auto factory worker. From that bonus, $15,000 went to help pay off the family house. He also got himself a powder blue Chevy Malibu convertible to drive to his minor league assignment team in Arizona.

At the insistence of his father, the Colt .45s included a scholarship fund to someday pay for John’s college education. John started taking classes at the University of Houston when he was placed on the disabled list because of his back problems. He started working on his degree. John eventually graduated in the 70’s with a Physical Education teaching degree from the University of Houston. His first teaching job was at the Jewish Community Center in Houston.

Rise and Fall

John Paciorek Book Cover Steven K Wagner

Award winning journalist and author, Steven K. Wagner just released a new book on John Paciorek, “The Rise and Fall of John Paciorek, Baseball’s Greatest One-Game Wonder.” This volume will hold a special fascination for anyone who loves the game of baseball. Besides the great nostalgia, there is a story of hope and inspiration for young players aspiring to find their baseball greatness. The book chronicles interesting Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles baseball history. One of the best life stream stories from John is the baseball reunion of brothers John and Tom and Detroit baseball personality, Pinky Deras, when they crossed paths in Modesto in 1968. It was after a California League game and the baseball hijinks is not to be missed. The entire book is an enjoyable read for lovers of baseball nostalgia, all with a great peek at the 1960’s and what is referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Baseball’. http://www.johnpaciorek.net/

John said, “I have no regrets, no hard feelings. Nothing ever happens by accident. And I was relatively free from bad things happening, except for the back problems. People think oh, that’s the worst thing that could ever happen. It’s not. I lost a spouse to breast cancer. But since, I think everything that’s happened to me since then, has been good. No regrets.”

John went on, “I have great friends from baseball, such as former teammate Nick Radakovich, who played with me in the Houston system. We played together for the Ashville Tourists. He is now staying in California and I remembered when he played baseball at the University of Michigan.”

After his pro days, Radakovich played a season for Detroit ITM when they represented the USA in the ‘Haarlem Honkball’ Tournament in the Netherlands. “We reminisce about the great quality of play that took place on the Detroit sandlots. Also, there is the tremendous growth of international baseball. That is so exciting,” said Paciorek.

Wagner added, “Baseball imitates life. We all win and lose, and baseball is the same. Some make it to the Hall of Fame, some play only one game. When the dust has settled, the important thing is that you do your best, strive for excellence and everything else will take care of itself. We’re not all Hall of Famers, in life or in baseball.”

Wagner concluded by saying, “In all my interviews with John I never got the impression that he believed his accomplishment was that big a deal. He is very down to earth and believes – to his credit – that the work he does with children holds far more value. Many students where he teaches have no idea what he accomplished, and that is a testament to his modesty.”

Influence and Respect

Best of all, for all those children that Coach Paciorek has influenced, he has earned their honored respect. For them, “Mr. Paciorek, IS A GREAT EXAMPLE.”

One of Paciorek’s alumni, Jeffrey Karsh, who went on to letter in tennis at the University of Pennsylvania, reinforced it best. Karsh, now a successful financier for Tryperion Partners in Beverly Hills said it best about his former teacher. “Coach Paciorek was always entertaining, always motivating, and always knowledgeable. His positive attitude was infectious. He knew how to get the most out of his students and how to make sure everybody had a good time. I remember always wanting to give my best for Coach.”

This showcases that John is also the consummate instructor. Not only does he motivate, he has the special ability to break down the components of individual skills and see where players can improve.

This dovetails nicely to his mission statement when teaching youth baseball. It is teamwork, sportsmanship and leadership. Attributes such as perseverance, perfect practice and mental resolve fall in as sub-chapters. John has paid it forward, from the lessons his mentors and coaches invested into him. His father, Coach Radwanski, Coach Samaras, Coach Frakes and Harry Craft would be certain to say, job well done. John Paciorek, with his humanistic coaching styles, has opened opportunities for so many.

Those Polish Nuns at St. Lad’s would also be so proud. In Polish, one exclamation says it best, “Bardza Dobrze.” www.baseballsoftball.pl (Polish language)

The book, “The Rise and Fall of John Paciorek, Baseball’s Greatest One-Game Wonder” by Steven K. Wagner and Breakaway Books, Halcottsville, N.Y. 12438, is available at www.amazon.com or most book stores.

Raymond Rolak is a veteran sports broadcaster who writes on a range of sporting events, plus automotive and aviation topics of interest.